Just because I was a schmo working at Polo Ralph Lauren who sold twenty fugly ties to Elton John (and pants to Carl Sagan) didn’t make me a fashion genius. Sure, I could match neckties to shirts, but look at what I was working with – Mr. Lauren made it easy!
No one in my family had any significant interactions with Ralph (my inconsequential meeting aside). But we did enjoy a relationship with someone at Ralph’s level. And by this I am referring to my maternal Grandmother Marguerite Alain and her lifetime friend, Bill Cunningham.
An iconic New Yorker through and through, Bill was a soft-spoken milliner who shared a commercial studio adjacent to my Grandmother’s Design Studio in the 1950s. They both loved flamboyant styles and clothing that made a statement. When hats went flat in 1960, Bill emerged as a fashion reporter for Women’s Wear Daily and then for the New York Times, where he was often seen riding his girl’s bike around midtown, stopping to take pictures of well-dressed women on the street. Up through 2016!
Bill passed away on June 25th of that year. During his lifetime, no one knew that he had secretly written a memoir and treatise on fashion. The manuscript was discovered among his personal effects and was recently released under the title Fashion Climbing.
It’s not a typical read for me – I just don’t read that many fashion books. His passionate point of view is that of a flamboyant hat designer in the staid 1950’s, when many rich people, as he put it, exchanged clothes with their maids to avoid standing out.
He hated that.
But that wasn’t my main interest in reading this work. Rather I was wondering whether he would get around to mentioning my Grandmother. My Grandmother always asked me to say hello to him if I ever saw him on the street. It’s sounds strange to call Bill a “street person,” but that’s technically what he was. So, I would reach out and greet him whenever our paths would cross, maybe a few times a year. Bill would always smile warmly and ask me to give his greetings to the lady he called “Bubbles.”
Out on the town in Southampton with Bubbles ‘n Bill, circa 1956!
Bubbles is a great nickname for my Grandmother, one that I did not previously know. Open a bottle of champagne near her and see what happens!
As recounted in my post THE QUÉBEC CONNECTION, I received the following letter from Bill in 2015:
June 18, 2015
Thank you for your note and the photo of the high-spirited Marguerite Alain, like popping champagne! What great fun and lovely memories at 44 West 54th Street! The photo is from the Parrish Art Museum Gala in Southampton, Long Island. I had a summer shop on Jobs Lane across from the museum. As for the person next to me probably a friend of your Grandmother’s [Ed: Mrs. Lee Bonner of Southampton, NY]. I first met your Grandmother when she moved in to 44 West 54th Street, a small brownstone [Ed: It is no longer there] where she had some fashion ideas. Her apartment was across the street.
Sure, Margaux and Bill were friendly enough — and Bill was always quick to acknowledge her greetings from me — but would there be any effervescent stories about her in his book? Frankly, I had my doubts. Bill would be writing about some heavy hitters.
Turns out, he dished a couple of stories about you know who!
It’s an interesting experience when learning brand new, hot steaming fresh chestnuts about your parents. Sure, you know them inside and out, very well. But obviously, you can’t know everything about their entire lives. When listening to Pat Terry, my Dad’s first wife, talk about him, or when reading Bill’s adventures with my Grandmother, I am flushed with an immediate recognition of these two who figure so large in my life. The way they reacted to their circumstances in these tales rings true in my own personal experience.
Gather ’round children, and let’s open Fashion Climbing to see what Bill took some time to reminisce about! He refers to her throughout as the “French dressmaker.” Another great nickname! She would have loved it!
On the back of the second floor [of my new commercial space on West 54th street] was a French dress designer who was a like a bottle of champagne just opened. She was full of life, and often after she had finished a new design, which she would completely make herself, out she’d trot, dressed to the nines, giving the new fashion a breath of El Morocco air.
Marguerite Alain in her heyday, wearing an original creation, with an admirer at the Stork in the 1950s.
One thing about Margaux, she loved herself some champagne. If any splashed while popping the cork, she was of the opinion that spilt champagne never needed to be cleaned up. Even if some got on several of those El Morocco dancing trophies that adorned her apartment.
Madame’s salon was dark and mysterious, like a French boudoir. Incense was always smoldering its exotic perfume, often filling the apartment above, which belonged to our landlady, a Prussian frau who was of the dowdy, practical school.
My grandmother’s apartment, in New York or Montréal, was always like this, richly decorated, complete with a remodeled baroque doorway entrance to her bedroom with its oversized bed. Even in her nineties, she decorated her apartment with wall to wall mirrors, which greatly excited her great grandchildren, to the consternation of her adult grandchildren.
On the close of my third season in Southampton, I arrived back in New York to find a new landlord had bought the Fifty-Fourth Street house, and he wanted $250 per month more for rent. He had been looking around my salon during the summer when I wasn’t there, saw all the glamorous decorations, and figured it was worth much more rent. Well, I wasn’t going to be taken for any sucker, and there was nothing I could legally do to avoid the increase. So, I up and moved the whole business in two weeks.
Some good advice on dealing with unreasonable landlords!
All excerpts from Fashion Climbing reprinted either with permission or under Fair Use.
Next week, part 2!