Monday, August 22, 2011

Life lessons in dress-making....

Last week, I saw a photo of a dress that I absolutely loved on a website for a shop I can rarely afford.  (only during a massive sale)  The dress was, as expected, radically out of my price range which spurred me to make a trip to my favorite little fabric shop in St. Petersburg in an attempt to recreate my coveted piece.  Of course, the shop did not have the exact fabrics I needed to make a replica, and I honestly wasn't looking to do that anyway - I have never created anything that didn't possess my own unusual spin.  I played for an hour with different textiles, laying one lovely bolt on top of another until I came up with two options that excited me, both creatively and economically.  (Even at the fabric store, I shop the sales racks.)

I purchased the necessary portion of fabric to create both possibilities, and even with plenty of materials to make 2 dresses, I barely spent half of what I would have had I purchased the dress I loved so much from the retailer I cannot afford.  It was this very conundrum that drove me to learn how to sew in the first place.  As I neared my 30s, I realized that I was no longer satisfied with inexpensive, trendy clothing.  My tastes had become much more refined, but sadly, my pocketbook could not keep up with my fashion maturation.  Never one to be defeated by any obstacle, I asked for a sewing machine for my 27th birthday, and my mom and grandma surprised me with one along with a long weekend intended to afford a crash course in basic sewing. 

I have now been sewing for 4 years, and I no longer use patterns.  My husband bought me a dress form a couple of Christmases ago, and my stepmother in-law has provided me with almost every tool one could need to create almost anything out of any material.  I am well-stocked in threads of every color, fabrics that range from high-end silks to vintage tablecloths my mom picked up at a flea market.  (these make AMAZING vintage-inspired pieces...I like to use them for cutesy little shorts and skirts)  This past March, I made the bridesmaid dresses for one of my best friends' weddings, and every once in a while, when the mood hits me, I hide away in my sewing room (which doubles as my husband's office in our tiny house) and just create until all of my restless energy is purged and my spirit is still. 

As I crafted the first of my designer-inspired pieces this weekend, it occurred to me that the progression of my sewing hobby has sort of mirrored my life to this point.  In the beginning, the matriarchs in my life gave me all of the knowledge and skill that they had to offer in the short period that they had to guide and direct me, and then, I was on my own.  In their absence I made some serious mistakes, and even had to take a few pieces apart entirely and start all over again.  Some of my creations found themselves on top of my scrap pile, half-finished, reminding me of the frustration I suffered in my endeavor to bring them to life.  Some of my work has been made better by my missteps.  I have a one-shoulder, purple mini-dress, the sleeve of which I sewed on inside-out.  But, it looked so cool, I decided to leave it.  Earlier in the year, a panel of design experts from a state fashion institute reviewed some of my work and didn't hate it.  I was even applauded for my technique and attention to detail. 

I thought back on my journey fondly as I hand-sewed a beaded/sequin trim onto my latest work-in-progress.  I thought about what it means to grow up and how necessary mistakes really are in the tapestry of life.  Like the pieces I have had to take apart, there are habits that must be unlearned and ideologies that prove to be toxic to the individuals we will eventually become.  If we don't go back to the seams and often times, undo what has taken us a long time to craft, we will never find out who we really are.  We never move forward or grow.  And, the forsaken pieces that find themselves on the scrap pile represent the relationships and friendships we leave behind.  They are no less meaningful for having been abandoned - in fact, they might be even more so.  Had I made my very first dress perfectly, there would have been no reason to continue creating.  I would never feel the sense of pride that overtakes me when I celebrate little successes like getting my zipper perfectly straight or properly sizing a bodice on the first shot.  If I didn't know how difficult it was to install a straight zipper, I wouldn't know to be excited about doing it.  Every stitch is an opportunity to learn, whether or not the piece is ever fully finished.

