This is a story of freedom that begins with an honest confession: I was once the absolute worst kind of fashion victim.
Without a surplus of money or subscription to Vogue, I put together a handful of outfits and called myself pretty. Don’t get me wrong; I didn’t look dreadful. Once in a while, I even attracted a compliment or two. I knew what colors matched my pale complexion, set my dark eyes to shine. It was just that there was something lacking.
You see, I lived in a semi-urban neighborhood of Fairfield County, Connecticut, surrounded by wealth, privilege, and malls. Wearing scuffed shoes to Whole Foods was considered offensive. Wrinkled blouses were forbidden. It was best not to be caught wearing a scarf that did not match your stockings. Weekly manicures were a necessity for women, and chipped toenail polish was an indication of weak character.
I scurried along, attempting to keep up. Every season required a new clothing collection. I visited the chain stores to find inexpensive pieces that were up-to-date and flattering, that still exuded an illusionary air of uniqueness. I got by. While my nails were often uneven and colorless, I did not necessarily stand out in a crowd at the locals-only beach. Yet, on some days, I could not help but feel bored with my wardrobe and sufficiently inferior to the clean-cut fashionistas about me. I was forever scratching the leather of my Dansko clogs, and noticing behind reflective store windows purses and slacks and earrings I desired and could never afford. I had a look, but during certain dark dressing hours, it didn’t seem precisely my own.
With my move to the rural Ulster County hamlet of Willow, there came a great shift. Living and working in a cottage on the Old Beaverkill, I woke dazzled by the beauty of the mountains and went to bed inspired by the abundance of starlight. I spent my first few days there alone but for the gentle presence of my landlords; a painter and art dealer who lived on the exquisite four-acre property. The quiet was a balm.
My first experimentation with fashion involved pajamas and the donning of those casual, comfortable items well into a few juicy summer afternoons. “I’m a writer,” I assured the UPS guy when he showed up at my door, as I was eating a grape popsicle and wearing a 10-year-old, bleach-stained nightgown. He offered a polite smile in return. It occurred to me as he walked away—brown shorts and white tube socks stark against the bucolic landscape—he didn’t care what I was wearing. This was my first step toward fashion liberation. Recognizing that I could wear whatever I liked and no one would look at me askance, I gave myself the go-ahead to be bold.
When it came time for a trip into Woodstock, I opened my closet door. I peered into my jewelry box. In the spirit of my new life and permissive Hudson Valley locale, I selected a pink glass-beaded necklace, a sage-green top, a floppy straw hat, and a flowing black skirt. They were old wardrobe items, but I had never mixed and matched them before. I was to abandon my formulaic selection of attire in favor of a constantly changing, creative approach. I began to frequent privately-owned boutiques and to purchase original apparel and accessories because I thought they were super, not because they would fit some predetermined outfit in my mind. Experimenting with hairstyles became a source of entertainment. I trusted my own sense of style in a way I had never before, and I crossed pedicures off my monthly budget list. They were a luxury I could enjoy on occasion. The greater luxury came in taking charge of my fashion life. By God, I had choices! The Hudson Valley was teeming with retail stores ready to help in my transition from fashion victim to fashion star.
Pegaus Footwear Flair Will Take You Far
Pegasus Footwear bears an ultracompassionate motto: Love your feet. As someone who has never been able to squash my delicate toes into narrow compartments, I can think of no better premise from which to start a selection of footwear.
The Woodstock-based company came to life two decades ago, and a second store was opened eight years back in New Paltz. Winter Gnip has managed the New Paltz location for much of that time. She switched from accounting to shoe sales because she wanted a fun, direct way to help people. Gnip loves the ever-changing world of shoe fashion, and appreciates even more the open-minded, easy-going environment that she helps to maintain at Pegasus.
“You have to have your own fashion, your own flair,” she says. “When a person has that, you can see it all over their face. Fashion is the way they feel. It’s their comfort level.”
The shoes at Pegasus are comfortable and fashionable, and there is an enormous variety to choose from. Shopping here leaves customers light on their feet and ready to traipse over the hills of the Hudson Valley, looking at the views while looking good.
Shelley K. Free to Be
Shelley King was a costume designer who wanted to create beautiful things that had longevity, so she began crafting jewelry, and opened her shop Shelley K. in Saugerties. The place is full of timeless, one-of-a-kind pieces that King hopes will help their future owners make memories. She says, “Whether something makes you feel sexy, fun, alive, or serious, putting on a piece of jewelry should be like greeting an old friend. Jewelry is a fashion that lasts longer than a season.”
