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How I Shop: Carla Rockmore

The jewelry designer and TikTok star tells us why the most important style tip is all about being comfortable in your own skin.

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 our column "How I Shop."

I genuinely love TikTok; I probably spend about an hour on the app every day and feel like I discover something new each time, whether it's a delicious recipe I want to try or a super talented young creative whose art I want to follow. But I have to admit that, as a woman in my mid-30s, I sometimes have a hard time connecting with the fashion side of TikTok, which can feel dominated by Gen Zers rediscovering the Y2K style of my own youth. 

I don't mean to be dramatic, but the moment Carla Rockmore popped up in my For You feed, it was as though the heavens opened up and a choir of angels began singing. Here was an older woman not only dressing fabulously, but in a way that exhibited a clear sense of personal style that didn't conform to diktats or trends. I immediately clicked over to her profile and ate up all her videos documenting her enviously large wardrobe collection (with an enviously large closet to match). I couldn't get enough of how she put together vintage and new pieces, even if it wasn't exactly my style — it was inspiring just to watch someone be so fully themself.

"See, here's the beauty about being 54: You get to a point, if you know yourself, where you don't have to be dictated to by the trends," Rockmore says. "And style that you exude every day will still be you, whether you're wearing full-on Gucci maximalism or full-on Jil Sander cleanliness."

Rockmore has been a designer for most of her career, most recently with an eponymous line of jewelry. Like so many others, she only started creating content when the world went into Covid-19 lockdown. A friend of hers, who runs an organization called House of Shine, taught Rockmore about the three converging circles: One is your passion, one is your career and the third is what your community needs — where those three meet is where you'll be happiest. When Rockmore started connecting with a community on TikTok, she says, is what made everything click for her.

"If I'm not creative, I'm not good. Like, I might as well get under the covers and shut the door. I have to emote at all times," she says. "So here I was, designing and selling, and what I didn't realize is a big chunk of that was missing, with the teaching part, the connection with other people. Social media does that for me. It gives me all three."

I had to get on the phone with Rockmore to get all the secrets behind her style, from vintage shopping tips to incorporating trends into an existing wardrobe. Her best piece of advice, at least to me? You can't be stylish unless you feel comfortable in what you're wearing. Now that is something that, as Rockmore might say, really turns my crank.

"I'm not one to be put in a box, so I can't really say that I'm a minimalist, I can't say that I'm a maximalist, I can't say that I follow the Italians or the French or whatever it may be. It's whatever turns my crank — it's like, I follow the bread crumbs kind of thing. I was trying to film the five basic essentials everybody needs in their wardrobe — because supposedly a few of my viewers have asked for that and I feel like I should give them what they want — but at the same time, it's not the way my brain works. I was stuck; a brogue is absolutely one of my essentials, but so is a baseball cap and so is a construction boot and so is a maxi skirt.

"I gravitate towards women of strength, for sure... I remember it was Annie Lennox in the '80s and then Tilda Swinton and Cate Blanchett right now. To me, it seems like everybody has a stylist, but there's something about the way certain people dress — I can just sense they have a real say in it. Tilda and Cate, I see that in them. Everything they wear is somewhat consistent. It doesn't wear them. At the end of the day, it's the women who can wear clothes that don't wear them that are most inspiring to me.

"I have a bit of a photogenic memory. I remember colors and shapes and items more than I remember certain books or things that I've read or things that I've studied. It's very, very visual for me. I also try and categorize the way I hang my wardrobe the way I dress. I know you're supposed to do it with color — all your blues in one area, all your greens in one area — but that never made sense to me, because I would never pull out that heavy green Shetland sweater in the middle of summer and then I would forget about the green blouse. I hang my clothes seasonally and that helps; like all the T-shirts with the T-shirts, all the sundresses with the sundresses. 

