Tagged: dresses

Style Story: Angela & Made-to-Order by Mumbi

This I Wear | Angela + Made-to-Order by Mumbi

Welcome back from summer! We’re kicking off the season with a story from my friend Angela. After seeing her Facebook posts of the beautiful dresses she had made in Nairobi where she lives, I asked her if there was a story behind the dresses and, of course, there was. Angela and I met when I was her RA in her freshman year of college. It didn’t take long before I felt like she was a member of my family, but anyone who meets Angela could be similarly lucky. Angela happens to be open to the world in a way that I’ve rarely encountered and because of that, she has a way of making deep friendships wherever she goes. (Did I mention that she is also an award-winning jazz singer?). So from Angela, here’s the story of the dresses and how she came to make the switch from discount shopping to made-to-order clothing. – Rebecca

My 62-year-old mother is more stylish than I am. In primary school, I was known as “Gap Girl” because my mom bought all my clothes (from the sales rack) at Gap Kids. Somehow she managed to pull together a great wardrobe at a bargain price. By the time I was in high school, Mom had discovered discount stores like Ross. My family nicknamed her “Ross Pro” because she would dig through the store’s overwhelming clothes racks and always triumphantly pull out the best designer pieces going for about 10% of the original retail price. In short, I never had to shop for myself until college when I moved out of my parent’s house in Honolulu to Washington, DC. Even once I moved out, I barely found time to go shopping between studying, studying, and studying. My biggest clothes purchases still occurred when Mom was visiting and escorted me to Ross or her new favorite, Marshalls.

But after graduation, when I moved from Washington, DC to Nairobi, Kenya on a research fellowship, my shopping habits changed and I had to wean myself off of Mom’s help. No longer could she send me pieces from a recent snag at her discount favorites (Not only because it usually takes months or even a year to arrive, but the postal system in Nairobi also has a way of losing things…).

So when I first arrived in 2010, I checked out Nairobi’s shopping malls but quickly realized they are full of imported, over-priced and poor quality products from the Middle East and China. Next, I tried the second- and third-hand clothing markets. Those were better and reminded me a little of the discount store experience – digging through bins of clothes and never seeing the same thing twice. But eventually I tired of that too and resigned to wearing the same clothes until my annual trip home when Mom would take me shopping.

Fortunately, on one fateful day in March last year, my clothes shopping habits changed forever. I met Mumbi. Mumbi is a talkative, hard-working Kenyan lady always up for a design challenge. She’s probably in her late forties/early fifties with an energy and joy for her job that’s rare to find anywhere in the world. Mumbi has been in the same cozy studio for the past 30 years, tucked away on the fourth floor of an old building in Nairobi’s Central Business District in the bustling heart of the capital city.

I was first escorted to Mumbi’s studio by one of my AirBnB guests who loved fabric and had been recommended to Mumbi by the owner of a nearby fabric shop. “She’s really great!” my guest gushed. After previous lukewarm attempts to have clothes made by fundis (tailors), I was skeptical. “Alright, well, let’s try.” I acquiesced. Before we left, we sketched out some ideas. I look for inspiration online as I am not the kind of person who wakes up dreaming of the ideal dress I want. Then, we stopped at Biashara Street (Swahili for “Business Street”) where Indian-owned shops boasting all types of fabrics are conveniently located next to one another. After picking through vibrant shades of blues, greens, oranges, we settle on a few that fit our design ideas.

“I love a challenge,” Mumbi always tells me. Once I asked her why she didn’t save the drawings or photos of her past work in a portfolio so future clients could peruse through and choose what designs they wanted. “That’s boring! I never like doing the same design twice. I want to have new challenges,” she exclaimed. That’s why Mumbi and I get along, I guess – I keep her on her toes with my ‘new-fangled’ designs and Pinterest-inspired photos. My clothes hang next to children’s Dalmatian costumes, traditional African attire, curtains and pillowcases. I’ve learned to never be surprised at what I might find Mumbi working on when I visit her.

Mom still picks up clothes for me periodically, when she finds a deal is just too good to refuse. She saves them for me until my annual visit home to Hawaii. My husband is now also the lucky recipient of such clothing purchases by Mom and looks forward to her latest finds. That said, nowadays, it’s a reciprocal exchange: I also bring home custom-designed and tailor-made clothes by Mumbi (with some design input from yours truly), with love from Nairobi to Hawaii.

Angela Crandall Okune is making the jump from Nairobi back to the States to begin grad school. Follow her adventures on Twitter @Honoluluskye.

