“I hope you’re not disappointed,” Carla Rockmore warns me. “It looks bigger in the photos.” The Dallas-based influencer is talking about her closet—the closet, as I, and likely her other almost two million social media followers, think of it. We step inside, and I see what she means. On TikTok, the two-story room yawns around the 55-year-old like Aladdin’s cave, its walls shimmering with bright silk scarves and glossy brocade coats, velvet platform heels, vintage baubles, and designer bags in every shape and color. In person, it looks far less like the fantasia I’d imagined and a bit more like an ordinary, overstuffed suburban closet—albeit one with a spiral staircase and a fireplace.  

It’s only when I ask her how to style a pair of silvery-gray Issey Miyake culottes—I’ve brought them with me, along with several other items I own but can never seem to figure out how to wear—that the closet begins, magically, to expand.

Within seconds, Rockmore takes the pants and hangs a white muscle tee with padded shoulders on top, half-tucking it into the waistband with artful sloppiness. Next, she darts around, a five-foot-five hurricane of honey-colored curls in a bottle-green-and-black dress and giant aviator glasses, looking for shoes—“something with a little sparkle.” She pauses, hesitating between a gold slingback flat and a royal blue velvet Birkenstock with blinged-out buckles, and frowns for a moment. Then, inspiration strikes. She whisks away the tee and replaces it with a boxy, silver-sequined top. “I want to juxtapose the gorgeous sparkly with tennies—make it cool,” she says as she runs over to her collection of sneakers, looking like an impossibly glam dragonfly. 

Carla Rockmore profile
A grouping of caftans and maxi dresses.Photograph by Mackenzie Smith Kelley

That’s when I realize: I’m not inside her closet. I’m inside her brain. And it’s Rockmore’s expansively creative brain, not her impressive wardrobe, that has turned a Canadian-born jewelry designer living in a North Texas suburb into “the real-life Carrie Bradshaw,” as some of her TikTok fans call her. In her popular “getting dressed” videos, Rockmore assembles her eclectic, often fantastical, outfits with contagious excitement, narrating each creation in a daffy-aunt voice that leaps from confiding purr to trilling soprano. Sequins as daywear, neon as a neutral, piles of chunky bangles and navel-scraping
necklaces—these are the building blocks of her maximalist style, which references Iris Apfel and Diana Vreeland as much as the Sex and the City character immortalized by Sarah Jessica Parker. (A middle-aged Carrie is now back in the And Just Like That . . . reboot.) 

All of these style icons are over the age of fifty, when many women start to feel as if they’re becoming invisible. Rockmore exhorts them to splash out, live a little, and enjoy knowing who they are. “I think older women sit well in their skin because they’ve been in it longer,” she tells me. But the younger set responds to the message too; the vast majority of her following is on TikTok, whose users skew much younger than those on the other social platforms.

In a recent video, she models an ankle-length Christian Dior shawl she picked up on consignment. “It’s all about what turns your crank, right? I mean, before I bought this, everyone said, ‘Where are you going to wear that to?’ But I knew. At the end of the day, that’s what it’s about: listen to your gut.” Her signature move is permission-granting: Wear print with print! Turn a button-down shirt into a cape! Don’t like the neckline of a dress? Flip it around and wear it backward! Although she goes into each video with an idea, Rockmore improvises freely. “This was totally unplanned, and it’s my new favorite outfit,” she crows after layering a neon chartreuse blouse under a velvet gown and topping it off with a floral jacquard blazer.

A skeptic might point out that this kind of improvisation is easier when price is no object. The over-the-knee La Double J stretch-fabric boots in a medieval tapestry print that she recently featured sell for nearly a thousand dollars—so far beyond the reach of the average viewer they might as well be made from actual medieval tapestries. But this is part of Rockmore’s appeal, as she is the first to confess: “Ninety percent of what I do is voyeurism.” She points out that she’s been collecting her clothes, which include vintage and flea-market finds, since long before she could afford luxury goods. She still buys from Etsy and the consignment site the RealReal, and she mixes fast fashion and off-the-rack with her Gucci and Maison Margiela. That jacquard blazer she wore with the velvet gown? It came from Zara. It’s all about the cut, the color, the interesting detail.

