Buying clothes: The personal shopper

Janice Riggs of The Vivienne Files recently posted a terrific quote from Betty Halbreich, the famed personal shopper who for decades dressed Bergdorf Goodman's swank customers.

In her tart autobiography, "I'll Drink to That" (Halbreich favours the Mad Men era, libationally), she says that she refused to let a woman leave Bergdorf's in something that did not suit her. She even told compulsive shoppers that they already had enough.

How counter-cultural Halbreich's approach is today! Personal shoppers still exist in large cities, but they're endangered as the watercress sandwich. Where I live, Holt Renfrew have one (with a dedicated fitting room); Ogilvy (now owned by Holt's) too, if you ask, but most shops supply a sales person whose sole contribution is to ask, "What do you think?"

Pressure sales tactics are a major reason why I do much of my shopping online, and why retail stores are in deep trouble in the US.

The Big Three Persuaders that I hear on nearly every outing fall flatter than a Spanx-covered derrière:

1. "I just bought the same one"; or if the salesperson is twenty-five years younger than you, "My manager just bought that and she looks fantastic." Maybe—but I hear this line too often for it to hold water.

2. "They're flying out of the store." Why would that make it right for you? Designed to push the persuasive button of scarcity, same as "This is the last one in your size."

3. "You just need...". This is uttered if you express an objection. You just need to shorten it, wear it with a strapless bra, or sew the pockets shut.  I'll agree to the lingerie, but not major alterations.

Other persuasive tactics include "This is the best season from (designer) yet", and "You look better in this than anyone who's tried it on": perhaps true, but irrelevant to your decision.

In sales lingo, "flattering" is a euphemism for "makes you look thinner", the holy grail for many shoppers. (My friend Barbara would march into a boutique and command, "Show me every dress that will take 10 pounds off.")

Recently, a commenter said, "I don't think every item of clothing has to be "flattering" whatever that means..."

In the wider sense, "flattering" means the cut, fit, and colour highlight your best physical features. For example, if you inherited sloped shoulders, an unstructured jacket will make you look like an egg; a jacket with a discreet shoulder pad will give you a better line.

Stylish clothes may not be flattering, and vice versa. Though 'flattering' is definitely about vanity, it is also about wise consumption. Not understanding what suits you leads to the "stuffed closet but nothing to wear" situation.

I agree with the notion that not every item has to be flattering, to a point. If you're going camping, you might wear a Tilley "Wanderer" hat, the essence of unalloyed functionality.

And sometimes, what flatters you might not appeal for other reasons: red makes your skin glow, but you can't stand it; short skirts show off your legs, but you're a pants woman. But usually, I'd like a garment to ennoble, rather than just provide upholstery.

She may also have been thinking of certain professional roles, which take you to a classic, neutral suit, even though a vibrant print dress makes you look more energetic, or at least more fun.

Some of the specialty stores still offer a personal shopper, and not strictly for big spenders (but I concede that an appointment probably means a purchase.) A personal shopper, like an image consultant, might introduce us to clothes or accessories that make us feel wonderful, things we might have passed by, driven by habit. Should that happen, it's a learning experience, not just shopping.

Bergdorf's is a temple of luxury. The less-costly levels seem to offer only two speeds: hard-sell and no-sell. At COS, once you're greeted, they barely notice if you are alive.

Is it any wonder so many women depend more on the FedEx driver than the sales associate? We stand in our bedroom-dressing-rooms and enlist friends or partners as stylists, which may be an unfair burden. (Le Duc seems to see me unchanged after thirty years, which is sweet, but in truth my body shape and colour "season" are shifting as I age— or is it global warming?)

So, I raise a virtual martini to Betty Halbreich and her kind, visual artists first, sales associates a close second. If specialty apparel wants to survive, bring us more Bettys and pay them decently for their skill.

Comfort shoes step up

Today, the Passage dedicates its window to those who respond to shoes in former posts with, "Nice, but I have problem feet."

