Living in New York, working as a business reporter in the 1990s, and doing freelance lifestyle writing on the side, I got a kick out of all all the PR pitches, launches, and parties. Among them: renting out Ellis Island for a magazine party, Donald Trump’s 50th birthday, and, if memory serves, bringing elephants to midtown to help launch a perfume. So when my best friend Allison, the co-founder of a PR firm, asked me to volunteer to help out on an event where supermodels would be helping Doctors Without Borders, by decluttering their own closets, I couldn’t resist.
I agreed to help check in guests and members of the press at the front desk of a high-end garage sale with items pulled from the closets (and storage units) of iconic ‘90s models Shalom Harlow and Kirsty Hume. The items would then be sold for between $10 and $100. It couldn’t have been more of the moment. There was even the requisite article in The NY Post about it by one of the lifestyle and fashion writers of the era, Libby Callaway (one of the big fashion and lifestyle writers, now living in Nashville), and the location was Lot 61, one of nightlife queen Amy Sacco’s two big spaces in New York. Profits went not only to Doctors Without Borders, but also to the International Rescue League, an organization then offering aid to Kosovo. That June 1999 day certainly defined an era for a certain “Sex and the City”-type of New Yorker.
Checking in people was easy and routine — I was essentially just welcoming a better-looking crowd than you’d find at the average tag sale. Imagine an IRL eBay held in the lobby of a modeling agency.
Working alongside me was a young PR guy from another firm who looked requisitely bored about having to deal with this particular civilian co-worker. I’m not sure we spoke two words, and I’m a gregarious person. (He would go on to fame years later, primarily as a friend to young stars such as Kelly Osbourne and Paris Hilton and, later, to Kim Kardashian, which served as a launching pad for him to star in his own reality shows.)
During one of our breaks, I went shopping. Fitting into the models’ clothes was out of the question, but something compelled me to pick up a pair of shoes. Not just a pair of shoes, but a practically pristine, brand-new Chanel pair. So not my style, but I knew I’d find somewhere to wear these two-toned beige and brown high-heeled spectator shoes. Their provenance was perfectly in keeping with the day: They had been donated by co-host Hume, who had worn them in a recent Chanel runway show. Hume, along with her then-husband, actor-singer-model Donovan Leitch, was one half of the “it” couple of the moment.
The synagogue where I’ve gone since I moved to New York is a lot different than the one I attended when I lived in the preppy Pennsylvania suburbs. My go-to Anne Taylor wasn’t going to cut it in this congregation.
Examining the shoes showed me how little I knew about the world of modeling. Normally, this was not something I’d get worked up about, but in this environment, it was tantamount to being illiterate. First of all, I just didn’t understand my luck that they were around my large foot size. And second, the shoes were scratched on the bottom, as though someone had purposely keyed them. And lastly, what did the “finition main” verbiage on the sole mean? A kind fellow volunteer took pity on me and whispered that it was because the models all have large feet, likely because they are so tall, and the scratch marks are made so the models don’t slip walking down the runway. (We all learn lessons in our twenties — sadly, these were some of mine.) The marks are still around if you look hard enough, but other scuffs have largely obscured them. Finition main? Hand made.
Now that I owned these show ponies, the challenge was where to wear them. My life as a journalist, in a very ink-stained reporting pool atmosphere, didn’t offer many occasions to wear shoes that were very obviously Chanel. But then it struck me; the High Holidays! I have always loved the respite of going to services for the beautiful singing, the history of the synagogue, and the meaningful sermons, but the congregation, where I’ve often gone since I moved to New York, was a little intimidating as everyone looked so nice. It included fashion editors and media moguls, investment bankers and owners of luxury goods companies.
When I started upgrading my clothing as I progressed in my career, I used the shoes as the basis of my grown-up wardrobe. I remember two years later, on a weekend trip back to New York from San Francisco, where I was next working as an editor at a new tech publication, getting a chocolate colored wool Jil Sander shift dress at Barneys—to give my shoes the proper company. For someone who thought that a key to being taken seriously as a journalist was not to care about my wardrobe, I was turning into my own paper doll.
For many years the shoes—and now the dress—got trotted out every year at the High Holidays. I’m convinced that any one who did notice me certainly thought I had one outfit. (They weren’t altogether wrong.) But with them I felt temporarily that I was a pulled-together sleek and stylish New York woman. When I ran into a former source, who had tried to berate me on speaker phone in front of his staff, I felt impervious.
But where the shoes really did the trick was exactly where they were supposed to—Condé Nast. Out of the blue in 2010 I got a call to interview for a big digital-focused job at Lucky, a magazine about shopping. Perfect match, obviously. After days of panicking that I had nothing to wear, and, since I was working at a start-up, no budget to rectify that, I remembered Old Faithful. By now they were firmly in the vintage category, but still, um, kicking. Well, I wore my new go-to outfit and, could focus on trying to hold my own talking about fashion content, while at least looking the part.
I got the job.
Not bad for less than $100.
(Photo courtesy Caroline Waxler)