A Wolf in Wolf’s Clothing

I wrote this post several weeks ago, before Covid-19 was a worldwide pandemic. The topic parallels the spirit of Spring regeneration, so I was waiting for my March newsletter to publish it. Over the past week, as the threat of the virus loomed large, I questioned the timing of publishing a post like this when so many other matters at hand seem more pressing.

I have decided that a little “business as usual” on a topic that is not tied to overwhelmed hospitals, quarantines, and food/supply shortages in stores may be a welcome distraction. It’s not meant to dismiss the seriousness of our collective situation, but to offer some lighter mental fare amid the sobering news and social media updates. Please enjoy and stay safe and healthy.

In this interim period between organizing/emptying my studio and getting it set up for another round of intense art making I’ve been focused on a more intimate facet of my practice – my own personal, visual brand.

Artists that had/have a strong vision for their art and the way they present themselves develop and maintain a personal brand in their wardrobes and style that is instantly recognizable.

Three years ago the Brooklyn Museum presented an interesting three-prong installation featuring works by Georgia O’Keeffe, a massive selection of her personal wardrobe including clothes, shoes, and jewelry, and photographs of her by other artists (often in the clothes and accessories on display in the exhibit).

What stuck with me was the fact that when O’Keeffe found something that fit her well, was comfortable and practical as well as suited her sense of beauty, she bought the same item in several colours (providing the colour fit into her limited palette). Dresses, shoes, scarves. It made so much sense to me. Far from being simply about vanity, developing a style “uniform” allows a maker to divert the bulk of their creative energy into their art practice.

Since seeing the exhibit I’ve been mulling about my own personal style brand – not only how I am perceived when I’m out at events, but how I FEEL in the clothes I have to wear to them.

Last year, the Brooklyn Museum showcased a similar exhibit of Frida Kahlo paintings, personal artifacts, and photos. Kahlo’s style “uniform” was inspired by her Mexican heritage. It was amazing to see self-portraits of her in traditional dress and then view the actual dress she wore while painting the portrait. It comes across in the paintings how powerful and confident wearing this particular clothing made Kahlo feel. The saying, “clothes make the man” exists for a reason.

Another of my art heroines, Louise Bourgeois, created artwork in a consistent, limited colour palette. A 2018 exhibit at the MoMA displayed work in a variety of different media across many of Bourgeois’ series.

Select Louise Bourgeois pieces from MoMA installation L-R: Untitled (The Wedges), painted wood, 1950; Lullaby (detail) screen print on fabric, 2006; Portrait of Jean-Louis, painted bronze, 1947-49; The Sky’s the Limit (detail), etching w/watercolour and gouache additions, 1989-2003.

It was a beautiful, congruous installation because there was a consistent colour story of white, black, red, and a gorgeous light blue. How I long to have the contents of my closet be that complementary!

When I moved to New York five and a half years ago I felt my sense of style slip away. Ironic, given that NYC is one of the world’s fashion meccas. It occurred gradually. Favourite items of clothing that I brought with me have been repaired several times and worn threadbare. What’s left is mismatched studio clothing with holes in almost everything.

Not very confidence-inspiring.

As an artist whose practice is all about attention to detail, I feel a great disconnect between how I present what I create to the world and how I present myself to the world. This has prompted me to approach crafting my personal brand in a tactical way, similar to how I might start a new art piece or series.

So, inspired by the guiding principles that O’Keeffe and my other art and style heroes seem to live by I drafted some rules of engagement:

  1. Start with research. What’s out there? Beware of trends and look for items that fit your inherent sense of style.
  2. Choose a colour palette that is minimal and focused. Select a couple of neutrals and a few, core colours to build a wardrobe around. I’ve settled on white/cream, grey, mustard yellow and blue with the occasional pop of red. Within these five neutrals/colours, there are infinite shades and tints to play with.
  3. Buy items that are both stylish and practical. Can you wear it to the studio and then go from the studio to an opening/event?
  4. Use some Marie Kondo mojo. Consider how the item makes you feel. Does it spark “joy” and confidence?
  5. Buy two. If you find an item that makes you feel like a magical unicorn, see if it comes in any other colours/patterns that fit within your colour palette. If it’s a basic (eg. T-shirt or blouse) that you know you’ll wear to death double up while you can.
  6. Buy with a mix and match mindset. Remember that LB exhibit!
  7. It’s better to spend more and buy something unique that you love. Don’t waste money on something that is generic and doesn’t make you feel awesome when you wear it.
  8. Try something new. But…DON’T BUY ITEMS YOU KNOW ARE NOT YOU. I can’t wear anything above a 2” heel – no stilettos or crazy platform boots for me.
Details from a successful wardrobe building trip (thanks Nordstrom Rack). I’ll still make the rounds to my fav consignment and thrift stores, but with a narrowed field of vision that will stop me from stocking my closet with one off’s that take up space and energy.

After feeling lost for so long I’m having some success using the rules to build a base wardrobe that inspires the confidence and creativity that I want to project.

Do you have pieces in your closet that make you feel confident and competent? What’s your version of a “power suit”?

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