Thursday, June 23, 2011

On guard against Nygard

That horror in the middle is one Peter Nygard, Winnipeg "fashion designer", whose portrait - blown up to vast mural proportions, presumably in an effort to approximate the size of his ego - appears on the outside wall of the store I visited (briefly) last night.
Only afterwards did I learn enough of the man and his business to deter me from ever entering another. But even if his public reputation were spotless, I would have assumed from what I saw on the racks that this is a man who doesn't like women. Never in my life have I seen such a comprehensive array of ugly fabric and unflattering, clumsy designs.

Sadly, these few images fail to do justice to the cumulative visual effect of rack upon rack of hideous and not particularly well-made garments. Yet astonishingly, this stuff sells in Europe and all over North America.
The man was a local success story until the last couple of years, when CBC cracked open his PR. Google Nygard and the scandal is top of the list.
He's been accused of abusing and virtually enslaving staff, running sweatshops, and living a rampant sex life that features teenagers and quite possibly rape. A couple of years ago his - brace yourself - Mayan-themed Bahamas mansion burned to the ground. And he is still pursuing CBC through the courts in an effort to refute its claims.
But enough, let's never speak of him again.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

On the road again

In the metaphorical sense, anyway. I'd like to be able to say, next stop Canada, but in fact it will be Auckland, San Franscisco, Calgary, Winnipeg, with mind-numbing lay-overs of several hours between connections. Never was the term "long haul" so apt. By the weekend, though, I hope to be lounging in the sun by - perhaps even swimming in - a lake that looks something like this one. Only perhaps not quite so close to the snow.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Sex and suits

Not my title but that of a book I'm reading - Sex and Suits: The Evolution of Modern Dress by art historian Anne Hollander. It's no light-weight read, but the prose is lively for a quasi-academic work, and bursting with fascinating ideas.
I'm only 27 pages in, and already Hollander is well on the way to convincing me that, contrary to popular opinion, men haven't spent the last 200 years donning some version of the suit because they've opted out of fashion - far from it:

"... I have come to believe that male dress was always essentially more advanced than female throughout fashion history [which, according to Hollander began in the 1400s], and tended to lead the way, to set the standard, to make the esthetic propositions to which female fashion responded. ... The history of dress ... so far has to be perceived as a duet for men and women performing on the same stage."

She claims that the first quality of clothing is sexuality, and identifies fashion as modern, in that it's a process of constant, deliberate, self-referential change. She opposes it to non-fashion - all the other dressing and personal adornment human beings have gone in for, which traditional societies regard as time-honoured and are therefore concerned with preservation rather than change: the chador or the sari, for instance. Whereas, "In fashion, all social facts about the wearer can theoretically be masked except for personal taste ...".
She argues that to link, with the benefit of hindsight, specific modes - such as huge 80s shoulder pads - to social facts is simplistic and almost certainly misleading.
It's refreshing to see such serious attention given to a human behaviour that is so abiding and so routine it's as good as invisible to many.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

One hundred percent natural

At last, I have pearls. Faithful Reader might recall my past pining for these one hundred-per-cent-natural items of personal adornment. And I doubted I would ever have any to call my own. But, while in Buenos Aires, S and I nipped across the vast, muddy River Plate to Colonia, Uruguay, and I bought these from a nice man in a shop on the main street.
Certainly, they are not your pricey salt-water examples - they're river pearls, probably Vietnamese. But I love their irregular shapes, and their quiet gleam (they're not the nasty yellowish tone my poorly lit photo suggests). Thank you, all you oysters. 
S and I were both suffering from the monstrous BA cold we all went down with, and that quiet day in Colonia was a lovely respite from the noise and pollution of the city across the river.  

