Sunday, 31 August 2014

Behind the velvet rope at New York's El Morocco

Last year, I took you behind the scenes of Studio 54 as a collection of memorabilia from that legendary club was put up for auction.

A collection from another famous New York nightspot, El Morocco, will be auctioned next month, giving us a chance to step behind their infamous velvet rope.

It’s the collection of John Perona, who opened the club in 1931, initially as a speakeasy. In its heyday which latest from the 1930s to the 50s, El Morocco became known as a haunt for the international rich and famous. The auction itself is largely made-up of the objects Perona bought with his profits from the club, a mix of fine French treasures and complete kitsch (this balance of class and kitsch seems to typify El Morocco), but there is also plenty that those obsessed with this apparent golden age of glamour can salivate over.

El Morocco is attributed with starting some of the customs associated with the most exclusive establishments today. There was the velvet rope, lifted only if you withstood the doorman’s intense scrutiny. You were then led to your table, and heavens forbid if it was the remote part of the dining room nicknamed ‘Siberia’. And then there are the countless photographs of the stars, shown against the distinctive zebra-banquettes. There are many of these photographs available in the auction, sold in lots of 125 a go, and they feature the most starry of names: Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe, Cary Grant, Rita Hayworth, Clark Gable, Salvador Dali (he did like a party – remember he was also pictured at Studio 54?).

These pictures, most likely taken by the in-house photographer Jerome Zerebe, who perhaps helped invent the idea of the paparazzi. He said in an interview quoted here: “The social set did not go to the Rainbow Room or the El Morocco until I invented this funny, silly thing of taking photographs of people. And the minute the photographs appeared in the paper, then they came.”

This photograph of the famous debutante Brenda Frazier meeting autograph hunters is press-ready, caption and all. I would also love to sit and read through the scrapbook of carefully assembled press cuttings that’s also available in the auction.

VIPS were certainly made to feel welcome at El Morocco. They appear to have been lavished with gifts, if sample of Pucci scarves, ashtrays and jewellery pictured here are anything to go by. There was a newsletter. Then there’s the El Morocco Family Album, published in 1937 as a gift for regulars and featuring their photographs taken at the club (see, for example, the page featuring Little Edie Beale, shown here). Copies of the book already sell for thousands, so no doubt Perona’s own volume, signed by the likes of Gary Cooper, Marlene Dietrich and Gloria Swanson, will attract some considerable interest.

The crowd was carefully cultivated. Along with the names who would attract newspaper coverage, there would also be the businessmen who could pay their way into (and would actually pay in) the club, as well as debutantes, European nobility and the likes of Truman Capote, a regular at El Morocco long before he was famous because Perona thought he was interesting. It was where, according to a 1930s advert, “smart New Yorkers welcome the elite of the world.” Or, in other words, the place to see and be seen. In D.V., Diana Vreeland recalls visiting with Clark Gable: “We arrived; we stood behind the red velvet rope. By then, word had gone out that Mr Gable was in the house, and Mr John Perona, the owner, came to take us to our table. Clark grabbed my hand. 'Don't look left,' he said, 'and don't look right, just keep walking. Hold on to your hat kid, this place is gonna blow!' As he said it the place went berserk, I mean berserk! The stares! The people leaning out over their tables! It was almost animalique, like a roaring zoo.”

Nights spent amongst the plastic palm trees and zebra upholstery were fondly remembered. Powers Model Carroll McDaniel recalled: “From my point of view, El Morocco was the most glamorous place in the world. It had an atmosphere that was magic and which you couldn't get in any other place.” Laura Shaine Cunningham, meanwhile, collected some wonderful memories in this piece for the New York Times, from getting dressed up in Hattie Carnegie to dancing with Gershwin. This lost glamour was evoked by Truman Capote in his story “La Côte Basque, 1965”:

Mrs. Matthau extracted a comb from her purse and began drawing it through her long albino hair: another leftover from her World War II débutante nights—an era when she and all her compères, Gloria and Honeychile and Oona and Jinx, slouched against El Morocco upholstery ceaselessly raking their Veronica Lake locks.

