Fashion from the Inside
How Houston women in the know remain stylish, often at low cost.
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Houston Fashion Types and Where They Shop
demier cri: she is always first with what’s In, reads Women’s Wear Daily. Wouldn’t be caught dead in a Pucci now but loves Halston. Uses Vogueand Harper’s Bazaarthe way other women use Sears catalogue: she calls her saleswoman at Sakowitz, Neiman’s or Esther Wolf and orders by page number.
last year: always two years behind, though may spend plenty. Finally bought Pucci last spring, will get her thick gold chain out of layaway next month (thin chains are In now) and plans to wear long dresses for all evening occasions this winter. No special store loyalties, but 90 per cent of her purchases are on-sale items.
European: this look comes mostly from Sakowitz’ Rive Gauche shop in Post Oak—all St. Laurent clothes—though Jerry Abrams and Toni Mayer (who used to work at Rive Gauche) serve up the same look at Ms boutique in River Oaks at slightly (but not much) less cost. She may buy in Neiman’s Valentino boutique too, so you know she has money. The European woman dresses almost completely in separates by day, wears soft blouses, high-waisted wide pants, swingy skirts, chunky colored beads and scarves. Her jeans cost $35-80, fit exquisitely and may come from Veneziano or De Noye in New York. She picks up half her clothes in Paris or Aspen or St. Tropez, but likes Houston boutiques like Back Street in Galleria and ESP in San Felipe Green. She may be slightly older than but in many ways resembles
hip: this gal is trendy—sort of a junior Betsey Johnson version of dernier cri. She has fashion sense and money and may buy anywhere, but prefers boutiques whether inside department stores (Daring Days and Little Evenings at Sakowitz) or out (Ms, ESP, DK’s in Fondren Square and especially Tootsie’s in Montrose, where she gets her Goodie Two Shoes and Cork Ease platform sandals) .She buys her Levis at the Gap in Galleria and her Wild Mustangs at Tootsies. Warning: it’s hard to be hip when you’re over any of the following: 40, size 12, 5’9″.
eclectic chic: can be a mature version of hip; eschews the “ensemble” or “outfit” look, loves Halston but is not afraid to bring out her seven-year-old favorite dress to wear with her lapis jewelry she bought from Sammy Becker at the same time. Unpredictable, interesting. Amazing ability to buy from five different places and gets it all together. Unlike
tacky: who buys a lot, spends a lot, but nothing goes together. She is only one degree superior to
frump: “a dull, plain, unfashionably dressed girl or woman,” according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language.
Junior League: this type used to be big on circle pins, black dress and pearls but has moved into her current uniform: the “little jacket dress” (Jr. Leaguers’ favorite fabric is alaskine). Wears white gloves still to the Symphony, weddings and similar occasions. Like Wolfman’s, Neiman’s, Esther Wolf. Conservative. Expensive. Careful. Dull.
Jill Jock: may be 50 but still walks like she’d be great at field hockey. Favorite dresses are tailored polyester, often from Everett Buelow or Oshman’s. Looks ridiculous in ruffles, perfect in tennies. Loves pro shops and the new Drop Shot at San Felipe and Voss for tennis clothes.
camp: outlandish, crazy combinations of color, style and vintage. Suede wedgies and floppy hats. Requires daring, chutzpah and a good figure or may look just ridiculous. May shop junk shops, second hand, and import stores and fill in at boutiques.
Isadora: lots of long, flowing, old fashioned stuff—silks and chiffons. Needs dramatic flair to carry it off properly. Hats and turbans. She is an attic freak. She is really quite different (except at first glance) from
feathers: she’s long and flowing, but obviously cost her. Elegant. Usually tall. Looks great in boas. Buys designer clothes at Neiman’s, Esther Wolf or Isabell Gerhart. She loved hearing that long silver fix furs are back in style.
go-go: hot pants and white boots.
sexy: vast spectrum here from subtle cleavage—slim to poured-in-overripe, from Zsa Zsa to Chicken Ranch types. Can be a variant of dernier cri, eclectic chic, or feathers. No one notices her shoes.