They are not alone. A stealth movement is underway; women who could be my granddaughters express dismay over shoes that come with an unwritten guarantee of pain. The categories of comfort and orthopaedic shoes, formerly limited to neutrals that looked more like the box than the shoe, are looking better all the time, and being worn by all ages.

Two caveats: First, because foot problems like bunions, arthritis, plantar fascitis and other conditions are not uniform, and everyone's anatomy is different, there is no one magic shoe. You will have to try them; few are lucky enough to find "that pair" on the first excursion.

If you have stores in your area, go early in the season, which for summer is right now. Though I can find shoes in my city, I will also order online to get the model and colour I want, and consider the shipping an investment in my health.

Second, these shoes are not going to be cute, ever. Cute is the province of the paper-thin ballet flat or delicate, whimsical sandal—nor will they be the breathily sexy Louboutin stiletto.

Many women put off buying specialty shoes till they limp into a podiatrist's and are read the riot act. How universal, sturdy and affirming vanity is! I find it one of the most endearing things about being human.

The level just short of orthopaedic has adopted the cozy label, "comfort". These shoes often accommodate orthotics (some replace the need altogether), have above-standard arch support and provide other stabilizing features.

Of such makers, Hopp (an offshoot of the venerable SAS) are the upstarts, and offer a sophistication not consistently found in the category. I featured their nerdy-in-a-good-way debut model, the Essential Oxford in an earlier post; they have expanded the line to other styles.

The python collared mule has the SAS insole, padded upper lining and a special shock-absorbing sole. Sizes up to 11; other colour options; price $215.

Cole Haan offer many super-cushioned styles in luscious colours, so if you can wear their last and have limited patience for looking around, start there. My friend Rachel just bought a pair of Ultralite Stitchlite Oxfords, price $215, for an upcoming tour of Italy that includes lots of walking, because the stretch knit uppers accommodate her two-different-height insteps. The soles are flexible and articulated like an accordian, designed to mimic natural foot movement, and have 'pods' at the forefoot and heel for increased traction.

Women with plantar fasciatis search for shoes with some stretch, but also with solid support. If they also need a specialty width, the field narrows but good-looking shoes are out there.

Left: The Softwalk "Hanover" looks like a fashion boot but has serious cushioning, and comes in wide and medium widths. Price, $US 129.

Right: Propet's "Ladybug"will work with both jeans and skirts and comes in narrow and wide widths as well as medium, and at $US 70, is a good price.

Some makers just say it right out that their shoes are orthopaedic. There is no single distinguishing trait; the footwear often has multiple points of cushioning, firm heel counters, and removable liners for orthotics. They're like compression hose: you hope they keep their assistance on the down low.  Now, such shoes are often indistinguishable from "regular" shoes or boots.

Left: Heels are available, even if you prefer to save them for special occasions; check out the Spring Step L'Artiste Bardot ankle boot, $130.

Right: Especially designed to address arch and heel pain and plantar fascitis, Naot's cork-footbed Sirocco boot, $220, has chic piping that hitches hip to healthy.

Sometimes, foot problems are so bedevilling you think, I want someone to make me shoes that really fit. Bespoke is an answer; several of us in the family have them, just to get shoes that fit perfectly. (One of my feet is nearly a half-size bigger than the other.)

I am not talking about a pair of board-flat gladiator sandals you pick up when you're on an island vacation; this is a full shoe built for you.

Not all bespoke shoemakers will address therapeutic needs, so check that before an appointment.  Researching this post may turn out to be dangerous to my financial health; when I found Daphne Board, a certified pedorthist in Massachusetts, I hit shoe heaven. (She makes all kinds of bespoke shoes.)

Two of her striking orthopaedic styles, below: a boot and a two-tone flat. Daphne Broad shoes are available by visit to her studio in western Massachusetts, but also by mail. Her  FAQ page provides excellent advice.

