Recently I caught up with Amy Fine Collins of Vanity Fair magazine, who also happens to head up the International Best Dressed List. To say that she has style of miles is an understatement. Listen in like a fly on a champagne glass as we discuss her background and advice on how people can lead a much chicer life. You’ll see how she became her own artful canvas. A throwback to the yesteryears of glamour, there’s a reason Collins’ sage wisdom is so revered.
Lance Avery Morgan: The International Best Dressed list, on which you are a Hall of Famer now, which is very exciting. I loved your piece in Vanity Fair - it was really well done.
Amy Fine Collins: Thank you. I was asked to be on the committee by Eleanor Lambert, who created it, in about 1989 or 1990. At that time I was considered new, fresh blood because the committee that reviewed the ballots met yearly in Eleanor Lambert’s living room. A lot of those people had been on it a long, long time, and once you started with that it was life long. Some of the members of the committee even started dying off, but they eventually elected me onto the list and then after appearing three times you get into the Hall of Fame. You know, Eleanor Lambert lived a very, very long life.
LAM: She did, she outlived so many people - most of her enemies - that’s for sure.
AFC: I never heard anyone say anything bad about her, so they were all gone if there ever were any. She died at 100, in 2003 or 2004, I believe. She had wanted to secure the list’s future before she passed away, and she had asked if four of us who were involved in Vanity Fair as committee members if we would take it after she left. She wrote a letter describing what she wanted--who she wanted--and she wanted me and she wanted Renaldo Herrera because there is a whole male half of this. Plus, she wanted Amy Bell, who is an editor at Vanity Fair and a crackerjack administrator and organizer, and then Graydon Carter because he is the head of the magazine. But, she wanted it to remain a non-commercial entity, so she entrusted it to us and it has become one of my primary roles at the magazine. Even though people think I am in charge of it, I am really only attached part of the time, but they always push me into the front. I get all the slings and arrows…
LAM: Yes, and all the accolades, too…
AFC: Well, we hope there are a few of those behind my back…
LAM: You know, best dressed is such an ominous title for someone. It’s not as much well dressed as it is best dressed; it’s at a high level. What to you defines best dressed versus well dressed?
AFC: First, you make a distinction between style and fashion, and people who go shopping a lot and spend a lot of money on clothes can be well dressed, but not best dressed. It is a question of setting the standard and being a pace setter as opposed to someone who is following the fashions that are already set. You also have to be somebody who is visible enough to influence… and in that sense you really need to have some pretty much national or international presence and influence. It’s also about individuality and some originality as well; and having a very distinctive look. There are plenty of beautifully dressed women, we know lots of them, but are they setting the standards for others or creating the standards that others will follow? That is one of the big distinctions…
LAM: That makes total sense, and obviously you are such an authority on current and vintage fashion because I love your pieces on the vintage fashion leaders in Vanity Fair. Certainly the Gucci piece was fantastic and the Jimmy Galanos piece. You have done great work. Tell me have you grown up loving fashion since Day One?
AFC: I have always loved fashion and I think a lot of it was a smaller piece of a larger picture which had to do with the whole visual world. My mother was an artist and an art historian and we were always in museums. We were always taken to dance performances and my mother was very, very rigorous about what was in the house and making aesthetic distinctions all the time to the point where it could be a little bit rough. Also in people and the way they look and art and how good it was…
LAM: Life is really about having a very specific point of view…
AFC: Yes, very definitely and so that was an ongoing training and it pertained to her own person as well. I was always fascinated by everything she wore and always remembered everything she wore. I have crystal clear memories of her clothing and all of the clothing in my childhood, too. My favorite toys were paper dolls, which seem to have fallen out of favor.
LAM: Tom Tierney, the famous paper doll artist lives in Texas. He is “the” guy who does who illustrates those.