ethnic: whichever country is currently in vogue, this lady is in costume—ready to yodel in peasantry, make like Minnehaha, or beat the jungle drums like a native. Sometimes brings these clothes back herself from her latest safari. Right now Far East and India are very Big. Stanley Marcus brought back gorgeous embroidered goodies from China for her, but saris are cheaper if you can figure out how to get them on, my favorite ethnic tells me.
earthworks: faded, worn, patched jeans with work shirt and sandals. No good for those past 35 or 130 lbs. Can be converted to hip by substituting a shrink for the work shirt and adding silver buckled antique belt from Greece, but in this case jeans may be faded, but not threadbare. She used to buy her oldies at Honest Threads (now folded), now goes to Clean Earth, the Staff of Life, or to Tootsie’s next door poor relation, Paradise Revisited.
Getting Dressed in Houston
Now that I’ve talked with the experts, I realize I’ve been buying my clothes all wrong. Every piece of clothing I own I bought on the run. My closet is full of “great buys” (I’m a sucker for a sale) which I was always sure I’d find something to go with, but never have.
I usually buy for events—I wake up one Thursday morning and realize that if I wear that old brown dress again to the dance Saturday, people will begin to think I don’t care how I look.
But no more. Not after interviewing some of Houston’s best-dressed and the people who sell them their clothes (two of the latter promised to take me in hand). Although I did come upon two women who still go back to New York for their wardrobes and several who pick up over half their stuff on travels outside Texas, most of these folk like buying in their home town and have it down to a system.
Which stores do Houston’s best-dressed recommend? Well, that depends on whom you ask. “I don’t recommend stores,” one such woman told me. “I recommend people—great saleswomen who know what you like and give you all sorts of special service.”
It’s these super salespersons, I found out, who are responsible for the fact that many of the best looking clothes to hit Houston’s big stores never grace the rack where we impulsive, dash-in-and-out, shopping slobs think we are viewing the latest merchandise. On the contrary, that little avant-garde number will probably go directly from the receiving room to Mrs. Gottrocks in River Oaks on approval before we get dibs on it, thanks to Mrs. G’s salesperson-friend.
Moreover, two days before that sale of sales is advertised in the paper, Mrs. G will have received the inside skinny on what great fashion buys are being marked down. “Remember that blue Oscar de la Renta you loved so much but said you couldn’t afford?” her salesperson-friend will ask her. ‘Well, it’s marked down to half and if you’d like it, I’ll send it out. And by the way, the blazer that would look great with your Bill Blass pants you bought last fall is on sale too. Why don’t you come in and have a look?”
Meanwhile Amy Gafoofnick and I are counting our pennies waiting for what we foolishly think is the first day of the sale. But before you get indignant, Amy, you should know that super salespersons do exist who would love to put us in those clientele books of theirs, modest though our budgets may be, recording there with loving care our vital statistics (address, phone, size, lifestyle), past purchases, and future needs.
With only one exception (more on that later), the stores which Houston’s best-dressed shop welcome you warmly yet are strictly soft-sell. They encourage customers to browse—the no pressure, friendly approach—and if a woman doesn’t buy, still thank them for coming, on the policy that, as Bart Antle, manager of the Post Oak Palais Royal store put it, “a return is just as important as a sale.”
It was this friendly, easy atmosphere which for years gave Isabell Gerhart a corner on fashion with River Oaks women, for there she was right on the corner of River Oaks Boulevard and Westheimer, where women often dropped off their children at St. John’s prep school in the morning and went directly across the street to her store for a cup of coffee and a look at the clothes. The Gerharts lived in River Oaks themselves and were (and still do and are) well liked personally in the community.
“We knew each customer almost like kinfolk,” reminisces Mrs. Gerhart. “In fact, we sometimes had to remind ourselves not to make it too much like a club and to welcome strangers when they came in.”
“We tell our girls that a customer should feel as though she were in our living room—treat her as a lovely guest, offer her sherry or coffee, try to be honest with her and really help. No high pressure.”
This sentiment was echoed by many store people. “Everyone works on the same mark-up and many of us sell the same clothes,” one store owner told me, “so we try to keep our customers coming back to us by giving them personal service.”
