What is it about shoes — and handbags, jewelry, scarves, jackets, hats and all the rest — that captivates people? Because, let’s face it: Fashion has no real purpose. Clothing has a clear function of protecting skin (and modesty). But there is no reason why the color, pattern and shape of clothing matters. Perhaps that’s why so many science fiction films have humans garbed in monochrome, asexual outfits, as if to signify that as we evolve, we will shed our frivolous fascination with fashion.
Or is it the other way around? Is fashion a way of satisfying the urge of self-expression that comes from having the maturity to recognize our individuality and the confidence to embrace it? If you’re going to march to the beat of your own drummer, you might as well do it in shoes you love.
It wasn’t shoes but ties that propelled Ralph Lauren into the fashion world. Born in the Bronx as Ralph Lifshitz, Lauren changed his name in high school, which was when he got an after-school job at a department store and developed a passion for ties. Many years later — after attending Baruch College and serving in the Army — Lauren got his big break. In 1967, he was given a tiny spot in the Empire State Building from which he sold the thing on which he was still fixated: ties.
That single accessory soon developed into the Ralph Lauren and Polo brands, suffused with an aristocratic, Anglophile style. From whence did Lauren’s fashion sense and sensibility come? In his 2011 autobiography, Ralph Lauren, he wrote, “English style came from an attitude about everyday living: gardening, hunting, riding, children, horses and dogs. There is a depth and quality of experience that is lived and felt, a recognition of what is truly meaningful. These are the feelings I would like my work to inspire. This is the quality of life that I believe in.”
Europe was the birthplace of another Jewish fashion legend: Diane Von Furstenberg. Although she was raised in Belgium, Von Furstenberg’s designs came to represent American women. Her wrap dress became a chic symbol of the freedom and independence embraced by 1970s career women. DVF’s muse? Her mother. Lily Nahmias Halfin was a Greek Jew who worked with the Resistance during World War II until she was caught and sent to Auschwitz. “The most inspiring woman in my life was my mother,” she wrote inHarper’s Bazaar. “She was in Auschwitz when she was 20; when she came back she weighed 49 pounds. She taught me that fear is not an option.”
Meanwhile, DVF’s father, a Romanian Jew, spent the war hiding in Switzerland. She honors her parents not only with her success but by being a longtime supporter of (and one of the original fundraisers for) the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Grandmotherly love was the motivation for Marc Jacobs. After the death of his father and his mother’s multiple failed marriages, Jacobs moved in with his paternal grandmother, living in her Upper West Side apartment while he attended Manhattan’s High School of Art and Design. “I lived my life with my grandmother,” Jacobs told New York magazine. “She was emotionally stable, and she was very encouraging to me.” She even knitted his designs for the collection of Op-Art sweaters that won Jacobs the Design Student of the Year and two other awards the year he graduated from Parsons School of Design.
These designers’ inspirations are so strong that they have lasted for decades, year after year, season after season. Today, they find themselves the inspiration for other designers, as well as boutique owners. Kim Zwick Gelwarg and her parents, Lee and Jan Zwick, share a decades-long fashion fascination that manifests in Elegance By Edythe, one of the region’s oldest and most respected boutiques. Suggest that fashion has no purpose to Gelwarg and she’ll refute that by pointing out that it fuels many businesses and allows people to find clothes they love.
This season is no exception, Gelwarg insists, because there is something for everyone. “Leather is going to be huge,” she says. “We are carrying leather tops, leggings and skirts. I’d pair leather leggings with a tunic or long sweater. That follows the ‘tight on the bottom, loose on top’ guideline. The reverse is true for a wide skirt or pant. Wear a form-fitting top with that. Layer it with necklaces and maybe wear tights and high boots, and you have a comfortable but polished outfit.”
Knit tops with sheer backs from Vince and Alice + Olivia are another fall trend, as are jewel tones. Gelwarg’s advice is to pair them with bottoms that are distressed gray or black, or the new neutrals of camel, tobacco and olive. Both skinny jeans and baggy boyfriend jeans are still in style and look great with chunky knit sweaters. And then there is the resurgence of houndstooth. “We are carrying it for fall,” Gelwarg confirms, “and it is definitely a menswear-as-womenswear look that is one of the most stylish of the season.”
Houndstooth is also one of the top fall picks made by Caitlin Sweeney, a Philadelphia fashion blogger behind the website, Cobblestone and Stilettos (www.cobblestoneandstilettos.com ). “Mixed tailored houndstooth with waistcoats and vests is not only sharp, but work-savvy as well,” she advises. “Throw some patchwork denim, tartan and houndstooth wool on with herringbone pant suits. An oversized driving coat and varsity jacket is a staple in the tomboy’s closet.”
Along with those echoes of Ralph Lauren’s style are DVF’s florals and prints and Jacobs’ modern romanticism. “Romance is in bloom, starting with vintage florals and surprising pastels in outerwear,” Sweeny says. “Think pinks, mints, buttercups and blues on mohair coats. Beaded satin dresses and lovely lace can easily transition from summer to fall.”
Another of Sweeney’s favorite trends is the “Now Look” that celebrates hourglass figures. Nipped waistlines and magnified silhouettes are big fall trends that evolved from the Spring 2012 collection presented by Louis Vuitton, of which Jacobs is the creative director.
Conversely, you could go in the complete opposite direction. “Gypsy-Punk, or whatever you would like to call it, is super cool,” Sweeney opines. “Think layers of knits from Electric Feathers and funky plaids seen at Chanel and Alice + Olivia. Your inner rocker can mix a little tartan and checks with your leather jacket. YSL, LAMB, Anna Sui and even Chanel took some cues from British rock and Cali-grunge with vampy boots and poppin’ plaids mixed with floral motifs.”
As for handbags, Sweeney says that the portfolio is the new envelope clutch. Among the most stylish shoes for fall are Mary Janes and T-straps, both with stacked heels, and thick-soled Oxfords. Sweeney and Gelwarg agree that thigh-high boots and to-the-knee boots remain closet must-haves.
“What continues to amaze me is that designers give us so many different options,” Gelwarg says. “That gives us the freedom to choose clothes that fit our bodies, personalities and lifestyles. And I think that’s pretty great.”
Mimi James is the fashion mahoff for Inside. She is looking forward to seeing houndstooth reclaim its rightful place in fashion. This article originally appeared in Inside Magazine, a Jewish Exponent publication.