Having finally mastered the basics of dress-making, I have really come into my 30s as a designer as well as in age.  I am no longer as worried about just getting from point "a" to point "b"...both my existence and my design process have become much more nuanced.  I am not concerned about attaching a skirt to a bodice or a sleeve to an arm-hole.  But, because I am not so concerned with the mechanics of sewing, I have become much more attentive to the overall presentation of a piece...the way the textiles marry together...the placement of the waistline...the fit...the straightness of the hemline.  I am a participant and an observer, and infinitely more self critical despite the progress I've made in my art.  It's funny how that happens.  The better we get at something, the more we hyper-focus on our flaws.  As it is in sewing, it is in life.  At 31, I am a much harsher judge of my place, position and contribution to the world than I ever was in my 20s. 

When I finally finished my most recent creation late last night, I redressed my work mannequin as I always do, and stepped back to observe and critique.  For the first time since I started making my own clothes, my very first response was not trepidation or nervousness about what other people would think of my work.  This time, I just felt proud.  I had executed to the very best of my ability, without cutting any corners or rushing any part of the process.  I had delighted in the journey and not hurried through the less glamorous tasks like pinning the hem and centering my pleats.  For once, I made no excuses to myself.  I let down my guard and admired the work of my own hands without worrying whether someone else might find it lacking.  Stepping back from my finished product, I was content. 

Perhaps a little long-distance perspective is the answer to self hyper-analysis in life, as well.  For those of us who fixate on the problems that arise time and again, maybe stepping back and taking in the whole picture is necessary to afford real, honest appreciation of ourselves and what we've accomplished.  I can easily find myself lacking by comparing my life to those of my peers if I take myself apart and examine only the pieces....the inside out sleeves...the slightly askew zipper.  Or...I can take two steps back and look at the incredible creation my hands have wrought as a whole, and I can be pleased.  No nitpicking.  No analysis.  No comparisons.  Just admiration.  

My dresses are a collection of stitches, pleats and inspiration.

I am a collection of experiences, ideas and choices. 

I supposed I don't just make many ways, I am one.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Holley Takes Manhattan...

I've been to New York City four times.  The first time was with my immediate family - the trip was my Christmas gift.  A dance enthusiast in my youth, I had been begging since I was only a little girl to see "The Nutcracker" at Lincoln Center, and when I was 19 years-old, we went.  It was perhaps the most magical trip of my young life.  It was cold, but not frigid.  The store windows were all decorated for the holidays.  There were Christmas trees everywhere...some real...others made of tinsel and other, more creative materials.  A dear friend was also scheduled to be in Manhattan at the same time, and his family was staying at The Waldorf Astoria.  We were not scheduled to stay there, but upon hearing this, my mother made it her mission to relocate us.  Not only did she find a deal which allowed us to change locations, but we spent our first night in NYC in a Waldorf suite.  We sipped hot chocolate, rode in a carriage and ice skated in Central Park.  We bought knock-off designer wallets from a man with a folding table on a street corner.  I was in heaven.

My second visit was a quick one.  My cousins and I were interning in Washington D.C. the summer I turned 21, and my mom flew in to take us on a whirwind, 5 states in 3 days, driving trip.  It was August.  It was HOT.  We visited Times Square and whined about the heat.  I think we went to Planet Hollywood. 

My third visit was with my husband, once again at Christmas time.  It was the coldest winter on record in NYC, and my husband stood in line at the TKTS booth in Times Square to purchase tickets to "Fela" for almost 2 hours.  It was 20 degrees at high noon.  Myself an enormous Food Network fan, we made a point to visit Chelsea Market (still one of my favorite food destinations to date) and to spend time shopping in SoHo.  We successfully navigated the subway system.  We stayed in a boutique hotel with a shared bathroom on the Upper West Side. We waited in line at Serendipity III for an hour and a half.  I slept a total of seven hours over three nights, nursing a mean case of walking pneumonia with more Aleve Cold and Sinus than my body could reasonably handle.  We spent about two and a half minutes at Filene's Basement. 