BA story

It was our second visit to Confiteria Ideal in a week. I know this isn't where true afficionados go to dance - too many tourists, too many teachers touting for trade - but all that faded grandeur is irresistably delicious. And this particular night we were here with a large crowd waiting to hear the renowned Orchestra Tipica Color Tango. (They were magical - give yourself a treat and listen to them here. And do try to ignore the couple who begin dancing front left; we couldn't, I'm afraid. They provided us with hours of morbid fascination, on this and other occasions, and appear in just about any Ideal YouTube clip you care to download.)
Anyway. Our table was towards the back of the dancefloor, and while we danced away the time until the band appeared, I noticed a slightly melancholy-looking man sitting alone at a table at the end of the room. I cabaceo-ed him, and we danced. He was a nice leader, steady, smooth and unflashy (unlike, for instance, the idiot who, on our first visit here, wound up our tanda by whipping me into a life-threatening back-bend. Or the chap a week later, at Porteno y Bailarin who propelled me onto the empty back dancefloor and, as part of his intimidate-a-foreigner repetoire, sat me on his knee, then, as we walked back to my table, shrugged and said, "Mas o menos". Porteno y Bailarin, by the way, has used shoes lined up on the low wall between its two floors: they are bound for tango dancers in Cuba. But I digress).
Claudio, the melancholy man, was Italian. I have no Italian, and he only rudimentary English, so when the tanda was over and believing him to be rather lonely, I invited him to our table with the express purpose of introducing him to C, who speaks a little Italian.
So there we were, Claudio and I with our backs to the dancefloor, M and S gazing up in a welcoming manner from the table, and C extending her hand, when I became aware of something bearing down on us with all the unstoppable weight and intent of a steam train.
It halted inches from Claudio. "This is my husband!" it announced in stentorian tones.
"Nice to meet you," I said, giving it the benefit of the doubt in spite of this unorthodox greeting.
It ignored the hand. "This is my husband!" it repeated. "When I dance with other people, I tell them I am married ..." And she turned accusingly to Claudio. He had picked up the alarm signals quicker than me, and by now he was hanging his head with his face was turned away from our table, a position from which it never returned throughout the exchange.
"I brought him here to introduce him to my friend who speaks Italian," I explained, indicating the hapless C. Hers and the other jaws at the table had now dropped as far as they could go.
Claudio's wife was - there's no nice way to put this - bad bottle blonde, with a lumpy miserable over-madeup face. I've tried since not to discount the theory that Claudio might, at various points in their marital history, have given her very good reason for this stern level of  oversight, Yet even if that's true, this was probably not the most productive way of handling it. Surely such public humiliation would drive a man into the arms of another with all speed.
"You can introduce him to who you like," Mrs Claudio continued, steely-eyed, "but I am just clarifying - he is my husband!"
Her grasp of English was impressive, and finally I got the message. With a two-handed gesture of surrender and possibly even a shrug, I said, "I just came here to dance," and retreated to my seat.
Claudio was now frog-marched back to his solitary table where he was given a bracing disciplinary lecture and once more abandoned. Mrs Claudio went back to her own table, which wasn't so far away that she couldn't monitor his activities, and spent the next half an hour snacking angrily. For the rest of the night, Claudio stared mournfully at the dancers or played with his cellphone. I never saw him dance again. 

Wednesday, June 8, 2011


On Monday (Happy birthday, Your Majesty, and thanks for the long weekend), S and I met for coffee at La Cloche then braved nearby Spotlight to buy me a nifty little tool for drawing pulled threads to the reverse of knitted fabrics.
S's particular horror of this place is the awful chemical smell exhaled by thousands of imported fabrics, linens, place mats and miscellaneous knick-knackeries. Mine is its acreage of garish colour, and the aisles of essentials for faintly alarming female hobbies, like scrap-booking and lampshade-making.
After that, we were drawn like moths to a flame into The Fabric Warehouse, in all sorts of ways a refreshing contrast, and where, tellingly, S is on first-name terms with the jovial proprietor.
I love this place because it's exactly what its name suggests - a warehouse, with a concrete floor and hundreds of rolls of fabric stacked around the walls and propped up in the middle. It steadfastly refuses to "sell" itself. And the customers, mostly but not all women, prowl about, eyes narrowed, one hand extended to sample weight and texture and general appeal. What they're really doing is imagining, and these days, in apparel as in other fields, that's something to respect.
The store has a glittery selection of buttons and trims that I would once have reeled away from. Tango now dictates otherwise.

