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Fashion Quest
By Francesca Lia Block

When I was about ten years old I discovered the transformational power of fashion magazines. I would sit in my rather dim, hot room with the scent from the lemon tree coming through the window, feverishly going through the same issues over and over again. It was the early seventies and there were a lot of black and white photos of models in bejeweled sweaters and knits infused with shimmery threads. There were the short fur jackets called "chubbies." Sonia Rykiel's pale cashmere tops and wide-leg pants. Words like "luxe" and "chic" seemed to shine on the page, almost as enticing as the photographs they accompanied. Yves Saint Laurent was the king with the face of a poet and a certain regal kindness. I remember one photo in particular of a model dancing across the page in a chiffon YSL confection covered with roses. In some way that I would not have admitted to anyone, I imagined my hair cascading around my face like hers, my nose a delicately constructed thing, my body tall and graceful, my skin like peaches a la mode. When I got my hands on some British issues, I was smitten in the same way by the very young and wraith-thin Marisa Berenson vacationing on the Greek isles and resembling nothing less than a goddess who had wandered up the beach. Her dark, unusual beauty was a tiny bit closer to my own looks and I fell in love with her. In another issue, I remember the blue-eyed, black-haired model being photographed at the homes of the featured designers. She was sipping wine with them or reclining on their beds like a real-life muse, borne full-blown from their imaginations, outfitted endlessly in their satin men's wear suits and taffeta gowns. Nothing could have seemed more delectable to me.

Yes, it was almost a visceral hunger that these images satisfied; a hunger for the obvious beauty and luxury that graced the pages, but also for the woman who was hiding inside of me. I knew she had long dark hair, wore faded jeans, white shirts and beautiful shoes all day, and stunning gowns at sundown. I knew she was a writer and lived with her husband and two children in a small, charming house with a terraced garden. I knew that she read fashion magazines faithfully, wrote articles for them occasionally and even appeared on a few best-dressed lists.

When I turned thirteen, any dreams of this kind quickly faded. I cut my hair on a whim, losing my second-best feature in a few snips. My skin broke out. I was so depressed that even the shopping sprees my mother was kind enough to take me on did not cheer me up. And reading my favorite magazines became a painful experience instead of a heady fantasy ride.

As an older teen in the early 1980s, I discovered a way to express myself through fashion that did not make me feel defeated-punk. The now-chic trend was considered an off-putting deviation to most then but I adored it with the same passion I had once felt for those YSL gowns. There was so much beauty in a five dollar thrift shop dress, made of silk that looked as if it had been painted with watercolors, worn with a pair of men's black steel-toed engineer boots! I donned this ensemble and went to dark, smoky clubs where I thrashed around to ear-ringing, heart-stopping music. I cut my hair short and bleached it as close to platinum as I could. It was not flattering but it was, to me, the true essence of cool. In dusty Salvation Army bins I found a pair of aqua blue satin pumps with the sharpest points I had ever squeezed my toes into. I found a pink raw silk jacket with covered buttons, a soft leopard vest and a cream wool shell covered with opalescent sequins and beads. Not only could I afford these unique treasures, I could wear them and not compare myself to anyone else. The beautiful people of the day were interested in designers I no longer coveted and could not even name.

This punk phase was strengthening and fun but it was followed by years and years of fashion depression. I didn't know where to begin to create the image I wanted so I didn't even try. Instead, I wrote. I published about one book per year and struggled along and had a few relationships and finally met my husband and got married.

My wedding dress marked the beginning of a change. I had never spent so much money on anything and I had never owned anything so glamorous. It is a floor-length, body-skimming, sleeveless gown, slit to the thigh, and is covered, every square inch, in tiny pearls. It slithers like a mermaid when you touch it and even five years later I take it out just to feel its considerable weight and hear the soft clicking sounds it makes. The dress, worn with a floor length veil, did not transform me overnight but it was the beginning, as the perfect dress can be, of a new way of seeing myself. There were also a number of people who were instrumental in this process.

Paul was one of them. He had been a cutting edge New York designer in the early eighties. We became friends after he designed and sewed my wedding veil and bag adorned with silk flowers. In a slightly bitchy tone he eyed my cheap purse and talked about the importance of a "real" bag: "You won't believe how different it will make you feel." He looked askance at my choice of pink suede, cork wedge platform sandals and talked about "real" shoes. He waxed rhapsodic about the joys of vintage Pucci and Chanel. He irritated me repeatedly but I knew he was right. I started to listen. I renewed my subscription to my magazines.

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