AFC: It is not just for kids. I have Claudette Colbert and Nancy Reagan… and a bunch of his paper dolls. I tried to get my daughter interested in these paper dolls, but children have other ways of exploring fashion. But I love them. I used to design clothes for them. It goes back to my mother because she had hidden this fact from us… maybe because it was something she didn’t fulfill in her life. She had, I learned a little later, gone to Paris to study fashion design, she was there only for a few months and had been in the studio of [courturier] Jacques Fath. She had all of her drawings from when she was in college and even though I always thought of her as a painter/artist, she started out doing fashion illustration. I don’t know why she didn’t make a big point of that when we were kids - it kind of percolated up anyway.
LAM: Isn’t that interesting what we find out about our parents’ pasts?
AFC: So whatever is unsaid and unspoken often becomes the most dominant fact in a family or a relationship. I also loved art, and although I was a very good artist as a child I stopped doing that. I think what happened is that I completely converted that aesthetic drive into clothing. I thought, I am never going to be good enough as a painter, but I will be my own canvas.
LAM: That is a great point of view. Besides your mom, and I think we can all sort of resonate with that crystal clear memory of that great style of that era because there was so much more of it, quite frankly. Iit was much more common than it is now since it was a much less casual time…
AFC: Yes, there were more components to it; the gloves and the foundations and all of that.
LAM: Who else were style icons to you, I mean were they the usual Gloria Guinness and the Babe Paley’s?
AFC: Not when I was a kid, when I was a little bit older I understood them more. When I was a child I was fascinated by drawings that I saw in these old Vogues of my mother. She kept this stuff in a drawer, it was hidden away. Many by Eric.
LAM: Right, Carl Erikson, also known as Eric. It was said he drew only from life, never memory. Didn’t he create a lot for Harper’s Bazaar when fashion illustration was more prevalent?
AFC: He did, absolutely, and from her era, those magazines were heavily illustrated. [My mother] had torn out the best of the best, obviously to influence her and I used to go through them. So my ideal was a drawing, not even a real person. All of those exquisite, elongated and refined elegant linear creatures. For real people [style icons], I think a pivotal point is when I went to see with my mom, My Fair Lady with Audrey Hepburn. I was always a skinny kid and my mother said to me, “You see… you can be beautiful and be thin and brunette,” because the prevailing type always was blonde. So that just captivated me. I think it was the combination of seeing her on screen and having my mother say that to me.
LAM: And Cecil Beaton’s clothes didn’t hurt.
AFC: No, they did not. It’s funny because she wasn’t in her Givenchy - it was all period clothes. But, it was the very idea of her. Then I remember my older cousins showing me their Seventeen or it might have been Vogue with Twiggy. Again, I was a skinny kid and I felt kind of gawky, but here was this incredible creature [who looked like} this childish body and I adored her. After that, I guess Jean Shrimpton was another Sixties gal that I loved.
LAM: So they were pretty much contemporaries that you really looked up to then?
AFC: Yes, when I was a little bit older as I said I became aware of Babe Paley and Gloria Guinness, but of that crowd you know who I really loved for a time was Lauren Bacall. The first time I saw one of her movies I just said “my God I want to be just like her.” She had that almost tomboyish way about her, the husky voice, but so pretty, slinky, and so strong. I loved her. So, and then there were always other images and paintings that mesmerized me.
LAM: Of course, of course. Who are you loving now? Who do you think is leading the charge from a style standpoint?
AFC: Well in movies, I am a Nicole Kidman fan.
LAM: Is she going to play you? Is that rumor true?
AFC: I don’t know what’s going to happen with that. The Writer’s Strike happened and then everyone kind of unraveled and fizzled and I am just not asking any questions anymore.
LAM: (Laughter) Just show up at the premiere and hope you love it right?
AFC: If such a thing happens. The movie industry is a real wait-and-see part of the entertainment industry. People don’t like her because she seems a little bit icy and she takes risks in her movies. She hasn’t been in a hit in a while, but in terms of personal style, I don’t think anyone can touch her because of her poise. She has got a beautiful body for clothes too. It is harder to find people now.
LAM: There is always that relationship with designers that seems to play heavily into that. And you were a muse of design great Geoffrey Beene if I am not mistaken?
AFC: That is correct.
LAM: Tell me about that. Did you have one of his football jersey gowns that were so famous? They are collector’s items now.
