A Chat With Patricia Field About Styling Carrie Bradshaw, Old New York & Normcore's 'Dumbing Down'


Business is still booming at Patricia Field’s legendary Bowery boutique, despite the announcement, last December, that the red-haired downtown tastemaker/entrepreneur will be closing its doors at the end of February. “People want to shop here cause it’s over,” she says. A 4000-square-foot shrine to all things outré—a dazzling extravaganza of diamante bralettes, rainbow-colored wigs, sequined wrestling shorts—the store will be sorely missed by celebrity stylists and club kids alike.

Having won an Emmy for her styling work on Sex And the City and an Oscar nomination for The Devil Wears Prada, Field is reading to move on from the storefront life after 50 years in business, 16 at this location. She’s looking forward to spending more time seeing friends and pursuing projects in TV and film, and working on her latest venture—an art and fashion gallery selling one-of-a-kind wearable pieces which will be available online and at pop-up exhibitions.

As the Disney-fication of Manhattan continues, with chain retailers dominating the fashion landscape, it’s getting increasingly rare to find authentic people like Field, who doesn’t just market to the NYC music and club scene—she’s a part of it. Her boutique has been more than just a place to cop fun edgy clothes and accessories with attitude; it’s a cultural institution. Whether you’re into street style or drag queen chic, to shop at Patricia Field is to participate, just a little, in downtown culture.

The day after Field attended the premiere party for Season 2 of Younger, the TV Land series for which she serves as lead costume designer, she’s back at work. With her two 13-year-old poodles (Sultana and Putana aka Pooty) lying peacefully curled up in their own beds on her desk, Field swivels from side to side, checking the weather on her phone and playing with an unlit cigarette in fur-lined fingerless gloves, a cheetah-print ski cap, and black boots. She spoke with Jezebel about where downtown New York has been and where it’s going.

JEZEBEL: Let’s start from the beginning. What inspired you to open a boutique in 1966?

PATRICIA FIELD: I answered an ad in the paper for this discount department store—something like a Century 21—as a department manager. I didn’t really have any fashion retail experience. I said, “Yeah, I could do this. No problem.”

So I took the job. I was very successful at the job. I went on to another job. I became the assistant buyer from the first job, and I became a buyer for the second job. It all happened within a period of three years. I did a good job—but I wanted to. So I did. And then I opened up my own store. The main thing that propelled me was having my own business. It wasn’t necessarily fashion. My goal was to have my own business, and fashion was the road that took me there.

There’s no place like your boutique, nowhere else to find the items you stock. So at that time, where were you sourcing items?

At that time I was like 24 years old. I had just a limited amount of money—I still have a limit but the limit was much smaller. I basically had to find a location I could afford.

I found a place on NYU’s campus, so I had young, female traffic going back and forth. And having gone there, I knew kind of the traffic patterns. And I supplied my store with clothing that was aimed at my audience—which was, whatever was happening at the time. And I decided what was happening.

In the beginning, I was working part-time for a colleague, a friend of mine who was in the manufacturing business. So I was helping him design his line. I worked three days a week.

After five years I had the opportunity to move on to 8th Street, which was a store that was five or six times the size. I was like “How am I gonna fill this store?’ But it got filled. [Laughs] That was in 1971. I moved to 8th Street and stayed there till 2000.

That’s a pretty brave thing for a young person to do.

It’s funny… I have heard this word “brave” before. It doesn’t come into my consciousness that this is brave. I’m not saying that once in awhile I didn’t feel insecure about something. But in general if “bravery” was a factor I probably wouldn’t have done it. It’s not part of my modus operandi. I don’t think about myself as being brave. If you don’t try it you’ll never do it. There’s a certain confidence that has to be inside you.

You’ve had a lot of support from the gay and transgender communities. Some of them are your biggest customers. Why do you think they gravitate to you?

They gravitate to me because, number one, I gravitate to them. And number two, we have—I’m not gonna say the same sensibilities, but we have parallel sensibilities.

People have often said, “Oh you’re the mother of the drag queens…” You know, it was never really altruistic in my mind.

My motivation was more that I found them entertaining, interesting, colorful, demonstrative, expressive. And I was drawn to all of that cause it was part of my makeup as well. People will say, “Nobody would have given these people a job but you.”

I wasn’t aware of that. That was never a part of my consciousness. It wasn’t charitable. It was inspiring. It was exciting. It was creative. It gave me food for thought. It gave me that energy—and I liked it. It doesn’t mean that it was 100%.… There were others as well. But a lot of gay people, all kinds of gay people. And they’re still here.

You also had the House of Field. How did you first become involved with vogue balls?

