I pay a visit to the dressmaker. Not just any dressmaker. A time machine artist. A bespoke 21st century fashion designer with the soul of a Victorian seamstress. Cynthia Ivey Abitz is her name, and the clothes she designs are magical.
Gil knew I wanted one of her garments, a sweeping, floating coat called the Hambledon duster. He knew because I begged for one, having been tipped off to Ivey Abitz’s existence by an artistic friend. He had no choice, he gave me a gift certificate for Christmas, and I saved up the getting of it like a stocking candy that was too good to eat right away.
I decided to visit the Ivey Abitz studio, which she keeps on a cross street in the shadow of St. John the Divine, just above Manhattan’s Central Park. I wanted to feel the leather, as they say in the car-selling business, before deciding on the fabric of my coat. For every one of the hundreds of designs available, the client chooses the material.
A fluffy quartet of small cats and dogs share the cozy, sun-filled place, which is crowded with the eccentrically beautiful clothing that has earned her a reputation among the eccentrically beautiful. “Antique inspired garments relevant for everyday modern life,” is how Ivey Abitz describes her designs. I would say they have a patina you can’t find on the Macy’s sales rack, where I am usually inclined to find my wardrobe.
On the Ivey Abitz web site there is a more elaborate manifesto: The collection “gives a nod to the past and present… It’s anti-generic garb. It’s an aesthetic. It embraces certain classic and vintage design elements and gives them life in the present. It’s a celebration of life by getting dressed in something rare and special every day. It’s a state of mind. It’s regalia for everyday life.”
Cynthia, Cynthia, you had me at “nod to the past and present.”
On my visit, the designer bustles around, smoothing, fluffing, brushing away loose threads. I will come home and find loose threads all over me. The hazards of visiting the dressmaker, poor me.
How did she arrive at this unique aesthetic? Ivey Abitz remembers a family friend’s collection of antique clothing she happened to see when she was a kid of around eight, dressed in her summer attire of shorts and tee shirt, and saying to herself, Why doesn’t everybody dress like that? She grew up in Michigan farm country and spent her summers on Lake Huron, where she still has a cottage with her husband Josh Ivey Abitz, her partner in the business.
The two partnered as magazine photographers before they went into fashion but the outfits she designed and wore to shoots attracted more attention than the pictures. The couple have been coming to New York since 2001, and moved to the city full-time in 2008 to be closer to their beloved seamstresses and fabric makers.
Pretty pretty pretty. Everything here is pretty. A pretty way of displaying fabric swatches.
Yellow checks on a dress – we call them frocks here, though — that seem so simple yet are so lovely.
Wouldn’t it be pretty to think so? floats into my mind, the sad last line of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Yes, well, what is the matter with pretty thinking? Here in the dressmaker’s studio are silken coats that make you want to go up and nestle your face in them.
The garments come with stories. A shirt I am infatuated with, featuring a delicate flutter about its raw edges, was inspired by Ivey Abitz’s grandmother, who encouraged her to be a dreamer. Another piece took its inspiration from a favorite childhood dog.
Everything is hand tailored and in some cases is handwoven. Ivey Abitz shows me a jacket fresh in from the tailor, not yet blocked, made of a deep rust-colored hand-loomed wool thread. Luscious.
When I ask her if she has a favorite garment she gently rebuffs me, saying that would be like choosing a favorite child. What she does suggest is that when people get to mix and match the designs and fabrics they prefer, they fall in love with their clothes. “They garden, play with children and grandchildren, go to the symphony, sleep in them… everything,” the dressmaker tells me.
I know that when I put on my duster of black and white checked taffeta, I’m never going to take it off.