Back to business

View from one taxi to another. 3:00. Photo: JH.
Wednesday, February 2, 2011. Stormy winter weather. Icy and wet underfoot, weatherman touting potential power outtages, etc. A friend of mine in the country was worried about all the leaks from the snow-covered roofs. My dinner was canceled, and today’s lunch.

There are still snow banks, mainly covered with the sooty black of the wet, slippery streets and lots of charcoal brown slush to lift your spirits. The parks remain beautiful. New Yorkers are staying in.

Back to business. Last Friday afternoon I went down to Carlisle to interview Susan Klope, who designs Carlisle’s Per Se line. Interviewing designers isn’t my thing. My interest in fashion is more curiosity and what it portends. I think of the way it’s applied as more a matter of personal taste, or lack thereof.

I’d taken on this assignment for purely editorial reasons. It was meant for the Shopping Diary (and someone had to do it). Friday afternoons are also my idea of the beginning of my day off which in and of itself is like a trip to paradise, no matter how brief. Obligations can cause groan. Nevertheless, obligations beckon on their own time.

Susan Klope sits among her work for the Per Se Collection at the Connaught Group,
I recount this because out of all that, I had a most interesting afternoon talking to this woman, whom I’d never met and knew very little about – personally or creatively. I came away with another example of why we are here. Here in New York.

We met in the company’s conference room which was designed and decorated a number of years ago, like the rest of the corporate offices and showrooms, by Denning and Fourcade. I thought it was an odd choice for this interview – having figured she’d take me through her workroom and show me sketches, and I’d ask questions about things I know nothing about.

The unanticipated venue changed any plans.

Ms. Klope is a tall woman with short brunette hair. She has a diffident but naturally gracious quality on meeting. Her being is modest and like her costume, understated. Although you soon learn you are speaking to a highly motivated and independent woman. An artist, also.

She was wearing a black shift-like dress with a cowl collar; black stocking, black low heeled boots. I know that stuff from my days as a retailer back in the 70s. She did not look fashionable, the way you imagine a designer might look or dress – or someone like Diana Vreeland. However, I knew already. These women who eat, sleep, and think fashion design keep their work clothes simple and comfortable. They also know that’s what all their customers want too.

We sat across from each other at one end of this long table
in this grand and Second Empire-ish conference room. She grew up in Toronto and Montreal, the fourth of five children. I asked her when she started to draw fashion. She told me when she was three.

She also told me that she didn’t talk until she was six. Not one word.

I said, that must have freaked your parents out. She smiled and agreed that it must have. Alarming was the word. Especially since she had two sisters who were younger and older who were very smart and expressive.

She told me she didn’t expect this kind of interview.

(Neither did I, but I was into it.)

I asked her if she remembered what she first said when she did start to speak at age six.

“Schenectady.” Schenectady?? Her grandparents lived in Upstate New York near Schenectady. The name stuck in the kid’s craw, as names will. She told me that although she didn’t speak, she understood everything and was always looking and listening.

Her earliest memories, however, are about her inner life. It came out drawing clothes.

One of the blues in the print is the shade of blue Crayola she tried to melt as a kid.
I told her how my work today is a direct reference to the things I imagined and played about when I was a kid. I too liked to sit for hours and draw – usually houses, cars, boats. Everything had a story to it for me. For Susan Klope, it was the colors that got her. She loved Crayola crayons (so did I). They were like little treasures.

She said although she wore black all the time, she’s fascinated by color. She adores color. As a kid she once tried to melt a blue Crayola crayon to see what the color would look like spread out. She wrapped the crayon in a napkin and lit it from a candle on the dinner table. This of course caused a small but alarming in-house conflagration for her mother. The spot where the flame hit the floor remained for the rest of their life in that house.

In fact, she told me, she had used that same crayola blue in the new Spring line for 2011.

She was a good student but she wasn’t interested. She wanted to design and to make fashion. Perhaps because she didn’t speak until a later age for a child, she cultivated a rich inner life that was committed to her art. It seems so obvious.

From the sound of it she was growing up to be a kind of loner. She had friends but even as a very young girl she liked going off by herself, often window shopping, thinking, and noticing.

By secondary school age, drawing fashion/designing was the focal point of the young girl’s consciousness. It was all she thought about. She was reading Vogue and Harper's Bazaar, of course, and the Canadian and British fashion magazines. And she was sketching, and lending her imagination to her future --life as a grown up.

One day, when she was thirteen, she took a sheaf of designs in a manila folder down to a local woman’s clothing shop to see if they might be interested in using them. It sounds like a sweet and naïve story. Except.

The shop owner looked them over. He then called a colleague from down the street to come and look. She did. She called another friend to show her. Finally someone asked if she’d like to sell them. The girl was surprised, flattered, and eager. How much did she want?

How much?!? A 13-year-old had no idea what to charge for some sketches she’d made with such inner pleasure. However, there was a dress she’d seen in a local vintage shop that she had wanted to buy but didn’t have the money. It was seven dollars. She told the store owner seven dollars. Sold.

That sale was the beginning for the budding professional life (and lifelong career) of little Susan. Soon her talent was out. Stores were calling for more designs, and illustrations for their newspaper ads. By 17 she was a working designer/illustrator. She came to New York, without finishing high school. She enrolled at FIT where she excelled.

That was in the late 1960s. She’s had a long and successful career ever since. She has two grown daughters. Her mother and father were amazed by their child’s pluck and results. She started the Per Se line for Carlisle three years ago. Listening to her talk about her work, my mind wandered to that toddler Susan with her drawing paper and the Crayola crayons, and how miraculous we can be.
Susan commentating a show in the Carlisle Greenwich showroom recently.
I felt obligated, out of respect for her profession, to ask her something about her work. I don’t know how to ask a designer how to design without sounding stupid. So I asked Susan Klope what she “thought” about when she was doing her sketching – which, from the sound of it, goes on all the time and wherever she is.

Her answer was simple: she thought about how a woman would wear what she was designing, and how it would work for her. She told me she’d commentated a show in the Carlisle Greenwich showroom recently and it gave her a lot of personal pleasure. Because she could talk to the women about her intent with her choices. This, all women understand. Fashion for the modern woman, often professional, often active, is about comfort and the comfort of looking good. “Fashion is an attitude,” she said, “not an expression of age but of attitude.”

I asked her about fashion and age. “Fashion doesn’t have age barriers. Young women and older women have different ways of wearing the same thing.” Babe Paley emerged as a subject of “fashion.” Susan Klope’s comment about her: “She felt comfortable in her clothes. She also knew where to start, but knew when to stop.” The Designing Woman in New York.
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