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  • Carola Kolbeck

Style Icon Tziporah Salamon and the Fabric of Her Life

© Tziporah Salamon

Part 1: Tziporah Salamon on the sartorial journey of her life, her love for vintage clothes, being an artist, and why money can’t buy you style.

Life holds some pinch-me moments for all of us, and I know I’m living one said moment when I’m speaking to Tziporah Salamon. The New York City style icon warmly greets me from her colourful and cosy apartment, immediately asking me how I am and then telling me that later that day she’ll be signing papers with her new agency. Excitedly, she shares that the new agency is run by twins, and that, says Tziporah, is a sign of God. “Everyone in my life is a twin, I’ve always been surrounded by twins. And they already push me to do big things”, the bubbly 73-year-old tells me. One of her big ideas is to feature in her own reality TV show called I ♥ Tzippi, in which she envisages cycling through the Big Apple, sharing her love for the art of dressing.

Over the two days when we speak, it becomes clear that serendipity is a theme that weaves through Tziporah’s life like a thread weaves through a garment. It seems that fate prepared for the style muse, model, and artist long before her life began.

Tziporah was born to Jewish parents, both Holocaust survivors, in 1950 in Israel. She tells me that her father survived the concentration camps out of sheer luck. A Nazi guard asked if anyone could sew; he put up his hand and was chosen to sew the Nazi uniforms for the Hungarian soldiers training to become Nazis and mend the overalls of the Jewish laborers. Her mother, in turn, nearly died on one of the death marches, yet, close to a miracle, survived by sharing a jar of jam with one of her friends.

They initially lived in Israel but later moved to New York City, where Tziporah’s parents continued to work in their creative professions as a tailor and seamstress, and she credits them for her love of clothes, her intrinsic knowledge of how to dress, and her knack for style.

“I always had great style, darling, because Papa was a tailor and Mama was a dressmaker”, she tells me with that girlish smile that captures you just as much as her life stories. “Everything I had was cut and measured for my body. I could show my Mama the cover of Vogue on Friday, we’d go shopping for fabric on Saturday, and by Sunday night, she'd be pinning it on me. My Mama was an artist. She died when I was 31.”

She notes that, whereas fashion was art for her mother, for her father, it was much more functional. “He was a brilliant tailor, he really could alter anything!” She jumps up and shows me the silk trousers she is wearing. “He worked on these pants, these men's pyjama bottoms. They were huge. They were size 30. He altered them to my size six.”

© Iké Udé

Although quality clothes and style had been a steady presence in her life, it took Tziporah some years to work out what exactly it was she wanted to do. In her mid - to late twenties, from 1975 to 1979, Tziporah worked at Berkeley High School as a Spanish teacher, even though she was trained to teach English. Her students were enthralled by Tziporah's style, admitting that they cut all the other classes to come to hers, only to check out what she was wearing. At the same time, Tziporah also studied in the evenings for a PhD in Psychology at the California Graduate School of Family and Marital Therapy. But a surprise self-revelation changed everything.

“When I was 29, I suddenly realised I didn't want to be working as a therapist. I was halfway through my training, and I was already seeing clients, I was seeing families, I was seeing couples, I was seeing teenagers, and I knew that's not what I wanted to do. And it was a panic like, what the fuck am I gonna do? So I decided to pay attention to what it was that I did in my daily life, and I noticed that twice a week, I would go into the local boutique just to look and feel and touch clothes. I wasn't buying any of it; I didn't have the money or that lifestyle, but I still needed to touch and feel and inhale the garments, and I was like, “Ah fashion, of course!”

© Iké Udé

While Tziporah fearlessly embraced her new path in life, her family was less enthralled. Her father, in particular, had a hard time with his daughter coming back to NYC, moving in with her parents to pursue fashion.

“He didn’t like me working at Barneys as a sales girl because he wanted, like all immigrant parents, their children's lives easier than their own. That's why they moved to America, where they believed money grows on trees; all you have to do is shake the trees, and coins will come down.”

However, for the headstrong young woman, this was just the beginning of a remarkable journey that would turn her into one of New York’s best-dressed people of all time.

