Trends follow her The watchers watch Hollywood heiress, now author, Liz Goldwyn.
By Booth Moore, Times Staff Writer
October 28, 2006
IT'S midmorning in the 1920s building where Liz Goldwyn lives with her Hollywood ghosts, and you can hear the palm trees rustling outside as soon as the elevator opens. The foyer is guarded by two mannequins that once belonged to Vogue editor Diana Vreeland, and there's a photo of her grandfather Samuel Goldwyn in his glory days as studio head. Goldwyn, 29, stands up from her desk in a short plum jersey Azzedine Alaia dress and matching Christian Louboutin booties. Her face is creamy white and her hair shiny and tinged with red. She looks perfect but in a disarming, nerdy schoolgirl way. Maybe it's those studious-looking Chanel eyeglass frames. You'd never guess that she has a vintage clothing collection that numbers in the thousands or that she is closely watched, imitated and befriended by top fashion designers from L.A. to Paris. She text-messages Yves Saint Laurent designer Stefano Pilati, has spent a year collaborating with Nicolas Ghésquière on her wedding dress and gets love presents, like a resin bangle that reads "He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not," from Dior Homme's Hedi Slimane. She even appeared in a Bottega Veneta advertising campaign.
And you have no idea the kind of thought she puts into getting dressed.
To give a lecture to students at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising on Wednesday night, she played the "sexy academic" in a James Galanos houndstooth dress with a bubble skirt and fishnet stockings.
For the "Gen Art Fresh Faces in Fashion" show last week, she was in designer patron mode, wearing a braided metallic knit shift by Rudi Gernreich, "someone who was truly avant-garde," she says.
For business meetings, she always wears tomato red, which also happens to be the color of her signature lipstick. "Orange and red are power colors," she says. "But it has to be a red that's not too pink, otherwise you might tip into being too sexy. Certain Courrèges, old Anne Klein and Claire McCardell pieces work well."
"She has everything from Mr. Blackwell to Balenciaga, and having known her for 10 years, I haven't seen her wear half of it," says Cameron Silver, owner of the vintage boutique Decades, who counts Goldwyn among his closest friends. "She has a keen sense of what's next without being a slave to it. She was enthusiastic about vintage YSL before the YSL momentum started happening. She wore early Versace to her movie premiere before anyone was into it."
For Goldwyn, fashion isn't just about looking good. It's armor. And she has an acute awareness of how to use clothing to convey a visual message, whether it's at a gallery opening in London or a luncheon with Nancy Reagan in L.A. "I'm always going to be playing dress-up. It's such an important part of getting your game on," she says. And she has a genuine respect for the craft that goes into making a 1940s burlesque costume or a present-day trench coat by L.A.-based Rodarte.
The latest iteration of her passion is a new book, "Pretty Things," which looks at the last generation of burlesque queens in the 1930s to 1950s through their clothes. "For me, clothing has always been connected to history," she says. "That's what draws me in."
As you might expect, Goldwyn's life is filled with Hollywood lore. Her father, Samuel Goldwyn Jr., who produced "Master and Commander," "Tortilla Soup," "Mystic Pizza" and other films, met her mother, screenwriter Peggy Elliott ("That Girl"), at a party at Ed Wood's house. She has five brothers and sisters, many of whom also work in the film industry.
Her interest in fashion was cultivated, at least in part, during summers spent working in the Edith Head building on the Paramount lot. Goldwyn remembers wandering the archives, meticulously organized in categories such as "black shoes, size 7, 1910."
"I had dreams that I would be there at night with a shopping cart and I would go to the aisle with my size and the color and style that I wanted."
She started buying vintage clothing at thrift stores as a teenager, using her allowance and money made from recycling Coke cans. First it was 1940s housedresses. "Even in boarding school, I was buying Courrèges at the dollar-a-pound place in Boston for 25 cents," says Goldwyn, who lives with her husband, Frank, an art director, and their cat Patou (after Jean Patou).
Goldwyn's fervor for collecting prompted friends and relatives to hand things down to her, along with their stories. One such treasure is a horsehair ball gown by the Fontana Sisters of Rome that was worn by Ava Gardner to the Oscars.
She studied photography at School of Visual Arts in New York, working for fashion photographer Fabien Baron and later for Magnum photographer Gilles Peress. In 1997, she met vintage maven Tiffany Dubin through a family friend. Dubin, who had just started the fashion department at Sotheby's, hired her right away. "She brought a fresh point of view and references to talent that hadn't hit my radar," Dubin says.
Goldwyn worked on several auctions and exhibitions, among them "Paris à la Mode," "To Have and to Hold," the Marlene Dietrich estate auction and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor sale. She also introduced younger contemporary artists and photographers such as William Klein and Sarah Moon to the auction market.
"There was no vintage business like there is today," she remembers. "There were two dealers and a small group of clients and celebrities buying."
She knew things had changed when an Yves Saint Laurent for Dior red bouclé suit sold for more than $20,000 at auction. "It wasn't the secret it was when I was 11," she says. "It's a shame the prices have gone through the roof, but that's why I buy what others aren't buying, I don't tell my secret shopping spots, and I trade a lot. And I still go to the Salvation Army."
She hates trends. Instead, she mixes vintage pieces with clothing from today's emerging talents. Two of her favorites are the Greek-born Sophia Kokosalaki, recently hired to revive French fashion house Vionnet ("I'm getting a sneak preview," Goldwyn boasts) and Ashish, the London-based designer who made the cheeky T-shirt with pasties attached that she pulls off the rack in the apartment's original barroom to show me. "Isn't it amazing?" she says, her eyes lighting up.