My most recent trip to NYC was the shortest, but perhaps the most interesting because I was alone.  I consider myself a brave individual, but seeing as how this was my first overnight trip ANYWHERE completely by myself, I was more than a little intimidated.  The purpose of my visit was business related.  I was scheduled to interview Anne Hathaway regarding her new film "One Day" on Monday and to attend a screening of that film Sunday evening.  The movie studio had set up the interviews at The Waldorf Astoria, which meant the press would be staying there as well - familiar surroundings put me much more at ease than I might have been at a strange hotel in an area I'd not experienced. 

I arrived in Newark at 11 a.m. Sunday and was transported to the Waldorf by a gentleman in a Mercedes named "Rafi".  He was very proud of his children - a doctor, a future lawyer a math whiz and the youngest who he claimed "had a superior intellect but simply no ambition".  By the way, City College in London costs 8,000 pounds per quarter...that is, I'm told, more expensive than Harvard.  Rafi was greatly displeased by this, but luckily, his daughter had received scholarships.  My 45 minute ride passed quickly.

I checked into my lovely and overly extravagant room at The Waldorf, made my way to press check-in (I cannot even effectively decribe to you the suite where that was located...let's just say, you could fit three of my house in it...) then proceeded down the elevator from the 29th floor to ground level and an afternoon of adventure.

I began walking north on Park Avenue with no plan in my head.  I simply went.  I wore a floral print jumper with leather sandals and my hair pulled back in a mess of curls.  I felt very stylish indeed.  The spring in my step likely gave me away as a non-native, but I was in no mood to worry about the perceptions of others.  I was doing New York with no restrictions and no agenda.  At each intersection, I looked left and right to see if there was anything I might be missing on my aimless trek northward.  About 3 blocks into my excursion, I noted a street fair happening one street East of Park, and I redirected to see what it was about.

The street fair was block after block of food trucks, clothing and accessories vendors and craftspeople.  There were purveyors of organic goods like honey and jam, and of course, the usual designer knock-off sellers whose kiosks I avoided.  Fifteen minutes and $40 later, I had a new dress and two time-piece amulets shaped like for me, and one for my friend Liz who had risen at 6:30 on a Sunday to take me to the airport.  I was jubilant.  The one thing I couldn't seem to locate was a Starbucks.  (there was one in my hotel, but I was way to excited to even notice it)

I continued through the street fair until it ended, and upon turning back toward Park Avenue, I found myself across the street from Central Park.  I wandered through the outer, free portion of the Central Park Zoo and noted all of the different languages and accents I heard along the way.  I waited in line at a food kiosk to purchase some water behind a family I believe to have been Dutch.  I walked a few paces behind a group of young women speaking French for a while, and encountered a family speaking Portuguese alongside a used book seller set up on the outskirts of the park.  For a moment, I wished I could speak every language in the world. Then, I decided it was much more fun and mysterious to interpret their conversations blindly.  You can discern quite a lot from body language and facial expressions.

I strolled past The Plaza and Tiffany's ( I may have been on 5th at this point...I am not really sure...) through Henri Bendel and H&M and eventually, back toward my hotel.  Three and a half hours had passed, and I had amassed quite a treasure trove.  I emptied my prizes on to my bed, looked them over, returned a call to my dad, then dozed off surrounded by my day's conquests.  I awoke just in time to shower, dress and catch a shuttle to my screening, which was a short 3 blocks away. 

After seeing the film (which was lovely!), I ordered room service.  This is not a common occurrence for me, but since I had been issued a credit to the hotel restaurants, I decided to indulge.  I found a movie on television, then ordered angel hair pasta with stewed tomatoes and basil, a salad and a Coors Light.  Half an hour later, I had a neatly appointed table set before me, complete with three kinds of bread, a full wine chiller for my one beer, and a pat of butter the size of a bar of soap.  I dined, ironed my dress for the following day's events and settled in for an evening's repose in a bed that could have easily fit four of me.

