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.
Just two weeks ago, my grandmother passed away unexpectedly (and not the same grandmother who was unwell earlier this year). When I got the news, it was as if all of my memories of her suddenly filled a book in my mind that slammed shut. It felt as though only the strongest memories were inscribed in the half-a-second it took me to understand what had happened, and the little details that I remembered of her started to slip away. To capture them, I started writing.
I wanted to remember the taste of her stuffed bell peppers and macaroni and cheese, her insatiable appetite for ice cream and all things sweet, her stubbornness and sense of independence, her love of camellias and roses, how she’d chase me with $20 when I visited just to say “thank you” for spending time with her, and how proud she was of me. She introduced me to Martha Stewart and the idea of always having things look “just so” and offered her own example of somehow being able to make things perfect effortlessly. How she did it and raised seven children, I will never really know, though I will say that except in her later years, I rarely saw her sit down.
Mere, as we called her, means “mother” in French, the heritage of my mother’s side of the family. And she did all of the motherly things you can imagine – feed us until we nearly burst, rub our backs and hug us tight, and make sure we knew she appreciated her time with us.
On the way to the airport to fly back to New York after my visit with family for the funeral, we stopped at my grandfather’s home. My aunt offered my mom some of Mere’s makeup. My mom said she’d take the lipsticks.
When I discovered these in the car as we continued on our way to the airport, I told my mom I had to photograph them and asked her to pick a parking spot with good natural light. I think my mom thought I was crazy but was willing to humor me as we dug in the trunk of her car for props to create a makeshift backdrop. Lipsticks, as any woman knows, are incredibly personal. Each of us leaves our signature mark and shape on our lipsticks through use. My grandmother, it turns out, was a rounded, yet slightly angled lipstick shape. (I, on the other hand, am a very sharp angle…)
The lipsticks reminded me of all of her fashion rules, of which she had many. She truly took as much pride in her appearance as she did in her home and in her family. Here are just a few of her rules, almost all of which I must admit I break frequently:
1. Your shoes and bag must always match. Never, heaven forbid, should you wear black shoes with a brown bag or even brown pants. This is strictly prohibited. Black with black, brown with brown, and navy with navy.
2. Never leave your house without looking your best. You never know whom you will run into! Make sure to pass this sense of pride on to the people around you.
3. Know what looks good on you and stick with it. In the years I knew her, she almost exclusively wore separates, especially structured jackets, rather than dresses. Know what works on you and own it.
4. Get the fit right. Find a good tailor (such as your daughters) and make it fit your body type.
5. If you love something, buy multiples. In fact, you can never have enough ¾ sleeved white boat neck shirts, even if your stuffed closet tells you otherwise.
I agree with each of these rules to varying degrees, but they undoubtedly play a significant part in my memories of her. I think she would have been very proud to see how well we all looked as we came together to celebrate her.
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.
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!
This past Christmas Day, my mom and I found an hour to sit down for a style interview. While she wore her Christmas apron and things cooked away in the kitchen, I asked so many questions about her style that really revealed more questions I had about who she was before I was born.
With family, we often take for granted that we know them so well! My mom and I share a birthday (it’s today!) and have always been very close, but there were still stories she shared, especially about her time growing up in New Orleans, that I had never heard before. While I had to trim A LOT out to post it here, I hope our conversation will inspire you to do the same with someone you love.
Happy birthday, Mom! I’m so glad I get to spend our day together this year.
Here’s the interview…
Name 2-3 of your favorite items from your wardrobe.
Two of them would be scarves. The one that I brought back from Hong Kong for my mother. I bought it, thinking of myself, but then I thought, “Well, she would probably like this too.” And then after a few years, she gave it to me saying she had never worn it, why didn’t I take it back, and I was glad to get it.
Do you wear it often?
It’s a big scarf, so it really takes the place of a jacket. Same as that Hermes scarf, that would be another one.
What Hermes scarf?
The one that I got for $9 at the consignment store.