AFC: No, that all preceded my time in that period. The sort of last kind of home stretch of his career is where I fit in. I had written a story about him without ever even meeting him. He read it and I got a note and a bouquet of flowers saying “How is that we have never met and you know me better than I know myself. Let’s have lunch.” And, it kind of unfolded like a romance. People assumed that I worked for him and I never ever did.
People also think I was a model or a mannequin for him. There was nothing commercial in our relationship, it was just every time that he designed a collection and he was thinking of me, he would have me come in. It was wonderful. It was also demanding because I knew I had to live up to his ideal. He didn’t tell me that; it was just something that came from within. I guess he had this idea all his life of what kind of woman he wanted to dress in terms of both appearance and aura, and I think we both helped each other find ourselves. I mean, he had a long career before I came into the picture, and he did a lot of things that had nothing to do with me. at the end I would say from about 1989 until his death he had everything to do with what I wore and how I thought.
LAM: Do you consider him one of the great American designers?
AFC: Yes, he probably is the great American designer in terms of high fashion. From his generation he is definitely the best. Jimmy Galanos as we mentioned earlier is equally exquisite and important, but because he was on the west coast it was a different.
LAM: The West Coast never really got its due for fashion, except for Don Loper.
AFC: No it hasn’t…Rudy Gingrich is probably the only one since he influenced a lot from the West Coast. But with Jimmy, I think maybe Jimmy doesn’t have as much of a sense of pioneering the future the way Mr. Beene did. There are other great pioneers, Claire McCardle was a great pioneer and [1930’s MGM designer] Adrian was very important as well. The Americans that have been influential have not been influential, except Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren. It’s a different thing with Ralph Lauren. It’s marketing and finding those iconic American pieces; the polo shirt, the oxford shirt, and bringing it to a different level.
LAM: Don’t you think there is kind of a fine line between designing and reinterpreting effectively? It’s sort of an interesting dynamic.
AFC: Absolutely. It’s like Norma Kamali reinterpreted the sweatshirt. Calvin Klein is probably going to be remembered for reinterpreting underwear. Donna Karan for reinterpreting specific body wear, you know the body suit, that was her first collection - the most important ones. It was the body suits with wrap skirts, that was something. Halston, was very important, but he kind of belonged to a moment.
LAM: Yes, and Charles James….
AFC: Yes, very sculptural. Probably not influential, though. It’s again that funny distinction between, you know, Bill Blass who was extraordinarily popular and very American, but he was extraordinary in his comment about his place in fashion. He was humble and honest. But he said dozens of times, “I am not the great designer that Geoffrey Beene is. I am an American designer, but I don’t do anything new.” That kind of gets lost now, I guess.
LAM: Tell me about your theories of style…
AFC: Style is all about the individuality. I think one of the distinctions about having style and being in fashion...Because if you're in fashion and you're just like everyone else, buying the same clothes advertised by the same magazine and featured in those magazines. Style is an internal fashion. The key to having style is to having some kind of self-knowledge. So, if you're trying to figure out, “What is my look? Who am I?” It will show. You know a lot of women whose style and hair color changes, and they over-accessorize or sometimes they're too casual – they're in search of their style. I remember when Hillary Clinton was first lady, every week would have a different hairdo and would confuse everyone, and not in a superficial way. It was like, Who is this woman? What does she represent? And we don't really want to project that generally. We sort of want people to know who we are and what we mean and what we stand for. So, I think clothing should project what your own inner identity is. And if you're not even sure what that inner identity might be, you can look around and see, you know, friends and celebrities whose look you admire and maybe try and copy that to some extent as long as it's appropriate for you. So, whatever your inner ideal is, you want to try to project that on the outside. And it's not that hard to do really. Just think of who you admire.
