How did this film come about? Had you and Albert Maysles known each other a long time?
No, not at all. People always think that. We only met a few years ago. Someone who knew us both told Maysles about a project I was doing—I started a program with the University of Texas at Austin. Do you know what I’m talking about?
Oh, it’s fine. People can’t know about everything. But it’s a good program. I’d been critiquing the fashion work at UT at the end of each season, and I was just appalled at the lack of knowledge these students had about how the fashion industry works. I mean, they all thought it was some kind of red-carpet bubble. The ones who go to schools like Parsons, they’re naive, too, but come on—you’re coming from Austin, you move to the city to get a job, and, you know, it’s a mess for them. They don’t even know what they’re supposed to be looking for. Now, I didn’t know that much about the fashion industry, all its facets, but for me, fashion was always a big umbrella, and I thought, Well, there must be wonderful, lucrative jobs in areas like licensing and style forecasting. Things like that. So I told UT—they were after me to do something—that we should educate those kids about these kinds of opportunities. And the university loved that idea, but they had no clue how to make it happen, and so they asked me to do it. And stupid me, I said, “Yeah, I’ve got no clue, either, but sure.” And the program’s in its fifth year now.
So a mutual friend told Albert Maysles about this program?
Right, right. He heard about it and phoned me up and asked if he could film me. And I said, “Thank you so much, but no thank you.”
Except I’m talking to you now because there is actually a film…
Well. I called my good friend Linda Fargo—you know, from Bergdorf Goodman—and she said, “Are you nuts? People would kill to have Albert Maysles just take their photograph. And he wants to do a documentary? Do it!” So, well, I called him back, and I met the crew, and we all fell in love and decided to do it. He told me they’d be very unobtrusive. I had no idea what he had in mind—he doesn’t work with a script—and so it was all on blind faith.
He didn’t have any sort of angle at all?
There wasn’t even a sketchy outline. We just filmed on and off, mostly off, for four years. But when we were together, we took a lot of footage.
Watching the film, I was struck by how many different stories he’s telling about you, all at the same time. I mean, there’s your whole life story, about launching the textile firm Old World Weavers and all your travels around the world on behalf of that. There’s a very moving portrait of your marriage. And, of course, there’s this thread, of your devotion to fashion and clothes and shopping for “finds” and how you’ve developed this unique sense of style that, late in life, brought you a kind of fame. With so many topics on the table—and so much footage shot—were you at all surprised by how the film turned out? Were you expecting different emphases?
I didn’t know what to expect, and so I wasn’t surprised. I saw the film for the first time when it played at the festival [New York Film Festival]. There were a few things I thought he left out and a few things he put in I didn’t think were so important. But Maysles loved it, and he went to his grave loving it, and that makes me very happy.
There’s a scene in the film where you go shopping with the designer Duro Olowu—I think you’re on Saint Marks Place, and you wind up sifting through a lot of stuff that, to me, just kind of looks like junk. I found myself asking, “How is she sniffing out the interesting pieces?”
Oh, that’s bread and wine to me. I’d rather go to a flea market than just about anything. It’s the process I like—the same with getting dressed. If I’ve got someplace to be, I’ll spend more time getting dressed than I spent at the actual event. Sometimes. Even in my own closet, I love to dig and search and find. And if I’m shopping…You know, if it’s a piece of fabric, I listen to the threads. It’s not intellectual at all. The price is nothing. It’s the emotional content: I have to feel it in my gut. I don’t know how to explain it other than that.
You mention getting dressed: How much time do you spend on that, on the average day?
I spend no time at all. I don’t get dressed up every day. I’m very busy. I get really annoyed when people talk about me as a “fashionista.” I get dressed up when I have to go out. Most of the time I’m running around in jeans.
Speaking of jeans…One of the interesting things you talk about in the movie is how you bought your first pair of jeans back in the 1940s. The guy didn’t even want to sell them to you, he didn’t think they were appropriate for a woman.
It’s true. I wore him down.
Another moment that stuck in my head was when you say that—and I’m paraphrasing here—there’s been a loss of individuality in style. It got me thinking: Is that true? I mean, was there an era when it was more common for people to dress idiosyncratically?
Well, I’m not sure about that, but what I can tell you is that it’s much more obvious now, the way people wear uniforms. Maybe there are just more people walking around and so you notice, everything is very homogenized. I go out in New York and I think, boy, you can look at someone and pretty much determine their ZIP code. Everyone seems to want to conform. I wonder, are they all just button-pressers, on the Internet all day long? I don’t know. Look, being an individual takes effort. Most people are pretty lazy. And that’s OK! I mean, there are more important things than fashion. If it’s going to stress you out to have a sense of style, don’t do it. The important thing is to be comfortable so you can get on with your life. But I do feel—people miss a lot, if that’s how they approach style. They miss out on this whole creative experience.
As well as Duro Olowu, Dries Van Noten is a designer featured in the film…Which other present-day designers do you appreciate?
I love Ralph Rucci. I think he’s a genius. Probably the only true couturier we have, here in the States. Ah, but no one gets the meaning of that anymore. Or very few people do. The kids today, they’re instant-everything. No one apprentices. When I was growing up—the ’50s to the ’80s, the era of the great designers—everything felt new. Now it’s all retreads.
Is there a particular era of fashion you feel most connected to?
I like it all. I don’t feel buried in an era. I think that’s kind of sick.
So, I feel like there’s a subject present in this film mostly by its omission: feminism. A lot of the ideas you articulate—about beauty, about individuality and self-expression—and the way you’ve lived your life as a whole, choosing to focus on a career and have the freedom to travel rather than raise children, to me all that embodies much of what first-wave feminism was about. But it seems you don’t define yourself that way.
God, no. I’m no feminist. I just lived that way. I never felt discriminated against because I was a woman, and the way I chose to live and the things I believe, I’ve never codified it. If feminists feel that way, too, then good for them.
If you were coming of age today, like the kids in your UT program, do you imagine you’d have had a career in fashion? Perhaps you’d be a stylist or own your own store…?
I don’t think so. I never had a plan—I just fell into everything. Fashion, for me, it was just part of life. Very natural. I didn’t learn it from anybody, I just figured it out for myself and muddled through. That’s the way I do things—things just happen. I like it that way, not knowing exactly what’s next. There’s gotta be a little mystery in life, right?