I like this quote about jewelry from an interview that fashion designer Miuccia Prada did with the New York Times in May:
“I’m interested in jewels … I know what it is: I only like antique jewelry because I like the stories attached to them. I like to know who was wearing them. It’s the life of people that interests me. Also, they are beautiful. Flowers and jewels are part of a woman’s history. I like to look at these jewels and wonder if the woman was happy. For instance, I have a brooch which features a boat in the sea and on top there is a little gold rose and over this a spider. And I wonder who gave it to the woman? Was she a lucky woman? What does it mean?”
The thing she likes about antique jewelry is the thing I like about antique jewelry too: the story. Unlike Prada, however, I don’t wear antique jewelry. I prefer hefty pieces with brilliant gems and bezel settings, and a lot of antique pieces are fairly lightweight with old-fashioned gem cuts and prong settings. And that’s why I started my own line full of storytelling jewelry.
As I’ve said before, the 18K gold jewelry in my signature Wendy Brandes line is largely inspired by the stories of powerful women of history. Even my new “Maneater” collection, which isn’t inspired by any real-life individual, tells a story about power, as explained so well by Jennifer Heebner in her recent article on the Maneater rings for JCK Magazine. But I’m not sure I’ve made it clear that storytelling is the most important element in my design process. I first realized my process might be unusual only last month when I was at the JCK jewelry trade show in Las Vegas. I was telling the jewelry wimmins I was hanging out with that I had looked at a lot of loose gems but — happily — had refrained from buying any. They asked why. Why not buy beautiful gems? I explained that I don’t design around gems. The way I design is to think of an inspiring historical female. (She doesn’t have to be a role model. In fact, I prefer if she was a murderer or kinda crazy. Bad girls are more fun.) Then I think about how I can use metal — gold, silver or platinum, but mostly 18K yellow gold — to tell her story. It might take me years to come up with a design for a particular lady. It’s not an overnight thing. Once I finally have the design, I buy gems to fit it. Sometimes I custom order those gems. The 25-carat amethysts in my Marie Antoinette earrings were specially cut for me.
The green tsavorites in the Marie Antoinette earrings were custom-ordered too. Small, faceted, accent stones like that are called “melee.” You can buy melee by the carat (which is a weight measurement). So, for instance, you can request two carats of diamonds that are 1.5 millimeters in diameter. Some stones might be a tiny bit bigger, some might be a tiny bit smaller, but the entire selection would definitely weight two carats on the dealers’ scale. But, because I require gems that fit the metal — and I’m not fitting the metal around gems — it doesn’t make sense for me to pick through a package of melee, hoping I stumble upon the perfect tiny stone. I place very precise orders. Here’s one from April, for my Lion and Hunter Maneater ring:
- 20 tsavorites measuring 1.4 millimeters
- 7 yellow diamonds measuring 1.1 millimeters
- 18 blue sapphires measuring 1.2 millimeters
My gem dealers know that I want these orders filled exactly as stated. If I need a 1.1 millimeter diamond, there’s no use having a 1.2 millimeter diamond in there. I’ll bring that one back and exchange it. It’s easy to get diamonds cut to very small, precise measurements because they’re the hardest stone and won’t fall apart while being cut. Colored gems can be more challenging. Some of them are brittle and likely to break in the cutting process. Or you can have a gem like emerald which, by nature, has fractures (tiny cracks within the stone) that make it more inclined to break while being cut to a miniscule size. I have to keep that in mind while doing the metal part of the design. I can’t let some part of the metal get so narrow that I require a 0.5 millimeter tsavorite for the space because I’m never going to be able to find one of those.
I do admire the work of other designers who start with an amazing gem and create something fantastic around it. In fact, I often wish I could do that. But my mind seems to work a different way, and whenever I start a piece around a gem, I’m not very satisfied with the results, so I stick with what comes naturally.
Someone who might want to shake off one of her natural tendencies is, surprisingly, Miuccia Prada. Going back to that May interview, which was conducted by Andrew O’Hagan, Prada said some interesting things about aging and how we need to change our attitude towards it. O’Hagan then asked, “So why not use older models sometimes?”
O’Hagan shared the resulting conversation:
“‘Mine is not an artistic world, it is a commercial world. I cannot change the rules.’ [Prada replied.]
‘But you change the rules,’ I said. ‘If you put an old lady on the runway, other people would do it too.’
She laughed. In that light her eyes were green; before I asked the question they were brown. ‘Let’s say I’m not brave enough. I don’t have the courage.'”
First things first: please call an exorcist if I ever write about someone’s eyes like that. It’s very poetic, but so not me that if I were to write that, it could only mean a demon has taken over my body. Moving on … OMG WTF? Prada doesn’t have the courage to put an older model on the runway? Of course, the model would still be tall, thin and gorgeous, so SRSLY? What’s the problem? Prada has the power. As O’Hagan told her, she changes the rules in fashion all the time. She frequently comes up with designs that everyone says are hideous … right up until the point where EVERYONE wants that look. No. NEEDS that look, per my “Never Is the Next New Thing™” theory.
She does it consciously. “Ugly is attractive, ugly is exciting,” she told O’Hagan. One example is flatforms, which appeared on Prada’s Spring 2011 runway. (Keep in mind that the Spring season was shown in fall 2010, which gave consumers a few months to ponder the new look before it became available.)
