BY NANCY GENDIMENICO | I tried on the black lace shell. Sleeveless and hip skimming, it fit as if it were designed for me and was like nothing I’d owned. The label said made in Austria for Bonwit Teller.
I didn’t need the top. I had a closet full of items I’d wanted more than needed.
When I’d wandered into Stella Dallas, a vintage store on Thompson St., one August day 20 years ago, I’d hoped to enter another world, far from my then-current worries. I imagined a chic woman wearing the top with a trim skirt to lunch or for cocktails. She would have been well-bred and cultivated, the type of customer Bonwit’s attracted before the New York store was closed in the late ’80s. Not my roots —coming from a Rust Belt town in Northeastern Pennsylvania.
My 83-year-old mother had had a stroke the month before. Her condition was not life-threatening, but it was shocking to see my once-mobile mother relegated to a wheelchair and requiring daily care. My five siblings and I weren’t sure she could stay in the Pennsylvania house where she’d brought us up and lived for more than 35 years, the past four spent alone after my father died. An alarm had sounded — my mother could pass away at any time.
With this realization came an inevitable role reversal, a mother’s children in charge of her future. Heated discussions ensued among the six of us about what was best for my mother. Should we keep her at home and comfortable, a costly option, or uproot her and select a nursing home where quality of care was uncertain?
Phone calls with my siblings dissolved into fights that summer and fall. While I was away on business, the calls continued. I remember the chirp of the Tokyo hotel phone waking me while I tried to recover from jet lag and my guilt about not being closer to home. I felt it again in Phoenix, during a company meeting. I’d worn the lace top there, when temperatures soared to 100-plus degrees and a migraine was setting in before I was to speak in front of hundreds of clients and colleagues.
In my single state, the only one in the family unmarried and in my forties, I wasn’t sure what my role should be, when I hadn’t fulfilled certain goals for my own life, like finding a stable relationship. Where was the training manual for this?
A year later, my siblings and I still hadn’t agreed on where my mother should settle longer term. She’d had subsequent strokes, yet her mental functioning was intact. Several interim moves and hospital stays had left her disoriented and she was now at an assisted-living center 10 miles from home. Not happily. She complained about other residents stealing small items from her room and the terrible food, an affront to her Italian cooking.
Shopping — part of my livelihood as a former apparel buyer and now brand marketer — continued to be an escape. In Noho one fall weekend, I discovered a silk embroidered jacket made in Hong Kong with hand-knotted buttons and bracelet sleeves at Screaming Mimi’s while shopping with my college-aged niece. N.Y.U. had already taken over the neighborhood and multimillion-dollar apartments near the Bowery were nascent.
Life got tough — but there was shopping.
I wasn’t sure when I would the wear the jacket. I bought it anyway, wondering who had owned the item before me. I pictured an elegant Chinese woman having an ill-fated love affair, like a character in a Wong Kar-wai movie.
Then about nine months after my purchase, I was invited to a May wedding with an Asian theme. Getting drenched was a good reason to skip the reception that rainy day. Given my own ill-fated romances, I was reluctant to attend solo, but it was less than a mile away. I wore the jacket over a black dress.
The newlyweds had gone all out to make a fun party — decor, drinks, servers in sarongs and print tops, and the groom celebrating in style dressed as a Chinese nobleman. A friend who worked for a fashion publication snapped photos and took one of me.
Four months later, my picture was included in the report, a thrill to be recognized for my fashion sense. By then, the spell had broken on my dreary dating history and I was seeing a law school classmate of the groom’s I’d met at the wedding. The relationship lasted four years.
Nine months after the wedding, we moved my mother to a nursing home in central New Jersey near my brother and sister. She stayed there for more than 10 years. There were times when her health worsened and we weren’t sure she was going to make it. My mother surprised us and hung on, lucid until she passed away in 2009 at the age of 95.
I still have the jacket and lace top, surviving several wardrobe purges the Marie Kondo way.
Both vintage stores have survived, too. Stella Dallas remains at the same Thompson St. address. The Japanese owners offer a fashionable assortment of American and European designer apparel and accessories, revisiting the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.
Screaming Mimi’s moved out of their former Lafayette St. location. I’d assumed the “For Rent” sign meant another retailer had shut down — another local business had disappeared due to a rent hike. The store recently re-opened on W. 14th St. in a bright, clean space where their well-curated collection allows shoppers to channel their inner disco vibe for a costume party or envision themselves as characters in a film or TV show.
I am still wearing the lace top and silk jacket. I think of how my personal history has superseded that of the previous owners who’d zipped the top or buttoned the jacket. When it’s time for me to pass the vintage pieces on, I hope whomever owns my items next will conjure up their own stories and enjoy the escape.