Since the move from River Oaks, Isabell Gerhart has lost some of that River Oaks trade, but no matter, for they’ve picked up a thriving walk-in business in the new location. It seems to be the shop of choice for visiting entertainment-show biz types like the Johnnie Cashes. The Furlin-Sprizter fur salon, a leased department within the store, whipped up a sable coat for Chuck Connors, the white mink and leather coat Ginger Rogers wore in “Mame,” and has made furs for Liberace’s show, but it hasn’t gone to their head. They appear to be equally happy to recycle a mink stole into a mink and leather battle jacket if that’s your speed, or, as one of their customers expressed it: “They’ll take in an old raccoon your grandmother slept on and will redesign it nothing but Alice Cooper’s cape of 300 rat heads could faze them.” Joanne King and umpteen other women keep their furs there (she has three full length coats in addition to her “everyday” stuff), partly because they know a phone call will bring almost instant delivery and pick-up for special occasions.
But Galleria shopping is an anathema to many of Houston’s finest. Traffic congestion and parking problems turn them off, they say. That eliminates Neiman’s, Joske’s and Isabell Gerhart and to some, Post Oak Sakowitz as well, though it is across the street. They’d rather go down the road a piece to Esther Wolf where the parking is easy, go to Town and Country if they live in Memorial, or get into boutique shopping.
Boutiques in Houston seem to come in two forms: the word-of-mouth type (Ms, the Lioness, Tootsie’s, Mr, James, etc.) and the captured-audience variety such as Carl’s, where ladies come to have their hair done, ESP, where they have lunch, and are exposed to fashion with a minimum of effort.
Motivations for particular store loyalties differ: some women come in odd shapes and lengths—small sizes love the boutiques whereas Mrs. broad-shoulder, size 14, may as well not bother to look in such places. My astrological adviser tells me that Capricorns love Neiman’s cause they’re all hung-up on status.
Boutique shoppers invariably go on the recommendation of friends, but beware poor pitiful Pearl who sashays into Mr. James Boutique in River Oaks. Mr. James dresses a number of Houston’s most affluent but the staff have a way of treating the peons who stroll in off the street as, uh, shall we say examined at a glance and found wanting. Haughty why-aren’t-you-over-at-Lane Bryant’s looks (and often remarks) greet such poor souls. Sales are final—no out-on-approval or returns. They’ve intimidated many women, yet others remain loyal—I talked with two women who buy nowhere else and who are terrific dressers, incidentally. Apparently they measured up.
Like every town, Houston has its faddy enthusiasms—last spring it was lunching at ESP where models walk through the salad course with the latest New York fashions on their backs. This faIl it’s the new furs from Halston at Sakowitz—led off, incredibly, by the baggy status mink; and the Twenties look at Tootsie’s at 506 Westheimer in Montrose.
The way things are going, the best place to shop just may be in your attic.
How to Look Different from Everybody Else in Houston
Spend a million dollars: It’s not easy to get one-of-a-kind clothes in Houston, but it can be done if you’ve got the dough for custom couture. Reico Custom Designs offered four $6000 dresses in this fall’s Isabell Gerhart cocktail-brunch showing. You could choose your own fabric and color.
Also through Isabell Gerhart, custom clothes by Ronald Amey and Michael Novarese. Nellie ConnaIly (flying in from Washington, D.C. for the day) had her wardrobe last spring custom-designed by Michael Novarese (he flew in from Beverly Hills).
For hip types, Tootsie’s at 506 Westheimer carries one-of-a-kind blouses ($30-50) and dresses ($90) made from antique silks.
Make it yourself: can be tacky. On the other hand, can be sensational especially if you don’t admit it. A friend of mine bought eight small Indian tablecloths at Cargo Houston—the kind with embroidery, little mirrors, etc.—and patched them together into a fabulous looking dress.
“I bought it for her in Hyderabad,” I distinctly heard her husband tell an admirer. Eat your heart out Pam Sakowitz.
The dressmaker route: also has tackiness potential. This only works if you have an eye for good material the way Gene Tierney Lee does—she collects fabrics wherever she goes—have a secret-weapon dressmaker, and can predict what will look right on you. Unfortunately, few of us can.
