“My friend calls it dirty dish water!” laughs Michelle as she takes a sip of her third glass of Zico coconut water. “I’m obsessed with it. It’s delicious! And hydrating!” Most of the statements Michelle Harper makes are lucid, high-pitched, and accompanied by at least one exclamation mark. Every sentence is an eloquent waterfall of refined vocabulary. Born in Colombia but schooled in Switzerland, she pronounces every word as if it’s her last and as if she’s speaking to a higher audience. And when it comes to her love for fashion and beauty, the conviction and tone in her monologues is even more elated.
“I love anything from the 20’s to the 60’s,” she tells me. “I have different people in different parts of the world hunting for vintage pieces for me, like crawlers sourcing treasures, all the time.” Yvonne Potter who owns Britannia Antiques is one of them. She found the black feather hat (above) that was made by and belonged to Lynne O’Neill, a 1950’s burlesque dancer. “Some dealers I assign to find hats or old McQueen, others find beaded flapper dresses. I pick and choose and send back what I don’t want. How lucky am I!?” One of her latest obsessions is to find another gold wig from the 20’s. They are extremely rare, fragile, hand stitched with gold thread and in fact quite heavy.
Michelle’s wardrobe would make any woman (and their man) weep. It takes up the entire exterior wall of her living room. Left to right, floor to ceiling. Most of her clothes are vintage and organized per category: coats, day dresses, evening dresses, contemporary, shoes, jewelry, all dry-cleaned, stored in boxes, wrapped in tissue paper and/or polished. And the entire thing is seasonal too! Come spring everything will be shipped to storage. “I am building a cabinet just for my hats now,” she points at the opposite wall. “I simply don’t have room anymore to store them properly.”
Michelle collects vintage hats, glasses and lingerie. She admits, she has the perfect little frame for those tiny corsets and bras. “It’s wonderful! Contemporary lingerie doesn’t fit me because I’m narrow and petite.” But her love for vintage goes far beyond that. When it comes to the old crafts Michelle is somewhat melancholy, even borderline vexed. She does not understand why designers these days don’t do anything fun and exciting anymore. “Probably because it wouldn’t sell. Today’s fashion market is primarily a financial business.” According to Michelle, the designs of the past are without comparison. “Look at the detail that went into this dress, ” she whispers as she pulls me closer to a 1930’s green netted dress. “You would be hard pressed to find anything like this today. Every green velvet line has been hand stitched to perfection onto the netting to create this coral like pattern – when I look at the stitching and think of the delicacy of the material and the work that it took to do this – I am truly transfixed.”
She also does not care too much about comfort when it comes to vintage. “Some criticized Cristobal Balenciaga for lack of comfort and practicality in certain instances or over-manipulation and transformation of woman’s natural silhouette – but since I really don’t care about those things, I think of him as the master of masters. A true visionary sculptor in fabric and glamour.”
Michelle’s all time favorite fashion quote is by Rudi Gernreich. He said that “Fashion will go out of Fashion”. Her degree in Art History from NYU’s Fine Arts program, comes in handy as she systematically breaks down his observation: “In essence the present fashion becomes the past and that past becomes vintage. The fashion of the moment (which is aspirational) is continually passing becoming passe (which is the contradiction). But for me the wisdom and realization in this quote is that there is no real moment, only a sea of moments, a sea of vintage fashion that we love. And its value, for me never dies. So let fashion go out of fashion… And love vintage.”
“My grandmother is my fashion icon – she was fortunate enough as a young lady to be able to shop in the couture houses in Paris, shop in the best boutiques in New York, and have couture items and jewelry made to her specifications. She was classically but boldly elegant and growing up in her closet with all her gowns, jewelry, wigs, hats, bags, and her crystal perfume flacons and her Paloma Picasso lipstick!!! That was what set the stage for me.”