Sex, the City & Patricia Field
Sunday, May 25, 2008
Patricia Field, the costume designer for "Sex and the City," has been standing behind a glass counter full of rhinestone jewelry in her Bowery store talking about the power of sexuality, the potential for movies to move clothes and her unexpected windfall of success from dressing Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte and Samantha. Her half of the nearly two-hour conversation has been fueled by an uninterrupted chain of Winstons, each one lit without regard to city laws prohibiting smoking in public spaces. Field is not a woman who has ever fretted about the rules.
She spent almost 30 years on the fringes of the mainstream fashion industry -- playing by her own rules in a little world populated by vinyl pants, leopard-print bustiers, glitter cummerbunds, tranny gear and club kid frippery -- and then the universe shifted and Field wound up at the center of it.
"I've always been independent, and I like it that way. I do what I do. It's good for your mental health. As far as the fashion world, I was on the outside. But fashion designers were always in my store checking us out and looking for inspiration," Field says. "I managed to stay around and put bread on the table."
Then the world went wacky for "Sex and the City" and its star Sarah Jessica Parker, who plays Carrie Bradshaw, the freelance writer and girl-about-town. More specifically, the audience fell in love with Carrie's style, which ranged from Versace couture to a $189 nameplate necklace. Which really meant that folks had fallen in love with Field.
"A certain respect developed for me in the fashion world," says Field, her voice gravelly with smoke and the ballsy swagger of a New York accent. "I didn't change. Circumstances changed."
Designers began inviting Field to their fashion shows and putting her in the front row. Translation? Please, please, please pick something from my collection for Carrie! Retailers stocked their stores with whatever frock or accessory they'd heard Field had eyed. Fashion students idolized her.
Field signed deals to design collections for Candies, Barbie and Payless, whose shoes she wore to the Oscars. And she still maintains her affection for stretch pants and costume jewelry.
Before "Sex and the City" -- either the television show or the movie, which opens May 30 -- Field was a retailer, a designer, an occasional costumer and a habitue of a New York night scene that was gender-bending and stereotype-busting. Field still represents a version of New York that preceded the Disney takeover of Times Square and the arrival of yuppies with Bugaboo strollers in Harlem. She epitomizes the Manhattan that small-town mamas warned their babies about. Back in 2000, not long after midtown Manhattan became kiddie-widdie-friendly, Field was quoted in the Kansas City Star, practically sounding like the Pied Piper of juvenile deliquency: "I have all these 10-year-olds that come to my store; they all want low-cut, tight, sexy, shiny, glitzy. And I think that's great. . . . How are you going to learn to deal with that [sexual] power unless you try it? Wearing a sequin tube top and heels is like going to class. You learn your lesson."
Field personifies what drives some folks to home-school their children. She is a popular-culture hedonist.
"She's just a free spirit and doesn't go by anyone else's rules," says designer Michael Vollbracht, who has known her since the 1970s. "And she doesn't play by the rules of the fashion mafia."
The Tourist Destination
The native New Yorker opened her first store in 1966 in the West Village. In the '90s, she had a place in SoHo, until the fancy boutiques and chain stores moved in and her rent became too expensive. Now the Patricia Field store is in the Bowery, which is evolving into another glossy neighborhood with the arrival of the New Museum of Contemporary Art and the transformation of the former punk nightspot CBGB into a John Varvatos store.