It's important when you find your style to stick with it. That's another point. Even if it's off the wall or weird. Having an identity is so important. It makes you who you are. Who would admire from the present day, from the past? Well, Audrey Hepburn would be all-time favorite. She was easy for me to identify. I mean, that's aiming high, but that's okay. You should have ideals. I like the fact that she was in that period of time where there was a different kind of image that...I mean, the antithesis of Audrey Hepburn at that time was Marilyn Monroe. So, she had a lot of style, very simple, very correct, very elegant, and she carried herself well. That's another thing about style. It kind doesn't even start with clothes or the outfit. It starts with the inner image of yourself or what you aspire to put there. Then it has a lot to do with how you carry yourself, how you sit, how you walk, your gestures. I loved that about Audrey. I loved the way she moved.
For most of my life, up until I was up in my twenties, I had hair cover my ears, because my ears were just really big. My father used to call me flap ears. When my hairdresser suggested, as I was moving towards this shorter look, that I cut it too short above my ears. My hairdresser and I worked hard to do that. I explained to him why I didn't want it above my ears. And he said, “You're wrong. That's exactly what you should show.” Also, I'm talking about myself because I'm sure you can find your own strengths. And height - I wouldn't wear heels when I was a teenager. You see, I didn't have any style. I had to learn a lot along the way. There were boots that I wanted to wear. They had that high heel. And it was our uncle Ray who said, “Amy, because you're so tall, a high heel represents a smaller percentage of your total height to a shorter person and, therefore, wouldn't make any difference. And he's this lawyer who thinks very logically. I thought, okay, I can even accentuate. And that's it.
LAM: Are there any trends you would personally like to see that reinterpreted and revived that are not out there right now?
AFC: What would I like to see? I can think a lot about what I’d like to get rid of. I don’t understand what has happened to women’s shoes for example. I think that they are misogynistic. They are impractical and have nothing to do with the anatomical reality of the foot. Which does not mean I am against high heels. It’s those big moon, Space Age ones that look like rocket design or football helmets….it makes for a heavy tread and a chunky hoof-like walk. I’m trying to think what I would like to see revived. Maybe foundations… at least you could take it off, people now do severe body alterations through surgery and they are stuck with it.
LAM: How do you feel about the casualness of fashion now? In oour world we see a little bit more than the casualness, but you know there is still a prevalence out there of the attitude…
AFC: Right, like If it’s comfortable, it’s ok?
LAM: Yes, which it is not. To me, it is like the visual equivalent of noise pollution.
AFC: It is. It’s like I’d rather smell your cigarette smoke than have to look at it. I think people are completely fooled about what comfort is. I think comfort really and truly is a state of mind because I would not be comfortable sitting here with you in what I had on last week when I was going to my Pilates class. You think about everyone wearing jeans that are supposed to be comfortable, but actually jeans are pretty darned uncomfortable. They can be binding, hot or if they are tight, you know. It is a kind of external slackness that has to do with internal slackness with sloppiness in thinking and behaving.
LAM: Do you think we’ve become a sloppy unstylish country except for the privileged few who kind of lead the way?
AFC: There are areas where it seems style has penetrated in lower ends and lower prices like Target for example. It’s extraordinary who they have gotten to. You also have H & M…
LAM: Style is there for the masses now more than ever, but is it working, is it clicking?
AFC: It doesn’t quite appear to be. There is such a different [scenario] – of not only ill-fitting, body-exposing garments that people shouldn’t or wouldn’t wear if they looked at themselves in the mirror. There’s also this odd trend of women appearing in a way that would have been unthinkable in terms of their modesty. I was looking at this documentary that was done in the 90s about prostitutes essentially, the clothes they were wearing in the 90’s are the clothes that are mainstream now.
LAM: It’s mainstream in middle school, too, which is something else…
AFC: That’s why I love uniforms for school. These clothes did not look dated that these poor street girls were wearing, they looked like middle school clothes. And everything else in the film looked dated, the cars, and what the guys were wearing…
LAM: How does a parent steward that correctly? You have children…a daughter…
Do you just say, “You are going to hate me now. but it is going to pay off later?”
AFC: I was stricter with her when I was younger. Some things you just have to understand. One has to accept as a parent this is not your generation and our moms may have been appalled by mini skirts, which don’t seem bad. There are some things that simply out of the question, and teaching about qualities is important. Very good quality merchandise is usually not sleazily designed. [What’s important is} self-respect, being a good role model and if you have taste and style and you can still keep it exciting and not prudish or overly modest. A girl can learn from that.
