05.27.09 7:08 AM ET
Fashion's Miracle Worker
“I need a vacation,” sighs Patricia Black as she steps onto the veranda just outside of the Albright Fashion Library in New York, where she serves as the creative director for the luxury clothing rental showroom. It’s five o’clock on a Friday night and she’s taking a drag on her Parliament Light; Black’s dressed casually in a navy pinstriped blazer and cut-off jean shorts, and her hair, a clean crop of black tresses, is being swept up and danced about by the wind. “I mean, it’s never over,” she says as a bewitching smile creeps across her lips. Black’s just noticed a lone stylist through the glass doors, gazing helplessly at a rack of floor-length gowns and refusing to budge before she finds her ideal garment. Without pause, the woman who has been dubbed, “the stylist to the stylists” and “the best kept secret in New York fashion,” mashes out her cigarette and saunters inside to do what she’s famous for: solving someone else’s impending fashion crisis.
“Most people look at a person and decide what they should wear. I look at a dress and decide who the woman is; I consider what she’s driving, what she watches on TV, what she eats. I can look at a dress and actually envision the woman.”
“What are you looking for?” she asks the young blonde as she joins her by the mix of vintage and modern Azzedine Alaïa frocks. “Um, Ferretti dresses?” the girl offers in a defeated tone as she blinks actively at Black, silently begging her for guidance. “Come this way,” Black says as her six-foot frame knowingly snakes through the labyrinth of expensive clothes for which Albright is renowned. “Why didn’t you go to Ferretti?” Black asks, stopping short in her path. “Um,” the stylist stammers, “there’s just more here. You have everything.”
The young fashion stylist couldn’t have been more accurate. Albright’s 7,000-square-foot showroom, nestled in Lower Manhattan, boasts more than 20,000 vintage and modern pieces, ranging from rare Balenciaga to staples from The Gap, Lucite baubles by Alexis Bittar, and a cache of accessories too numerous to name. Black quickly continues to weave her way through the congested space and gingerly plucks a few choice numbers from the proper rack, making the otherwise impossible task of finding a particular piece seem effortless. She then quietly makes her way back to the veranda and lights another cigarette as if the last five minutes never even happened.
But that’s the thing about Patricia Black: For her, fashion is never a crisis. Style, she believes, is instinctual, however intellectual her insights might seem. “You have to trust your own eye,” she insists when asked how she’s become so well-versed in all things fashion. She squints her eyes and pauses for a moment before suggesting that, “Most people look at a person and decide what they should wear. I look at a dress and decide who the woman is; I consider what she’s driving, what she watches on TV, what she eats. I can look at a dress and actually envision the woman.”
Having provided her services to celebrities such as Meryl Streep, Demi Moore, and Fergie (to name a few), pulled pieces for movies such as The Devil Wears Prada and Sex and the City, and even styled people for political occasions like the recent White House Correspondents' Dinner, Black clearly understands the importance of the piece over stuffing the wrong body into a trendy “It” item. In fact, when asked what her choice picks for summer styles are, she shrugs her sculpted shoulders and explains, “If I had to answer I’d say jumpsuits are big this season. Hervé Léger, Comme des Garçons… But every person is different,” she says, “There isn’t one ‘right’ item for any one person, really. People trust me because I understand that, you know? I always go back to what is appropriate.”
And she’s had years to develop her eye, as she’s been working with Irene Albright, owner of the awe-inspiring collection of high-end designs, for so long that she’s built an almost cult-like following of extraordinary characters in New York style. “I would do anything for her!” exclaims Tom Broecker, costume designer for Saturday Night Live and Tina Fey’s 30 Rock. “Quite simply I find her to be one of the most fascinating people in New York City and she does her job brilliantly. I can describe a character and she pulls dresses for me perfectly. She refines my eye!”
Kathryn Neale, a contributing editor at Vogue, agrees. Her adoration for Black stems from the fact that “Everybody knows who she is… everybody tends to get a little enraptured with her, caught up in her. Patricia is just one of those people that somehow makes everybody feel special, like they are an intimate friend. They end up telling her their hopes their fears—and of course all of their secrets.” And for Linda Rodin, a fashion stylist and creator of Olio Lusso, a high-end glow-infusing facial oil, it’s Black’s intellect and genuine spirit that impresses her most.
“She’s stunning!” she says, reflecting on Black’s smooth temperament. “She’s not affected. She never stops and she does everything with such grace and wit. She’s a miraculous woman. I don’t even understand where she’s found the time to learn so much! She knows so much history. I mean, fashion history and beyond.”
Perhaps her insider following is based on just that—the idea that the greater world is equally as interesting to Patricia Black as the majestic trappings of fashion’s prettiest things. Her hectic work schedule at Albright is only a small part of her life, and long after the doors close for the evening she’s off to voice, movement, dance, or acting class—and not just any acting class, but one that she resolutely declares, “ goes there,” a fact she credits for helping her to develop her worldly persona beyond being one of the most trusted woman in fashion.
“Style isn’t just about your clothes, it extends to every facet of your life,” she purrs as she ambles down Cooper Square only blocks from Albright. “I think the way you live informs your sense of style—not just clothing alone. How boring is it when a person just talks about Chanel, Fendi, and labels? You can have five dollars and be fashionable. I used to be rude! But isn’t it cliché to be mean and in fashion these days? It’s so much easier to be nice. See, I go from my gut and try not to take it all too seriously. Some days I like it and some days I love it, but I have an overall appreciation for design—what a full space should look like.” And she might have continued on, had a scraggily haired yogi not stopped her to thank her for dressing him for Harvey Weinstein’s wedding.
“It was a beautiful event,” he hums in a tranquil tone, seemingly hypnotized by the chance to finally thank her for relieving him of his eco-chic yoga gear and readying him for a high-society wedding. “No worries, that’s wonderful” Black responds, as she tips her head to the side and scrolls through her mental Rolodex for his name. And after a brief exchange, off he goes to teach a tantric yoga session.
“I have a point of view,” she asserts before she heads home for the evening. “It makes more sense for me to explore the world around the fashion universe to inform my sensibility—to almost study everything but fashion. It’s clear to me that elegance is not based on money alone. Taste is not based on capital, so we can relax. I just want to know that I’ve lived—to know that I have touched, breathed and smelled everything that was possible,” and for a woman who's happiest at the symphony, celebrating the sounds of Gustavo Dudamel, or innocuously perched in the balcony of the opera, one assumes she already has—or simply won’t rest until she does.
Elizabeth Gates is a graduate of The New School University, where she cultivated her love for fashion and writing. A former intern at Vogue, her interest in image, art, and fashion has driven her desire to contribute to the vast narrative of modern culture in America and abroad.