Perona died in 1961, not long after the club had relocated to a new address. The auction includes letters of condolence sent to the family, including this one from Joan Crawford. While the era of El Morocco has gone, and its zebra banquettes sadly long rotted, this auction gives tantalising hints of what lay behind the club and its velvet rope. Who wants to come in with me and buy one of those sets of photos?

All pictures from El Morocco: The John Perona Collection auction catalogue by Doyle New York, 16 September 2014.

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Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Last-Year Travels: Porto and Lisbon, Portugal

Back in the frantic pace of a rain-lashed London, it's hard to imagine that this time last week I was skipping (read: walking at that extra slow pace only achieved by tourists) around a sunny Portugal, enjoying my first visit to Porto and my second to Lisbon.

Lisbon has changed a lot in the intervening seven years. It's certainly noticeably easier for tourists in regards to things such as finding good meals, although some locals we spoke to feared it was changing for the worse, becoming much busier, much dirtier. But, for now, both cities have so much to offer visitors. They're beautiful places to explore for starters, with brilliant museums and architecture, with beaches and spectacular scenery close by. There's some great shopping to be had in high streets not yet dominated by chains. And with specialities such as Port (obviously) and ginjinha, they're a great place to imbibe, relax and be merry.

Here are the rooftops of Porto in the historic Ribeira area of the city, a maze of twisting streets and steps with wonderfully seedy back stories. Today the story is that the riverfront is packed with visitors who take advantage of the stunning views as a backdrop to their food and drink. Across the river is Vila Nova de Gaia dominated by the very English names - Taylor's, Graham's - of the Port wine manufacturers' lodges. 

There's many more examples of stunning architecture to be discovered. The Art Deco Serralves Villa definitely falls into the category of my fantasy home.

Out towards Lisbon, meanwhile, the castles of Sintra verge on the fantastical, with the make believe views to match.

This was the holiday I also discovered I share my name with a glorified meat sandwich. This is the Francesinha (meaning little frenchie), a combination of ham, sausage and beef sandwiched in bread, covered with cheese and covered with a brandy-infused spicy sauce. And served with chips (these were half portions, apparently).

Lisbon's food scene has been enhanced meanwhile by the opening of the food court at the Mercado da Riberia - you could have another Francesinha, if you really wanted to, or speciality seafood, hamburgers, sushi and many tempting desserts (we may have been tempted).

Portugal does good drinking. Some of Porto's good bars are clustered around Galeria de Paris and Rua Cândido dos Reis, although at this stage of the holiday we were still struggling with the British vs Portuguese drinking hours so perhaps didn't explore as fully as we could. Last time we went to Lisbon, we hung around those lining the streets in the Barrio Alto. The crowds seem to have got younger (or - more likely - we got older), so this time our drinking seemed to be more centred around the formerly down at heel, you'd only go there to get the train to Cascais, Cais do Sodré. Above is one of the restored drinks kiosk in the area, adding prettiness and yet another opportunity to drink to the area.

And you could paint the town pink on this street, the Rua Nova do Carvalho. We really liked Sol e Pescais - a tiny bar packed with fishing equipment and tinned fish. Never has tackle seemed so hip.

Shopping in both these cities are great if you want a break from the usual chains. Porto's Livraria Lello & Irmão is the stuff of Pinterest dreams, regularly featuring on lists of the world's best bookstores. Photography is restricted to an hour each day, and it's so rammed with tourists there's no space for casual browsing. Nonetheless it's undeniably stunning.

The picture is taken in Ler Devagar in Lisbon's LX Factory - also a place with a claim to world beauty - a huge converted factory space with art installations and the chance to eat your dinner squeezed between the components of a printing press (surely the ultimate for any book geek). The LX Factory is a 19th century factory complex, now transformed into a hub for design and the arts. It sounds pretentious but it's delightfully laid-back, a great place to spend a sunny Sunday.

Talking of design, MUDE - the Museum of Modern Design and Fashion - has also opened in Lisbon since my last visit. Set within the sympathetically converted environment of what was once the huge main branch of a bank, there's an interesting changing rostra of exhibitions and a great display that gives the potted history of design in the twentieth-century, all for free.