The conversation piece: wear a piece of ivory and silver jewelry or a stained glass belt or carry a purse which is so spectacular that no one will notice your $23 dress.
Loraine Girard’s (who does not wear $23 dresses, by the way) favorite conversation piece is an Indonesian silver rabbit box-turned-purse. Loraine says she definitely prefers it to carrying a gold Bulgari bag (they cost about $5000), because it’s different and besides, it helps her give up cigarettes at cocktail parties (while her friends sling their purses over their shoulders) because she has to hang onto it with her smoking hand.
Loraine is reknowned for her conversation pieces. Last New Year’s Eve she appeared in a beautiful 18th-century Cheyenne wedding dress of doeskin. The rabbit went along with her.
The most intriguing box-evening bags, known to the cognoscenti as minaudieres, are picked up in foreign countries or custom designed. Tower jewelry in Houston, for instance, made a Houston lady a purse out of a big sea shell.
Sammy Becker is perhaps the master of the jewelry conversation piece in Houston. Sammy was buying up Navaho jewelry five years ago, long before the current vogue. Same with lapis and African beads. Becker jewelers carry Cartier exclusively here and a sign of Sammy’s popularity was the numbing fact that 11 different women at a recent River Oaks Country Club Tennis Ball were wearing the identical $350 Cartier gold vermeil belt.
Mix and match beautiful clothes: Your combination will be different. Irene Pagen, who buys nothing but St. Laurent separates for daytime wear, says she keeps her annual clothes budget down to $1000-$1200 by filling in with just a few new things each year. St. Laurent, she says, designs his new clothes to go with the oldies so the green silk blouse she bought four years ago goes beautifully with last year’s crepe pajama pants, this year’s skirt, etc.
Buy “dresses” in the lingerie shop: I’ve seen $25 caftans at Esther Wolf’s which weren’t that different from the $400 Halston caftan I saw at Sakowitz. Also an opaque, slinky, solid color nightie can be disguised with good-looking jewelry (I know someone who wore such a getup to a ball), if you’re willing to risk comments like “there goes Phoebe wearing her nightie again” or “do you want to go to bed now or later?” from the host.
Shop discerningly: from such non-prestige places as Sears and Penney’s catalogues. This almost guarantees that you will not see yourself at the Heritage Ball or the Houston Country Club. To be on the safe side, it’s best to combine such clothes with designer shoes and a Tiffany bracelet.
Raid the attic: almost anything pre-1930 is a find, and is back in style. Example: Lee and Nanette Taylor, daughters of the Harwood Taylors, were wearing their great grandmother’s dresses at Mary Cooley’s (daughter of the Denton Cooleys) wedding this past June.
Wanna Be Second Hand Rose? “What do you do with your old clothes?” we asked Houston women who spend a fortune staying perenially au courant. Here’s what they told us:
“I give them to my maid.”
“I give them to my maid.”Judging from the frequency of this response, a Houston maid has got it made next time she gets invited to a ball.
“I send them to my cousins in Dubuque (Peoria, Poughkeepsie or whereever) who are having a hard time.”
“I trade them with my same size sister in Tulsa” or “my friend in New York. My Dior for your Galanos.”
“I sell them on consignment to my church or hospital guild shop.” Shops like The Guild Shop at 2009 Dunlavy (St. John the Divine Episcopal Church women), the Bluebird Circle Resale Shop at 613 West Alabama (Methodist Hospital benefits) and The Charity Guild at 1203 Lovett (Catholic) take clothes, bric-a-brac and furniture as outright donations (you get a tax deduction) or on consignment. They price; you get 50 or 60 per cent if it sells within 60 days. Says a volunteer worker in one of these shops: “We have women bring things in here—women who could buy and sell half of Houston—who can’t wait till the first of the month to get that $7 from the dress we’ve sold for her for $14.”
These shops can be dreary for the hip shopper, who also may lose face by being seen browsing here, but occasionally they feature real treasures like the antique hand-made, tucked and lace insetted wedding dress one lucky soul picked up at the Guild Shop last month for $30.
“I sell them on consignment to second hand dress shops” like Encore (2308 Morse), Baubles and Beads (1955 W. Gray and 9715 Katy Freeway) or Between Us (3614 South Shepherd). Owner gets 50 per cent, if sold.