Bespoke orthopaedic shoes start at about $700, and climb rapidly, but like any expertly-made bespoke shoes, they last for decades with care, unless you fall for exotic skins.

Oh, I'm dreaming of her shoes! I'll make these turquoise boots my spring screensaver.

Which craft?

My friend Alyson asked me earnestly, "Do you knit?" We were standing in Coeur de Mailles  in Quebec City, ogling luscious skeins. I felt a magnetic pull to return to knitting, the same avidity I felt when another friend invited me to sew, with her help.

I have not knit since the 1960s, when I produced a turtleneck sweater that strangled my boyfriend. (My mother reknit the neck.)

For nearly twenty years, I was deeply into sewing, the only way to have a yellow seersucker bellbottomed jumpsuit with a matching shawl in small-town Northern Ontario. But I quit in my mid-thirties, when, my taste outpaced my skills, and I wrecked too many lengths of opulent fabric.

I drop by sewing blogs, critiquing (without comment) various projects. Each time I think, Why don't I begin again? Mainly, it is because of the room required for the gear. I'd be buried in buttons, yardage, maybe even machines. It takes a sewing room to raise an outfit.

Knitting is somewhat less demanding of space, but when my heart beat like a hummingbird in that yarn store, I knew, Look out.

So I thought, what hobbies take little space? Some years ago I made pop-up cards and custom-carved rubber stamps; supplies for both will fit into a small box. I enjoy doing some low-key calligraphy, too.

Another criteria for retirement crafting is that the product have some utility, either to me or to the recipient. A handmade object is a form of expression, but also a product. Over the years I have made kites, quilts, enamelled pendants and pins, soft furniture, a cherrywood spice rack. My embroidery enhanced the patched denim of dozens of friends. You could not pay me to house any of it now.

Crafty persons tend to give their creations as gifts. Someone will always appreciate hand knit socks (hint, Alyson), but other times, it may be a matter of pass-the-clutter. (I have many crocheted doilies, thanks to a friend's mother.) Never mind that some efforts aren't perfect; when the item is made by a dear friend or your kids, it's a treasure. But even treasures need house room, so I am reluctant to contribute to that.

Even if you sew your own clothes, you can still overload. I made one skirt in so many fabrics that I can still see the Simplicity pattern in my sleep. Because crafters are enthusiasts, enthusiasts produce, and then the stuff takes on a life of its own.

The other criterion is enjoyment: What delights, engages, and (at least some times) gives a sense of accomplishment?

My present 'craft' is writing: words take no house space. This blog produces a similar ratio of false starts and unsatisfactory results as making clothes. The product is ephemeral; like environmental art, it has its moment, then vanishes. But anyone subjected to an entire apartment full of someone's flower paintings may conclude that is not a bad thing.

And you? If you are a maker, have your avenues of expression changed?  If you've taken up something new, how is the novice stage going? And if you've continued a lifetime of craft, what are you making now?

I'd love to offer a free macramé plant holder as a draw, but all of mine have long gone to pot heaven.

Montréal, Easter weekend

At the market, Easter weekend. We go to get fat artichokes, live crabs, maybe a pot of hydrangea—and of course, to people-watch. The mood is buoyant, the shopping perhaps a bit extravagant; the first long holiday weekend  of the year does that.

A young woman in striped pants, green shell, and a smile as brilliant as the day:

Nearby, a different green palette, khaki, a striped shirt and a floral scarf combining greens and earth tones:

One of my favourites is mint, a colour you don't see often in a coat!

The first florals are out: soft-shell pants on an expressive platinum blonde:

Her vibrant scarf caught my eye; what an effortless way to bring a grey sweater into spring. A closer look shows why; it is a museum scarf from a Picasso exhibition. We both wanted one!

Another touch of grey, a wool flannel blazer with elbow patches, accessorized by a red bundle buggy:

Scarves makes sense when the early morning is still chill, the mid-day mild. (But monsieur et madame will wear them when it's full summer, too; welcome to Montréal).

