Posts tagged makeover

Dress Up with Ilona Smithkin

[Photos Ari Seth Cohen, Text: Maayan Zilberman]

You might recognize Ilona’s beautiful face from when we posted her a few weeks ago after meeting on the sidewalk in the West Village. You might ALSO recognize her from this week’s issue of New York Magazine‘s feature where she is photographed for “The Lookbook”. Since so many of New York Magazine’s readers have asked us about her, I wanted to share more of what she’s shared with me. I’ve had the opportunity to talk with Ilona quite frequently now that we are friends, and would love to share with you how she puts together her stage-worthy outfits and what’s behind those enigmatic eyelashes…

Ilona Royce Smithkin, 90, was born in Poland and lived for some time in Berlin, then moved to New York with her parents when she was a teenager. Ilona’s interests were in painting and drawing, and since moving away from what she calls a “strict past”; she had the freedom to study at The Art Students League where she would find her true path.
(In Part 2 of the Ilona Series, I’ll share more of her artwork and share her advice on when to show your first paintings, how to heal your pain with drawing, and where to find the best light in the house.)

Ilona’s philosophy for “building an outfit” is to mix and match the purpose of garments and to reinvent items to better suit your body type and coloring.
For example, one day she’d been excused from a traffic violation so she bought some pieces from a shop across the street and converted them into a new outfit, since sometimes “the way it is is simply bland”. She turned the tunic part upside down to create a new top, sewing together a neckline out of the hem. Then she tied the arms together in front as though it was a wrap dress, and ta-dah… a look a la Diane von Furstenberg!

Many readers have been asking about Ilona’s homemade eyelashes, which for the past 35-40 years she has handmade and applied every morning. Snipped from her natural waves, her exaggerated lashes change in tone as her color changes, and are accented with a swoosh of green shadow.
“I don’t wear anything except my eyelashes and shadow… oh, and lipstick. But I don’t wear makeup.”
I asked if living in New York after the war inspired her to use more color or to dress more vibrantly- Ilona says, “It was more about my change of lifestyle, a less strict time than living in Berlin during the 30’s and 40’s. I only wear something based on how i feel… style is in theback of my mind, but it’s based on my mood.”
“I’ve always had the same style because it’s loose, it’s my feeling of FREEDOM… I’m free and I’m open!”

Ten years ago, at the age of 80, Ilona started perforing (in a miniskirt and heels!) and every August headlines the “Eyelash Cabaret” in Provincetown, MA. (Ilona has always loved to dance, but it’s only more recently that she felt the confidence to get up on stage). We rifled through some of her favorite dance outfits, and one of them was a shirt she was holding aside as a gift for me. She showed me how to wear it “Ilona Style”, tied in the front to cinch the waist. She said even though it’s a bold print, it’s a neutral because it goes with everything.

When a woman is in the presence of a true beauty such as Ilona, it’s hard not to ask for makeup tips or (dare I say) a “makeover”. She says I can do the eyelashes like her, but that they really wouldn’t suit my proportions.
Ilona never tried to emulate anyone else’s style as she was developing her look. She says, “If you try to imitate too much, then you look like nothing. Never compare yourself, YOU are YOU.”

Instead of giving me her signature look, she suggests a bit of green shadow and some Shu Uemura lipstick given to her by a close friend who is a makeup artist.
“All the dark colors are back in, but don’t use colors that are too deep for you, it makes you look older.” We end up mixing colors at her painting station, as though she is painting a portrait.

Ilona’s talents are many, but one of the most common requests she gets is to capture “just the eyes” for a portrait.

Ilona has lived for over 50 years above what used to be “The Beatrice Inn” nightclub. She noticed all the fashion trends come and go, and says “some of them look beautiful just because they are young… like springtime….” But she asks, “Do you really like it? Or is it because of fashion?… You have to live for more than the moment, but this you learn with AGE”…
“When I was younger I was insecure and tried anything unusual to be noticed. Now, with perspective, I can even wear something neutral and be comfortable in my skin.”

“I do love when they call me sassy… I flirt a lot, but it’s not about having, it’s about appreciating.”
Ilona talks about “never buying green bananas”, it means to live for today and not to wish for something in the future. She says, ” I feel beautiful inside and that’s beautiful enough for me.”

Ladies Do Lunch

[ Photos: Ari Seth Cohen, Text: Maayan Zilberman]
Some of you have noticed a new voice on Advanced Style as of late… That’s me, Maayan. I met Ari a while ago when I started talking to him about casting some of the women featured on this website for my fashion line The Lake & Stars. Many of the inspiring people on this website remind me of friends I made during years of volunteering as a painting instructor, and during frequent visits to my grandmother who was a social worker in a nursing home. From these experiences I got to learn that life doesn’t end at 50- in fact, it is just the beginning!

Ari’s work encouraged me to show my customers how women with wisdom and strong personal style can build a “look” with just a little inspiration, and how you can wear an outfit without an outfit wearing you.

