The colour conundrum

Spring blooms, from hyacninths to tulips, remind me of a post I've wanted to write for awhile about the decline of dye quality.

What happened to refined fabric colour, those hues of piquant vivacity or delicate subtlety? Too often garments lack depth and richness, and what is sadder than a lacklustre red? Even neutrals like grey suffer under forlorn dye; if you do find an ethereal grey, most others suffer by comparison (and you might be holding an Armani blouse.)

Garment colour is a synergy between the fiber and its dye; some fibers take dye beautifully while others seem to resist, but, outside the luxury level, the full splendour of colour is released only occasionally.

The lone luminous example of forget-me-not blue seems to be owned by Lapo Elkann. The Italians (Elkann's tailors, and this is the luxe level) still care, but European heritage mills are closing by the year. 

Generally, dye quality is proportional to price point, but some mid-range merchants, such as Boden, deliver departures from the usual-suspect shades. (The overall garment quality is another story.) 

The subtle greyed lavender of their Chelsea trousers is notable even if one cannot wear it:

Meanwhile the usual suspects like Talbot's and LL Bean see fit to unleash some um, challenging colours on the world. Whatever her colouring, a woman over 50 can look hard in harsh hues. Maybe you are one of the lucky ones who can rock Bold Orchid?

I still miss an Issey Miyake cotton tunic I owned years ago, the colour of an oyster shell crossed with a pinch of late-sunset mauve. These days, I have defaulted to the banality of a great deal of navy, black and grey—which on good days feels like I've found 'my uniform' and on bad, seems like I lost my colour wheel. 

Those neutrals, along with the ecru-through-camel range, are reliable base notes, but where is the pink that's inside a sea shell, or the intersection of blue with purple that conjures twilight? 
Even with black, a quality black reads differently than a flat dye job; I would love to turn 70 in this Altuzarra fringed crepe blazer. (I have just over three years to save.)

This spring, the lilt of a sublime, unexpected combination is a scarce songbird, occasionally glimpsed amid piles of navy-and-white. Kisses to Brora simply for making a linen and cotton sweater in salmon and wisteria.

I am not just talking pale colours, sister, but the mid-saturation hues where superior dye struts its stuff.

J. Crew offer some hard-to find-shades every season. They're showing a good deal of metallic gold this spring, but for those who prefer deeper palettes, they propose metallic navy. Don't see that every day!

We are all searching, which is more work as we age.  

Given my budget, I have better luck buying a neutral top and counting on gems, from precious to glass, to add refined colour. The strategy justifies spending, because a magical piece lifts those neutrals year-round. Splurge a bit for gem quality, which, just like fabric dye, dispirits at the low end.

Shown: chiara b atelier aquamarine, morganite and pearl necklace; price, $1,050.

If clothes are an emblem of our identity, colour is the flag. Why is beautiful colour is so hard to find, given the vast marketplace? 

Too often, I end up with generic items in generic colours. I'm more than ready to crawl out of my city security blanket of black. But I want that coloured item to be so heady, so indelibly interesting that I can see it with my eyes closed.

Just after I wrote that last paragraph, the textile expert and photographer Jan Becker, pinged me from Delhi. She sent a dose of thrilling colour via photos of the progress of her mixed silk ikat-and-print scarves, each one designed by Jan, who has a musical touch with colour, if that makes sense.  

I'm bugging her to open an Etsy shop! Since she visits the Passage, maybe you would like to second the idea?

Jewelry: "Small" treasure, petite price

Pippa Small is many women's dream jeweler, both because of her vibrant yet calm designs and her insistence on ethical sourcing for stones and metals.

I too admire Small's minimalist pieces, though find the prices substantial. (I wouldn't say overpriced. Ethical practices can increase costs and her materials are tippy-top quality, but you are paying for a status jeweler's cachet.)

The piece shown uses two aquamarines and a small amethyst, framed in 18k gold, and four hand-cast gold spacer beads, hung on a gold-coloured braided string. Price, $1,998. 

You can assemble a similar necklace for far less. The semi-precious gems will be framed in gold plate, the spacer beads are not hand-cast. (Also, we do not know the business practices of the vendors.)

Total cost for the Small-inspired elements above: about $275.

I've chosen a more durable 20-inch fine 14k chain; price, about $60, and 24k plated gold spacer beads from Nina Designs, about $30 for five beads.