There's plenty of opportunity to shop vintage too - pictured is Porto's lively fleamarket. I made a return trip to Lisbon's Outra Face de Lua too (where I previously picked up this dress and some deadstock Pop84 trousers this time). Also check out its neighbour Viúva Alegre (which translates as The Merry Widow, and comes complete with a cute cat!) and Ás de Espadas.

Perhaps the very best kind of holiday. And definitely with no need to heed this command, spotted from our hostel window.

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Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Elsbeth Juda, 1911 to 2014

I’ve only just heard that Elsbeth Juda died last month. While not a household name, Elsbeth was a connector and supporter, devoting herself to help artists and designers to become the household names.

Elsbeth Juda (on chair), at work, via

I was lucky enough to meet her when working on a book about the Ambassador magazine (I briefly mentioned it back here). The Ambassador Magazine grew out of the Dutch magazine International Textiles, and became The Ambassador thanks to Elsbeth’s husband Hans after the Second World War. It was used as a vehicle to promote British textiles and industry.

But that’s the barest headline details. Hans and Elsbeth were childhood sweethearts who fled Germany in 1933, carrying – as described by Elsbeth – only two suitcases and a violin. They threw themselves into their new British life with gusto (really, it’s hard to imagine them doing anything without gusto). Hans coined the slogan ‘Export or Die’ and The Ambassador, as suggested by its name, was his vehicle for taking British design and innovation around the world.

It was a trade magazine, so copies are extremely rare to find today, but it was a trade magazine with a difference. Artists such as Graham Sutherland and John Piper were commissioned to design covers, or illustrate the pages – frequently they found themselves encouraged by the Judas to design textiles as well. Elsbeth – working under the name ‘Jay’ – photographed many of the features for the magazine. How do you make a visit to a textile factory more appealing? Elsbeth’s answer was to wrap model Barbara Goalen (a frequent face within the magazine) in the cloth. This was the photograph – still so eye-catching and modern-looking today – we chose to use on the cover of the book. They took models to Switzerland and to Rio, injecting some of the gloss of their consumer counterparts into the industry. We also reproduced some of the features in full in the book to try and give a sense of the wit and energy that ran through the pages of the magazine.

Spread from The Ambassador Magazine book, showing imagery taken by Elsbeth to promote Lord & Taylor's British fortnight. Via Lizzie B design (Lizzie designed the book). 

The Judas were ambassadors in their own right too: Elsbeth, for example, went to the United States to forge vital connections that enabled the establishment of British fortnights in Lord & Taylor and Neiman Marcus. While clearing the photography permissions for the book, I corresponded with the relatives of the artists and designers with which the Judas had worked so closely. I was told again and again what a difference they had made to their parent’s careers, encouraging them, publishing their work, pushing them further, putting them in touch with the right people.

Some Ambassador magazine covers. Again via Lizzie B Design

One afternoon after the book had been published, I went with my manager to visit Elsbeth, who was then aged over 100, and to take her copies of the book. It should have been a 30 minute courtesy visit. Instead, we were encouraged/told to sit and join her for some celebratory drinks. We drank and talked and found ourselves introduced to a steady stream of people, of all ages and occupations, who had dropped into her apartment to pay their regards to Elsbeth, and really to have a good old gossip. The champagne was opened… I left 3 hours later (and only because I had another dinner invite). A quote from Maureen Lipman, used in Elsbeth's Telegraph obituary, sums up precisely how she appeared: “Elsbeth is a living affirmation of the staying power of being eternally curious.” As no doubt, many, many others will remark, I feel privileged to have met her.

To find out more, as well as The Ambassador Magazine book, you can view copies of The Ambassador magazine at the National Art Library at the V&A. The V&A also holds the archive of the magazine, while the National Portrait Gallery holds some of her work, including this lovely portrait of her and Hans. Elsbeth was one of the centenarians included in a project by Chris Steele-Perkin: Elsbeth's portrait is in the bottom right and was taken on the balcony of her flat. 