"I use the clothing as the canvas for the accessories. That's how I dress. It's really about the jewelry and the bags and the shoe and the hat. I have no problem splurging on a fantastic hat. I have a lot of trouble splurging on a fantastic cashmere sweater. I've heard it over and over again: Invest in the classic, invest in the basics, as the Parisian women dress. I completely get it. I just haven't ever been able to follow it, because every time I've thought about doing that and spending $800, $900 on a cashmere sweater — and once in a while, I will — what happens is the next season the hemlines have changed, so it's too disproportional for the visual of what's happening now, and I do love to stay current. 

"I love trends. I just pepper them in, in a way that I'm not spending a fortune on them. I guess because I recognize that fashion is a reflection of society; I mean, yeah, it's fun and it's interesting and we all have these body shapes and we want to be excited by what we see down the street and by changes on our own form, but really I believe that fashion is a reflection of what's happening politically and organically, of what is going on on the streets and all around us. I don't throw things out that speak to me, because they're coming back; at the end of the day, the human race, we're on this hamster wheel and we keep on revisiting things. It's all because our eye gets used to things and we're now telling the designers what we want to buy. I love that. We have power as the shopper.

"I'm so online. When I moved from Canada to the U.S. about nine years ago, that's when it really kicked in for me, because it's so easy here. I don't have to get dressed. I don't have to do anything. I can sit and scroll and buy and return. I just find it really easy to online shop. My husband always jokes that if ever the drones come into play, people are going to have to duck and cover on the way to our door. [laughs]

"There are a couple of brands that are really speaking to me right now. I adore La Double J and The Vampire's Wife. Is the same girl who wears Matteau also wearing La Double J and The Vampire's Wife? Why not? I don't think we need to be put in a box. 

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"I watch the shows and I watch what's happening. I know that chocolate is going to be just heavy and yummy, and earth tones and rusts are going to happen, and that speaks to me a lot. I have my eye on a certain bag and I will save up for it. I placed some pre-fall orders [with Christopher John Rogers]. His new collection was just gorgeous. I love the whole play on color and graphics that he does. I'm indiscriminate between evening wear and day wear — I have no problem wearing a taffeta maxi skirt during the day with a T-shirt, because if I'm only going to save that Carolina Herrera for night on that one occasion for that one event, then it's silly. It doesn't get out. It doesn't get any play. I have a very romantic way of dressing, so maxi skirts are as basic to me as a pair of jeans. I like the swoosh.

"My first tip is: Buy what turns your crank. Don't buy for the label. The reason why I started buying vintage back in the day is because I couldn't afford the serious designers in my 20s that I wanted to, and I realized early on that they're getting influenced by past shapes, colors, styles. As long as I could recognize those, I could find them at a much better price point. 

"If it's a piece of costume jewelry or a piece of clothing, it's a different process. I can smell trends or changes early — quilting, for example, I just think it's going to be very, very strong for fall, so I bought a couple of pieces I thought were pivotal, but then I went on Etsy and I found two amazing maxi skirts and hopefully they're great. They might not be, we'll see; one was $30 and one was $75. Sometimes you have to take a bit of a crap shoot with vintage, especially online. And then you obviously have the serious label vintage, which is just at another level — that's when you're almost buying something as a piece of art. Some of my pieces have bought for that reason: Not so much to wear, but to have in my archive. I look at them differently.

"Sometimes it's best not to waiver too much if you can. I still think about an electric blue crystal early Kenneth Jay Lane piece that I waited on too long and then it was gone. This is going back eight, nine years at auction. I didn't bid on it and I still think about it. 

"I feel uncomfortable about preaching to anybody about how to dress. Really, I do. More importantly than fashion, I'm all about female empowerment and sitting well in your skin, so I need to say that. But for me, personally, it doesn't matter that I have relatively good legs still: I don't feel sophisticated wearing a mini skirt anymore. So if you're not going to feel good or comfortable in your skin, you cannot be stylish in that outfit. It's an impossibility. The only true rule that I have is really listen to your gut.

"At the end of the day, [sitting well in your skin] resonates with me so much. I was lucky enough to be taught that at an early age, but I still had to grow into it a bit. It took some time. I think as women, there are so many changes in our lives. Forget about hormonal changes — there are so many changes along the way, with all kind of mood swings and things we have to deal with that are so mature, that girls have to deal with way younger than men and boys do. 