In February 2011, when the shoes became available, the Telegraph said they “really are quite ugly, the Quasimodos of footwear, if you will” and noted that no celebrities had jumped on the opportunity to wear them pre-season. By March, New York Magazine was reporting that the style had sold out. In fact, the shoe made such a big impact that we’ll still be seeing its descendants in the stores next season, in the form of both big, lug “creeper” soles and oxford-style shoes. I must admit that I’m so enamored of the Stella McCartney shoe for Fall 2013 pictured below that I’ve got a whole separate post coming up on it.
Let’s review this: Prada, the woman who can introduce a Frankenstein-worthy shoe and get everyone to gleefully follow in her lug-soled footsteps … the design genius behind a company that reported 3.3 billion euros ($4.4 billion) in revenues in for 2012 … isn’t “brave” enough to use older models. I’m disappointed that O’Hagan didn’t ask her about models of color next because, based on her track record, she’s terrified of those ladies too. Yes, there is a brand-new Prada ad campaign with a black model in it. But, according to press accounts, it’s the first time a black model has appeared in a Prada ad in 19 years. And this isn’t the first time there’s been a gap of many years between black models for Prada. Back in 2008, Jourdan Dunn was the first black model to appear on a Prada runway in over a decade. Lack of diversity is an issue in the fashion business in general, of course, not just for Prada. There are designers — including my dear friend Zang Toi — who have always been committed to having a diverse runway. The late Yves Saint Laurent often worked with black models and I’m pleased to see that Raf Simon’s show for Dior couture employed six black models this week. But, most runways are pretty white and in my opinion, almost no one — maybe not even Marc Jacobs or Karl Lagerfeld — has the power to influence the industry like Prada does.
I’d like Prada to get to work on this ASAP because the lack of diversity was a major topic of discussion in 2008 and we still have to talk about it and it’s getting old. And not in a sex-ay older model way, but in a boring, passe way. The reason the year 2008 sticks in my mind is that a couple of months after Jourdan Dunn made news by being on the Prada runway, I was chatting with a New York fashion designer about a show the designer had in the works. I said if it were my show, I’d use ONLY black models as a big “fuck you” to the industry’s prejudices. Yes, I’d be scared to do it. I wouldn’t be scared of racists, because they’re wrong and stupid, so who cares about their opinions. I personally wouldn’t be scared of retailers not buying the clothes, because in my experience, retail sheeple always have plenty of incoherent reasons for not working with a smaller designer. Giving them one more wouldn’t be a big deal to me. I’m used to the rejection. The thing I’d be scared of is that normally sympathetic people wouldn’t like seeing my models taking part in a big “fuck you” or that they’d write it off as a publicity stunt. That said, I think when you’re scared to do something because it’s different, the fear is often a sign that you should proceed. Also, subsequent shows with a continued commitment to diversity would speak for themselves, so I’d just have to tough out any initial uproar. Of course, my acquaintance laughed because he had some good establishment contacts and there was no way he was going to put on a “fuck you” statement show in front of them. And I probably would have forgotten this whole conversation if it wasn’t for Italian Vogue putting out a special, all-black issue a few months later.
I was like, “Oh my God! MY IDEA!” It was in the form of a magazine instead of a runway show, but still! I gave myself a pat on the back for my prescience. The issue was successful; it had to be reprinted to meet high demand. There was some criticism of the type I would have worried about — one special issue isn’t enough, there shouldn’t be a need for a special issue, the models didn’t have the “right” hair or skin tone — but I could have lived with that level of nit-picking for my imaginary runway show. My follow-up would have made my worldview clear. I don’t know what Italian Vogue’s follow-up has been because I rarely see it, so I can’t speak to that.
In my real-life business, I’ve only gotten to work with a model once, and that was last year. The most important photos for me to have are basic, white-background product shots for my website, press and mailings to retailers. I generally don’t have money left after the product shots for an editorial shoot, even though it’s very helpful for customers to see pieces on a body. Fortunately, a lot of my gorgeous clients send photos of themselves wearing their jewelry, so I’ve got a nice group of volunteer models. (If you are a customer who hasn’t been featured yet and would like to be, please contact me!) I still dream of doing another formal shoot soon. I have so many new designs that haven’t been photographed on anyone yet. I’ve talked about a concept a little bit with a photographer and the next shoot might be more abstract, just jewelry against the skin — no face or clothes to distract the eye this time. I need to stay focused on what I have for sale. But that doesn’t mean I regret last year’s shoot with gorgeous model Tina J. The LOL rings photo is probably my favorite one from that shoot.
Tina J has a great smile, but she only unveiled it towards the end of the shoot. We were all like, “Why were you hiding that?” And she explained that if she smiles at the beginning of the shoot, everyone wants her to keep smiling, and smiling for the camera for eight hours nonstop is actually pretty painful. If I ever thought a professional model’s job was glamorous, I got over that idea at this shoot. It’s hard work mixed with long stretches of intense boredom. Finally, I can be thankful that I’m not 5’11” and size 2 with a perfect face. Whew! Dodged a bullet there. But wait! What if Miuccia develops a fetish for short, imperfect people? Oh yeah … I’m much, much too old to ever worry about walking Prada’s runway. Safe!
There are easier modeling jobs though. I swear you won’t have to smile eight hours nonstop to be in my next Huffington Post fashion blogger slideshow. I’m looking for a diverse group: all ages, sizes, shapes, complexions, nationalities, hair textures/colors are welcome! For that matter, I’ll take dudes too if they have outfit photos of the requested styles. Any guy wearing jeggings should holla at me for sure. Here is the information. I’m most in need of recent boyfriend jeans and peplum photos, so if you’ve got any of those, get at me.