As Smart as it Looks

Blog post by Dorothy Schefer Faux ’69.

That was the tagline Vogue senior editors decided on when they “jumped ship” lex

nd left Si Newhouse’s publishing empire for Rupert Murdoch’s to start Mirabella – a new kind of style magazine for the “post-modern” woman, one who was pursuing a life outside the home. A woman who needed a new kind of wardrobe. A “working” wardrobe. One that was functional and smart. (Little did we know how successful we’d be – or how many women were looking for exactly that. Readers were multi-generational women – co-eds to 70+ – and devoted. We had the highest renewal rate in the industry, and a National Magazine Award for General Excellence our first year.)

There was – and always will be – a difference between fashion and style. Smart women know that. No clotheshorse she, the modern woman. Or fashion victim. Or one who could – or would – be dictated to. Midi, mini… who said? Certainly not the designers who capriciously turn “trends.” Thoughtful, intelligent designers who saw the bellweather – among them, Coco Chanel, Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent – brought a new vocabulary to modern dressing, a new shape, a new style. And new rules.

“What are you wearing?” was a seasonal question women with access would ask us editors. Yes, the pages of Vogue gave a clue. But what were stylish “working” women on limited budgets who worked 12-hour days wearing to work and to dinner? At Vogue, fashion was a science. We had labels for every “degree” of dressing: Office/Day, Weekend, Jet Pack (travel), Easy Evening (casual), Dinner Dressing (detail on top mattered), Big Evening, Cocktails, Black Tie, Office to Evening. Today, I’d add Red Carpet.

What did I wear? Clothes that were simple and easy, with impeccable fit, fabric and style. A style I had always worn. Only the clothes – and the designers – changed. Clothes that were easy on the body and respectful of women. And their new life in public. The public face of women was – and is – very different from the private one.

At Vogue and at Mirabella, my day clothes consisted of suits and dresses primarily from Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent – two designers who made clothes, I believed, for my ethos: the modern, well-educated working woman, who was part of a groundbreaking cultural change…and my personal philosophy of style at the world’s preeminent fashion magazine. I added Geoffrey Beene, whose unique and simple dresses fit the body like a glove and were easy to wear and highly stylized. And then Calvin Klein. To have seen  his first coat collection was to witness history: the minimalist style of dressing that captured a generation of post-feminists who wanted to uniform dress and wanted everything, including their accessories: SIMPLE.

From time to time, I added a piece or two from other designers who simply made beautiful clothes that graced a woman’s body – Armani, Versace, Galliano (at Dior), McQueen (at Givenchy), Mary McFadden (a Vogue editor) – many of which I still have and wear. Or have donated to the Cornell Costume & Textile Collection. Once or twice a year, an editor might be invited to pick out a design or two, some of which were runway samples, many at more affordable cost. Oscar de la Renta also became an evening go to. I have a closet full of timeless designs I hope my granddaughter will one day wear. That’s the measure of style, not fashion. Oscar was not just a great designer but the husband of my mentor Françoise de la Renta (nee de Langlade), the former editor in chief of French Vogue, who came to American Vogue when she married Oscar and moved to the United States. (I lost her and my mother exactly one year apart and to the same disease.)

When Miuccia Prada began designing clothes – in addition to her iconic nylon backpack – I was totally on board. She was not only of my generation and a rare female designer; but she totally understood women, their bodies, and had a unique worldview of how women should dress. Her jeweled clothes obviated the need to accessorize, as did her whimsical bows. Not just a time/money saver but a very feminine touch – seen too in her Miu Miu line. And Miuccia’s modern go-anywhere nylon bags were brilliant and practical additions to any “working” wardrobe.

Working is the operative word. Clothes must be rigorous, dependable, do the job and last. CPW (cost per wearing) is a fashion yardstick. Editors approached their wardrobes with practicality and intelligence. An added piece, an accessory. A new suit. An evening dress. A bag or shoe. “This season” was always in your closet. For me, it was always one new suit – usually Chanel. Or perhaps Yves Saint Laurent. Last season’s jacket, however, was never tossed. It was paired with a jean skirt and worn on a day in the office.

Shoes – destroyed by pavement and potholes – were replaced frequently as we walked city streets to meetings, events and fashion shows. My shoe wardrobe consisted of mostly Chanel, Manolo Blahnik, and Prada. Stylish, yes. But it was uniform dressing – head to toe. Time counts. Money, too. And there were more important things to do.