**If you are in Nairobi and need a new outfit, you can contact Mumbi directly at +254 724306117.

Something Borrowed: Bridesmaid & Wedding Guest Dresses

This I Wear | Something Borrowed: Bridesmaid & Wedding Guest Dresses

It is the curse of the late 20s/early 30-something to have a wedding every single weekend during some months of the year. That time is now for me…or at least it was for the last few weeks. It’s been quiet here for a few reasons, but one reason is back-to-back weddings with travel required.

I have no reason to complain though. I’ve heard stories of friends and friends of friends with 10 weddings in a single year, which means all of their vacation days and disposable income goes towards celebrating others’ special days. Wedding-hopping might be fun for some, but I tend to prefer everything in moderation, including I-do’s.

I personally have been trying to wear one dress to several weddings, and I’m not alone. Fashion writer Lauren Sherman wore one dress to 10 weddings in a single year and she wrote about in the fantastic article, Say ‘Yes’ To The Dress: How To Make One Look Work For 10 Weddings. [And if you love this article, you should really sign up for her newsletter, Lauren in the Afternoon.]

But when seasons change or when you’re in the wedding, you might have trouble making something in your closet work for every event.

Lucky for me and you, I got a chance to try one dress rental option and explore another for my back-to-back weddings that helped me realize that I didn’t have to make any commitments just because someone else is celebrating theirs.

For the Bridesmaid: Union Station (formerly “Little Borrowed Dress”) is an NYC-based startup that rents made-in-NYC bridesmaid dresses. For a super affordable price, you’ll get one dress, a backup dress size, and paid shipping both ways. Plus, they’ll take care of cleaning the dress after the event for you. You and the bridal party can try on dresses in their NYC showroom or they’ll send you swatches in the mail. My amazingly go-with-the-flow super considerate girlfriend just used them for her wedding (this is only clue as to why I love this girl). By the end of the night, my dress was still looking fresh after hours of photos and dancing. My one warning though is that we all chose the “Kate”, and there was a lot of very unruly, very unexpected cleavage for those above an A-cup, even though we had tried the dresses on in person. Luckily, I don’t think Memaw noticed…

For the Wedding Guest: I had every intention of trying Rent the Runway for Wedding #2. There’s nothing really ethical about the dresses or designers they carry, but it is sustainable in the way that you borrow instead of buying a dress you’ll only wear once or twice. I spent some time exploring the dresses, but as a Rent the Runway first-timer, I realized I should have booked further in advance. The options for my size were really thin for my delivery and return dates, so I gave up and opted to dress up something I already had in my closet instead. Even though I struck out this time, I’ll keep this option in mind for future events. And perhaps in the meantime, they’ll start stocking more emerging designers and/or ethical fashion frocks (or has someone already invented that business?).

So tell me, is it wedding season for you too? I want to hear what you’re wearing to your upcoming special occasions, AND this is also the perfect occasion for you to tell us your bridesmaid dress nightmare stories in the Comments.

P.S. Summer is right around the corner. Just a quick heads up that I may be posting less frequently as I spend more time outside, and as with last year, I’ll be taking August off. Telling you now so we can all be prepared for this!

[Photos via Union Station and Rent the Runway]

Wear It Twice

This I Wear | Wear It Twice

It was with great pride and great ease that I wore a silk floral dress with a beautiful deep-v back to my oldest brother’s wedding this past weekend in Brooklyn. Even though I knew this would be a day where I was photographed and that I’d have these photos for years and years to come, I didn’t shy away from wearing the same dress I’d worn the dress was to my mother’s wedding nearly a year ago (another day of photographs!). I was determined to wear the dress both because it is the most perfect dress for a Fall wedding and after I had already mentally committed to wearing the dress, I learned that it perfectly fit into the color palette. No other dress would do.

For memorable occasions, there exists a temptation to wear something new (or at least “new to you”) every time. Even during the work week, I often calculate when I last wore an outfit to decide if it’s “ok” for me to wear it to the office. An even greater fear of mine has been running into someone you so rarely see only to realize that you’re wearing the same thing they saw you last in months ago (and you wish you could tell them that you have a full closet and you’ve worn lots of outfits since!). I do think there is a very tangible social pressure to not be seen twice in the same memorable outfit.

But my point is screw that. I’m not suggesting we all wear a uniform everyday, but I do believe we are allowed to love pieces so much and resist the ideas of “more” and “new” so well that we embrace being seen in them often.

I recently heard all-around inspiring woman and White Dog Café founder Judy Wicks speaking and was surprised when she unexpectedly diverted from her advice on changing the food industry to tell the audience that we’ve got to change the fashion industry. Part of her advice was that we’ve got to wear things more than once to start changing our expectations of clothing.