In the mid ’70s, one of my clients who was from Singapore or Thailand—he was a trans… vestite, I guess. It was kind of early for transgender. Anyway, he was going to compete in some vogue ball up in Harlem. He was always in my store, and he invited me to go.

It was the first time I’d ever seen anything like it. It was supposed to start at like, 4 o’clock in the morning. It didn’t start until six. But it was fun—really fun. And then maybe eight, ten years later, one of my staff brought up this vogue ball. And I said “I know about vogue balls. I love vogue balls. You wanna do vogue balls?” In vogue balls, you compete under a house name, like House of Xtravaganza or House of Chanel. So I said, “We’re House of Field” and then we started competing. We were always considered the punk rockers; we were kind of a little ostracized. We were kind of like “the whiteys”—whatever. But it was good. We had fun.

Did Madonna ever come to one of your balls?

Nothing against Madonna, but I brought the voguing world to the fashion world. Suzanne Bartsch picked up on it and brought it to what she called the “Love Balls”—sort of a charity thing. And Madonna picked up on it somewhere along the line and did this song “Vogue,” and got the kids from the House of Xtravaganza to dance to it [in her video], ’cause they were very good dancers. She took them on the tour. So she made it “the big time.” But I’m glad that I introduced it to the fashion world. Cause they enjoyed it. It was a moment.

As much as people know you as a fashion icon, you’ve also been a big part of the music and club scene. What is the connection between fashion and music?

Fashion and music are cousins. They’re all part of the creative family because whatever the trend is in music, the trend is also there in fashion. I mean, Disco fashion—when everybody was dancing and happy in the ’70s: glamour and glitter and carrying on. Or anti-fashion, punk-rock fashion. Normcore, when everybody is conformist and boring, and so are the clubs. But fashion and music go together. They go together like mayonnaise and ham on white bread.

Delicious. So what was the Paradise Garage like?

Paradise Garage was a dance club that was for people that wanted to dance. It was fabulous. It opened up at like four in the morning, when the bars and clubs closed. It was no liquor; it was all drugs. And it went on till the sun came up and out and strong. You’d walk out of there and it would be 10 am. Greatest DJ of all time, Larry Levan. He just took you… there. The greatest mixmaster. I mean, he was like a disco conductor. Or house music—the original Chicago house music… He was like a DJ impresario. And he would take you up and down. He would never, like, jar you.

Every Sex and the City fan is obsessed with the fashion. You really brought the style to the forefront of that show. What inspired you to dress Carrie Bradshaw the way you did?

I always say that Sarah Jessica Parker and I, we created this fictional girl called Carrie. If it wasn’t like the right hand and the left hand working together, I don’t think Carrie would have ever been born. Because she likes fashion. She’s very graceful. She likes to parade around and be whatever… And that was all part of Carrie, but it was from Sarah Jessica. And as she also was up on fashion, collaborating with her was fun—because she understood what we were doing. I learned a lot from her. If somebody’s active and interested and alive, there’s always something you can learn from them.There were many times where, “Errr…. I don’t know” or “I’m not sure.”

Fine. You’re wearing it. You’re in front of that camera. You are Carrie. I am not in front of that camera. You have to feel Carrie because that audience is watching Carrie. And you have to deliver Carrie.

I don’t dictate what they have to wear. I give them an array of stuff and say, “Do you like this?” There are rejects. It’s like the candy store. Do you like white chocolate? No. I like dark chocolate. But at the end of the day.

You’ve gotta eat it.

Yeah. It’s all chocolate.

Were you friends before that project?

We had worked on a movie together [Miami Rhapsody]. That is how I was hired for Sex and the City, through her recommendation. I was recommended to Darren Starr, who I happened to see last night because we do this TV show now called Younger.

How’s that going?

Good. I love Darren. He’s balanced. He’s smart. He’s not insecure. He knows how to recognize something quickly, even if he has never seen it before. He trusts me. I don’t have to justify things. It’s so tiring to try to explain every little thing you’re doing. I don’t mind explaining, but I find that people very often reject something new cause they don’t understand it. They reject it—and they don’t know why. So it’s not rational. And sometimes I find that a little bit of a headache.

The Devil Wears Prada had a slightly different vibe from Carrie’s outfits.

It was a different script. TV and movies, it’s all about script and characters. It’s not about fashion, per se. I kind of fell into the “fashion” kind of reputation—fashion movies and fashion TV shows. I guess people look at me that way. They wouldn’t hire me for a police show. But I probably wouldn’t want to work on them either.

You’ve had an array of celebrities pass through this place, from Patti Smith to Beyoncé. Who are your favorite pop stars that shop here?

I love Beyoncé. I love Missy. I love Miley. Beyoncé hasn’t been in for a while because she became the queen so, you know… And I’m glad because she’s a very nice queen. But you know, she has her own taste.