How you represented Vogue was exacting. While each editor had her own style, there was a code of dressing that was adhered to – and strictly. Only senior editors were allowed to represent the magazine. And senior editors frequently set the pace and the standard for the designers themselves – wearing clothes designers emulated, even copied, or styles and looks editors inspired or helped to design. Vogue editors were the original trendspotters. And trendsetters. Or influencers, as they are known today. So closely did designers work with Vogue’s fashion editors: Some became muses. Or the designer’s creative director.

Even Anna Wintour has a system and is a formulaic dresser. Five office outfits for five working days. When she first arrived at Vogue, if it was Wednesday, it was Yves Saint Laurent’s black leather coatdress. Today, she is still an organized and intelligent dresser with rotating outfits and a wardrobe that is “turned” each season with each new collection. Her shoes are always go-with-everything nude Manolos. And in public she never carries a handbag. But always wears her Edwardian jewels. She is also a tireless promoter of the business of fashion and staked her future on fashion, not style, and celebrity journalism.

A word about the infamous Vogue Fashion Closet. It existed to organize clothes for run-thrus and fashion shoots, track samples, move clothing, sometimes a single runway sample, around the world, sometimes overnight. Every item was Polaroided and catalogued. And never lost. Clothes, shoes, and accessories were racked, shelved, floor to ceiling, around the periphery. ID’d rolling racks and center tables held clothes and accessories for shoots. It was neat as a pin. Run by a woman, herself neat, tailored, and always in black, who tracked every item in and out; and her assistants, who packed the “coffins,” as we called them, that were shipped to locations all over the world. Often assistants had to meet the coffins at the airport at all hours, day or night. It wasn’t glamorous.

For us editors, when we weren’t pulling together a shoot, the Vogue Fashion Closet existed for emergency. A broken heel. A sudden meeting outside the office. A big evening out – if you were lucky to fit into sample sizes. Editors rarely invested in evening clothes. Too expensive. Too many required. Too many party pictures. My evening wardrobe consisted of a few basics that could be “turned” instantaneously with a fashion closet accessory or two and could travel to the office in the morning for a quick office-to-evening switch and still look glamorous. Glamorous. Another operative word: What defines glamour in a modern world?

Or, for that matter: Is style innate? Or acquired? My style – and that of most editors – rarely changes. Same hair. Same makeup. Same style of clothes. Just updated. And refreshed. Or not.

Or not? I still wear all my Chanel jewelry, collected over a lifetime. My Hérmes Kelly – a perfect bag. Or Chanel. Or a Prada nylon. My classic black suede pumps, usually Manolos or Prada. I must be on my hundredth pair. And always a kitten heel. My go-to flat is a classic Chanel ballet flat. Or sometimes a Manolo. I pair my vintage Chanel or Saint Laurent jackets now with black leggings or narrow black ankle-length pants. With flats when walking city streets. Pumps if I am going out. Uniform dressing to the nth degree.

Speaking of black: It anchors my wardrobe and has – always. Iconoclastic and practical, it obviates the need for too many clothes, holds up through long and busy days, works with everything in my closet, travels well and provides the “neutral” backdrop to the colorful world of fashion.

At Harper’s Bazaar, my first high-fashion experience, Nancy White, our editor in chief, and the niece of the previous editor Carmel Snow, ran The Bazaar, as we called it, in the sixties (‘58–‘71). I arrived as her style – and a way of life for women – was ending. Miss White, as we called her, breezed in at eleven, lunched at twelve, returned for an hour or so before heading home to change for dinner or a night on the town. She was her reader. A lady who lunched. Dined. Attended theater. She wore at least two or three outfits each day, always laid out by her maid, and organized by her secretary: “Miss White will be home to change into Number 81.” Sometimes the manicurist would stop by the office. Once a month, a woman came to pluck her brows. When she quit, we were summoned to her office. She picked up her racket and said she was off to play tennis. She was wearing her whites. That life ended. Abruptly.

It was a complicated time for us all. The mood on Cornell’s campus was somber and anti-war. A virtual unknown Bob Dylan showed up to sing his new music of social unrest. So did Otis Redding, a local who sang of hardship and civil rights.

The young men were burning their draft cards, co-eds their bras. I was taking every class I could—from Nobel Prize winners Hans Bethe and James Watson to my favorite English professor, Pulitzer Prize winning poet A.R. Ammons. Jim Dine, artist-in-residence, brought the Earth Artists to campus. The techies worked round the clock in The Foundry – lights blaring, music blasting, wires everywhere – on a giant supercomputer, connecting with ten other universities. They called it the internet. I volunteered to help. Coffee drop-off only. No women allowed.

Years later, I headed to the superhighway and co-founded one of the first dot coms, GLOSS.COM, a new media/e-commerce company, which sold a year later to The Estée Lauder Companies as their internet platform. Venture capitalists included Bessemer Trust, Matrix Partners, George Soros, Andy Grove, AT&T.