The following morning I rose earlier than I needed to, dressed, and located the Starbucks that had elluded me the day prior.  I composed questions for my interviewees, sipped a soy vanilla latte and tried to sedate the butterflies that had taken flight in my stomach. 

I consulted the concierge on the best/quickest/cheapest way to return to Newark (cab...that's pretty much the only option) then checked in for my appointed interview time half an hour early.  I had my new, special edition copy of "Jane Eyre" in my purse, so I commenced reading to help distract myself from what I was about to do.  Around me, reporters who frequently make celebrity interview trips conversed in animated tones, as if they hadn't seen each other in years.  A few other people sat reading the film's production notes.  An elderly gentleman on a couch opposite me had fallen asleep and was snoring.  I made one friend when I consulted the fellow next to me as to whether it was common for interviewers to fall asleep while waiting their turn.  He said it was the first time he had seen it happen. 

I waited for an hour.  I almost leapt out of my skin when the press wrangler announced that it was my turn to "head down to Anne".  If you've ever seen the film "Notting Hill", then you know basically what the set up looks like.  You are ushered down a hallway to a room where television cameras, lights and microphones have been strategically placed to accommodate reporters quickly and easily.  There are people monitoring tape decks and audio equipment.  There are other very fashionable people sitting about...chatting...looking fabulous and not really doing anything. 

I was Anne Hathaway's last interview before lunch.  She was warm and cordial....very professional.  It was clear she had been doing this for years.  She shook my hand (yes, I touched Anne Hathaway...) before and after the interview, and blushed when I told her she looked quite a lot like Audrey Hepburn when her hair was cut short in her film.  I proceeded to interview an equally charming Jim Sturgess who is best known for his role in the strange but visually stunning movie-musical "Across the Universe" featuring the songs of The Beatles. 

Having finished my interviews, I had a lovely lunch in the monster press suite, spent an hour or so traversing 5th Avenue looking for Bryant Park in a Suzy Chin tunic dress and flip-flops, then cabbed it back to Newark, nauseous with exhaustion.  I spent the next three hours before my flight with my friend, Jane Eyre, boarded a plane and found myself deposited back in Tampa just before 10.  The next as usual.

I'm not sure how often I'll be making whirlwind trips like this one...I don't know for sure when the next opportunity will present itself, but I can honestly say, I feel much more self-assured and confident in my ability to "go it alone" having now navigated the biggest and most densely populated city in the United States, all on my own.  It is, perhaps, much more fun with a companion, but there is much to be said for the uninhibited experience of making one's own rules and adhering no one else's schedule.

Now, where to next?....Paris, maybe? 


Thursday, August 4, 2011

"That is so not my momma...."

As is quite frequently the case, my co-host, Jerome, took me on a trip down memory lane today by way of a pre-show tangent.  We share a love for stream-of-consciousness discussion, and having both worked for the Home Shopping Network in some capacity, we got to chatting about which celebrities we'd met and what they were like.  I was lucky during my stint at HSN, in that most of the celebs within my sphere of influence were pretty tame, many of them downright nice.  None more so than long time Dallas Cowboys running back, Emmitt Smith.  (who could have gotten me fired, but for some reason didn't.  Although Cowboys owner Jerry Jones did kick me off an elevator.  A different story for another time...)

It was my first full football season with the Home Shopping Network where I was hired to help produce merchandising programming for the NFL.  "NFL Shop" was the name of our flagship show, and we were taking it on the road for the first big weekend of the regular season.  Our backdrop would be the field at Dallas Cowboys Stadium in Irving, Texas, not empty, but chock full of the most enormous men I had ever seen in person - the Dallas Cowboys and the Washington Redskins. 