And the proprietor has recently recently installed this splendid rogues' gallery of tailor's dummies, although the bloke doesn't fit in and is due for eviction, he says.

(I apologise for the quality of these last two images - they were taken on my new phone, which pretends to have a camera.)
Also spotted in the store, this wonderful pair of PVC - "my partner hates them" - boots.

The upshot of 30 minutes absorbed browsing was that I fell for a delicious length of blue and white silk to sew into god-knows-what, and S bought a dress's worth of stretchy teal velvet for a tango dress. I suspect, though, that we both had Buenos Aires in mind.

Friday, June 3, 2011

High shine

It was a household rule when I was growing up in England that school shoes were cleaned every Sunday evening. In fact this chore was one of my first encounters with New Zealand, via the shoe-polish lid. (The other was Kia-Ora orange squash.)

The result of this childhood training is that while I love the look of well-nourished leather and feel distressed when I see it starving to death, I hate polishing my shoes. 
Sometimes, if the sun is shining and I'm in the right mood, I'll line up all my non-suede footwear on the outside table, don latex gloves and set to work. But I'd really much rather perch on a high chair at a street corner, as I did in Buenos Aires, and have someone else do them for me.
Don't misunderstand me - I'm well aware this kind of low-overhead entrepreneurism is indicative of under-employment, makes at best only a marginal living, and isn't any kind of a career. But I do think there's a niche for a smart young person to set up a stall on, say, Lambton Quay. There'd be no shortage of customers and I reckon it would make more money than playing the guitar badly before an upturned hat.

Street-corner shoeshine stall, Buenos Aires

The owner of this stall was stationed outside a bank where the ATMs were out of commission, and he had taken it upon himself to explain this to every frustrated user. Meanwhile, he polished my old boots to a startling shine.  The pictures of Jesus and, I assumed, his mother and children were splattered with blacking, but every day  he must prop them up there amidst the tins, clothes and brushes. Perhaps to remind him why he works so diligently for so little reward.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Evita's clothes

Bust of Eva Peron, The Eva Peron
Museum, Palermo, Buenos Aires

I knew almost nothing about Eva Peron - or her husband - before I went to BA. At the mention of her name, all that sprang to mind was that damn song, which would hang around my head for days.
I can't claim to know a whole lot more now, but what I do understand is how strongly Argentines feel about her, whether they believe she's a whore or a saint, a fascist or a democrat, a dedicated woman of the people or a relentless self-server. Princess Diana similarly divided public opinion, but not as passionately or persistently as Evita.
Born poor and illegitimate in 1919, she was First Lady of Argentina from 1946 until her death from cancer in 1952, aged 33. Both women, whatever motivations might be ascribed to them, made a point of acknowledging those whose life was a struggle. The Eva Peron Museum is housed in a mansion on a grand leafy street in one of BA's best suburbs. Evita bought it in 1948 and, ignoring neighbourly howls of outrage, turned it into a shelter for single mothers and their children. 

Also like Diana, Evita loved clothes, and, remarkably, the museum has a good number of them, many displayed alongside photographs of Evita wearing them. These dresses, suits, coats and shoes are so classically stylish, you could wear them today. 

Also like Diana, Evita died young and beautiful. Queues still form at her tomb in Recoleta Cemetary, although there's nothing here but dying flowers, a brass plaque and a padlocked gate. What you see is only what you bring with you. Her clothes at least still have about them the feel of a breathing woman.

The great Buenos Aires shoe hunt (discontinued)

Sorry, Faithful Reader, but the last stage of the shoe hunt I'm writing up for profit rather than fun, so it will have to wait until I've heard back from various journals. If they want the piece, you see, they buy first publication rights.
But other BA delights await an airing. First up - Eva Peron's frocks. Here's a taster.