After Cornell, I became part of Betty Freidan’s dream: young women who wanted careers. I decided the best way to empower women’s lives was to change what they read—and wore. So I headed into women’s journalism and fashion magazines. Feminism meet fashion: we envisioned substance as well as style. Our icon: Gloria Steinem. The first time I met her, she wore: big hair, red lips, long nails, tight clothes. And stilettos. And when she opened her mouth to speak, there were only pearls. I started at Glamour (the “working girl’s” magazine), was lured to Harper’s Bazaar, then Seventeen (I wanted to reach young women). Then Vogue called. We put women into pants and leotards. We followed Nancy Kissinger to China.

“I like your thinking. And your style,” Alex Liberman had said when we first met. And in truth my style of dressing and my thinking were honed on the Cornell campus, where my ideas about society and women can be summed up in one sentence: “Women can achieve anything they want, do anything, be anything, as long as they are given opportunity and support.” Cornell engendered that. Made me see infinite possibilities for women. And empowered me. (As did my mother, who had mentors but no role models. And my grandmother, a woman born at the wrong time.) Cornell was a part of the revolution during the years I attended. And women’s ambitions and roles were a part of the debate.

In the offices at Vogue, the revolution was known as “The Youthquake.” I was part of the change. My mandate was to bring my style, my post-feminist attitude, my thinking to Vogue. Needing the most help was “The Beauty Department” – so anarchistic in its definition of “What is Beauty?” I would return to it in a book with Rizzoli years later. I wore every hat – beauty, fashion features, health. I was Vogue’s first Fitness Editor at a time when Norma Kamali said there was no place for women to work out in New York City.

BUT… “You can’t work at Vogue without understanding fashion,” Alex had said. And so I was immersed in fashion. And trained by some of the smartest, most talented women I have ever met, women on whose shoulders I stand, women who carved out careers at a time when most women did not work, who tried to balance work and home, or who sacrificed family for career.

When I wasn’t raising my three sons or co-running media ventures, I was writing books, one of which What Is Beauty: New Definitions from the Fashion Vanguard, published by Universe/Rizzoli was printed in five languages and was Rizzoli’s first Book of the Month Club. It examined the changing definition of beauty in modern culture. And was celebrated in the runway tents during New York Fashion Week, sponsored by Calvin Klein and Kodak. The other, Beauty: The Twentieth Century, written with other editors’ views, examined a century of influence of American culture on women’s style. I was invited to lecture at the Harvard Business School on Women and the Media and participate in Harvard’s Women’s Leadership Conference. My life of giving back to my community, very important to me, has been very active as well. I’ve sat on several boards, co-founded BeautyCares, the industry’s AIDS charity, and been a member of the President’s Council of Cornell Women, among many other initiatives.

Is fashion frivolous? I don’t think so. Fashion, like art, music and literature is part of the landscape. Part of our culture. And worldview. A bellweather. There is no escaping fashion – and the role it plays in our lives: The history of fashion is the history of women.

Sometimes fashion is political.

Nancy Regan told Barbara Bush never to wear “Reagan Red.” Which is why Barbara Bush is famously known for her blue clothes.

Sometimes fashion is practical.

Jackie Kennedy, of course, was the epitome of taste and style both in her dress and in the way she not only restored the furnishings of the White House but its cultural life as well. Yet in the Doubleday years, she would come to Vogue’s offices to discuss the book she was currently editing – her first was Michael Jackson’s – always in flats, slacks, and sweater and bring along a tuna sandwich.

There is an intellectual life of fashion, too.

At Radcliffe, the author and art collector Gertrude Stein always wore black but never her corset. Beckett wore Aran sweaters and the same hairstyle from age 17. The author photo creates the author image. So writes Terry Newman in her book Authors and their Clothes. Joan Didion started writing at Vogue. Sylvia Plath at Mademoiselle. Plath’s recently auctioned clothes – by her daughter Freida Hughes – included her collegiate tartan kilt, as well as her jewelry and childhood drawings, and raised half a million dollars. A.N. Devers, the rare book dealer and winning bidder of the kilt, said in a New York Times interview about the skirt: “It was worn by an entire generation of women who had to present as perfect all the time. Plath was miserable but she created art, and the skirt is a representation of that struggle.”

Our fashion is our history. One that reveals to future generations the relationship of women, culture, and society. That dialogue resides with Cornell’s Costume & Textile Collection – a priceless archive that must be preserved and protected. And to which I have donated hundreds of items throughout my career. A career which sought to educate and empower women to lead smart, productive and meaningful lives – and to make a difference – in style.

Dorothy Schefer Faux

New York City 2018

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