We admired her meltingly soft, straw-coloured leather jacket, such a welcome sight after the blacks of winter, and worn beautifully, with a slash of poppy lipstick:

The market makes us hungry every time! You mention ice cream; my head is turned by a couple about to enjoy a dozen oysters:

We bought a few blood oranges each, and talked about what to make with these edible jewels. A blood orange tart with cardamom pastry cream would show them off.

Our first outing after a long winter; thanks for coming along!

Retailers, please stop trying to get me into these

I am a major boat-misser of trends. Wasn't always so; one of my friends, recalling our thirties, said, "You always had the latest thing, even if it looked godawful". She was probably thinking of a fake wolf-fur chubby that made me look like a Muppet.

Certainly by my mid-forties, I had become leery. At first it was because I wondered, Can I wear this? Then, I began to resent the unending attempt to flog clothes that were not attractive on most women. This doesn't mean I can't admire the same item I sidestep on someone else, but, just between us chipmunks, usually I don't.

The button-back sweater

Other than the option to reveal a little skin at the top, what, really, is achieved by breaking up the back with a detail that is neither interesting nor functional?  I get that sometimes we want to change it up, but this clutters the sweater.

The "cold shoulder" top

This cut does not make sense where I live; our extremities are plenty cold for a good five months. In both woven and knits, these tops are already stuffing the sales racks, because the worst of them are cut out deeply so that the sleeve ends halfway up the arm in a graceless gap. The best will look current for ten minutes, which are already up.

Wide, cropped trousers

I like my pair (a good three inches longer than these to accommodate my height), but finding them in the right the proportion was difficult because retailers don't offer them in varying inseams.

Everlane say theirs  (shown above) are "the most flattering pant you'll ever try", but unless the length on her is one she likes, the rise is comfortable for her torso, and she has average to narrow hips, the pants are not that woman's best choice. Some women look great in narrow cropped trousers, and not in wide legs, and vice versa.

Falling-off outerwear

This trend is not the garment, but how it't worn: I sliding off.  Is this a fashionista version of the streetwear sweatshirt, worn with only one arm stuck through a sleeve, the rest draping on the torso like a blanket? Isn't outerwear to protect against the elements? A pretentious effect if ever I saw one, but then I think half-tucked shirts look like the wearer was distracted while dressing.

Ultra-long cuffs

Now this one gets my Irish up: don't they think we do anything with our hands? I saw a woman in a chic blue and white striped version of this, dabbing at the sleeve she had just dragged though her salad.

Many trends are either classic items anointed this year's must-have (pea jackets, white jeans, patterned tights) or sartorial novelties, mostly taken up for a season by the young.

If you have your head turned, ask yourself if you'd love it even if it wasn't in every window—and make sure you will feel that way for a few years, unless you have money to shred and a deep interest in having "the latest thing."

Postscript to you avid fans of the ça va de soi coatigan for which I lusted: tried it on.  The "framboise" is an intriguing pink mixed with a tiny fleck of grey, but it was too washed out on me. It also comes in light grey and black, but I have a nearly identical one in navy, so no.

Carolyn's pearls

Carolyn from Oregon bought a spectacular 11mm x 14mm  natural-colour auburn Kasumi pearl (Kojima Company), then e-mailed to say she was thinking of having a pendant made, and wondered if I had any ideas.

Does the Queen have corgis?

Carolyn considered recycling her old pearl studs and also said, "I have a great goldsmith but not necessarily a great jewelry designer. I like very clean lines, so maybe just beads/pearls on a chain. I was even thinking of trying a good bead store..." 