This week I had the opportunity to meet up with Debra (a fixture on Advanced Style) and MaryAnn, who you all got to see in photos when Ari visited her home to see all the heavenly jewelry she makes. As we ate lunch (at Debra’s favorite of 30+ years, “Spring Street Natural”), the ladies got to compare their views on style, health, and aging gracefully. They even shared some of their stories of dressing up when they were children!

What are some of your earliest memories of expressing personal style?

Debra: I grew up in a very creative and open household, my parents encouraged my sister and I to play dress-up with clothes and to express ourselves. I was always very opinionated about layering. When I was 4 yrs old we moved to Florida, and I had a cotton harlequin jumpsuit that to me said, “THIS is Florida!”… It was my first favorite item; it was freeing and made me feel like I could do no wrong in it. Dressing up was always fun, it was never precious or formal.
MaryAnn: When I was a child, my aunt was a buyer for the upscale department store Gimbels (this building is now the Manhattan Mall in Herald Square!) so I got to browse her closets and have access to all the high fashion items. She would send me boxes and boxes of outfits, and every time they would be more fantastic. I got to learn early how to play with style, and none of it felt precious. Because it was a gift, nothing ever felt off-limits to play with.
Debra: (chimes in after we realize how similar their approach is): If you want an item in your wardrobe, you have to enjoy it…. Don’t be too precious with special items, make them casual- like a diamond brooch on a t shirt, or a tutu as a shawl… its about incongruity!

Do you feel like age should affect how much skin you show?
Debra: I have a great neck and shoulders, thanks to yoga and good genes, so I like to bare them. I’d say that every woman should try things on before purchasing them or leaving the house, because sometimes you think it looks like too much but its gorgeous.
We have to get over these outdated assumptions, that women (or men) can only wear certain things.
MaryAnn: A smart woman knows how to play to her good side, with the operative word being PLAY. Dressing up should be fun; you can’t take it too seriously.

Many women I talk to have a hard time putting together an outfit, or as we might say, “building a look”. How do you get dressed in the morning?
MaryAnn: Dressing up is a creative process that brings me closer to my “Self”. It doesn’t really occur to me that people would have a hard time with this; it’s a natural part of my day. My husband asked me recently “What would you call that look?”, and I answered, “It’s just me!”
Debra: Building an outfit is a morning meditation. It gets me prepared for the day ahead, and is what will determine my mood for the day.

(Last week I asked Debra to take me to Forever 21, a low-priced trendy fashion chain, so I could see how she would build a look with her “Frugality is Fun” mantra in mind. Without a second thought, Debra chose five or six structured dresses or corset-style bodice tops as the base of each look she would create. This would be the answer to all my questions about Debra… I needed to know, as an artist, what would be her “canvas”? She then layered all sorts of blouses, skirts, hats, etc. What you’d never expect, however, is how she treated each item- she’d turn it upside down, inside out, whatever way would work. It’s all about approaching clothes (and life) from a new perspective.)

What would you say to someone worried about age taking a toll on his or her appearance?
Debra: Wrinkles? If you have wrinkles I’d say… So what?! If you eat right, you’ll feel right. You have to keep this consciousness into your 40s, 50’s, 60’s and on…
MaryAnn: In order to keep looking young you have to do youthful things, like dressing with expression. If you feel young mentally, you will look young.
Debra: As you get older you have the confidence to take different style risks, which is inherently youthful.

How do you transition your look into hotter summer months?
MaryAnn: I wear a lot of leather layers all year, but I play with it, less layers and lighter weight. It’s the same aesthetic though. The jewelry I wear changes, I use more seasonal materials, like shells, for summer.

Who are your favorite designers?
MaryAnn: I’m in love with the Rodarte girls. Those sisters are the most creative designers right now; I love their aesthetic and fabric combinations. My dream would be to meet them.
Debra: I love the look of Rick Owens, and Comme des Garcons, but its more for inspiration- once a year I splurge on a designer item, but for the most part I like to work with what I have and just explore different looks.

Do you swear by any beauty regimens? How do you have such amazing skin?
Debra: I really don’t buy products, my main rule is to only use on your skin what you would consider putting in your mouth… so I use a lot of oils like jojoba, olive, etc… I just recently started using Weleda products; they make a lot of creams for babies.

What items do you think every woman should have? And does this change as you get older?
MaryAnn: You always have to have accessories, and lots of jewelry…. And black ribbon. I often have some in my purse if I need to tie something, or I put it in my hair.
Debra: Yes, everyone should have layers of accessories, and recycled items (things you use for more than one purpose)…. I always have velvet ribbon or elastic ribbon around to use as a belt, headpiece, bracelet, or for my hair.

What about someone who’s never tried dressing this way, what if they want to try something new?
MaryAnn: So much of the time people are cemented in their ideas of dressing and don’t want to change their look to be more creative- I used to try giving more friends advice, but its hard as you get older to change these habits!
Debra: To succeed with this I think you need to take it 180 degrees… go to thrift shops so the changes are less of an investment. Spend very little on just a few things so you can play and see what you want to do to express yourself. Go buy some new eye shadow, get a free makeover… anything that feels like PLAY!