The bezel-set gems shown (at left above) are framed in plated gold; I wanted the bezel settings to match, so chose an array of opals and amazonite from a single vendor, Etsy's finegemstone. The price per piece: $60.  

Temptations beckon at Vancouver-based I Found Gallery, who sell on Etsy.

The stone cuts are not as unusual as Small's asymmetric surfaces; however, when I browsed their trove of vintage findings, chains and stones, I was enthralled.  

Assembly requires only the materials and needle-nosed pliers, but if you prefer professional help, your bead store can make your piece for reasonable cost, with the photo as a guide. I once made a phenomenally ugly necklace, so I have real respect for pro help.

When choosing real jewelry, always think about two factors: the quality of the materials, and the workmanship. The touch of skilled hands shows in the simplest design, and excellent quality of stones will make a piece sing.

There are many pieces for which you "can't try this trick at home", but these chain (or cord) and bezel-set gem necklaces are not examples of expert bench skills; they involve simple assembly, accessible to anyone with a few hours and basic tools.

You could have a luminous, gemmy treasure, or make one as a gift, for less than the tax on certain designer versions.

Modern design: A tray, a Color Box, and a forbidden photo

In the middle of a snow squall trying hard to be a blizzard, I visited a shop full of imaginative designer housewares, looking for a serving tray we needed for a party the next day. 

Sleek options lay on an impeccable table, a tableau of taste. The salesperson was crisply courteous, if uptight, about me touching some of the lacquer-like models with my fingers. (I ask you, who is not going to lift a tray she is thinking of buying?)

A young man and woman entered, drifting, murmuring to one another in admiring, respectful tones, the three of us the only shoppers in the store, and likely the only ones all afternoon.

While the associate assisted me, the young woman aimed her iPhone at a display and began snapping. Suddenly the associate became a stern scold: "THIS", she pronounced, "is PRIVATE space. You cannot take photographs. Stop that NOW." 

The abashed browser apologized, but, I noticed, merely slipped the phone into her pocket.

I wondered what would have happened if the she had first asked permission, as I would if I had wished to contact Le Duc to ask which tray he preferred.

Young people, whose lives twine through three or four social media simultaneously, have little sense of such prohibitions. Can stores can hold their iPhone shots at bay? There must be a hundred change-room selfies taken by the minute.

Anyway, here is a similar tray, in bamboo with a sheer rubber finish (which I can't really feel) that makes it non-skid so that flat-bottomed glasses stay put; price, about $35.
The store carries the functional, serenely satisfying products of Normann-Copenhagen. Shown, the piquant wisk. That little ring smooths it down into a stick; price, $17, and available in a symphony of colours—an ideal hostess gift.

So you know how it is: pop in for a reasonable purchase, and get swept away by a more costly temptation. I did not buy, but I'm fighting hard:

This is N-C's Color Box, a modular stackable, folded-steel storage unit. Catnip to an organizer-freak like me, and to those who mean business about conquering those scattered files or National Geographics. It hangs it on a wall (using your own screws and plugs; this is not Ikea, lady), stacks on the floor, or sits on a shelf. A lone Box looks mysteriously terrific sitting under a chair.

At $100 per, I cannot afford many, which is its own way of simplifying. 

Who but stylists would fill a Box with perfectly coordinated blank books? I'd use inexpensive office-supply folders to hold documents, and stow magazines or books without obsessing about a spine's colour.


Jewelry reno: Anyone not for tennis?

Once upon a time, in Lucky Girl Land, there were many diamond tennis bracelets given. Once was received by my friend, N., a beautiful, ebullient and stylish blonde who did as many recipients of such bracelets have: after an initial period of wearing, she stowed it in her safety-deposit box.

Here, she's showing us the diamond bracelet, top, as well as (middle) a flexible-link "gold" bracelet, and (bottom) a CZ bracelet she's added for fun. N. is fun!

In person, the diamonds are lively, and because of the clean design, she could definitely wear it as is. Plenty are being sold, but sometimes even if something is still made, it is no longer you. I suggested N. gift or donate the imitation gold x-link bracelet, which reminds me rather too forcefully of the '80s. She said, "I am weeping on my shoulder pads."

If N. wanted a new diamond piece, here are some options. I'm linking to all the pieces used for ideas because not all of us have diamonds we're wondering what to do with!

