Patricia Field: How I Shop

For the Emmy-winning costume designer behind "Sex and the City," getting dressed is all about telling a story.
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For the Emmy-winning costume designer behind "Sex and the City," getting dressed is all about telling a story.
Patricia Field in front of her namesake store on Bowery Street. Photo: Josiah Kamau/Getty Images

Patricia Field in front of her namesake store on Bowery Street. Photo: Josiah Kamau/Getty Images

We all buy clothes, but no two people shop the same. It can be a social experience, and a deeply personal one; at times, it can be impulsive and entertaining, at others, purpose-driven, a chore. Where do you shop? When do you shop? How do you decide what you need, how much to spend, and what's "you"? These are some of the questions we're putting to prominent figures in the fashion industry with our column, "How I Shop."

With her cherry red hair and predilection for wild prints, Patricia Field has always been easy to spot. On the day I stopped by to interview the 74-year-old store owner and Emmy-winning costume designer, she was wearing rainbow hotpants, a black slouchy tank, layers of silvery chains and sneakers — and killing it.

Field rose to fame in the late '90s outfitting Sarah Jessica Parker and the rest of the "Sex and the City" cast for six seasons on HBO, and for two subsequent feature-length films in 2008 and 2010. On the show, Field made nameplate necklaces, Manolo Blahniks and naked dresses a part of our everyday lexicon — an unprecedented feat for a costume designer.

Locally, Field is known as much for her "Sex and the City" work as for outfitting multiple generations of club kids via her irreverent House of Field collection and namesake boutique, first established in 1966 and now located 306 Bowery in lower Manhattan. Unsurprisingly, the store attracts a fair number of celebrity clientele and their stylists — most recently making headlines when Caitlyn Jenner dropped by for a retail and styling consult with Field, entering in a leopard print DVF dress and exiting in an '80s Mugler-esque power-shouldered black blazer and kaleidoscopic sequin skirt.

Field has no plans to slow down anytime soon: She's starting season two of TV Land's "Younger" and working with Matchbook Company on branded projects, including 50-plus spectacular costumes for Italian lingerie brand Intimissimi's annual ice capades-esque show (it's like the annual Victoria's Secret runway, but on ice) in October.

With all that experience, we thought Field would have quite a few thoughts on the subject of shopping. Read on for our interview.

Patricia Field sitting front row at the Narciso Rodriguez runway show in 2003 with Claire Danes and Sarah Jessica Parker. Photo: Evan Agostini/Getty Images

Patricia Field sitting front row at the Narciso Rodriguez runway show in 2003 with Claire Danes and Sarah Jessica Parker. Photo: Evan Agostini/Getty Images

"I would say the number one part of my personal style is narrative. Meaning, is there some story going on? It could be more abstract, it’s not that specific, but there’s some narrative to be interesting. It’s not about being trendy or of-the-moment. It’s more about being interesting and expressing what you’re feeling or how you see things.

The baseline of my personal style, I believe, is classic and simple. I tend not to wear novelty things. However, I do finish my so-called narrative sentence with accessories, which support the main theme.

I tend to have clothing for a long time. I don’t buy and throw out. If I throw out, I shouldn’t have bought it. What I find that I wear most often, and also in a long duration of time, are pieces that are classic, but individual. Not classic as in a white button-down shirt, just silhouettes that are timeless. Timelesssness is, I think, very necessary as a baseline for personal style. Then you start ornamenting it, so to speak.

Years ago, when I had my store on 8th Street — it was in the ‘80s — I worked with young designers, which I still do. One of the designers names was Carmel Johnson-Schmidt and she called her company Archetype. I still own at least half a dozen pieces of hers, including one gown in white and in black silk, like shirting silk — matte, not shiny silk. It’s a full-length gown, but all along the top and the sides are buttons and button-holes. And the top there would be a row of buttons down the center, so if you unbutton it, it’s open, if you button it, it’s closed. The closed neckline was sort of a boat neck— straight across — or if you open it, it kind of lapels out. Or you could turn the whole gown upside down and the skirt has buttons and if you unbuttoned it, it created slits or a slit on the side. But then you could turn it upside down and you would have a shorter dress with a cape feeling. 

Whenever I wear this piece —and I still wear it — people always want to know about it. Where I got it, who made it and so. And it’s like 35 years old. It looks sensational because it’s so interesting. Whenever everybody else is running around in beaded gowns, I have this very simple piece that every time I wear it, I wear it in a different way. And it doesn’t reek of an era or a decade and it’s kind of futuristic in a way, because it’s so classic. I wouldn’t part with it for anything.