I went to that little consignment store in Covington, which has since closed. I saw this scarf on the counter, and I liked the colors in it. And the lady said, “Oh, I just got that in. I’m going to look it up and price it.” So then I found a few things and went back to the counter, and when I looked at the scarf again, I saw the Hermes signature on it. I’m just staring and holding my breath and asked “Did you get a chance to price this scarf out yet?” “Oh, let me see. $9.” [laughing] I said, “Okay, put this with the other things that I’m getting today.” And I went back to work and looked it up on eBay, and they were going for $325! So all those people at work are after me, “Well, you’re going to sell it, right?” I said, “Absolutely not.” I would never go out and pay $300 for an Hermes scarf, but if I could get one for $9, I’m going to wear it and enjoy it. So they all think I’m crazy.
Any other favorite items?
Well, the problem is, the things that I really love like that, I almost tend to protect. It’s a shame to do it, because I do enjoy wearing them so much.
I feel like I want to dress for the way I want people to perceive me. So for work, I want them to perceive me as a professional woman. I would say one piece would be that black-and-white houndstooth wool jacket that I have that I mix with different black skirts or pants. It makes me feel really good when I wear it. It makes me feel accomplished, like I look good, more confident.
When you look back, is there a favorite outfit that you used to have that you wish you still had now or that you have fond memories of?
I was just thinking of this Madras outfit I had. It was a blouse and a matching skirt. Usually, you think of Madras as being brighter colors, but this was a very pale, bland yellow and off-white. I think I remember it because the comment that [our neighbor] Jeannie made when I was wearing it, saying, “Oh, I can’t believe you found [panty] hose to match that outfit.” And I said, “Jeannie, I’m not wearing stockings. My legs are just that pale.” But it was just a comfortable outfit.
I don’t know why, out of all the outfits I’ve ever had, that would pop into my head, except like I said, because there was something associated with it. I wore it to see President Reagan when he came to Lafreniere Park on a field trip with [my sons].
When did you learn to sew?
I was around eight, I think, when I first played, at least, on my mom’s sewing machine, and maybe nine or ten when [my sister] Lynn and I took sewing lessons at the Singer Sewing Center together. I made a shirtwaist dress. Lynn never finished hers, but I actually wore mine.
How has your style changed over different life eras?
All I remember from high school are those gray wool pleated skirts and the white blouses. I do remember early high school, ninth grade or so, we were still sewing, and that’s when bell bottom pants were in. My grandparents were taking me on vacation with them over to the Gulf coast, and I made a pair to wear for the trip.
I remember also ninth grade or so, my parents used to buy us an outfit for Christmas. And that year, we went shopping and bought a dress with a coat, really kind of Jackie O. looking, you know? In those days, number one, you wore stockings, and there were no pantyhose. To get rid of lumps, you wore a girdle. So my mother had me in a girdle.
After graduating from uniforms, what did you wear in college once you had to figure out what to wear every day?
We would go to All American Jeans because there were no women’s jeans at the time, only men’s jeans. They were all hip hugger style, so you didn’t have to worry for a man’s shape versus a woman’s shape having the waist so much smaller. My friend, Mary, made me a macramé belt in blue and pink, so I wore my macramé belt with my hip hugger blue jeans and a polo shirt for class.
But then after you dad and I got married and I was working, I really admired my mother-on-law’s clothes.
At that time in your life, did you feel stylish?
Yes, I did. And you can see how a lot of people dress, a lot of people just don’t have clothes sense, it seems like, or they look sloppy. I just liked to always feel like I was put together; things match or went together, that it was intentional.
Do you feel someone taught you how to do that or it was just something you knew?
Probably just watching [my mom] and [mother-in-law].
Did your mom have style?
I remember being in high school, and we went to D.C. when my dad had to go for work. We drove up there in the station wagon, me, [my sisters] Cindy and Lynn, and my parents. Mom had made this pink shift dress because she had to go to some evening thing with Dad. Just an A-line shift and pink marabou feathers around the bottom.
But they put it in a garment bag on top of the car to travel, and it didn’t get wet or anything, although it was snowing. It just got dirty, just from air going through it or something, with streaks of black.
Poor thing after all that work! I don’t remember what she did, if she found somebody to clean it for her. But nice and something special for an occasion that she would look dressy in.
Did she care about her appearance?
Oh, definitely. Her mother used to wear housedresses all the time, with the stockings rolled below her knees, [wearing] a lot of the dresses like you would see from the 30s, where the belt matched the dress.