I wrote back:
"A classic mistake (I have made it too) is to take bits and pieces to a jeweller and say, 'Make me something from this', because it can look cobbled together. The question to ask is, “What are the best pearls or stones to combine with my new, glorious pearl?' ”

Even though I'm all for recycling, sometimes the result is a forced fit that is less than thrilling. And in a pearl project, you want a jeweller who specializes in pearls, especially if thinking of adding some. I suggested she talk with Sarah Canizzaro, owner of Kojima, to explore what she could do. (I also sent closeups of a pendant that seemed close to what Carolyn described, for reference.) 

Carolyn made the leap of faith to work with a Sarah via photos and phone calls. Now on the right foot, Carolyn also gave her a budget and a realistic time frame.

They went through a number of ideas:

1. Carolyn at first was interested in accenting the big Kasumi with a smaller grey and black pearl; they tried various varieties. Sarah sent Carolyn a number of combinations; here's one:

Sarah then said, "I think that having the dark bead takes away from the autumn colors of the pearl but I'm happy to make it to your specifications." She made mock-up of the Kasumi with a small pink keshi pearl, which shifted the accent from cool to warm:

When you have a showstopper pearl (or gemstone), doing just a little, but doing that little right, is essential.

The pendant has a snap bail so Carolyn can add it to a her other necklaces or her gold chain, but she also thought about another idea I've shown here, small pearls as a 'chain'.

Sarah showed her 3mm CFW white ovals, and small white keshis; Carolyn chose the ovals. The cost for those was only about $135.

She now has three elements (pendant, snap bail and pearl 'chain' strand) that extend her jewellery wardrobe. She said, "I can use all three components with other pieces; might be fun to get a vintage charm to snap on the clasp and wear with the pearl strand."

Here, Carolyn wears the piece as shown above with her baroques:

When I thanked Carolyn for sharing these photos, she said, "I think it's good for readers to know the mistakes I almost made. I ended up asking Sarah for her frank advice and predictably ended up with a much better piece by trusting her—she has a wonderful sensitivity and design eye."

When a designer and her client share a sensibility, and the designer takes her time, the piece is absolutely in harmony with its wearer—and hers alone.

I want to dress like Patti Smith

I've loved Patti Smith since the late 1970s. It hasn't helped that one of my longest-time friends looks eerily like her: the long face and lithe figure, the penchant for paper-thin soft tees and pegged jeans, the ability to take a huge black coat and make it look like a runway item. (But in Smith's case, it probably is.)

Even though she wears a uniform: the shirt or tee, the jacket, the jeans, I still look at her, onstage and off, and think, "Oh, Patti!" Some women find their look young and stick with it.

You can close your eyes and conjure Smith from any decade, and it's her attitude today, at seventy: Anne Demeulemeester (Smith calls her "a sister"), Prada, a tailored suit jacket, a white shirt, old silver crosses. It's not that I want her exact clothes, but I want that no-nonsense simplicity, an approach forged with purpose.

This is hardly a haphazard throw-on-anything style. Smith has often spoken of how much she enjoys clothes: her joy in finding thrifted mens' shirts of beautiful cotton, or the pleasures of a silk raincoat, good boots, a beloved Persian enamel necklace.

I could post another six photos of Patti Smith but they are quite similar—maybe the jacket is tweed, or cut longer. Below, performing in Chicago on her seventieth birthday, last December 30:

She did not fall into her style haphazardly. In "Just Kids" she talks about deciding how she wanted to look, scouring hole-in-the-wall shops for perfect tee, black capris, Breton shirts. She credits her androgynous image to her desire to imitate Keith Richards, down to the eye makeup:

She set her course (with forays into Victorian dresses for occasional party wear) and held true. I sifted through many decades of photos: Patti Smith in a floral? Not there. "I wouldn't call my style 'gender bending'", she remarked once. "It's gender ignoring. I know I'm a girl."

She whittled down to her black and white jacket-and-jeans when she resumed her career as a touring musician in the late '90s, after nearly two decades spent near Detroit, writing and raising her family with her late husband, Fred Smith.