LAM: Are they are taking the cues from the pop stars more than their moms?
AFC: Yes, they are.
LAM: Can we talk about that? Pop star styles compared to like say an iconic Diana Ross or someone who still has great style.
AFC: It’s sad. There’s confusion about what is sexy and what is attractive or sensual, and Mr. Beene always used to make a distinction between sensual and sexy. In fact that was a word you never even heard in fashion. Did you ever hear even a dozen years ago, “This is sexy”?
LAM: No. That’s a good point. It wasn’t a badge of honor like it is now.
AFC: I saw a picture of a pop star in the whole leather gladiator with spikes and it’s not necessary, but I do think that when you introduce the lowest common denominator of anything, then that is what takes over. You have got to always be visual and civilized and hold up the high end, but without being completely starchy. Speaking of mini skirts, my mother used to say, “Well now, mini skirts look terrible, knees are just not a nice part of a woman’s body.” Later on I was thinking, “Hmmm, maybe my mom didn’t like her knees.”
LAM: I am sure there was some history there, absolutely, that’s funny.
AFC: So you really just have to know yourself; what looks good, and always [remember] to check your mirror.
LAM: This is great though. Tell about what is happening with the next Met Costume Institute Ball.
AFC: Superheroes are the subject of the next Costume Institute exhibition. It is a more sort of male driven-male focus exhibition, but there will be females. Isn’t that a fun idea?
LAM: It’s a great idea--so novel. That’s exciting.
AFC: Those girls, those superhero girls didn’t usually wear tights and costumes, but they were not in these insanely [driven outfits]. They were more wholesome role models. It’s crazy, Wonder Woman was in this tiny little thing but it somehow didn’t seem improper?
LAM: And the male superheroes too. It didn’t seem improper on them.
AFC: No, and look what they were wearing! (Laughter)
LAM: Let’s talk about what you think the future holds for fashion. Do you think it is going to become much more personalized and individualized, or do you think it is going to become much more of a factor of people falling in line with more unconformity?
AFC: I think unconformity is a huge factor, partly because everyone has the same information coming in globally. Trends can be picked up quickly and disposed, but I think there is a lot of conformity. Again, go look at your middle school. Mr. Beene always dreamed that putting everyone in a uniform. Actually that was pretty chic… uniforms are usually always chic. [For instance,] our doormen in New York. They look so important in their brass-button jackets, but then I see them going home for the day and they’ve got on these big sloppy t-shirts and shorts, I feel so disappointed every day. [I think,] “That’s what you really look like…”
LAM:Right, keep the uniform on! So it is sort of the ceremonial part of it to which you are attracted?
AFC: Yes, the presentation, the appropriateness. It is the distinctive defining of who you are based on what you do and what you believe. But, which way is fashion going? You can always, always, always count on fashion to go in the opposite direction of where it’s been. Sometimes it takes too long, but there is more multiplicity within the conformity. For example, there is no set length for skirts right now, and no set shape for pants. There was a huge drive last year to get the narrow jeans in, which work, but people didn’t want to give up their flares. I was thinking flares are going to look pretty dated real soon, but they don’t. The crazy thing is that they ever came back, [it’s like] they never left once they came back. When they were in originally, there was probably just a period of three or four years when they dominated, now it has been probably 10 or 15 years.
LAM: I don’t think they don’t make a leg look any longer or leaner…
AFC: Women like them because it balances out their hip width…
LAM: I have news for them, it doesn’t necessarily. It adds more of a bell curve, if you will (Laughter).
AFC: We have lost the mid-drift, which is very interesting. That has gone, and it vanished almost over night. It was around for way too long and then it disappeared about a year and a half ago. I keep thinking, I wonder where all those cropped tops went. Have they been shipped to some third world country?
LAM: They are keeping people warm over there now…I see the resurgence of the shift which tens years ago you couldn’t give them away, but now it is in, in, in.
