My ace partner-in-crime and I heading to a Marrakech themed B-day party last spring. I'm with Auntie Mame, "Live! Live! Live!"
"I've spent my career as a Creative Director for some of America's most influential fashion companies and brands. Saks Fifth Avenue. Bill Blass. Hudson's Bay. Plus, a very important spin at Vogue.
Now I'm happy to say I can focus on my own art and abiding interests in product development and just "making things" that didn't exist before. I hope you enjoy these curious little creatures and tableaux that I've created from long forgotten Victorian etchings. I like to think I'm bringing the past...back to life. Russ
Copyright 2020©christensenHARDIN llc | "God's watching. Don't ya dare do it."
It all began at 350 Madison Avenue, New York City
If you were a student of the universe there was no better place in the world to live than in New York in 1978. Pre-911. Pre-AIDS. Post-Vietnam. Post-Nixon. School and parents were far behind me. I was 24. Talented. Inquisitive. And free. I had just landed at the magazine a year out of school and remained in a state of shock for some time at my great and good fortune. In 1978 Vogue at 350 Madison Avenue was fashion’s Temple of Dendur. People I knew from home couldn't quite grasp it. Even my father was shocked and amazed though he was not sure why. Milwaukee was never mistaken for an epicenter of fashion nor was it an obvious launch pad for oversized dreams. But for me--it was.
On any day in the elevators to the 12th and 13th floors of Condé Nast you could quite literally rub elbows with the fashion elite. This is when huge personalities came and went on an hourly basis from all the magazines housed at 350 Madison. Glamour. Self. Mademoiselle. Gentleman's Quarterly. House & Garden. And Vogue. Perry Ellis. Pauline Trigere. Geoffrey Beene. Halston. Joan Vass. Oscar. Calvin. Everyone. But more exotic and intriguing were the various staff. The fashion editors were life forms totally unto themselves. Mostly self-created and products of New York they inhabited a separate realm. Like all aliens I found myself self drawn to them--like one gravitates closer to a blazing fire or the edge of a cliff. There was a peculiar and specific incandescence to each--but especially to Mrs. Mirabella.
It was perhaps that I began my life in the very small town of Oak Park, Illinois (where they spelled 'right' with a“W”) but for the first time I understood the use of the word--"fabulous." Not a word you often heard in Milwaukee or Oak Park. “It” was in reality a three-dimensional construct conceived at Vogue and Grace Mirabella was then its reigning queen mother. You might occasionally see her in the hallways on 13. This was sacred ground. Silent. Cool. Serene. Cultured. Intelligent. It was overwhelming to me. She embodied everything I read about; everything I'd ever seen that defined sophistication. And it was effortless. And it was real. What you wanted to avoid at all costs however was to be caught in a hallway with Mrs. Mirabella coming from one direction and Alexander Lieberman the other. It was almost too much for any simple earthling to withstand. But then they lived in a separate space. Especially Mr. Lieberman. I don't think he actually saw “regular” people. I was more of a blur from his car window. Or a stain on the carpet. Something to be ignored or avoided. And there was a strict but unspoken code of behaviour. Through osmosis you somehow picked up on the rules and subtle signals. It was unfortunate if you were slow in this regard. For instance you might see Mrs. Mirabella breeze into the elevator wearing a full length lavender chinchilla. Always with two or three highly-strung people orbiting her. And though you really wanted to say, ‘Wow! Now that’s an amazing coat!’--one never spoke. It was understood.
Some people like Mrs. Mirabella have that star quality. You've seen it. I was once having dinner uptown and seated at the next table was an aging but stunning Maureen O'Hara. She was resplendent in a deep blue fitted silk suit. Pearls and...that was it. Her hair, a color that certainly didn't occur in nature, was so rich and redolent even in the low light of evening that no one could look away. And she knew it. Her dining partners were somewhat inconsequential in comparison but I sensed a real camaraderie amongst them.
At one point she unexpectedly turned her head towards the door as if expecting someone to enter. As she did she skillfully flipped her hair, extending her neck to its best
advantage and simply looked past everyone in the room as if we'd all just joined the cast of, "The Leftovers". This was what real stars were like. Knowing all eyes were on her, she gave us just a little taste of her magic. Just a look, nothing more and then returned to the conversation at hand. It was perfect.
You could see a lot in those Condé Nast elevators. On another morning I was riding up with my boss Robin Sweet-Wyatt along with Jade Hobson and June Weir. June noticed that Robin had not one but two identical Coach barrel bags on her shoulder. Chic but also wildly utilitarian. And Robin carried them with this off-hand sense of ‘OH! Do I have two bags on my shoulder?” Well that showed a certain renegade bravado. Simply too much “whatever” for a single bag to hold. June leaned in ever so slightly towards her and in sotto voce said, “Fabulous.” That’s all.
Robin Sweet-Wyatt was my first mentor and guardian and the first woman I knew that had a hyphenated last name. Arriving in New York looking quite innocent it was decided that she and her then husband, the sculptor Greg Wyatt would take me under their wing. At lunch one afternoon with the great Eileen Ford, Eileen looked at me over her salmon salad and said,"Just look at that face. He’s going to get eaten alive." I was definitely a shade of green but had studied in Paris so I felt somewhat equipped for New York. Not unaccustomed to the unexpected advances of women--and a few men I managed to keep to my path. The path however had its moments and its surprises. But it all created this new and unexpected tableau for a life that might have been more conventional had I not crossed the threshold of 350 Madison.
Whenever we were walking to lunch or a studio for a sitting she would unexpectedly say, "Look up. Look up! That's New York up there. Not down here." She was right in a way. Though the small town voyeur in me loved the show on the street it was "up there" where the gods lived. The Zeuses of architecture and design both celebrated and forgotten. William F. Lamb. Daniel H. Burnham. Frank Lloyd Wright. Stanford White. LaCorbusier. Philip Johnson. It was a stone constellation of genius, ingenuity and absolute inspiration. These mammoth expressions of a personal vision and a clarity of purpose made me dizzy. How did they do it? How did they not get knocked off course or lead astray or take the easier path? I felt dwarfed at their tenacity. Their dedication. Their unbending will. From that moment to today it is what I understand the word “genius” to really mean.
A BIT ABOUT ME: I was born in Oak Park, IL where we spelled "Right" with a "W". Grew up in Wisconsin. Went to NYC to work for Vogue and never really came back. Married the most wonderful person in the world--we met when we were 14. Have three grown children and am endlessly trying to reinvent myself to keep up with the insane pace of the universe. I've always been an artist and a writer and now that's my focus for being. xR