She grey her hair to grey in about 2014:

Smith knows we're looking at her ensemble, but she is an artist first.  "I just do my work, and I work everyday", she says. 

If you too are a Patti Smith fan, you'll enjoy this Refinery29 piece by Rachel Syme; if not, first, simply reflect and appreciate the personal touches you have not been without for twenty five or more years, and second, release any worries about being in "a rut". Think of it instead like a well-honed groove.

As she writes, "In art and dream may you proceed with abandon. In life may you proceed with balance and stealth."

Athleisure: Performance meets polish

My friend Alyson and I went to language school in Québec City last week, and amidst all the brain-aerobics, we got to people-watch. The initial days were also a micro-lab in first impressions. Who was the reserved woman in a skirt suit? Why did another woman of around fifty wear denim bib overalls... every day?

Alyson, a university prof, occasionally talks to her graduate students about the message their appearance sends; when they are employed, they will be in front of the public. But she feels that she's not a consistent role model; she says she "sinks to the level of my students".

Her shoe of choice the hiking boot, her favourite fabric, GoreTex. She had planned a little spree at the Québec City MEC, and was disappointed to find it had just moved from practically next to the school to a far suburb.

She asked me, what is the next level up from performance wear? She had never heard the term "athleisure". I promised to go shopping with her to explore such items. She may be shocked at the price, because well-made clothes in that niche use innovative, costly fabrics. Still, she could wear them on and off campus, so I will encourage her to pay the premium.

Examples of these versatile, cleanly-styled clothes:

Above, pieces from Kit and Ace, a LuluLemon subsidiary whose line goes only up to a US 10—just like the parent company. I wish they made larger sizes (including plus).

Left: The Go-To Pant 2.0 is a washable blend of wool, spandex, cashmere and silk: yum! Price, $US 128. Right: The Long Haul Cardigan, $218, a blend of wool, cashmere, and a tiny bit of nylon and spandex. I love the pockets, and the slashed hem that raises it from the sacklike silhouette of many long cardigans.

Another brand I'll take her to, Lole, offers transitional pieces among its more athletic items.

Left: I am a fan of Lole's Travel Pants (up to size 14), which look polished enough for all but business formal settings, and dry wrinkle-free, in a flash. They are made of nylon, a mixed fiber that contains some bamboo, and a good shot of spandex, so they don't bag. Sometimes, they make them in other neutrals than black.

Top right: The Sammy sweater is a blend of two-thirds linen and one-third cotton; shown, lichen. Price, $CDN 100.

Bottom right: The Essential Cardigan ($CDN 115) can be worn indoors or out, and dressed up with a pendant or scarf. I like the subtle stripe, too.

With athleisure, you have to be judicious. Much of it will go from a yoga studio to your supermarket, but not to a committee meeting. I'd avoid fabrics described as "ripstop", drawstring pants, or things with Sanskrit on them.

Certain outdoor suppliers make pieces that are not athleisure, but work well with them. Below, from Eddie Bauer:

Left: It's hard to find a cardigan with this sleeve length, perfect for classroom lectures. The Christine Elbow Cardigan in a washable cotton-nylon blend is on sale for $30, and comes in sizing up to XXL.

Right: Many women like outdoor wear because it's low-maintenance. Eddie Bauer's navy print wrinkle-free shirt gives that ease, but looks more polished than a tee.

Iris Apfel says, "If you have a good haircut and good shoes, you can get away with anything." Off with the trekking boots, but my friend still wants arch support and a heel that is not pancake flat, but low.

Two options: Reiker #52667 in denim blue ($CDN 120 at Leclerc Chassures) is a smart segue from the hiking boot. I was charmed by the pale grey and flowers on a pair of oxfords by S. Oliver, $CDN 120— more "me" than her, but I also think sometimes athleisure needs a little softening.

Athleisure has been called the fastest-growing apparel niche so expect to see more of this hybrid on offer. It still takes some thought, but it's well worth some closet space for such versatile, wearable clothes.