AFC: That’s a very good point. Young girls have no idea really what period that [the shift] is referencing, or the fact that they were not around. When it first came back it was almost in a camp way, and now it is the look, possibly because I think young people have gotten more conservative in some ways. [Similar to] clubs, big families and all those things that have come back. It’s people’s point of reference, kind of like the JFK era, and the flip when that came back… you don’t even know that that belongs to a different period of time. Do you remember when the flip first came back, and you thought it would never return? Dan Quayle’s wife was ridiculed for having a flip that she had never gotten rid of. It’s hard to find looks that look dated anymore because there is such an endless process of recycling and re-runs. Right now the only thing that would look really, really dated is mid-1980’s stuff.
LAM: Speaking of the 80’s, do you think shoulder pads are ever going to come back at that level?
AFC: I can’t say they won’t because I would never have dreamed in million years that weird ‘70s fashions would come back; like hip huggers. I never would have dreamed that because they looked so bad, and wedgies and that whole thing…so it is possible. They will come back but in a slightly different form. Balenciaga was showing those bigger shoulders. Again, women thought they made their hips look smaller. They really did because you couldn’t take your eyes off their shoulders because they were blocking the doorway for the most part. I remember thinking that this makes me look less thin because it is building and building up, but it was a completely terrible look because it makes you look like a lollipop.
LAM: What would be the top five things you’d say to invest money in to look great?
AFC: It’s what is there before your clothes, which is your body and your hair. I would say a good haircut and good skin care are essential. I think you should get the best haircut you can and take good care of your skin and body generally. Feel good about that. If you’re painting makeup over your skin, and your pores are clogged, you’re not starting with the right steps. The things, and this is very important, the things that don’t show in some ways are more important than the things that do, so if you have, what’s next to your skin, you should feel good about that. Because you’ll never feel bad about what’s on top if you’re starting from scratch, even if you just are wearing a white cotton sports bra and panties, it’s just, feel good about that, that’s your inner you, which is, even just throwing on an expensive dress and you’re not—it’s like when you don’t feel healthy, no matter what you put on it’s no good. It’s kind of an extension of that. And then, some of the clothes you feel best in, get your good bag, good pair of shoes, and basic black dress, make sure you have all those basics down. I don’t know if the climate here is cold enough, but in New York, a pair of great flannel pants is essential. One good cashmere sweater is better than six so-so not great quality sweaters. Mr. Beene used to say, if it doesn’t look good in black, it’ll never look in any color. So, high-quality neutrals. The best quality you can afford. And you know, the lining, and the seams, all that stuff, you will always have…it’s like having a secret, like being happy. Things from the inside project outward, things from the out don’t generally project inward. So, skin, hair, shoes, bag, and nice basic black dress.
LAM: How do you think women can dress more confidently and create their own personal style?
You’ve got to have your inner ideal and live up to it and also, get rid of the fear. I really think that fear factor inhibits a lot of us from doing what we want to do. Fear of what our mom will think, what our husband will think, what your neighbors or friends will think. It’s ok…with something you really just love, don’t limit yourself. Also, a lot of rules that have existed can be thrown away. I really don’t think that anybody looks bad in any color. I’ve never seen a woman wear green or yellow whatever and think that is completely the wrong color for her. She might say, “I love yellow, but I won’t wear it.” You know I was told don’t ever wear black; it makes you look too thin. Well, I’m in black all the time now. Plus, I grew up partly in Tennessee…I think in some ways Southern women are the best dressed of them all. There’s femininity that you don’t find in New York.
Greatest Hits: From Collins’ Simple Isn’t Easy book:
“Do you tell people that fashion doesn’t interest you, but secretly envy your friend with the beautiful wardrobe, yes or no?”
“Have you ever left the house with mismatched shoes on your feet?
“Are you ignored by sales clerks when you go to shop?”
“Did you seriously consider re-wearing the bridesmaids dress from your high school best friend’s wedding?”
“Do occasions that require you to dress up make you shudder?”
“Do you live in jogging suits, even though you haven’t been near a gym in months?
“Do you forget the last time you received a compliment for how you looked? (Was it in this decade?)”
“Have you already forgotten what you were wearing yesterday?”