When perfect strangers start buying and sporting T-shirts with your head on it, you know you’re onto something. And when that head is unapologetically bald and raised high, the people’s intent is undeniably collateral. Tara Papanicolas launched her t-shirt campaign last winter, when her friend Violetta shot a portrait series of her when she had no hair. “I loved myself bald, not going to lie,” she smiles looking up from her ginger and honey tea in the kitchen. “I rocked the bald head. I was super bald last winter and walked around with no hat most of the time.”
Tara’s hair has grown out now and she loves wearing it short. Her asymmetric cut reminds me of Sheila E’s in A Love Bizarre, anno 1986. And if you ask me, she looks just as sexy, beautiful and strong, despite the fact that less than two years ago, on September 11th, 2013 – “go figure!” she was diagnosed with stage two uterine cancer. She’s in full remission now, but the struggle was devastating and real. When I ask her how she handled the illness and pending therapy she’s resolute: “I never ever once thought I wouldn’t survive it. My oncologist told me from the beginning that he knew I would be ok. At that point, I felt I was in good hands. Having cancer has made me fearless. I know it sounds cliche but it really has made me unafraid and that much stronger.” Life’s new decree has become: You never know how strong you are until being strong is the only choice you have. “I want to travel more for sure. I have been to more countries in the past year than in my entire life.”
Tara grew up in Chevy Chase, MD but has lived in Washington, DC her entire adult life, with the exception of one year in New York City for school. She’s half Greek, with some English, Irish and Dutch mixed in. As a kid she wanted to be a professional dancer, and spent many cherished afternoons “playing store” at her aunt’s boutique and shopping with her mom. She started collecting vintage in the late nineties, and when she got her degree in fashion merchandising, opened her own clothing store. Until recently she conducted her business from two rooms in her basement apartment in DC where clients could shop privately, but as of last week she’s in partnership with two other dealers. “We are set up in a quaint little showroom called Vintage Vagabond Wardrobe House. It’s super girly and sweet. Clients can come in, get styled in vintage from head to toe and walk out with a total new look!”
The panache of her new venture doesn’t look or feel anything like Tara’s “morbid, dark” penchants though. Her natural style tendencies are laced with things Victorian and Edwardian, dark romanticism and black mourning attire. “I am drawn to gothic, high collars, veils and headdresses,” she says, which translates most often in her work as stylist. For herself it’s “black on black on black. I wear a lot of black. A typical day outfit would be a vintage Motley Crue T-shirt, a pair of black high wasted denim, a vintage kimono and black suede creepers.” She names Marlene Dietrich, Grace Jones and Gwen Stefani as style icons. But she does end up choosing a lot of color for her outfits today, which convinces me there’s a need for it. Like when her dark, brooding frown turns into a dazzling, big smile. When I tell her how incredibly photogenic she is, she blushes with desperate humility. With Tara there’s always an air of alleviating gratitude, of relief and disbelief if you must. And I am happy I caught it.