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Thursday, 7 August 2014

Last-Year Reads: Seven Sisters Style by Rebecca C. Tuite

Saddle shoes, plaid skirts, sports jackets: we’ve been here before when I wrote about how the spring/summer 2014 collections resembled the pages of a 1940s edition of Life magazine. With these fashionable reworkings of preppy style, the publication of Rebecca C. Tuite’s Seven Sisters Style this year is extremely timely – this book explores how the fashions worn in this prestigious group of American women’s colleges became markers of prestige and, in turn, set fashions and continue to have a powerful grip over the popular imagination.

As a British reader, I may need to look up the names of the colleges that make up the ‘Seven Sisters’ (that’s Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Radcliffe, Smith, Vassar and Wellesley Colleges), but I’m already well-versed in the style, thanks to films such as Mona Lisa Smile or Love Story, fictional graduates and students including the likes of Betty Draper from Mad Men and Baby from Dirty Dancing and countless magazines editorials, as well as looking at too many Life magazine pictures online. The influence of these students is powerful, yet perhaps not as well explored or fetishised as their male counterparts.

Tuite’s book explores the female version of “The All-American Preppy Look”, to quote her subtitle. Arguably, it’s slightly more interesting than looking at men’s preppy style, because of the intense scrutiny that is always given to how young women dress and appear in society. There are definite overlaps between the styles of the two sexes, the women taking cues from the campus styles of their brothers and boyfriends and dressing in button-down shirts and penny loafers, but there are definite items that belong to the girls. There are their weekend suits, for example – the subject of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy’s Vogue writing competition winning essay (she’s pictured in her suit, white gloves and pearls in the book), or the cardigan – apparently as early as 1916, Modern Knitting promoted patterns for seven different cardigans, each named after one of the Seven Sisters colleges.

Seven Sisters Style traces the commercialisation of the look, from the foundation of the colleges to the first college shop at Stern Brothers in 1930, under the supervision of former Barnard Student Estelle Hamburger, to the rise of brands such as The Villager in the 1950s and 60s in creating a mainstream version of collegiate style (especially interesting to me, due to this favourite vintage piece of mine). But what I loved about this book was discovering some of the individual fads that held sway on campus, such as the raccoon coat, pictured here on astronomy students at Smith in 1929. Initially worn to watch football games by Princeton students, they became popular with women students in the 1920s, a fad revived in the 1950s. However, the most desired coats were the most well-worn and “ratty” looking numbers, as “old and seedy as possible”. Some enterprising Smith students even set up their own secondhand raccoon coat agency for those not lucky to inherit an authentic hand-me-down. Visiting Vassar in 1947, Simone de Beauvoir noted a similar trend for denim, worn and dirty jeans contributing to the “studied carelessness” that defined these young women’s dress. And there’s no denying how many of their styling tricks still look undeniably cool today, from pushed up sleeves, to the embroidered name pictured running across the thigh of one pair of jeans that had me eyeing up my sewing kit. 

What’s also amazing is how well reported these trends and fads were, thanks to the likes of Life. It’s a 1937 Life article on Vassar that Tuite cites as the turning point in the influence of Seven Sisters style, while a 1944 feature, showing two Wellesley girls wearing “sagging jeans” and “baggy shirts”, “made the nation’s jaw drop and set tongues clucking round the country”, according to The New York Times magazine.

Looking through the beautifully illustrated pages of Seven Sisters Style, it’s easy to understand why these images held such influence. Photograph after photograph shows young women, sometimes with their young men, looking young, vital, handsome and happy. It’s very seductive. These college uniforms carried a status, and promised a corresponding lifestyle. Books such as The Bell Jar and The Group (both quoted in Seven Sisters Style) gain some of their power by their challenge to the happy-ever-after so inherent to the marketing of this style.

I wonder how much my fascination stems from being a British reader, an outsider (interestingly, the Tuite was also born in the UK, and went to university here, although she did spend time at Vassar as an undergrad), where our own ideas of college style is very much restricted to the male Oxbridge type. The style certainly has a currency outside of the States: just think of the continued popularity of American brands such as Ralph Lauren who are synonymous with the preppy look and the corresponding lifestyle. While Tuite is excellent on explaining the development of the Seven Sisters Style in all its permutations, and its influence on American fashion, she’s not quite as convincing in explaining why the look carries such global appeal. It turns out everyone wants to be an elite American college student. Young, envied by the world: it's no wonder the women pictured in Seven Sisters Style look so happy.

