when pictures fail me…
Learning of the imminent closing of Lord and Taylor’s flagship store on Fifth Avenue caught me off guard at a time when I am numbly beginning to acclimate to the unfamiliar terrain my city has become. Nearly all of my touchstones have vaporized. In their places: banks, banks, and more banks, or other chains of non-distinction—all courtesy of the plague of hyper-gentrification and development. Like every generation before me (and so it will continue after I am gone), I am trying to grasp the concept that the Greek philosopher Heraclitus first coined: The only thing that is constant is Change. And yet, even Peter Stuyvesant must be reeling in his grave.
Lord & Taylor exuded a dated yet genteel perfumed whiff to a gritty time and place in 1971, when I arrived—an elegant, big-box Gibson-era building, looming between moneyed Murray Hill and the greased wheels of the garment district. The department store was seamed to the latter by side streets, chock-a-block with millinery, ribbons, buttons, and notions. Mecca, for a young fashion student like me.
Early shoppers were admitted inside the golden entrance before the store officially opened. An attendant would serve complimentary coffee in white china cups and saucers, and we sipped and waited. How civilized! How divine! And how totally anachronistic to the era. Outside we were in the trenches, while inside we were coddled and soothed before making our way to cosmetics, ladies’ handbags, and lingerie. “We” were mostly all women. The carnage in Vietnam continued, but Katherine Gibbs was still churning out future executive secretaries who joined forces with Grace Kelly wannabes to pillage the neatly stacked cashmere cardigans during after-holiday sales. (In the 1980s, when bohemian trends circled back to the privileged, preppy look, I would be one of them.)
During the post-WWII era, the golden age of fashion illustration was represented by Lord & Taylor’s Dorothy Hood, who established the scripted logo and the American Beauty rose—and the advertising look that would reign for decades. The torch had been passed to Fred Greenhill by the time I was attending his alma mater, Parsons School of Design. We all could appreciate Fred as fashion royalty, even as we hung Peter Max posters in our tenement railroad flats.
In 1978, I was a newlywed and had my fashion illustration debut in The New York Times: a quarter-page ad (black and white, of course) featuring a scarf, for Lord & Taylor’s kissing cousin-in-shopping-civility, B. Altman. Then a steadier gig presented itself. I landed a job as a Lord & Taylor layout artist. I would soon learn that this was an unchallenging and somewhat thankless “full-time freelance” (i.e. punch a clock, but no benefits) position, as the layouts were basically stagnant and repetitive, dictated by the creative art director. Fred Greenhill paid them little mind, I’m sure; he drew whatever he wanted and we arranged the iconic Lord & Taylor logo to accommodate the fashion figure and copy.
“We” were the six or so layout artists in the advertising bullpen. Frank, Sr. was the elder statesman who maintained the look of the logo, which fluctuated as a loose cursive cloud above the entire history of the store. Frank, Jr. was the only other male—small, wiry, and ironic as he brought in his latest Elvis Costello albums and waxed poetic on “Lipstick Vogue.”
I discovered the delightful nearby eatery, Mary Elizabeth’s, a tearoom that had counter service. On my first visit I ordered the cheddar and tomato sandwich (all chopped up together) and only strayed once from that choice, to watercress and cream cheese. When I tried to duplicate my favorite spread in my new Cuisinart food processer, a wedding gift, I ended up with cheddar and tomato mush. More reason to sit at that counter and savor my lunch hour with the neighborhood clientele.
Within a year, I became acutely aware of how much time I wasted in that eight-hour day, by virtue of being shackled to a tracing pad, turning out layouts, then pacing, waiting for more to do. I could have compressed my output into one quarter of any given day. Nor was I interested in store politics or office gossip, or eating tuna fish sandwiches in an employee cafeteria. Most importantly, I wanted my art to be both final and in full view. I wanted to be in The New York Times.
One evening my fellow bullpen pals and I were informed that we needed to stay past 6:00 and look productive for a visit from someone higher-up than the art department. There was no deadline to meet, nothing to do in advance. It was all for show. Normally I would have complied. It was in my DNA: to please.
Nope, I decided. I don’t get paid enough, and I am not in the actors’ union. Lauri R. and I put on our coats and left. We were done. For the day, and, it turned out, forever. Fired. That’s when I found out I was entitled to unemployment benefits. The term “full-time freelance” glared in full oxymoronic splendor in the eyes of New York State, and I learned through the grapevine that a new precedent was set for the treatment of future fashion layout artists. That wasn’t my intent, but I have to say it felt satisfying.
From then on, I would use my time and talents as I saw fit. I worked from home (mostly) and had my art published in newspapers and books and magazines. I even had a weekly assignment illustrating the Times Tuesday Style section’s “By Design” column.
In the coming years, under new Lord & Taylor art direction, I would be hired to do illustrated banners for the main floor, and my own creative calligraphy would be used in full-page store ads. I would never be a Dorothy Hood or Fred Greenhill for Lord & Taylor, but I took pleasure in knowing I had reconciled my relationship with this grande dame of a department store, who was midwife to my evolving into the fashion illustrator I eventually became.
By the millennium, I sadly realized that my city was no longer my muse. I had witnessed it turning into something glossy and predictable, almost a suburban mall. Lord & Taylor was still standing, if only literally (it would be declared a landmark in 2007, and not a moment too soon, with financial free fall just a year away). I was losing my own sense of direction as a middle-aged career illustrator, and headed up the Hudson to a small industrial town to pursue more personal art. The final slam of the door came on September 11, 2001.
A decade ago, Lord & Taylor offered one last, fraying grasp to my former self. “Rebranding” became the term of the hour. Everyone was doing it, shaking off the dust and damage. Or trying to. Ad campaigns were now conducted as internet popularity contests, and I succumbed to entering the Lord & Taylor logo contest. The American Beauty rose was to be given a facelift, and I found myself in the final rounds. In the not-so-recent past, a creative director would have commissioned the art, and paid well. Now we were in a world of thumbs-up clicks, and I just didn’t have the stomach for soliciting votes on social media. And “Think of the exposure you’ll get” didn’t pay the mortgage.
Nowadays, I mostly archive, organize, and downsize. Somewhere in my attic are those banners with my art that used to hang over the Fifth Avenue entrance—where once upon a time, I sat in Landlubber bell-bottoms, rustling through my Army Navy bag, sipping coffee, waiting for the store to open.
I recently ventured back to Lord & Taylor’s liquidation sale. A sign by the elevators drew me in: Fixtures – 10th floor. I got off on what might have been the same floor where I had worked forty years before and peered around. Ghosts appeared in the form of white china cups and saucers packed in boxes. I couldn’t bear to buy even one set. After all, I am downsizing—everything but my memories.
copyright Sharon Watts