So I don’t know where my mother got her style so much. Not that my grandmother didn’t look nice, but I think my mother went a little farther and cared more about how she looked. My dad never went out without a jacket and a tie. He always dressed up to go to church. So it’s not just her, the whole family would look nice and dress up for an occasion.
Is that the difference between the time periods though?
I think so. My dad told me that about his father who never went out without a coat and tie. That was a sign of the times. So things have gotten more casual. People are not dressing up so much, so I guess I’m really a throwback, but I like doing it. I feel better about myself when I’m nicely dressed, so I’ll keep doing it.
I remember Patty, who lived next-door, and she kept a lipstick in a drawer by the front door. Whenever that doorbell rang, she would whip that lipstick out before she would open the door.
Do you have something you can’t leave the house without wearing like that?
Earrings and mascara; definitely mascara because I have no eyelashes. I need to go put some makeup on right now, even though I can’t see myself. Because I know I’m not wearing makeup, I feel like I’m missing something. Not the real me.
What would you say have been the significant life moments that have influenced your style?
Going to work in a professional office in downtown New Orleans.
In that time period when you were transitioning back to an office (after running your own business), you were also in the divorce process. Do you feel like that significantly impacted your style?
Yes, I think it did, because actually, when I finally said I’ve had enough, I felt empowered. For so long I had just kind of blended into the background. Just don’t make waves. At the point I stood up and said, “No, I’m not living like this anymore. Yeah, I’m ready for a change.” I guess that’s why I like that power business suit kind of a look, you know? Obviously, you can choose what statements you’re trying to make when you select your clothes.
How has cost influenced how you shop? On the one hand, if you know how to sew, you kind of know what things are worth or that you could make it yourself.
You know I’ve always let cost dictate a lot of my wardrobe too, which is probably why I sew a lot. But I always managed to find nice clothes at a price I was willing to pay. So I tend to invest money in something like a well-tailored jacket as opposed to a skirt because I could whip up a skirt. I would invest in pants that fit well because I know that’s difficult to accomplish.
But cost matters, as I said, because I like variety. I don’t like to invest too much in one piece. I won’t buy a $300 coat; I’ll wait till it’s on sale for $125 because I know they do go down too. Everything eventually is marked down, or if I miss it, I miss it.
What’s one thing, regardless of cost, that you wish that you could add to your closet?
I tend to stay away from everyday clothing that has to be dry cleaned, because I just don’t like to pay for dry cleaning. So I would add things that were dry clean only. Maybe some cashmere sweaters, something I really liked. They’re beautiful, but I can buy merino wool for much less. I’ve always shopped price.
Who taught you that?
Well, even growing up, we just didn’t have that much money. Then after I was married, it was still the same situation. There wasn’t that much money to invest in clothes, or maybe just because the bargain mentality, that it’s got to be a bargain for me to buy it.
You maybe mentioned it already, but what was one of the best deals you ever got?
Yeah, definitely, that scarf.
Is that part of the appeal of that scarf, that it was such an insane deal?
Part of the appeal of that scarf was that it’s the Courtyard at Versailles, so it was the memory attached to that trip that we took, so that was a large part of it too. Maybe if it had been something else, it wouldn’t have been quite as attractive, but that’s all built into that too. The memory.
Here’s my challenge to you now: ask someone you love to sit down with you and let you interview them. Consider recording it (I use iPhone voice memos!) so you can share with other family or just listen again later. If you want help holding yourself accountable, share in the comments below who you want to interview and by when! I promise it’s worth it.
Avi Loren Fox is the social entrepreneur and creative behind Wild Mantle, whose first product (the MANTLE) is a scarf-hoodie love child, which happens to be the perfect cozy antidote for this cold winter weather. With the recent launch of her Kickstarter campaign, Avi hopes to scale up production by enlisting the help of a B-Corp certified knitting facility in Colorado and using undyed alpaca wool yarn and recycled buttons. I interviewed Avi to learn more about her personal style, how she started her business and just how her style and values connect to her cozy accessory designs.
One of my favorite parts of the interview was learning about Avi’s own search to find more happiness and less stuff in her wardrobe while still finding plenty of ways to express herself. My other favorite part has to be the undeniable and overflowing love that Avi brings to her life and work.