I actually first had this thought when I was watching Downton Abbey a few seasons ago and realized that the characters were always wearing the same outfits. My initial reaction was embarrassment on their behalf. Then I felt indignant as if I was being deprived of more beautiful costumes to swoon over. And finally, I realized that it was likely just historically accurate, as all clothing would have been made to order and vast closets of clothes impossibly expensive even for a wealthy family. I wondered why all TV shows weren’t similarly repeating costumes, since we do wear things more than once in real life, even if we always want our clothes to appear new.

In order to change this social stigma, I have this radical idea that celebrities should start wearing the same dress to multiple Red Carpet events. I imagine it to be like Livia Firth’s Green Carpet Challenge but taking it a step further by actually wearing such beautiful responsibly made gowns more than once to show their value.

Recognizing the value of our clothes is an essential part of the solution, yet emotion plays a significant role too. I didn’t wear my dress to two weddings just because I matched the color palette. I wore it a second time because I remembered feeling incredibly beautiful in it, despite having a broken heart at the time on the inside. The dress got me through a difficult experience. It also was such an important celebration – to celebrate my mom’s new marriage – that somehow the dress felt important enough to wear for my brother’s wedding too. It had already proven it could hold up on a big day. Finally, I felt silly hiding such a beautiful dress in my closet when it was meant to be worn!

Wearing the dress for the second time meant I had to let go of worries that people would remember the dress but it also gave me the opportunity to create new memories in it. I know it won’t be the last time I wear it for a very special occasion either.

Join the movement! Tweet @ThisIWear or comment below to tell your story of wearing a memorable outfit twice. Or better yet, tag your photos with #WearItTwice to show your support!

[Dress by No. 6, purchased at a charity sale. Photos were taken before my mom’s wedding in December 2013 – no photos from this weekend’s wedding yet!]

Style Story: Ona + The Handmade Wedding Dress

Style Story: Ona & the wedding dress | This I Wear

Ona is like a pioneer woman: you leave her alone with some pine needles and you return to an expertly woven basket. She has the dual gifts of resourcefulness and a willingness to try anything that enable her to take things that seem to have no life or purpose and create something new. Ona and my brother Jonathan were married this past summer at Ona’s family home in Maine in the most impressive DIY wedding I’ve ever attended (and since I used to plan weddings, I have seen quite a lot). Ona’s dress, like most for the wedding details, had a story of its own and easily proves that great things can happen by chance and that some rules are made to be broken.

Start from the beginning please!
I have been making dresses for probably 10 years out of skirts, scraps of fabric, and all kinds of stuff I found in my mom’s sewing closet. I would turn them into fun dancing dresses for contra dancing. My favorite ones are where I basically took a skirt I didn’t like, hoisted it up, took it in so that it was more form fitting, put on straps, and I had a knee-length dress. Pretty simple.

And so my mom has her favorites [of the dresses I’ve made]. She was the first person who suggested that maybe I would want to take a dress and repurpose it for the wedding. A couple years ago, she bought an off-white silk dress from Goodwill, and [when we started planning the wedding] she gave it to me to use.

Did she have any intentions when she initially bought the dress what it might be used for?
I can’t imagine, because I think she got it a while ago. She just thought “it’s silk!” and “it’s three bucks!” so she bought it. It didn’t fit me. It’s a sheath dress, so it’s very little fabric, kind of a heavier silk, and definitely not [made of] large pieces from which I could cut out other pieces. When I looked at it, I thought that it’s going be kind of challenging, but it could be fun. So I started looking around for silk that would match the dress. I took [a swatch] up to a fabric store in Brattleboro, Vermont. The woman who runs it is totally crazy. She’s padding around the store in her socks. The store is piled high with silks and gauzes and taffetas and all kinds of fabrics.

We spend an hour and a half looking for something to match the fabric of the dress. At this point, I don’t have a pattern, and I have no idea what I’m doing. I knew I didn’t want to have a big fancy wedding dress with a big train or anything like that, although that may have been more of a cost consideration rather than style. In the end, there just happened to be a remnant of silk that matched the dress perfectly – same weight, same color –but there were only 2 ½ yards. But it felt almost like it was meant to be.

Now I have 2 ½ yards of silk and a dress. I start looking around for patterns that would take advantage of what I have. I was at Jo-Ann’s that just happened to be having a sale on their Vogue patterns and there happened to be a pattern that fit all of the criteria. I decided to go with it, but the problem was that the pattern calls for 5 ½ yards of fabric and I have 2 ½ and a dress. Then it was a matter of making a mock-up, reducing, and on top of this, I have such little experience with patterns that I bought the wrong size. I got the Large instead of the Small/Medium, so I had to take the existing pattern and extrapolate down to my size.