In 2000, she was approached by the chief executive of Shiseido America to work as a consultant and add some cool to the dusty old Japanese cosmetics brand, established in 1872. She created a fashion sponsorship program for the company, producing shows for up-and-comers such as Susan Cianciolo. She also contributed a monthly column to Japanese magazine Hanatsubaki and worked as the New York editor of French Vogue.
Somewhere along the way, she found time to start a jewelry line, with pieces that sell for $2,500 and up at Kaviar and Kind in Los Angeles and Barneys in New York. By apprenticing with metal workers in Sun Valley, she learned the electro-forming technique she uses to make her copper nugget designs, based on a story from the Gold Rush era of prostitutes being paid according to their weight in gold.
All the while, she was also researching burlesque queens, a pursuit that gained urgency when Zorita, one of her subjects and a friend, died in 2001.
The release of the book this week comes in the midst of a burlesque revival with Dita Von Teese a media darling, the Pussycat Dolls a pop group, the Velvet Hammer troupe going international and indie pinups the Suicide Girls recently guest-starring on "CSI: New York." Fashion designers are picking up on it too, with Dolce & Gabbana showing a fetish-themed collection last month.
Goldwyn became interested in burlesque more than a decade ago when she came across two costumes at the 26th Street flea market in New York. One was a hot pink leotard with nude net inserts, rhinestone piping and fishnet stockings attached, the other a jet black number with a flesh corset underneath. "They were hand stitched, darned and darned again, and less revealing than one would imagine for the 1950s," she says.
She was impressed by how the garments were engineered to stay in place with big brass hooks, snaps and heavy-duty zippers, and soon began scouring flea markets and estate sales for similar costumes. She would always note the provenance of her finds, which led her to become pen pals with some of the ladies who worked in burlesque.
A self-described prude, she decided to photograph herself wearing the costumes, combining her love of photography and fashion. She sent the shots to the former performers, most now in their 80s, which she says "broke the ice." That led to phone calls and finally face-to-face meetings. Goldwyn was fascinated by these glamorous beings that she regarded as strong, confident women, even if that wasn't always the case. "What I learned was that it was not just about putting on a glamorous gown and becoming transformed. It came with a lot of hard knocks."
She used footage of her interviews, during which she tried on old burlesque costumes and learned a striptease, to make a documentary about the end of this era in entertainment, brought about in part by the movies her grandfather produced. Also titled "Pretty Things," the film premiered on HBO last year. Critics saw it as a missed opportunity, and Goldwyn's role as a distraction.
So in the book, costume designers Gussie Gross and Rex Harrington take center stage, along with photographs of their dazzling designs. Personal histories of several burlesque queens are included, not the well-known Gypsy Rose Lee or Sally Rand, but June St. Clair, "The Platinum Princess"; Lois de Fee, "The Amazon of Burlesque"; and Betty Rowland, "The Ball of Fire," who is alive and working at the 217 Lounge in Santa Monica.
"I was a product of the Depression," Rowland explains over the phone. "I wanted to go to college, but we lost our home and I wound up in show business. It put turkey on the table."
Goldwyn didn't expect her own family history to intersect with Rowland's. In 1941, the burlesque star sued Samuel Goldwyn, claiming that his film "Ball of Fire" was inspired by her life. Rowland recalls the studio head and costume designer Edith Head coming to one of her shows at the Follies theater downtown. Head came backstage to inspect a sequined paneled skirt with a matching cropped blouse. The costume worn by Barbara Stanwyck in the film does bear more than a passing resemblance to Rowland's original, but the suit was dropped due to lack of evidence.
When Goldwyn was researching her grandfather's archives at the library at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, she came across a telegram from Sally Rand. "She wrote him asking if there was a part for her in a new Bob Hope movie. She said, 'I can keep it covered up.' It was interesting for me because a lot of these women would have liked to work with my grandfather. They would have liked to have been legitimized."
Liz Goldwyn will be feted in New York, London and Paris. In Miami, designer pal Tomas Maier of Bottega Veneta is hosting a book party for her during Art Basel. Then it's on to her next project, a historical novel about another group of entertainers on the fringe, turn of the century madams in Los Angeles.
Upcoming readings and book signings for "Pretty Things":
7 p.m. Thursday, Book Soup, West Hollywood
7 p.m. Friday, Vroman's Bookstore, Pasadena
Author, filmmaker, collector and all-around cool girl Liz Goldwyn is a patron for fashion designers in L.A. and beyond. She's also a style icon in her own right with a closet full of vintage pieces. A cheat sheet to her style:
Her look: Always changing. This fall it's sexy deconstructionist, last fall it was sexy lumberjack. Next fall, who knows?
Signature: Orangy red lipstick in a discontinued Shiseido shade. Also a fan of Shiseido's "Real Red."
Beauty secret: Always wears SPF 60 sunscreen by La Roche-Posay on face and a hat bought in Chinatown.
Exercise: Ballet lessons with Jennifer Nairn-Smith.
Favorite designers: Too many to name, but Azzedine Alaia, Sophia Kokosalaki, Stefano Pilati for Yves Saint Laurent, Nicolas Ghésquière for Balenciaga, Bottega Veneta, Hedi Slimane for Dior Homme and Rodarte are a few.
Favorite older designers: Rudi Gernreich, Yves Saint Laurent, James Galanos and …
Jewelry: Her own pieces; engagement ring by James de Givenchy and an antique 1910 wedding band.
Handbag: Doesn't believe in "it" bags; currently carrying a YSL tote that Pilati gave her as a gift.
Favorite stores: Decades, The Way We Wore and Resurrection for high-end vintage; Wasteland, Squaresville and the Salvation Army for inexpensive pieces.
Shopping mantra: Will I wear it now, will I wear it when I'm 40?
Last two purchases: A short black YSL sweater dress from the 1960s and a rubberized Alaia skirt from the late 1980s.