Read on for Avi’s interview and how to support her (already nearly 50% funded!) Kickstarter campaign.
If someone looked into your closet, what might they learn about you?
I’m a minimalist who thrives on change. My closet is curated to contain my favorite staple tank tops and leggings mixed in with an ever-revolving collection of dresses, skirts and sweaters that I swap with friends and hunt down in thrift stores. I used to have way more clothes, but I got tired of sifting through things that weren’t quite right. So I got rid of more than half my wardrobe and have been 100% happier ever since.
Besides your favorite MANTLE, what piece in your wardrobe is your favorite to wear?
I have a pair of wood earrings handcrafted out of the heartwood of a Southern Yellow Pine (pictured). My beau carved them for me as a surprise, and I love this idea that they come from the heartwood of a tree – it’s so magical. When you hold them up to light, the wood glows naturally between the grain. They’ve replaced all my other earrings, and I wear them pretty much everyday.
What’s important to you when deciding what to wear each day?
I’ve learned that I’m only ever really truly satisfied with what I’m wearing when I listen to my intuition. I put my rational mind in the backseat and give my gut the steering wheel, and it’s so much fun! Sometimes this means I’m dressed in a really nice outfit even if I’m not going anywhere, or I discover a new combination that I never would have “thought” up. But it guarantees that I always feel good when I leave the house.
What sparked your interest in sustainability?
Looking back, I can find all sorts of clues throughout my life that point towards an interest in sustainability. But it was really Dr. Geoffrey Whitehall’s class in International Relations my freshman year at Hobart & William Smith Colleges. This class started a snowball effect in my life. I transferred to Temple University, majored in Environmental Studies, and became politically active when I founded an environmental organization in my hometown. While my sustainability interest was initially fear-based (i.e. we have to save the world from climate change and social inequality), it has shifted to become vision-based, focusing instead on how we can build a more beautiful world for everyone.
Did you ever think that interest would connect to fashion or making a product?
The MANTLE has been the most amazing surprise, like a lost puppy that wandered through my door one day. After I initially had the idea, it took a while for me to come to terms with the idea of making a product and “manufacturing,” because as a country we have an issue with making too much stuff. But it’s like Star Wars; you have to go in the Death Star to blow it up. So I’ve become invested in trying to figure out how I can enter our existing systems and restructure the foundation so that sustainable choices are available and made.
How do the values of the MANTLE – sustainability, empowerment, adventure – carry over into other parts of your life?
These values actually manifested in my life well before the MANTLE showed up. I have this vision of a lifestyle that lies at the intersection of these three values, and I’m on a mission to discover how to create that for myself and share it with the world. While I’m not perfect, when it comes to what I buy and how I live my life, I try to make choices that move our planet towards sustainability.
I’ve also been really intrigued by the concept of empowerment and how I could grow more as a person. A few years ago, my best friend brought me to an empowerment workshop led by Josie Maran, an amazing eco-preneur who has since become by big sister business mentor. The workshop helped me make big changes in my life, and I felt inspired to build the empowerment ethos into whatever I did next. In terms of adventure, I definitely embody that contradiction of cozy homemaker and spontaneous traveler. Over the years, I’ve given myself permission to balance and seek both sides of myself. I realize that sometimes the biggest adventures come from opening your eyes and appreciating what you have at home.
When you’re not working on your business, what are you up to?
Not working? Hehe, I’m pretty much always working. I even see mantles in my dreams. For real. In my dream last night, Jay-Z and I had the idea to make Beyoncé a golden MANTLE with a queen honeybee on it. But I’m a Libra and thrive on balance. On Saturday nights and Sundays, I try to unplug from the world and spend time with my beau. Other than that, I carve out time to see my girlfriends or swing by my parents’ house and usually have a few laughs. When I’m on my game, I also get my groove on at the gym three days a week, and whenever possible I sneak in some quiet notebook/dream time in coffee shops in the winter or the woods in the summer.
Thanks to Avi for answering all of these questions and sharing some of her beautiful photography! Ready to claim your own MANTLE and support this savvy woman entrepreneur? Support the Wild Mantle Kickstarter here and make sure to watch the beautiful video. Also, a special thanks to my eco co-warrior and fellow blogger Danielle Vermeer for introducing me to Avi!