Rockmore trained in the fashion design program at Ryerson University, now known as Toronto Metropolitan University. (Moralioglu Erdem, founder of the eponymous Erdem label, is an alumnus.) Rockmore designed clothing and jewelry in Amsterdam, Toronto, and Montreal for 25 years before she and her husband, Michael Stitt, relocated to Dallas with their two children for his job in 2012. “It was a tough transition,” she says, mostly because of the climate. The closet helped; she confesses they bought the house for it. Moreover, she enjoys what she calls the “lighthearted frivolity” of the local style: “Dallas is color! . . . I was [no longer] the hot-pink tomato in a sea of black.” After settling in, she began working on a fine-jewelry line to be manufactured in India, where a friend had family connections.

Carla Rockmore profile
Rockmore styling an outfit with an Egyptian pendant and a designer belt. Photograph by Mackenzie Smith Kelley
Carla Rockmore profile
Tall boots sit in front of an inactive fireplace in Rockmore’s closet. Photograph by Mackenzie Smith Kelley

Rockmore was finalizing the designs in India in March 2020 when her husband called and urged her to fly home right away, as countries were shutting down because of the pandemic. “We went straight from the airport into lockdown,” she says. “I watched Netflix for about two weeks, and then I couldn’t do it any longer. I need to keep busy and creative to keep me happy. I didn’t have any of my fabrics or stones or metals, but I had this closet and I had a phone and I had a kid sequestered with me who could teach me how to use an editing program.” (Her older child, a son, was away at college.)

Rockmore first posted her videos on YouTube, with limited success. Then she began focusing on TikTok and gained more than 200,000 followers in a week. “We thought it was a fluke,” she says. “It was like, ‘Oh, isn’t that funny—Mommy went viral!’ ” It was not a fluke; over the next two years, a profile in Vogue, coverage in the New York Times, the completion of her jewelry line (available at Dallas-based retailer Stanley Korshak), and a limited collaboration with Amazon’s clothing label the Drop followed. 

So, too, did her first blowback. On September 30 Rockmore posted a video called “Enjoy Your Tatas.” Slinking out in an on-trend loose and slouchy suit, she leans into the camera. “Do you have big boobs? Lucky girl!” she exclaims before advising against such oversize blazers for women with an “apple shape”—fashion magazinespeak for large-chested and thicker through the waist. She suggests a classically fitted navy blazer over high-waisted pink pants. Rockmore awoke to a deluge of TikToks calling the video “exclusionary.” An apology video shot in her bathrobe did not impress her critics. 

Rockmore still seems a bit bewildered by the experience. The fashion industry has never been kind to larger women, and most tips, including Rockmore’s, involve trying to make them look smaller or differently shaped, using optical illusion. While the techniques she references draw from standard principles of design, the “slimming” outfit is more conservative and less interesting than the en vogue slouchy suit. Warning apple shapes away from modern styles could be considered fashion gatekeeping, which seems at odds with Rockmore’s encouragement to wear whatever “turns your crank.”

Carla Rockmore profile
A section of her shoe collection.Photograph by Mackenzie Smith Kelley

Rockmore tells me that she made the video in response to repeated requests for this kind of advice, something easily confirmed by a glance at the comments on her posts. “A lot of my followers ask me how to dress for their body type. So many of them at the time were saying, ‘I want to dress like what I see coming down the runways, but I’ve got big boobs and a stomach.’ I can’t just tell a person online to listen to your gut, and what makes you feel good is what you should wear. It’s always the first thing I say, but if they come back and say, ‘Yes, I understand that, but I don’t know what my gut says. Help me!’ the only thing I could possibly teach them in one minute is literally about balance and proportion.” 

On most of her platforms, the critical comments are far outnumbered by grateful ones, some accompanied with crying emojis and requests that she next address women with so-called pear-shaped figures. One might conclude that baggy blazers are not the problem here—pervasive negative attitudes toward certain bodies, and the fashion elite’s resistance to embracing those bodies, are. Wearing a structured blazer is not going to make that go away. Neither is playing whack-a-mole with women’s insecurities. 