I made a mock-up and I was able to reduce the width of the skirt. I figured out which pieces I could cut from the existing dress and which I could fit on the new fabric. My pattern pieces were just pinned down however they could fit on the fabric, so I was hoping that no one would notice that the pieces weren’t correctly oriented [on the bias]. I was not following the rules. In the end, I had almost no fabric left after cutting out all the pieces, but I was able to get them all cut out.

Did you learn to sew from your mom?
Yes, although she said I wasn’t a very good student, because I was not interested in learning exactly what she had to say.

How did she learn to sew?
I think she probably learned from her mom. I started pretty young. I made my first quilt when I was nine. It was a very simple squares quilt for [my sister] Gaelyn. It was her baby quilt. She sews too. It’s definitely a family tradition. I think I probably sewed my first dress in the beginning of high school. I know my mom sewed her own clothes probably throughout high school.

How long did it take you to make just the dress, not including the embroidery?
I procrastinated awhile because I had no idea what I was going to do. I went to the fabric store in January, so I had the fabric. Then it was a couple weeks before I had the pattern, and then once I had the pattern and the fabric, probably another couple weeks before I sat down and did it. I cut the pieces and assembled the dress as much as I could in a matter of a week, maybe two weeks. That was the easiest part.

To what extent did you know what you wanted the end product to look like vs. being inspired by what came up along the way?
I would say the whole thing was following a series of fortunate events. From the start, I checked out the Knot and Etsy to see what dresses people were making. I got some fancy sewing books that talked about different seam types and different necklines, so that helped in starting to shape ideas of how I wanted it to look. But in the end, the pieces just fell into place and made the dress that I got. There were only 2 ½ yards, I wanted to have the embroidered panel, the pattern that I found was the only one that fit all of those things that I needed it to do, so I felt like it was meant to be. Like I didn’t have to make half of the decisions. That’s just what was presented.

Can we talk about the embroidery? What inspired the cummerbund?
When [Jon and I] were out in Santa Fe, New Mexico, we went to the International Folk Art Museum. We saw a wedding outfit from an Eastern European village and it was a guy’s outfit. It was heavily embroidered. It had a full skirt, a top hat, and it may have had a parasol. It was bizarre, very unique. And Jon looked at me and said, “I think…I think we should wear something crazy like that for the wedding.”

Did he really say he wanted to wear something “crazy” for the wedding? Was he just looking for something memorable?
I think he was entertaining for a very short period of time something that was embroidered heavily and in the style of what we saw there. It didn’t last long though. He quickly moved on to a plain linen suit. But he got the ball rolling in my head about embroidery, because it plays such a huge role in cultures around the world and is specifically present in wedding ceremonies. There’s embroidery in American wedding dresses, but it’s all done by machine or it’s very simple. There’s no meaning behind the embroidery. It’s like the last remnant of embroidery in our culture and it’s lost all of its meaning.

So I became really interested in discovering the meaning behind wedding embroidery around the world. There were a couple of really great books I got from the library. One of them was called “Embroidered Textiles” by Sheila Paine. I looked at different embroidered textiles from all these different angles and pulled out the pieces I wanted to do. I wanted to have the Tree of Life. I wanted to have the Four Directions. I wanted to have fertility symbols, because that’s what you put into wedding embroidery when it comes down to it.

But more importantly, it was a fascinating discovery of the role embroidery plays in traditional cultures. One of the more interesting things I found was that aprons in many cultures are not to keep your skirt clean but to protect. You sew protection in with every stitch to ward off evil spirits. And who knows how much of this is actually being passed down in these cultures. The mirrors reflect evilness, so by sewing them in, you reflect the Evil Eye. Not that I believe in the Evil Eye, but why not bring in a little bit of extra protection? It was fun to be able to express that.

It tells such a story. It means so much more than what it is at face value.
And I had never embroidered before, so I also had to take out that book from the library. I had to teach myself a bunch of stitches. A lot of it was made up. There was symbolism, but a lot of it was my own aesthetic.

Will you be able to reuse the dress or any of the pieces? Or do you plan on wearing or displaying it in any way?
I would like to. We’ll take it out if we ever want to get dressed up in our wedding clothes, which my family has a tradition of doing. Every year, my parents get into their wedding clothes for their anniversary and we take a family picture. We might continue that tradition. It’s pretty funny because over the years, my mom doesn’t fit into her dress anymore and my dad doesn’t fit into his suit. The part that doesn’t zip for my mom doesn’t show, but my dad stopped buttoning up his jacket. And, of course, it’s just a nice time to take a family portrait to document how we’re all growing up.

Comment below or tweet @ThisIWear to share your stories of handmade wedding traditions and what to do with those special event garments once the big day is over.

[Photos by Mary Weyer]

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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