My mother never worked but was an avid reader. I remember her reading Plato when I was quite young, telling us to be quiet because it was very difficult. At one point, she offered to pay me $50 if Id read Shelby Foote's "The Civil War" (I did!), but bribing me was rare; mainly she just inspired me to read by her example. At 60, she enrolled in Memphis State University to get her master's degree in English. I was an undergraduate English major at Brown University at the time and had just learned to write papers. Ironically, my mother would send hers to me for guidance and correction. From my father, I got a strong -- almost fierce -- work ethic. A child of the Great Depression, "Whirly," as I called him once I got too old for "Daddy," worked very hard. He was a co-owner of a steel-fabricating plant. The plant opened at 7 a.m., and my dad was there, right on time, every morning. My parents awoke at 5:30 a.m., and at 6 a.m., my mother brought breakfast upstairs on a tray. We kids were always welcome to join them for breakfast, piling onto their big bed or perching ourselves on their armchairs with pieces of the morning paper. It's probably no surprise that I've always been a morning person, getting up at the crack of dawn, getting to work early.
My father wasn't all business, though. He spent a lot of time with his family. He loved tennis and canoeing and entertaining with my mother. And he liked to paint watercolors. I think I may have gotten my artistic nature from him.
I didn't always know I wanted to be a designer, although one of the first ways I made money was sewing custom leather hippie clothing in college. What can I tell you, it was the 1970s. I fell in love with both literature and art while at Brown. Ultimately, art won out, and that led me in the direction of fashion. After I graduated, I took some courses in fashion design at the Rhode Island School of Design, which was just down the street from Brown, and St. Martins School of Art in London, which was an adventure that gave me a new perspective on my limited experiences at that time.
My year in London was life changing. The St. Martin's course was a total immersion in design. We spent hours at the Victoria and Albert Museum studying Chinese porcelains and African masks and whole days visiting art galleries looking at contemporary art, and we walked miles throughout the year keeping up with the hippest boutiques. I have never sketched so much since that year -- nonstop, project after project. I went through reams of paper, boxes of pens, whole packages of colored pencils. It was intense and exciting. The St. Martin's teaching philosophy was that everything visual can become an inspiration for fashion design -- art, ballet, street people. After the four years of academic, intellectual life at Brown, this called on completely different senses -- visual, aesthetic, tactile. I loved it.
Going abroad really opened my eyes, although it didn't expose me to the variety of learning styles in the world. That education would come later, courtesy of Charlotte.
Two years after graduating from Brown and with some very whimsical, fantastical student sketches in my portfolio, I embarked on a three-week job search.
I pounded the pavement of New York City's Garment Center day after day, ducking between the men pushing wardrobe racks along the sidewalks, from one company to another, before I finally landed a job as a junior designer at a small sportswear company. Once I found work, I was on my way. I found a huge, bohemian loft in Tribeca to live in -- with no real bathroom and no buzzer from downstairs -- so I felt like a cool, downtown New York chick. I was loving life, working hard, and playing hard, sometimes staying out all night at loft parties or at Tribeca's legendary dive, the Mudd Club.
From A Special Education by Dana Buchman. Copyright Dana Buchman 2006. Reproduced by permission of Da Capo Press.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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