In July of 2007, King had the opportunity to participate in a fashion show that was part of the HITS Horse Shows in the Sun, a series of equine competitions and fun recreational events. She accessorized every outfit flaunted on that Saugerties runway, showing everyone in attendance the power of jewelry to make clothing more special or more subtle; to make it entirely one’s own.
“It was a great exercise,” says King, “in helping people feel free to be who they are, especially here in this area. Because we don’t live in an urban environment that dictates style, people are free to express their own individuality. Every person knows what looks best on their body, and what’s in fashion isn’t necessarily what looks best. We don’t have to go with the trends.”
Casa Urbana A Most Colorful Getaway
David Iorio got a feel for Hudson Valley fashion shortly after he relocated from Manhattan to be with his partner Kenneth Jacobs. In broad daylight, he spotted a woman wearing a top from American Eagle Outfitters with a couture skirt. He knew he had left the city behind, and so had she.
“There’s a sense of being by the river and having the countryside,” Iorio says. “That outfit worked for that woman. It looked wonderful and comfortable. Everything here is a little less structured and more laid back.”
Yet Iorio and Jacobs knew that if area residents were not missing the stresses of city life, they were missing other, more pleasant elements. Jacobs had worked for years as a hair stylist in Westchester and Putnam County salons—discerning markets in which he had to prove that he was the best in order to satisfy his clientele. He had received extensive training in cutting and corrective coloring, and he wanted to open his own salon here in our valley. Both men believed that if they offered quality service and unique bath and beauty products, their customers would find themselves nestled in the lap of luxury along South Street in Hudson. In a time when traveling has become so dear, Iorio and Jacobs tender an easy escape with their modern apothecary and salon Casa Urbana.
Jewel Beyond Limitations
“I’ve never been into fashion in other places,” says Ronny Widener, co-owner of the clothing store Jewel in Woodstock.
Widener and her husband opened Jewel in 2006. It was a long time dream for this self-proclaimed former bureaucrat. She had always shopped at annual crafts shows for one-of-a-kind clothing and jewelry, and was constantly frustrated by the dearth of such items on the street. She vowed to one day open a store where clients could find such treasures any time of the year.
The Wideners traveled between SoHo and Woodstock for some time before hunkering down in the famously artsy upstate milieu. Jewel is their second ownership adventure—they operated Occasions on Rock City Road beforehand—and it is rich with stock. A West Coast designer provides items of hand-dyed and hand-painted silks; a Soho artisan contributes skirts, pants, and jackets in travelable fabrics, flattering for any figure; embroidered handbags are made by Vietnamese women whose village is handsomely rewarded for their fine, detailed work.
For the most part, Jewel is not cheap. This is a decidedly upscale Woodstock store, but its merchandise comes with a guarantee. As Widener says, “Clothing choices are so limited now because it’s Mall America. When people come here, they know that my pieces are always unique.”
Loominus Weaving a New Game
It began with the purchase of a single loom. Twenty-five years later, Marsha Fleisher continues to practice what she refers to as the “meditative art” of weaving. Loominus of Bearsville is a cottage industry owned by a woman, which makes it an emblem of the gutsy and grassroots Hudson Valley community. It sells to over 100 stores, including Barneys New York, which makes it a thriving enterprise. The Route 212 building houses a full showroom of hand bags, scarves, jackets, pillows, and throws of gorgeous colors and textures. A working studio surrounds the showroom. Looms and samples abound. Every day Fleisher and her staff generate something out of nothing: fabric out of air and clothing born from their true creative hearts.
Says Fleisher, “People here are both cosmopolitan and country. They enjoy getting dressed, enjoy the work of color and texture. They are aware of art and fashion, although by moving here, they choose not to play that game. With their sense of taste and tremendous life experience, they appreciate my wearable art.”
Sweet Taste of Freedom
A new fashion game has emerged from our fertile Hudson Valley, and it’s all about originality. The shoes on my feet, the bracelets at my wrist, the shade of my hair, and the threads across my back are all indications of who I am and who I can be. This former Connecticut girl, victim of uptight cookie-cutter fashion, seems to have escaped the bully of Mall America.
May my scarves and my stockings forever clash in an enticing manner that is thoroughly me. May your blouse wrinkle in perfect line with your character, not perfect but perfect just the same. And may we all prevail in our thread-by-thread escape from the dictates of fashion conformity.
- Jennifer May
- Frida Kahlo necklace from Hotcakes Design, at Jewel in Woodstock.
- Jennifer May
- Tsonga sandal at Pegasus in New Paltz.
- Jennifer May
- Handwoven chenille jacket at Loominus Handwovens.
- Jennifer May
- Handcrafted jewelry at Shelley K in Saugerties: oxidized sterling and sapphire and diamond rings by Billy Van Bakker; rings by Klaus Burgel (top); and gold rings by Barbara Zucker (center).