"It's a bit of a blessing and a curse to be a woman, I think. We're the vessels. We're the ones who end up having to choose how the next generation is going to be brought into the world, so we have all this responsibility. And we have it at such a young age because our clocks start to tick. I have two boys, and they aren't going through half of what I went through — and I didn't grow up in the social media age. I don't know how healthy this whole thing is for young girls. I really am concerned about the whole thing; so many of my comments on TikTok are 'I want to be you!'' It freaks me out, because I want you to be you. I don't want you to think you have to emulate somebody else to be good enough.

"I get a lot of DMs and messages thanking me about helping them brush off other people's stuff, and they're coming out and blossoming themselves and feeling good about it through the videos. I'm loving it. I can't believe it. I'm so excited that I'm able to reach people that way. How crazy? I mean, here I am, going on and on about how terrified I am about social media, but look what it can do. It can also connect people in such a way. How was I ever going to be able to do anything like that before?

"I don't really go on social media a lot. I don't look at other people's stuff as much as I probably should at this point, but I think it keeps me from comparing myself and it keeps me doing things that are original to me or authentic to me, and then I hope they translate. Because I don't want anybody to dress like me. I want them to feel comfortable dressing like them. I'm so old, it's all new to me. But I see these Instagram feeds of that neutral color with the whites and the beiges and the high heels and the jeans, and it's all the same over and over and over again. And a lot of the people who are seriously proficient in it are so young that it's just the same regurgitated stuff over and over again, other than listening to your own gut and your own self and coming up with your own trends and your own creativity. They're too young to get there yet. Not their fault.

"The hardest part about doing the TikToks is that when I put an outfit together, I feel badly if it's not purchasable. I'm trying now to go to the mall and do something that everybody can buy, not just something that I picked up in a market in Italy 17 years ago. I'm trying to incorporate a little bit of that here and there for sure. The high/low mix — I will never, ever give that up. I got to tell you, I don't care if I were to win the lottery, I'm not one to be head-to-toe designer. It doesn't speak to me. I think it actually needs to be high/low to be stylish, to be unique enough. Because if it's just a regurgitated label and what's coming down the runway and that's it all day long, then there's no personality in it.

"Sometimes I've found [being a designer] very restricting. When I was designing bags, I felt like, 'Oh, I can only wear my bags.' But at the same time, all these bits and pieces that I've acquired and collected and cultivated throughout the years, I have pulled out numerous times and in numerous ways for different collections that I've done. I can look at a Marni bag that I may have bought 10 years ago and I won't give it up for one detail, because it has one clasp that's so good that I know I can use or be influenced by for something else later on. 

"I mean, one might call me a hoarder. Might. It's so fabulous when it comes back around. If it's really done but I really love it, I box it and I put it in an attic and then I pull them out again. I have some really, really good ones — I rarely throw vintage away. I have Gloria Vanderbilt jeans from the '70s. Those aren't going anywhere. They never will. Even if I can't get them on my left toe next year. Doesn't matter. A lot of my low fashion doesn't hold up. Zara, I've got to tell you, I love that store, but a lot of the quality is not what it used to be. I'm not saying that it was ever fantastic, but something has changed. 

"So it's a lot of my trending, low-end stuff that goes and for sure some high-end accessories that aren't speaking to me anymore, or they don't work for me. I bought one of the Bottega Veneta Cassettes and I'm not capable of a mini bag — I couldn't even call that a mini bag. It's just too small for me, so I gave it up. Whereas certain vintage pieces that I've literally found in garage sales, I'll never give up because they really speak to me. I have a cropped pleather H&M vest. It's chocolate brown with studs all over it and I wore it to death. It was maybe $25 at the time and it's still in my closet. Why? Because it's very, very short and it sits very high. It looks so good with maxi dresses because of the proportion. I'm not giving it up. I don't care what label it is."

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