You Really Like Me! (Or the Coat?)

The red coat entered my closet a few years back. I can’t say how it got there or I will lose a relative. The first time I wore it was on New Year’s Eve, 1997. People stared at me.

It’s floor-length. It’s wool. It is very fitted. Wearing it is like walking around with a pretty red blanket wrapped tight around me. It closes to the left side by snaps running all the way up. It is collarless. It has three-quarter-length sleeves. It is striking. It is also hard to walk in; I get my heels caught in the hem all the time. Mostly, it is really, really red. Kind of poppy red, Crayola crayon red, or Lucille Ball red lipstick red. Maybe cherry tomato red. One friend says, “It’s not food red. It’s red red. Coat red. Balloon red? There is no red like that.”

It’s not even mine. My grandmother claims it is hers. My mother says it’s really an evening coat she bought to wear to a December wedding when she was 20. She has drunken memories of wearing it on the ice (no ice skates) at Rockefeller Center. They are always fighting about it. I love that. I think it is most likely from the early 1960’s. It is lined in red and has two labels: Bonwit Teller and Meltina. One colleague mistook it for the work of designer Rei Kawakubo. I love that even more.

For a while, I tried to remain true to my mother’s “evening only” rule but every time I opened my closet, the coat was calling to me. Finally, last Election Day, I could bear it no longer. I pulled it on and walked out the door. And I never turned back. I was a little nervous at first, I have to admit. The coat looked pretty cool in the closet, and I (full of champagne) enjoyed wearing it with a black feather boa on New Year’s. But, as I hoisted the bottom half of the coat up like a hoop skirt and maneuvered my way down the stairs, I thought, What if the coat didn’t look as good in the light of day? What if it wasn’t adorable when I was sober? Worst of all, what if people laughed at me?

But I had nothing to fear. On the street, people smiled and waved at me. “Nice coat,” the masses shouted. I was in fashion heaven. The red coat makes me feel like a movie star. And I wear it everywhere.

When I wore the coat to the fall 1999 fashion shows in November, unsmiling types smiled at me. Coming out of the giant white tents one day, New York Times fashion photographer Bill Cunningham tried to take my picture, but Danielle Levitt, the New York Post style photographer, beat him to it. Mr. Cunningham smiled and said, “Beautiful coat.” At that point, I vowed to never take it off again.

Months passed. And every day, I wore my coat. I walked taller, prouder. Men and women on the street stared and smiled at me. Well, at my coat, anyway. People stopped me at least three times a week, sometimes to find out where to buy one. I smiled back and told them the story of my coat. Some listened, some didn’t. I didn’t care. I was the proud wearer of an unusual red coat that other people wanted.

One night, it happened in front of someone else. I was getting on the subway with a friend from work at the N and R station on East 60th Street near Barneys. A woman came down the stairs and gasped, “Oh! What a beeea-uuu-tiiiii-fullllll coat!” I blushed. My friend looked confused.

Around that time, I started covering more fashion events, and one by one designers fell in love with my coat. O.K., fine, at first, I would say something like, ‘Don’t you love my coat?’ and they would be nice and say Yes. I still think that counts.

During the spring 1999 shows in January, Oscar de la Renta smiled at my coat. Randolph Duke and his publicist chatted with me about it. Yeohlee Teng oohed and aahed over it. Mike Cannon, editor at large at Town & Country magazine, stopped me before the Oscar de la Renta show to compliment my coat. Color-loving Vogue editor Hamish Bowles cracked a smile. And, finally, Bill Cunningham took my picture, although it never ran.

It started to feel like I was branding myself. Anna Wintour has that hairdo, Isabella Blow has her hats, and I have my red coat. Everyone knows who they are because of their look. That week everyone knew me (though not my name) because of my coat! As long as I wore it, they remembered me.

One evening, I was wandering around a party thrown by Glamour magazine when a couple of Yeohlee assistants came over to thank me for something I had written. Thank me? They knew who I was! Thank the coat! At a party for Tuleh at the West Village apartment of designers Josh Patner and Bryan Bradley, Jane magazine editor Jane Pratt told me she saw me walking down the street the other day. The red coat, again.

When I went to designer John Bartlett’s studio to interview him, the conversation turned to my coat. I asked him what he thought the label Meltina meant. I was nervous that meltina is to good wool as cashmink is to cashmere. We laughed. He gave my wool his blessing. Then he said it was only a matter of time before I saw my coat on a runway.

My coat on a runway?

My mind raced. My emotions ran wild. I was happy, proud, delighted! Then I felt sad, dejected, forgotten. And a little jealous. My red coat entering a world I can only write about? Without me? Other people wearing my coat? Other people being stopped on the street? Would this be my last winter as an original?

The last time the hem stitching fell out-it drags along New York’s dirty streets at the most inopportune moments-I was lost. I had to wear an old heavy blue coat; I felt drab and dreary. Even my faux leopard coat couldn’t bring my spirits up. Having it sewn up and cleaned was the only time I have ever been apart from it. After a week, though, it was returned to me redder than ever.

But now it seems official: the weather forecast for St. Patrick’s Day is 57 degrees. It is time for spring cleaning and to put my baby away for spring and summer. I tried to do as much during an unseasonal weekend in mid-March. I opened my closet and almost began. I saw the things I wanted to give to Housing Works. I ran my fingers over a lightweight pair of pants I haven’t worn since early fall. I kissed my jean jacket hello. I even went so far as to locate my bikini and slip on my favorite open-toe wedges. But I closed the doors before I could begin.

Why this reluctance? The red coat. I am not ready to stop wearing it, only to freshen it up next fall and find masses of red-coat-wearing females. Maybe it won’t happen. I’m going to get a few more weeks out of it, just in case. It’s my way of saying: That coat is mine.

You Really Like Me! (Or the Coat?)