I. ESCAPE FROM THE METROPOLIS
One of the misconceptions I had as a new adult living in New York City was the idea that I was "planting roots." Just being in Manhattan means becoming part of the machinery, surrendering to its rhythm and navigating the forced intimacy of condensed space. Even nature appears more subdued within the shade of towering steel. Only a hurricane, with a herculean energy of its own, can still the mechanical beast. It is a rare breed of human being that can exist on inertia and stimulation alone and I, as it turns out, am not one of those people. So back in the fall of 2014, I surprised my friends and family by my abrupt departure from my Upper East Side apartment. In the span of a day, my commute time doubled, but I gained a quality of life and space to breathe. I hadn't lived in the Hudson Valley full time since the 7th grade, and the lush greenery was a welcome change, where it was the centuries old trees that grazed the sky.
When I first moved, I waited anxiously for spring, as the ground was completely sheathed in thick layers of ice and snow, and getting to the train every day felt treacherous. But despite the perma-freeze that prevailed during the long winter months, navigating the slippery slope of a driveway was still more desirable than crowd surfing on the island of concrete and dreams.
Tired of being “just another brick in the wall,” I developed a new appreciation for my childhood home, that was built in the 1830’s of quarry stones with irreverent shapes.
For as long as I can remember, my parent’s house has been one of the few constants, with its abundance of art and strict rations of electric toys. As children, my brother Christian and I were only allowed to watch television on weekends, and so we had to be resourceful in order to amuse ourselves. I, having been allowed to rummage through my father’s art supplies, discovered a passion for creative projects that still endures to this day.
Before I could even spell, I sat at my mother’s feet while she worked on her writing projects, and illustrated my own homemade books. When I was a little older, about ten, I lobbied for a sewing machine and made myself a corduroy skirt. And later, during breaks from prep school, I spent hours in the darkroom that my dad had built in the attic. Those different phases, which once seemed to exist in isolation, now collectively form the foundation of my life as a designer.
While technology has completely transformed daily life, our family home still feels as though it is suspended in time. Aside from our laptops and wardrobes, it would be impossible to tell what year it is based on the architecture and furnishings alone. When the house was built, there was no such thing as the internet, computers, even electrical light was just a filament of Thomas Edison’s uncommonly bright mind. Located in Newburgh, New York, the area was once considered the “jewel of the Hudson Valley” and it is where some of the first incandescent bulbs were ever illuminated.
I decided to take advantage of my sudden proximity to nature by planting some cruciferous vegetables. As a devotee of ancient Chinese medicine, I understood the importance of nutrition on my overall health and well-being. I was also inspired by Stonegate Farm down the road, as its owner and creative mastermind, Matthew Benson, has the absurd ability to make cultivating the earth sound like an illicit pleasure.
To my surprise, I actually enjoyed the process of digging in the dirt, and then watching the stems, flowers, and vegetables grow, slowly at first and then seeming to mature all at once. Having lived in the city for so many years, I hadn’t anticipated the relief of being able to disconnect from its electric pulse. I began to notice the different types of foliage as well as the fruit trees that are scattered throughout the property.
I was vaguely aware that we had apples and pears, but was surprised by the discovery of some low-hanging fruit. I had walked under the tree’s enveloping shade many times, but it was the fallen berries, overly ripe and spreading their juices across the soles of my sheepskin slippers, that finally caught my attention. Shaken out of my urban trance, I was compelled to look skyward and think, “my, what delicious branches you have!” When I asked my mom about the tree, she was adamant that they were mulberries.
Upon closer inspection, I could see that the trunk was protruding from a small patch of earth where, at five years old, I had insisted on planting a small garden. But back then, the meek sapling was overshadowed by the vibrant flowers I do remember, the pink and yellow snapdragons, which looked like cascading bells. And since mulberry trees can take up to ten years to produce fruit, I clearly moved onto other interests that offered quicker returns.
I studied ballet at the Dance Theatre of Harlem and was part of the onstage performance when Arthur Mitchell was honored at the Kennedy Center in 1993. I was the photo editor of the school paper during my senior year, and then went on to major in Film Art at Syracuse.
When I eventually emerged from the bubble of academia, and was given the freedom to forge my own path, it was not the liberating experience I was expecting. Instead, I was shocked by the release of a whole spectrum of anxiety. I was hit with the full weight of the realization that I had chosen a competitive industry with no job security. Having spent the summer prior to my senior year as an intern and then prop assistant on back-to-back film shoots, I had a sobering image of the struggles that lie ahead and I wondered, do I want this badly enough?
I realized that I didn't, and then switched my career path to fashion. The decision felt sudden and impulsive, but my mom was not surprised. Now, reflecting back on the decision, I realize that there was another tree involved, only this one was unlike any shrub I had ever seen in real life. With a vintage Cacharel sweater as my canvas, I had used silk thread to record what I had seen in my mind's eye, of a tree stretched out across time and space - one half left barren by the bitter cold, while the other bore the first blooms of perpetual spring.
I then went on to do a whole series of embellished sweaters and now, after thirteen years and two design jobs, that tiny quivering limb has grown into the main stem.