For one full day we "pulled cable".  That is to say, we drug heavy, rubber-coated cables from a satellite truck parked outside the stadium, through never-ending underground tunnels and onto the field where they would attach to an enormous board, the hub for our small but mighty operation.  During that day, inside the un-air-conditioned home of God's chosen team, I sweated more than I ever have in my entire life (and that is in combined years, not single episodes of sweating).  I almost passed out once.  I smelled like a high school locker room.  I also laid on the 50 yard-line and looked up through God's window...the one He once used to see his boys play.  Now, He watches them on the world's biggest HD jumbo-tron housed inside a spaceship.  When that day was over, I only had enough energy reserved to devour an entire order of Taco Cabana tortillas and queso with my family before falling into bed by 9 p.m.  I've never been so tired in my entire existence, and I have completed two half-marathons.  Live, remote television is exhausting.

But it was all worth it, because I was scheduled to be the one to attach a microphone to NFL legend, Emmitt Smith. 

Two hours prior to kick-off, we were all in place.  I had struck up a friendship with the Cowboys merchandising manager (we'll call her Andrea....) and we were chatting alongside our little makeshift set.  Behind our show host, the Redskins were warming up.  The offensive line was spaced out in the end zone doing drills of some sort, and watching them, I became convinced that giants do, in fact, exist.  Granted, they were adorned in their game time padding, but still...the sheer mass of these men was overwhelming.  I felt very intimidated and incredibly tiny. 

I was handed a headset which would allow me to talk to the producer in the truck outside.  I felt very official and important.  I nodded at people a lot.  I gave my colleagues the "thumbs up" at random.  I saluted the officials as they took the field.  I waved at the fans who had flocked to the lower level in order to potentially wind up on camera.  I was like a beauty queen in a parade, but sweatier and wearing jeans that seemed to be shrinking the hotter I got.

Before I could really process everything, we were handing our host his first piece of memorabilia to sell and the countdown to the start of the show commenced.  By the date of the Cowboys shoot, I had already been working in television for four years, but the overwhelming feeling of being surrounded by the home of the legendary and revered Dallas Cowboys made me feel like a total rookie.  I was all nerves.  My hands were shaking.  I was short of breath.

But, I was focused.  I was in constant communication with our supervising producer, Gerry, hoping that an opportunity would present itself for me to shine in some capacity.  That's when a well-dressed African American couple and a woman who appeared to be their grandmother entered the field.  They were all wearing the coveted VIP passes I had seen on several equally well-adorned individuals in the bowels of the stadium en route to the field.  The elderly woman was spry...she bounced around excitedly, her escorts looking on lovingly.  She wore a Cowboys jersey that she had clearly doctored up herself.  It bore patches from Super Bowls and signatures from players.  Among them....Emmitt Smith.

Speak of the attention quickly turned from the adorable trio to the man of the hour who was being rushed toward me by a couple of large gentlemen dressed all in black.  May I take this opportunity to say that Emmitt Smith is one snappy dresser?  When I shook his hand, I couldn't help but stare at his sparkling diamond inlaid cuff links.  I wanted them.  I could have worn them for earrings.

I pulled myself together, retrieved Mr. Smith's microphone, wound it through his zillion-dollar suit jacket and clipped it on his tie.  I stood next to him until I received the appropriate cue, then gestured for him to enter the "set" to join our host on the air.  Everything was going smoothly.  A senior VP patted me on the back.

I noticed that the merchandising representative I had befriended was talking cheerfully with the three guests who had entered just before Emmitt.  They laughed together, and she motioned for me to come over.  As I walked toward them, she was called away to handle a business issue, and I was alone with the feisty grandmother and her friends. 

I introduced myself as best I could without disrupting the show, speaking in an exaggerated whisper to be heard over the din of the filling stadium.  The man and woman shook my hand, but neither offered a name.  The older woman continued to bob up and down quietly exclaiming, seemingly to herself, "that's my boy!  That's my boy!"