Rockmore understands this. “I have never been a stylist. I’m a clothing designer,” she says. “I have never been paid one penny, ever, to style. It’s not my métier. I’m a creative, and I make stuff. I made the mistake of feeding into constant requests to be something I’m not.” 

The generational divide may play into the conflicting messages from viewers about the September video. Rockmore points out that the most scathing critiques came from TikTok, while Facebook and YouTube commenters were much more positive. She considers herself respectful of younger generations and says they give her hope. “If I wasn’t exposed to change or to what’s happening now, like Ivy . . .” She grows emotional for a moment. “Just—Ivy!”

Carla Rockmore profile
Rockmore sitting with her dog, Olive, as she puts on pieces of Trafari jewelry. Photograph by Mackenzie Smith Kelley
Carla Rockmore profile
Rockmore’s glasses drawer in her closet. “I’ve become a regular Elton John as of late,” she says. Photograph by Mackenzie Smith Kelley

Ivy is her teenage daughter, who came out as transgender six months ago and has since appeared in her mother’s videos, showing off her own style. With remarkable candor and vulnerability, Rockmore has addressed her followers about what she calls the “family transition,” including her love and support for her daughter and fears about the violence often directed toward trans teens. At a recent homecoming event, she was overwhelmed by the positive response from Ivy’s peers. “There were boys on the football team, who were just like, ‘Yeah, hey Ivy!’ There was no bullying. I mean, this is Dallas. I thought, get her out [of the city], when she first came out. But you know what? Thankfully, maybe through her school or through her friends that she’s chosen, it’s going to be okay, you know?” She repeats it more firmly. “It’s going to be okay.”

When I ask what has been most difficult for her about such an issue unfolding in public, she surprises me. “It’s thinking and knowing that she was not sitting well in her skin. I couldn’t imagine her living a life where she felt like another person inside this capsule that wasn’t her. It made me ill. Now, I worry—I can’t lie—I worry, what if she doesn’t get there? What if she’s never feeling, ‘I am sitting one hundred percent in my skin’?” But a moment later, Rockmore concedes that this is not a problem exclusive to trans people. “The best I can do is accept who she’s becoming and pray that she gets there.” 

When I talk with Ivy later, she raves about her mother’s closet, especially a vintage chain mail vest that, according to the seller, once belonged to former supermodel Jerry Hall. Ivy says she watches Carla’s videos “for inspiration and confidence.”

Carla Rockmore may be clearer-eyed than anyone about what she can accomplish in a sixty-second video. She can’t fill our hearts with self-love, any more than she can fill our closets with Dior. But what she does do, which might prove even more useful, is reflect back to us the tiny moments of ambivalence, anxiety, indecision, and even regret we feel looking in the mirror every day. Like the tension she says is necessary for an outfit to work, these eddies of ambivalence render every artist—and that is how she wants us to see ourselves when we get dressed in the morning—a work in progress.

Before leaving, I challenge Rockmore to style the most outlandish garment I’ve brought: an acid-green, zebra-striped blanket coat that I bought at a resale shop years ago and have never worn. Unfazed, Rockmore tosses it over a black column dress, piles on chunky black jewelry, and finishes it off with a Tibi boot. “There! Now you look like you own an art gallery.”

She’s right, of course. But perhaps she can tell that not only do I not own an art gallery, I don’t even visit one that often. She raises an eyebrow and holds the coat up to me. “Honestly, it would look great over those jeans you’re wearing right now. Look at those colors! Just throw it over a black T-shirt, see? Schlumpy, you know?” 

“I love schlumpy,” I say, elated. Rockmore has a way of making you feel seen. And for a woman with nearly two million pairs of eyes on her, that’s something.

Amy Gentry is an Austin novelist whose books include Good as Gone and Last Woman Standing.

This article originally appeared in the January 2023 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “She Makes Dressing Fun.” Subscribe today.