1. A simple bangle
A timeless solution that she need never take off: the bangle. She could use all or some of the diamonds, to form an open or fully-closed circle. Shown: Simplicity Bangle by Carbon & Hyde; price, $1,265. She could also make a pair of bangles, one of her diamonds and the other of her diamonds mixed with other stones.

2. Ethnic
A graceful arabesque motif in a more decorative cuff would use the stones for a version of these ornamental arches. Shown, Sara Weinstock diamond and gold Taj cuff; price, $5,120.

3. Edgy
Not everyone would wear this, but I know N. could!

Eva Fehren's example is made with blackened gold set with ombré diamonds ranging from white to black. N's version could be yellow gold, (or green gold, yum!); I imagine her diamonds released from their little boxes, rocking a downtown design. (The Fehren bracelet price is $12,250.)

4. Elegant
My inspiration-pulse shot way up for this Irene Neuwirth gold cuff set with a row of diamonds, but I fall hard for slightly retro, clean design. (Price, $16,460.)

5. Linked
If she wants links, here's an example of a more modern effect, bezel-set stones attached to a link bracelet. (Detail from Malcolm Betts' diamond and gold rolo-link bracelet; price, $6,505.

With any reno project, the examples should percolate for awhile, and a good jeweler can advise on many variations. A successful collaboration will give N. a bracelet that never again sees the dark of a bank vault.

But better to receive a good piece that can be so satisfyingly remodeled, than not!

Women's solo travel: On the road, again and always

On my recent post on uneven aging prompted many responses, including one from Rebecca, who said,
"Uneven aging isn't always physical. I looked forward to traveling after we both retired, but my partner has become a homebody. My married friends would rather travel alone or with another couple. My single friends want to go to Vegas or on a cruise; I'd rather be hiking in nature. Finding a sympatica travel buddy isn't easy."

Rebecca is dealing with two factors: what she prefers to do, and whether she'd like company on the trip. If no one wants to hike, I'd think about a woman's tour such as a hike of the Italian lake district, even if it does not include a stop by George Clooney's villa. offer this enchanting 10-day itinerary for the coming fall. 

The women will likely be sympatica, since all are drawn to the locale and to hiking, but I expect you would have more affinity with some than others, which is the essence of adventure, no?

And since today is St. Patrick's Day, it's only right to mention Joyce's women-only walking tour of Ireland, among the many other hiking-heaven offerings.

Do you know the site Journeywoman? Whether you seek the archeological sites in Turkey or wish to camp within hailing distance of Alaskan grizzlies, Evelyn Hannon knows who and where. That site introduced me to Women Only Worldwide Tours (operated by Indus) who advertise "no single supplement", music to solitude-loving ears.

Road Scholar (founded by Elderhostel) specializes in educational trips, some women-only, such as this hike in the Rockies. Road Scholar trips are designed for mature travelers, a relief if you want to be sure you're not kept awake by 20-somethings doing shooters next door at three a.m., but are hardly slo-mo cruises.

For some trips, RS charge no single supplement, and for others, will assign a roommate if you don't have your own. They also offer inter-generational trips for a loving aunt or grandparent who wants to share more of the world with an eager youth.

Photo courtesy immersethrough
Those who would enjoy a highly-personal, learning-focused trip should check the gifted author Naomi Duguid's immersethrough food tours of Burma and Northern Thailand, which are far from the usual fly-and-fry "cooking schools", and deliver the best of culturally-resonant travel.

Countless other choices are on offer; we're limited only by budget, not imagination. If you have booked tours before, you will know to add costs for medical insurance, and to check refund policies before payment.

I've presented the tour option without having taken one myself, so invite you to share links to operators you think are outstanding. Tours can be costly and you may not want the regimentation; if you prefer to travel solo, you could hire a guide at your destination, from a half-day to the duration of your stay. 

Friends are often good sources for such guides, or try a search on TripAdvisor for "private day tour" plus your destination.

Even if you're a longtime solo traveler, your age will change the way you travel. I still travel alone—just hop a train and explore a city or region—but now appreciate a hand with everything from handling luggage to finding a doctor for an emergency case of pink-eye.

As she matures, the woman with wanderlust may have to find the path on her own, to fulfill those must-see goals. Do some adventuring, even if it's only a day's drive; the view from an old friend's garden can be restorative as that of the Taj Mahal. 