I inquired of the well-dressed man as to the woman's association with Mr. Smith, to which he replied, "she's his momma."  I turned to look over my shoulder.  Emmitt waved at the woman, and she clasped her hands over her heart as if she would faint.  Tears were filling her eyes.  An epiphany hit me like an out-of-control train. 

I pressed the button that allowed me to speak to Gerry and quickly informed him that I had Emmitt Smith's mother standing by.  Gerry, who always loved to fly by the seat of his pants in the midst of a show, didn't think twice.  He conveyed the message directly to our host, who became animated and motioned for the woman to join himself and Emmitt on set.  Naturally, she was thrilled to do so.  She rushed over as quickly as her feet could carry her (which was much quicker than I thought possible) and threw her arms around Emmitt who gave her a good squeeze and proceeded to cast me a death glance over her shaking shoulders.  His look told me everything.  This was NOT his mother. 

I looked behind me at the young couple.  They were smiling and waving at the woman like proud parents.  They showed no signs of embarrassment over the announcement our host had just made, declaring this woman Emmitt Smith's mother.  I was befuddled, stricken and sure I was about to lose my job.  But, there is no professional in the world as calm under strange and confusing circumstances as Emmitt Smith.  He informed our host that this was not his mother, but that she may as well be....she was like his SECOND mother.  He said that the woman was known by the Cowboys organization as the "super fan".  She had been to every home game since before he had been a part of the team.  She showed up every summer at training camp.  She was at every parade.  She had accumulated all of the signatures on her jersey by way of persistent attendance...not by being the mother of a player.  But, Emmitt treated her like family, just the same.  He knew her by her first name, which escapes me now.

The minutes while the woman remained on camera felt like hours.  The combination of increased adrenaline and excessive heat I was suffering threatened to knock my legs out from under me, but I held on to what little composure I had left.  Tears stung the backs of my eyes.  And, then it was time for me to remove the microphone from Emmitt.  The moment startled me.  I was busy planning what I would do once I was banned from television production forever when the hulking mass of sweet-smelling, silk-clad football legend materialized before me again.

"What the hell was that?"  he demanded.

I didn't stutter which surprises me still. 

"She said she was your mother, sir," I replied. 

He looked down at me blankly for a moment, as if maybe he had heard me incorrectly, then he laughed.

"That is SO not my momma....sure as hell, she is not my momma!"  If he was angry, he was hiding it well.  He couldn't stop laughing.  When the moment finally passed, he dropped his forehead into his well-manicured hand for a moment, and shook it.  Then, he looked me in the eye, and patted my shoulder.

Then, he was gone.  I had no idea how to react.  Before I knew it, we were taking a short break, and the host was yelling at me.  I was in a daze.  It was Gerry's voice that snapped me out of my reverie.  He was giggling.

"That'll probably be the best moment of the night, kid. Next time, ask for her driver's license.  But, no harm done."  

I was still convinced of my inevitable firing until I saw the senior VP that had patted me on the back, drunk in the VIP suite hallway later in the evening.  I had just endured the crew dinner hour in Jerry Jones' massive, luxury dining hall, during which I ate literally nothing.  I was thinking of vomiting out of mortification, when she clapped me on the shoulder and slurred cheerfully, "good job tah-night, kid." 

Forgotten already. 

I slumped against the wall of the hallway, lost in the lesson that was slowly and laboriously forming in my head.  I have to relearn it now and again, but for the most part, it has stuck with me over the years and helped me to endure the oddities of a business like no other.

Whatever IT is, it is NOT the end of the world.  Emmitt Smith suffered losses in his illustrious career, but that didn't make him any less of an outstanding player.  If he had given up every time he fumbled, the NFL would be without one of its all time greatest rushers and ambassadors of the sport. 

I think about Mr. Smith and that lesson all the time.  And, hell, if you turn the whole thing over on its head, I gave one dedicated super fan the most glorious experience any Cowboys die-hard could ask be mistaken for Emmitt Smith's mother on live television, in front of millions of viewers. 

It's all about perspective, I suppose.