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Monday, 4 August 2014

Diana Vreeland: the fragrance, and the brand

Diana Vreeland is an undeniable force in twentieth-century fashion: if you're interested in magazines, or fashion exhibitions, it's impossible to overlook her influence. I've written about her a few times on this blog, specifically in relation to her 10s, 20s, 30s: Inventive Clothes exhibition and Amanda Mackenzie Stuart's biography, published last year. So I'm more than a little intrigued by the news of Diana Vreeland: The Fragrance, as featured on on Disney Roller Girl last week.

The launch is credited to her grandson, Alexander Vreeland, who was been driving D.V. projects such as the Memos book. As a project, it certainly ticks lots of Diana boxes. She was well-known for her love of scents, Chanel being used to fragrance both the Inventive Clothes exhibition and The Glory of Russian Costume. The bottles "representing aspects of her personality", according to French Vogue, (although disappointingly regular in appearance) are recreated from a 1920s decade, true to her adoration of that decade. They certainly look "divine" - to use a Vreelandism - lined up like that, although at £135 a bottle it's unlikely any - let alone a whole row of them - will end up on my dressing table. The scents themselves sound rich and heavy, instantly conjuring up an image of Vreeland reclining in her red living room.

The names themselves, however, are disappointingly prosaic: Extravagance Russe, Absolutely Vital, Perfectly Marvellous, Outrageously Vibrant and Simply Divine. If you've ever glimpsed at one of her delightfully vague memos, her hilariously obscure "Why Don't You?" columns, or her wonderfully un-museum museum catalogues, I'm sure you'll agree these probably aren't the names she would have picked for herself. With the possible exception of Extravagance Russe, these evoke no mystery, no romance at all. And Vreeland was all about the mystery and the romance, sometimes at the expense of reality.

As the blog post says, this is the first step to create a bigger brand using Diana's legacy. In terms of people to brand, I get this: as her biography shows, no-one was better at creating brand D.V. than D.V. herself. But, given the price point of these perfumes and their marketing, there's obviously a serious amount of money behind this launch, banking on wealthy customers who are going to "get it" and want to buy into the Vreeland legend. And, if it succeeds for perfume, there are obvious products the brand could do next: she was well-known for her love of rouge, and of nail varnish just for starters. Perhaps there could even be an interiors range, certainly a fashion line... (if whoever is behind this launch reads this, hire me! I'm sure I could come up with a few more ideas for you.) I'm so fascinated to discover how this line is received and how it develops.

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Friday, 1 August 2014

This Month's News

I'm not just writing this to bemoan my lack of posting recently (but, woes, so many half written posts still sitting in drafts) but because THINGS are happening which deserve more than 140 characters on Twitter.

For those of you who discovered my blog through Domestic Sluttery, you'll no doubt already know the sad news that the site is closing today. I've been writing for it since 2009 and editing it since last year. It's been such a marvellous thing to be part of, with the most fantastic team of talented, funny and warm writers, and such devoted readers. It's going to leave a huge hole in my life. (If you want to hire me, and help me fill some of that hole, do get in touch. You can find out more about the things I do here.)

After the well-deserved slush fest that will be our closing bash this evening there are some exciting things coming up. Next weekend, I'll be heading to the Wilderness Festival, where I'll be taking part in a creative clinic organised by Oh Comely magazine. More details and how to book here. Come and say hello.

I'm then flying to Portugal, to enjoy some sunshine, custard tarts and culture in Porto and Lisbon. Let me know if you've any great tips for either of those places. I've been in Lisbon once before - a frightening 6 years ago now - and I'm really excited to explore it again.

And this picture was taken on Tuesday, my birthday, from the rooftop of Franks bar in Peckham. I can't quite believe the skyline but it's really real. London is pretty amazing sometimes.

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