Lynn Sakowitz Wyatt, for example, who buys many of her clothes at New York and Paris couture houses, gives her last year’s to Between Us whose profits go to ORT, an international vocational training program. Lynn once explained the transaction: She may buy a dress for $350, give it the next year to ORT where it’s sold for $20, giving $10 in cash and a $10 tax deduction. Big deal!
“I give them to the annual benefit (she never calls it ‘rummage’) sale—and get a tax deduction.” Best known are the annual mob scenes run by the Seven Eastern Women’s Colleges (Seven C’s) in the spring and the River Oaks Garden Club in the fall.
This year’s ROGC Pink Elephant Sale is October 16-17 in St. Philip Presbyterian Church in 4807 San Felipe. Everything at his sale is donated except furs (which are often spectacular buys), which may be sold on consignment. Very few clothes go for over $5 or $10 (and some are 5¢) except for some exquisite designer clothes kept protectively out of the crush (you ask for them). They get some amazing donations. Last year a chauffeur drove up with 15 boxes of Neiman-Marcus shoes which had never touched ground. One size 6 customer comes in every year and asks for Mrs. So and So’s clothes—they’re beautiful and fit her perfectly, she’s discovered.
“We have lots of customers who have been coming here for years,” says one worker. “And our own members buy as well as donate.” For example, she recalled that last year one member’s husband, a man of moderate means, bought a $250 custom-made tux donated by a wealthy member’s husband. The buyer had his own tailor alter the tux to fit.
Of course, there are a few disappointments—like the bride who bought her new husband a nice pair of used Levi’s, took them home and found his name in them already. Her mother-in-law, it seems, had been cleaning out his closet.
Menena Martinez Portrait of the Perfect Salesperson
I’ve seen Menena Martinez’s clientele list and it’s staggering. I won’t embarrass her by naming names, but take my word for it that dozens of Houston’s most fashionable women are there. Just how did this tiny Argentine manage to build up such an impressive list of customers in the year she’s been here?
Attractive, fortyish, Menena Martinez, who has loved designing and selling clothes since she ran her own boutique in Buenos Aires, is frank to say that fashion is a world in which she hopes to “go to the top.” She came to Houston to Sakowitz after two years in New York at Bergdorf Goodman and at Valentino’s Madison Avenue store, where she helped put Jackie O and her friends together, at least so far as clothes go.
Menena’s customers consider her their friend. They often lunch together. In fact, Menena, who came to Houston on her own last year, says she’s made all her friends here through work. There’s never any pressure to buy when you’re with Menena, her admirers tell me. This is the same message I get from most other successful persons. Menena, unlike most of them, however, does not work on commission. “I know I make money for my store,” she says, “and that makes me happy.”
Here’s what Menena Martinez has been up to lately:
She sent a thank you note to a woman, Mrs. S. B., who bought a Jean Muir evening dress from her. That was her first sale to Mrs. S. B..
She sent three designer dresses to Mrs. S. F. in Aspen. None were returned.
She sent a complete St. Laurent outfit—blouse, sweater, skirt, pants, and beads—to Mrs. J. B. in Colorado Springs. “I knew she loves pink,” says Menena, “so that’s what I selected for her and then I wrote her a letter and told her which accessories to wear.”
She called up a Houston customer and arranged for her to get the first look at Halston’s fur collection six weeks before the official showing.
She called another Houston woman to tell her that several of the clothes she had admired on her last visit to the Givenchy Boutique, but declined to buy because of price, were now on sale and did she want to come in to see them.
She told Mrs. C. B. not to throw away the black velvet blazer she had bought last season (at Neiman’s, by the way), but took her around the store and helped her select new pants and blouses to go with the blazer.
She sent two dresses out to Mrs. R. H. in River Oaks, whom she has only seen two times, but now sends clothes to regularly. Same deal to Mrs. W. D. of Fort Worth whom she has only met once.
She helped a customer whose budget is very limited, but who she knows can sew, to get this year’s look by finding her a lovely blouse and then sending her down to the yard goods department to buy Ultra-Suede and a good pants suit pattern.
Menena is on her way.