What kind of stuff does Missy like?

You see Missy. You see what her taste is. She loves the athletic wear but she also loves the glitter wear. And lately she’s been choosing a lot of… Like I had these Thai boxing shorts, sequined in Thailand. She came in and she bought like whatever—half a dozen, which was our entire shipment, because they’re one of a kind—and they’re in her music video.

I like Missy a lot—and Miley does that as well. They shop. I mean she has a stylist but the bottom line is she shops, and she shops a lot, and as a result we’ve developed a relationship. I respect Miley—she’s another one of those individuals, she knows what she wants. These people started working when they were kids.

This place has championed so many young designers. What happens when your store closes and there isn’t a place for all the people who aren’t that normcore audience?

People are getting very bored with that conformity. Normcore is a dumbing down. It removes the interest or ability or even conscious knowledge of creativity from one’s being. Why do that to a human? But anyway, what will they do? Maybe someone new will emerge. I hope so. You know, I believe creativity in many areas—including fashion—is coming back. it’s very cyclical.

Where do you think style is headed in the future?

I’d like to see the future looking more like the “Roaring ’20s.” That was a true time of creative positive explosion in the arts. Before that it was really dour—long dark garments, women never showed their ankles. All of a sudden ’20s hit [sings] ‘Dance! Dance!’ Everybody must have either took some kind of a pill. [Laughter] You know the whole world changed in the ’20s. Everything got short and the shapes were no longer like corsetry, armor clothes, and long to the ground.

People were freer?

Free! People dancing, waving their arms in the air, kicking up their legs. Everybody was, like, on a high. I would like to see that. I think it could happen ’cause we’re getting close to the ’20s. I think every century they kind of repeat themselves.

It was in the news recently that Caitlyn Jenner stopped by the store. Had you met her before?

No I’d never met her. She was brought to my store by a friend who is transgender, who is a great dancer. Her name is Candis Cayne, and she was working with Caitlyn Jenner so Candis brought her here and that’s how that happened. She’s very nice, she’s calm, adult—she’s finding her way and you have to do it organically and I felt that she was doing that.

Her Vanity Fair cover was very classic Hollywood style. What kind of clothes did she gravitate to?

Well, she tried on various things, but in the end she went a little “out there,” which was good, with a beaded miniskirt that was like this one-of-a-kind collection of clothing, dresses, skirts, hoodies—whatever. The shapes were classic, but the applications were a bit more expressive and unique.

You seem to be really loyal to your friends. A couple of years ago when John Galliano got himself into some trouble you really stood by him. Was that hard?

No, I can’t call it that. It was truthful. I wasn’t thinking, “Oh the world is gonna blackball me now.” I was just saying the truth. I know him. I mean, I don’t know really what happened. Maybe he was a little high. Maybe he was a little tired. You know when you have a high profile it’s hard to go places because everybody stops you. And it’s all coming from a positive point of view on their side, but the result is that you can’t be anywhere and have a normal time for yourself. You’re always “on.” I don’t know what the circumstance is, but as I said I know John. He’s not mean; he’s everything but mean. He’s none of those things. I don’t know what happened, but what I was really appalled by, was Dior. He saved Dior. Literally. They could have treated him differently. They should have. That was appalling.

How important do you think loyalty is? Maybe you didn’t overthink it, but for a lot of people in this industry, once you do something wrong it seems people dissociate themselves from you.

I don’t think it’s this industry. I think it’s in general. The mighty dollar— that’s their drug. That’s their heroin. The fuckin’ mighty dollar. And life has the dollar, but it has other things. And the dollar has a place in life, but it doesn’t take over. And it’s not just the fashion industry. It’s everything. It’s politics. It’s the whole deal. It’s kind of disgusting actually. Makes me sad.

Moving from one British icon to another…

…David Bowie. I didn’t even know he was ill. He had a right to keep his privacy private, but I wasn’t even aware that he was ill at all.

But of course David had his own style.

Fabulous. He was conscious of what he was doing and he thought about what he was doing and he was creative in what he was doing and had reasons for doing whatever he did. He definitely stayed current in his music and very Imaginative in his costuming. I believe somebody like Björk was very much influenced by David—you know, like an original style.

Speaking of original, this location was once your home before it became the store.

Yes, the front portion—the Bowery side was. When I bought it I decided that I would make it my home. And so I renovated it, and fixed it to be a party house. Because I love to party, I love to see my friends. It’s fun.

So if these walls could talk….

They would be partying!

Reshma B is a music journalist, filmmaker and designer from London. Twitter: @ReshmaB_RGAT

Top image courtesy Patricia Field/Christos Karantzolas/FashionSpot. Last image courtesy Patricia Field.

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