That you return to your everyday life enlivened and grateful for the richness of this world, is purpose aplenty. We may no longer throw on a backpack and crash in any funky hostel with a free bed, but we ought to get out and about while we can.

Faking spring

Here in Montréal, we have a fervent Spring of the Mind, beginning now. We don't have Spring of the Temperature till sometime well into April, and I have seen wet flakes of snow on the first of May, but never mind. I saw the first terrasse open, groups of friends gathered, coats unbuttoned, hoisting a glass of beer or an espresso.

So, on a day like yesterday, about 8C/46F, strangers smiled at me; their dogs smiled at me, and I noticed the sartorial changes:


1. Sneakers on, or at least heavy boots off

Despite rivulets from melting snow, Montréalers fed up with winter are breaking out sneakers, and dirt be damned. Crocus colours in a not wildly costly version:
Onisutka Tigers by Asics; $75.

I cheat with Bogs, which are warm, waterproof, and come in happy colours. A spring-song harmony, the Plimsoll Prince of Wales in seasonal green (price, $145) keeps the splats off your legs:

2. Spring-coloured sweaters

A black sweater mutes hope; a graceful cardi courts contentment. Why go hyper-neutral with the colour, the sun's out? Ultrafine long cardigan in celestial blue from Eric Bompard; price, €217.

(I've found cashmere ultimately a better investment than cotton knit sweaters, which tend to bag and degrade, and therefore look discouraging in a year or two. You may have better luck!)

3. A bag that welcomes the weather

I wish more women would change their heavy, dark bags for something lighter in spring; those who do look wonderful.

But since many days will bring rain, a spring bag needs to be surprisingly hardy; delicate leathers can show water marks. I like coated canvas (aka good old oilcloth) for informal totes. You can play with prints, go Swedish modern, or Carry On however you please, for less than the tax on a leather bag.

Zippered Tote in a Cath Kidston print, from Etsy seller Hellomaterial; price, $22.

A black, white and grey print bag from Etsy seller KT Makes; price, about $38.

If you wish a dressier bag, or more features, browse Mat & Nat's spring line. Their synthetic leather bags (like Stella McCartney's, but in the low three digits) continue the Montréal designers' thoughtful styling and the new colours are seasonal without looking washed-out. Shown, the Jorga in Iris, large size, which can be worn crossbody or on the shoulder; price, $155.

And isn't it fun to say hello to what you have, after a winter packed away? Hi there, raincoat and umbrella, street shoes and white jeans, I'll wear you before long! I'm off to buy a pot of tulips or a spray of forsythia and join the smiling passers by. 

Smiling at you, too!

Beasts and birds, art and ornamentation

My friend Marina, an artist, invited me to the Museum of Fine Arts to see the exhibit "The Marvels and Mirages of Orientalism". Over early morning coffee, I began to anticipate the richness of the women's attire as painted by Benjamin-Constant, Maurizio Fortuny, Jean-Paul Laurens, and leafed through "Fashion", The Metropolitan Museum's Costume Institute's calendar, a gift from my old friend Susan C.

Days like this unfold; all I have to do in this visually rich city is look at the "beasts and birds." On the bus, I saw an elegant woman in a mink coat worn super-casually, the snap of her red scarf evoked the neckline of the 1940 Schiaparelli dinner dress that appeared with the quote:

The exhibition, beautifully-mounted, summoned the East, painted at a time (the mid-19th century) when travel there was dangerous and the spectacular richness of the hammam and souk inflamed the painters' imaginations. The show balances its impressions of ethnic "exoticism" with an acknowledgment of the stereotypes, which detract little from the mastery on display.

Adrift in its langorous atmosphere, I noticed that the visitors wore not even a suggestion of the embroideries and silks of the paintings, yet women eternally seek that sensuous shimmer. A simple black jeans/white tee was lit by a fuchsia fur scarf:

With winter still evident, most of the crowd wore black. This woman looked tidily chic, but reminded me how environment plays directly upon fashion.

Afterwards, Marina and I stopped by Ogilvy, where a 70% off sale plus a further 20% off on that day, dictated a look. She's modeling a Black Watch blouse that she could not resist:

On the way to tea in Place des Arts, we passed a display of an Elizabethan gown, a contrast to the unconstricted, diaphanous clothing of the Orientalism show—the essence of containment, yet still conspicuously feminine.

