An English Girl In New York

Debra Rapoport

“No, let them be artists”

Debra Rapoport: It’s all woven. I cut up rags and I weave it all. I sit at night and just weave rags.

Ruthie Darling: You have an amazing eye for colour. It’s hard to say why these colors work together, they just do.

DR: It’s an intuitive thing. You can’t really teach colour. I mean, I can tell you what I see, but I don’t actually know how I get there. It’s like a lot of things, after living a while, it just comes. 

DR: I was born on the Lower East Side in a place called Knickerbocker Village; it was one of the early housing projects. It was wonderful, the whole family lived there. My father had a grocery store during the war and so he was a popular guy because he had butter and sugar. Then in 1949 the first supermarket came in and he saw the writing on the wall, so he sold the store and we moved to Florida. We were there six months and my mother hated it, so we moved back to the Bronx. Then of course we moved to the suburbs like everyone did and my sister and I were miserable! In high school my sister and I were freaks. We moved to the suburbs and we wore black tights and black Italian shoes . Everyone else wore bobby socks and saddle shoes. They didn’t know what to make of us. 

RD Was your mother artistic?

DR: She was and she would have been more so, but being a child of the Depression she didn’t have opportunities and so she encouraged us. When my father wanted us to go and get degrees in education she said “No, let them be artists”. My father was a religious Jew from Eastern Europe; he wanted us to get married and have a family and my mother said “No, they’re gonna have careers, they’re gonna be independent women”. I’m living the life she would have lived. We had a cousin who was the Dean of Fine Arts at Boston University, very prestigious, and he did Judaic Art. So my father called him and said “What do you think about my daughters going to college to do art degrees?” and he said “There is no better education” so my father said okay and that was that.

DR: I went to graduate school in Berkeley and Berkeley changed my life. I had a professor who was the best in the field, he could just see the good in everything and it was always a positive critique, he was an amazing human being. In graduate school we would all meet and make dinner and look at each other’s work and discuss it. We are all still in touch, those of us who are alive. That class was special. Our teacher told us that at the time, but now I know we were. I stayed in the Berkeley area for 11 years. I got married and moved into an alternative community and everyone thought I had lost my mind.

RD What do you mean by "an alternative community"?

DR Well, it was 1970 and my first great friend was living in this place called Synanon. It was very famous, it started out as the most famous drug rehab place in the 1950’s. Chuck Dederich, who started it, was an alcoholic and he found sitting around with other friends telling the truth was the answer. So he started the first encounter group which was called the Synanon Game. In '69 they had a few facilities and they opened it up to non-addicts called Squares. Ha! We were called squares! I was too much into healthy living to try drugs. I said “If I do my art, why do I need to get high? I’m high already!” So I went down to see what this Synanon game was about and it was truth telling, you’d sit in a circle and encounter each other with truths.

RD It sounds very….evolved.

DR: Oh, yeah. And it worked with addicts. But we were a full fledged community too. We had gardens, we had farms, we had everything. I met my husband there, who was also a square and he pursued me. But I left and went to Europe one summer and then I came back and we got together properly after that. At that time Synanon was encouraging people to get married if you’d been in a relationship for any length of time so we did. We had this big 150-person wedding.  I still have the wedding dress I made, I wore it to a book signing two years ago. I hand-painted it and put it together. Then the rules got a little strict so we left. We stayed married for a while, but then I said “I need to go back to New York and I need to go without you.” So we split up, but remained friends. In fact we tried to get back together again in ’92.

RD: Oh, how interesting. what prompted that?

DR: I was living with a Portuguese man and we had just split up and Joel, my ex-husband, was always on the scene. He’d call if he came to New York and then heard that I was single again and he tried to pursue me again and I said okay. We travelled back and forth and then we took a trip to Europe and fought like crazy the whole time so I said “Same old shit I’ve had it!”

RD: Ha! Oh we’ve all been there...

DR: So I came back to New York as a single woman. I had been teaching in California previously. I was tenured at 35 and I was driving home from work with terrible headaches and I was pulling over and throwing up on the side of the road. So I thought, there’s something wrong with this picture. I said I can’t do this. I loved the teaching part, but I couldn’t relate to academia. So I called my parents and I said I was leaving. They suggested that I take a leave of absence so I ended working in collaboration with two other artists and we travelled Europe and did shows, we were doing performance art; a year later I came back and I gave up my tenured teaching job, everyone thought I was mad! I then told my husband I was leaving. 

DR: I started making found-metal jewelry because I didn’t have materials or a studio, so I found metal in the street and started putting it together. I had a few little teaching jobs and then I showed my work at a gallery and the husband of the woman who owned the gallery owned a very large textile company - he adored me so he offered me a job. I worked for him for a year. Nobody could understand why I was there, because I was miserable. I’d come dressed up, I’d make a pot of coffee and then I should have left because I made everybody happy coming in all dressed up and then I sat there crunching numbers. I remember it was the same time the hostages were being held in Iran and a co-worker said “Why are you here, you’re being held hostage” so when the hostages were released, I quit my job.

DR: Next, I went into the flower business with a friend. She was quite the horticulturalist and I said, “Flowers? I’m a city girl, I don’t know anything about flowers.” But the more I thought about it, I came to realize that it’s colour, texture, placement, so I figured what the heck I’ll figure it out! We had a great business for 16 years. We were the oldest people at the flower markets and we were texture and textile freaks so they would save us the weirdest stuff and say “here come the two old ladies, have I got something to show to them!”  Silk flowers became popular, so we figured that out and we loved vintage flowers - millinery flowers. We’d buy them and I’d spray paint them, edge them etc. We were very baroque. 

