Tennessee Thomas’ apartment looks just as I’d imagined: cute, retro and little. It reminds me of the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland when everything seems to be shrinking, but really it’s just Alice growing bigger and bigger. Everything in the house, from the cups to the hangers to the rug is part of the same adorable theme and curiously enough in sync with its owner’s quirky voice, soft British accent and batting lashes. I’d call it ‘mod’ but Tennessee has a wilder imagination. “It feels like a little boat!” she smiles. She’s been living here for two years now and made it her very, very own. “I looked at seventeen places in one day during a blizzard!” she shivers – she moved here from Los Angeles. “When I saw this place it had great energy! An artist had lived here and all the walls were painted with insane murals of cats and grasshoppers in technicolors! But with the big windows it was bright, even though it’s tiny. I love my loft bed. It’s like a little cave! Or a tree house! I considered keeping the murals but decided that all my own stuff is already crazy enough. I didn’t need any more inherited wackiness!”
Twenty-eight year old Tennessee is a bit of a jack-of-all-trades these days but her first love is always music. She wanted to be in a band when she was growing up, and did just that. She formed ‘The like” with a few girlfriends from high school and toured the world for ten years. “When we were eighteen, just after graduation, we signed a record deal and made an album,” she recalls. “An incredible dream! We were very lucky girls!” They made subsequent albums, kept touring and then, sadly, broke up which left Tennessee heartbroken and a fugitive. “We’d been doing it for ten years and we were holding each other back in a lot of ways… We needed to go off and do our own thing; we were very co-dependent! I hope at some point we will reunite…” When she settled in New York she got regular DJ gigs (she plays “only 60s soul, girl groups, freakbeat, British Invasion, psych, French yé yé girls!”), did a bunch of fun fashion collaborations with friends like Leith Clark of Lula Magazine, Gia Coppola and Alexa Chung and started The Awareness Experiment with her friends Sarah Sophie Flicker and Maximilla Lukacs. “We make mini-documentaries to raise awareness about critical issues”, like fracking, women’s health rights, the rain forest etc. “Our directing team is called The Department of Peace,” she says proudly.
But the biggest surprise and impromptu career move came when she took over the lease of an empty store front in the East Village a few weeks ago. “I kept walking past empty shops and had a fantasy of having a space of my own,” she says dreamily, “a headquarters for think tanks and salons and community-based collaborative projects. I mentioned the idea to a few friends, and a few months later one friend said, “I think I’ve found you a shop!”. The owners of one of my favorite antiques shops, A Repeat Performance took the lease on the shop next door to them, basically to protect the integrity of the East Village as an artistic community and to keep out a Starbucks or whatever! I was introduced to them and we decided to split the shop. We sell some of their incredible mid-century antiques and I pull in local artists and designers! It’s working very well! I’ve met so many local characters. It’s amazing! It’s so fun to have a club house!”
Tennessee is a colorful, happy girl with lingering teenage crushes and a serious 60s addiction. She collects Pony Tail record cases, 45-inch girl group and garage vinyl and loves all the Motown artists – “High water mark as far as songwriting, musicianship, performance & style is concerned! Everyone was inspiring each other which just made everyone better!”. Her favorite colors are pale pink and bright red. Her middle name is Bunny. And she describes her style as “Beatle-fan! 1965 screaming teenager!” She never wears heels – “too clumsy” – and swears by Peter Pan collars and dorky saddle shoes – “I wore that long before Moonrise Kingdom! Haha.” And not surprisingly she adores vintage. “I love the hunt!” she tells me. “Nothing better than finding a vintage treasure! It’s so exciting… The other day I found an incredible black & white cape and when the label said PARAPHERNALIA I nearly died! That was Betsey Johnson’s first clothing company in New York in the mid-60s! Edie Sedgwick was her fit model and she did all the costumes for Ciao Manhattan! These pieces should be in a museum! My mum was a BIBA girl…” So it’s clear Tennessee was born in the wrong era but she’s making up for it by creating her own little 60s world. For the two hours I spend at her little apartment I am her 60s teenager BFF and I, too, want to cry at a Rolling Stones concert.