Winter is slowly breaking up. "The Marvels and Mirages" runs till May 31; maybe Susan will hop a train to see it. 

Painting by Marina Malvada

Marina has her own opening, an exhibition of her mysterious and moving space paintings, at Galerie Luz, from March 11 to April 4.

Your mother's clothes

Photo: New York Times

Have you seen the wonderful photo essay, "Mom Genes", published last year in the New York Times? Sheila Heti asked various women to show and describe clothes or accessories once owned by their mothers, and now worn by them.

Detail, Mom's suit blouse
Such rich resonance for me! Given my age, my stash of Mom's clothes have worn out or been lost: a sheared-beaver stroller, a leather and knit shooting jacket, a hooded evening coat in dark-green velvet that shimmered, nearly black. 

I have posted here on her silk blouse, which she wore with a suit at her 1931 wedding, and which hangs in my closet.

What endures most is the memory of the quality: a heathered tweed jacket with leather-piped buttonholes and bellows pockets, a bias-cut charmeuse nightgown.

Do you remember when Anne Klein made good clothes? When decent jackets came with extra buttons, and hems were finished with bias tape? Covered snaps, anyone? No wonder the younger generation wanted these hand-me-downs.

Where do you find the things your daughters or young friends may someday beg from you? 

A visit to Québec: Northern highlights and hijinks

Since several readers plan a visit to Québec*, I'll summarize the three-day getaway spent there last week: touristy, tasty and terribly cold.

One of the oldest cities in North America (founded in 1608), with its historic lanes and walls carefully preserved, Québec is also the capital of the province. A Lonely Planet entry summarizes its allure.

Le Duc chose the location; the city is indeed a romantic sure thing, like San Francisco or Barcelona. A suite in a luxury hotel rarely disappoints, especially when your view is this:

The 122-year-old Chateau Frontenac, flashing a $75-million reno completed last year, wears its age as a badge of honour, and shows not a flicker of the wistful desuetude I recalled from our last stay, 28 years ago:

Our living room included a turret, just visible to the left of the (ornamental) fireplace:

 Original fittings like the working mail chute are meticulously maintained:

The lobby feels as if the Dowager Countess of Grantham might be in the next chair:

The grand old landmark glows again, like burnished leather. (Those looking for a B and B might consider the gracious old home where we've also stayed, La Marquise de Bassano.)

Le Duc chose the site for his birthday dinner, Le Pied Bleu, a bountiful and boisterous intersection of deeply local dining and happy anarchy, in the spirit of a Lyonnaise bouchon. We were seated in a butcher shop doubling as a top-notch bistro, run by rambunctious crew who see no reason for propriety, from either side.

I sampled five salads, brought to the table to serve myself, à volonté—followed by stewed rabbit; Le Duc had a charcuterie platter (everything made on site, we ate in the shop), and boudin noir.

House-made desserts, shown above, were served with the same "come up and try this!" generosity. (For a closeup of those desserts, see this review, which named the resto one of the ten best in Canada in 2013.)

Here's the birthday boy; he isn't drinking all those digestifs, but the shot shows how they are served: a hamper dropped at your table with a couple of glasses.

The cheque totaled... um, can't remember, except I thought it was fine. It's not in prime tourista stretch, though only a 10-minute cab from the hotel. 

The city's amusements extend from museums to music to macarons, but we were there to be together. Le Duc bought a pair of shoes. I have never seen so much good-looking, functional deep-winter wear offered anywhere; this must be the Serious Boot capital of the world. 

In Québec, I was reminded that Montréalers do not exactly own the cred for being people of the farthest North. In a restaurant, a table of three Inuit men conversed intently in Inuktitut (the term for the many variants of Canadian Inuit dialects). My ear was tantalized by a language that existed here even before Samuel Champlain founded New France.

Frigid, crystalline air, the sparkling river, the palpable pride of the hotel's staff, the exuberant local cuisine: celebration, nostalgia, romance. The icing on the cake for Le Duc was the unimpeded sighting of a fisher in a snowy field, viewed from the train window.

And we agree we would travel there just to dine again at Le Pied Bleu!

*In Canada, the proper name of the city is, in both French and English, Québec, and in informal  English, Quebec City (without the accent). Like New York/New York City, the short form is more common. Québec is pronounced "kay-bec" with the stress on the second syllable.