RD: So you went from knowing nothing to running a flower business for 16 years?

DR: Well, yeah. We made a living, but we didn’t make a fortune. It’s almost like it’s another body that did it - Ha! Did you meet my boyfriend Stan?

RD: Stan…

DR: He was at the party. Full head of hair. He never wears a hat unlike me, because of his hair. It’s his signature.

RD How long have you been with Stan?

DR: It’ll be….nine years since we met, but it took him three weeks after that to ask me out. After he met me through a mutual friend, he called my friend and said “that Debra, she’s very nice but she looks like a clown.”

RD: **Spit-take** - What!?

DR: Yep. Then five years later we met again and he’d never forgotten me. 

DR: He asked me “do you ever dress normal?” So I went out a bought a pair of jeans. It wasn’t me. I just did it to show him I could look normal. 

RD: You know my mother’s one piece of fashion advice has always been: "Never dress for a man."

DR: She's right! Very good advice. And these men who say: "don’t wear make up, I like you plain". Well I don’t care how gorgeous you are, plain can always be enhanced. 

RD: That’s you all over.

DR: Yeah. And yet these men stare at other women in make-up, they just don’t want their woman looked at. It’s such bullshit.

DR: I pulled that neck piece out of my archives -

RD: What would you call it? 

DR: That I called a rag leis, what I'm wearing today I call rag ribs.

RD: How do you make it? Is it wire?

DR: Yeah it’s just wire and you shape it - it’s easy!

RD: Well, it is to you -

DR: I just found the fabrics - they were originally dresses I had lying about. The fabric is smushed on and tied. I just build them as I go. The materials talk to me - people ask me, "How did you start making hats out of paper towels?" I said, "The roll of paper towels was sitting on the table and it said "do me"!  So I let things speak to me rather than force it. 

RD: How did you meet Ari Seth Cohen? (Ari Seth Cohen is the genius behind Advanced Style).

DR: He was working at the New Museum, in the bookstore and my friend and I went to the museum. He came over and said “I have a blog of women over 60, can I take your picture?” and I said “How do you know I’m over sixty!?” Anyway he’d forgotten his camera so I invited him over and said, “Come to my place I’ll dress up and I’ll even make you lunch”. He came over the next week and he spent the day together. Then he sent a filmmaker over the next week and we start filming videos.

If you haven’t seen the videos I have included my favourite one here:

DR: The feedback was incredible, so she upgraded her camera and we began making the documentary of “Advanced Style.” 

RD: What I loved most about your segments in the film was that you showed us your process. Most of the other women (who are all wonderful, don't misunderstand me) were already dressed and done. With you, we got to see you create and experiment with your looks.

DR: Well I used to say, it’s not worth buying something unless you can wear it inside out and backwards.

DR Ari has changed my life.

RD: Yes, you are a style icon now!

DR: Ha! I guess. Actually, I was with a friend yesterday - a very conservative friend - and she said “Can I ask you something, can you please explain to me the torn-jeans look?” I said, I wish I could because I don’t get it either AND that people pay $300 for them! I don’t get jeans. You sit down on the subway and nine out of ten people are wearing them.

RD: (At this point I am so glad I opted for some grey harem pants for this interview!)

DR: I mean FIT just did a denim show!

DR: I went back to teaching a design class in ’94 and the students would all show up in jeans and a Gap grey t-shirt and I said “if you’re in my class and this is about creativity, you will not show up in those clothes and if your goal is to work at The Gap and design another grey t-shirt, forget about it”. The following week was Halloween so I told them to come dressed to class - but not as a fairy or an angel or a witch - just creatively. Some of them outdid themselves.

RD: People like to be safe in their dress I guess. But why, I wonder?

DR: I think it makes them nervous to be outstanding or they don’t have enough confidence. Thats what the Advanced Style movement is trying to promote, you know? Confidence. You don’t have to dress like us, just find who you are and put it out there. So wear one more scarf. Mix up chartreuse and red, just don’t be safe in the jeans and the t-shirt.

RD: What I find interesting about Advanced Style is the real avant-garde dressing that I see. I mean, I expect that of the youth. In a way it’s the wrong way around, but the kids are all in sneakers and hoodies.

DR: It should be the opposite way 'round. The youth are rebellious, they’re creative. It must be about fitting in, being safe. But then I teach this class at Parsons and they were all in black. Most of them said that black is essentially the uniform of Parsons, but this one Asian girl said “black makes me feel empowered. I feel vulnerable in colour” and I thought: okay, but you gave it some thought, you know why. That’s all I'm asking. I don’t feel powerful in black. I feel powerful in colour. The universe is nothing but colour to me. and color is a vibration and color is healing.

RD: But Debra, the way you dress, it’s talent. It’s artistry. Surely not everyone could do it?

DR: Well one can experiment. It’s not surgery! There’s nothing to lose. I say, keep adding things, layering, look in the mirror see what you think. 

RD: So perhaps it is a skill that through that process you just mentioned, one could develop?

DR: Yes and then go out and see how the world responds. If you come back in and you think you look like a clown, take off the red nose! You’ve got nothing to lose, but everything to gain! And it’s fun, it’s about the fun and the joyfulness of it.

RD: Yes it’s like the garment I call my "stop and chat" coat (you can see it here) Whenever I wear this coat everyone wants to talk to me. I’ve never had a negative reaction from wearing something bold.

DR: I have to quote Ari, his three C’s as he calls them are; Creativity, Communication and Community. That’s what keeps us vital, whether we’re young or we’re old. So if the way you dress means that someone stops you and it creates a conversation, why not, especially when the world is at war? You can spread a little joy, and communicate and become friends, then build a community around it, what more could we ask for?