Style Story: Henna + the Painted Dress

Henna + the Painted Dress | This I Wear

Henna and I met in a summer Ethical Fashion class at the Fashion Institute of Technology, New York. If you don’t know her, you’ll wish you did, because she is endlessly inspiring, incredibly smart, and one of the most humble people I know. With a background in art history and in her current role at an auction house, she is clearly inspired by beauty from times past. Our conversation gave me a peek into Henna’s intriguing style philosophy, but I felt a bit like a detective trying to solve a puzzle. What makes Henna’s style so special? And after much thought, here’s what I think: Henna doesn’t shop/buy/consume; she connects/experiences/explores the items she lovingly adds to her closet in a way that I’ve never heard someone describe. There’s a process to it. She uses the act of building her wardrobe to craft her own story and explore the world. And I’m so glad to be able to share that story here.

What are you wearing today?

I’m wearing a printed dress that my mother bought in Taiwan about 15 years ago. As a little girl, I always looked at this dress and thought, “When will I get a chance to wear it?” so I pulled it out of her closet recently and started wearing it. It’s actually a Canaletto painting of Venice, and I was wearing it in the elevator at Sotheby’s [where I worked] one day, and one of the clients came up to me and said “That’s my painting.” And I knew that because when I was interning, we took a tour of her private collection and I kind of recognized that, but I wasn’t sure if it was the same painting.

What was her reaction?

She was surprised. She said it looked “great as a dress as well as on my wall.” And actually I was walking by the Met the other day and someone stopped me on the street and said that she has a similar dress. It’s ironic that it was purchased in Taiwan, because it’s an Italian painting.

Do you dig in your mom’s closet a lot?

I do. She takes very good care of her clothing, and she’s taught me to do the same, especially in recent years as my taste has developed. I want to focus on quality and not quantity. I really enjoy inheriting pieces from her.

How has she influenced your style?

I would say that she’s very well-traveled, so I have definitely inherited the travel bug from her and the general curiosity for other cultures. She has items in her closet that are collected from her travels and each piece really tells a story. That’s how I try to build my wardrobe as well. I’m actually wearing a ring that I made recently. I took a class at FIT in wax carving and going along the European theme, it’s actually inspired by a 19th century French console table. It has the acanthus leaf motif with the cabriole leg. It was cast in silver as part of the class requirement, but I dipped it in gold at my current job.

Of what you’re wearing today, what is the most special piece to you?

It has to be the dress, but the [pair of] shoes are also one of my favorite things in my closet. It isn’t as meaningful, but I bought it two years ago, and I had been eyeing it for months. I saw it on a blog this girl based in [the] UK updates. So I went into the store asking for it and didn’t see it. The salesperson said “We’re getting ready to send it back to Italy. Do you want to see it?” And I said “Of course!” So I was actually able to get it at a discount.

How long was the time between when you first saw the post and when you actually found the shoes?

It had to be four months at least.

Who’s the designer?

Jil Sander. I think it’s just one of those things that is a statement and really inspires me with the organic form and the combination of textures and different materials.

Are they as hard to walk in as they look?

Umm, I have to admit that they aren’t the easiest to walk in. They are not my most comfortable heels, but they are manageable.

What’s your favorite thing in your closet right now?

There’s actually this scarf by Caren Shen I got at the Asia Society Store. It’s very crinkled and it’s two-sided, so one side is midnight shimmery navy blue and the other side is this bronze color, so the scarf is actually very versatile. You can wear it, I don’t know, like 12 different ways, as a vest, as a dress if you wear something over it or under it…

Does it come with instructions on how to wear it?

No, I just played around with it. But it’s one of those pieces that you can wear all the time, and you would be surprised with the way you style it every time.

What’s the most important thing when you get dressed in the morning?

How it makes me feel. Certain people have best outfits that they save for certain days, and I like to think that I want to feel my best [every day]…of course it doesn’t mean that it’s always an elaborate outfit. But I also like to wear something that incorporates at least one piece that reminds me of what my goal…[or] what I’m working towards, maybe?

What the most important thing when you shop?

I don’t shop as much as I used to. I still browse a lot, and I do enjoy seeing what other designers are doing to sort of get inspiration. But I think I have to love it for me to buy it. If I have to think about an item and think on it for a few days, when I find myself still thinking about that item, maybe I should just get it? But a lot of times if I don’t buy it then, I know that I probably won’t wear it anyway.

Can you remember the last piece you bought that got you that excited?

I don’t know…I did receive a gift from my mom from her recent trip to Turkey. It was this brass necklace, large pendant, floral-shaped but also some Ottoman influence, wire-laced with turquoise beads and tied with a fabric cord. That I was really excited about. I haven’t traveled in a long time, and I have most of my moments when I’m abroad, because I love learning about the piece from the person who made it. It makes the piece so much more personal.

How would you describe your style?

When I was in school, people always remarked how fashionable I am, but I really don’t think that I am. I have a style and it isn’t easily influenced by the trends. I am very interested in surface decoration, so I like to combine textures and match certain colors.

It seems like your style is really influenced by your work, given the sheer coincidence of wearing the dress and the [painting’s owner] is in the same building.

Yes, and I am lucky that I’m surrounded by people who inspire me. I’m really inspired by the patrons of the arts, the art collectors, who are dedicated to preserving our cultural heritage.

When was the last time you got hands-on with the creation process of one of your pieces? Whether you custom ordered a piece from Etsy or a local tailor, or you collaborated on a piece of jewelry, or even just asked some questions to the designer or artist, I want to hear it! Comment below or tweet @ThisIWear and tell me your story.

Correction (8/23/12): Henna is currently working for a fine jewelry company, not Sotheby’s where she has worked in past as originally stated.

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