I tend to like fine textiles. Natural ones. Silks. Could be wool. I mean, I don’t dislike synthetics when they’re used properly. But I tend to like fine textiles because they hold up in time and they’re the most easy to coordinate with other things.

What I don’t like is clothes that get dated. If I wear something, and I wear it once, I know immediately this is a winner for me or I should have never bought that. That happens to all of us. For me a classic could be a motorcycle jacket. Classic doesn’t mean boring. Classic for me could be a wife beater. It's timeless and it will go with anything. You could put a motorcycle jacket with the Carmel gown for example.

I tend to shop in person because one of the most important things for me when I’m shopping is that I can touch it and feel it. This is silk. This is a beautiful cotton. I can touch something and tell you what the fabric is, which I think is very important. A lot of people haven’t been trained to do that. I fortunately was because I’m the daughter of a dry cleaner. So my mom would always say, 'This is silk,' and, "This has to be hand ironed,' and I learned. I learned the difference between a weave and a fiber. Even for my shop, I don’t like shopping online. I do it sometimes and for movies and TV, but I want to touch it.

At the bottom is, always, my mentality, my taste, my general concepts. It’s my DNA, I can’t change it. But then there are the differences [in shopping for myself and shopping for costume design work]. And the main difference when it comes to "Younger" or "Sex and the City" or "Devil Wears Prada" is the script. You can't dress a movie or a TV show without the script. Then you meet the actor because this actor is a real human being and together we are creating a fictional character. That actor is the one that’s on the camera, the one that people are seeing and they must relate to the character in the script and I must help and support the actor to convey that. I have a little formula: I find the parallel lines between the character and the actor. You have to invent the recipe so that it’s believable and it sells the story. 

For a character, a place that I love to shop in — one of the first places that I might do a general shop — is Ina, a consignment store owned by a very good friend. And I love to shop Ina’s stores because you never know what you’re going to see and it’s all one of a kind and it’s not something that you recognize, 'Oh I saw that in H&M.' You don’t [want to dress a character in] something like H&M because that’s distracting [for viewers if they recognize it].

Then, depending on the character, I will shop vintage, but with certain characters, I stay away from vintage because, if [the actors] are vintage, you can’t put vintage on vintage. It just makes them older. Vintage is really great on youngsters. But it’s much more difficult if you’re in your 40s or 50s to wear vintage. You just date yourself. You’d think if you’re 45 and you wear something that’s from 20 years ago, or when you were 25, it would go together, but it doesn’t. It has the opposite effect.

I also love to shop in Century 21 because, again, it’s one of those shops where you really don’t know what you’re going to find because, among all the clothes, there are samples that are one of a kind. So I love to go to places that I’m gonna have surprises. Because when I see something that I never saw before, it sparks in me, my attention, and then maybe I go, oh I could put this with whatever, or a combination that we haven't seen before.

In the very beginning of filming "Sex and the City," we were in Ina — and actually Sarah Jessica Parker was with me — and we came across this fur coat and at that time it was the mid ‘90s and this coat looked like from the ‘70s maybe. And we pulled it and it became a classic piece that she wore — a lot more in the beginning — but we always were able to pull it out throughout the duration of the show. It became iconic, like the name necklace. Again, it goes back to that concept that I was talking about. If you have a classic piece, it can have many lives. 

I can’t give shoppers in the boutique advice if I don’t know them. I mean, it’s not possible. So the first thing is that you see a person and that gives you some idea of their style. Are they conservative, are they artistic, are they rock 'n roll, what’s their story? If somebody is more rock ‘n' roll, I’m not going to show them a ballerina dress. There’s nothing like walking into a shop and somebody starts throwing clothes at you. It’s so annoying, you know, and I would never do that. 

Well, Caitlyn Jenner came here the other day. That was so much fun. She was recommended by someone who works with her who is a very old friend and colleague of mine whom I respect very much. Caitlyn came in and she was wearing a classic DVF dress —  one of the wrap dresses — and you could easily just see what the person wears and go, oh, I’m going to show them things of that genre, but you know, you have to get to know them. What was helpful with Caitlyn was that my friend and colleague was with her and knows Caitlyn better than I do on a first meeting. But Caitlyn was great because she was open. She wasn’t fearful and  it was a brand new experience for her, but she was open to it and I think she walked out happy."

This interview has been edited and condensed.