Whilst working at Barneys, she was also exposed to the wealth and high society of the city. She recalls watching the elevator doors open and the best-dressed, richest, and hippest women, all the actresses, every movie star, and everyone in the arts, would walk in to buy clothes. Although she liked designers, she was also aware that she didn’t have the budget for a designer wardrobe herself. During that time, Tziporah also discovered her love for Eastern-style clothes, something that’s still evident in her wardrobe and her outfits to this day. In the late 70s, she especially loved Comme de Garcons, Yohji Yamamoto, Issey Miyake, and Mitsuhiro Matsuda, but they were out of her budget range. “They wanted $1,000 an item”, she tells me, “and that’s what I wanted to buy but couldn’t afford." However, in a basement antique clothing boutique, she discovered vintage clothes she could afford. “And I saw what I could get for $100 there,” she smiles, “I still have one of the best grey poplin jackets. They don't make wool like that anymore.”

© Tziporah Salamon

Finding vintage clothing was the start of Tziporah’s lifelong journey with mostly preloved clothes, a path that didn’t just take her to vintage boutiques but also brought clothes to her. A short time after turning 31 and after the death of her beloved mother, Tziporah met René Lewis, a collector of vintage clothes. The clothes no longer fit her, and in addition, René’s boyfriend was moving in with her, meaning space had to be created in Rene’s wardrobe. “You can wear them”, René told Tziporah, “but they’re not yours.” Unsurprisingly, a year later, René told her: “Tziporah, they’re all yours.” And just like serendipity, the first collection of vintage clothing had found its way into Tziporah’s life.

Her love for vintage clothes does not only stem from a love for quality clothing, something she credits her parents for; it also comes from being unique and going against the fashion of the masses. She muses that “Vintage was a way for me to create my own outfits so that no one else ever had what I had. Because I can't wear what everyone else does. I just can't. Maybe it’s because I always had custom-made clothes growing up.”

Undoubtedly, Tziporah was born to be surrounded by fabulous garments, to embody them in her every breath, and to emerge as a true fashion icon. However, despite all this, the quirky woman, then in her early 30s, realised that loving fashion and being part of the fashion industry wasn’t exactly what she had dreamt of. Although she knew that if she wanted to, she could be anything and anyone in the industry, from becoming a fashion buyer to owning her own boutique, she couldn’t stand the business. “I hated that it kept women victims that you always had to keep up with the changes; you got to start all over all the time: You need the polka dots this season, you need the longer skirt this year, you need the shorter skirt next year, and I was like: “Get me off this merry-go-round!” And so I became a waitress; I went into the hospitality business, and I loved it. It really served me well because it made me into the actress that I am today.”

© Janis Wilkins

Working in some of New York’s finest restaurants, Tziporah may have avoided the fashion business, but fashion certainly didn’t avoid her. After losing her job at Cafe Luxembourg, a friend took her to Jezebel at 630 9th Avenue. Jezebel was, back then and until its closure decades later, the hottest restaurant in New York City. Alberta Wright, the owner, had previously run an antique clothing store on Columbus Avenue, also called Jezebel, where John and Yoko and lots of other celebrities, such as Diane Keaton and the customer for the film Annie Hall, went to get their outfits. “Alberta closed the store because she was also a great chef. But all the beaded dresses from her former shop were hanging off the rafters in the restaurant, and all the tables were covered with antique piano shawls”, Tziporah describes entering Jezebel for the first time. Unsurprisingly, she’d also made quite an impression on the hostess. “That night, Alberta said to me, ‘What are you wearing, dear?’ I was wearing this fabulous Yohji Yamamoto jumper. And then she asked me: ‘What do you do?’ I told her that I’d been let go from Luxembourg, and she said, ‘You come to see me Monday morning', and she hired me on the spot and told me that we had to wear our own antique clothing.”

Working for Alberta Wright was not only a sartorial stroke of genius, but it also paved the way for her career of working in some of the city’s most exclusive restaurants. By her late 40s and early 50s, Tziporah was surrounded by some of Manhattan’s richest people, which was when she realised that her dressing up and style were art rather than just fashion and clothes. She admits that it took many years for her to own the fact that she was an artist herself: “For me, my body is my canvas, and the clothes and accessories are the paints I use to create the painting. And I take it as seriously as any good painter.”

She also noticed that, despite a huge disparity in wealth, she was always better dressed than most of the women visiting the restaurants she worked in. “I had better taste”, she simply states. “Maybe they would come in with head-to-toe Prada, Yves Saint Laurent, or whatever the designer of the moment was. But it wasn't art. It was just money.”

Working in restaurants also trained her to be a performer. “I'm very comfortable in front of people. I'm a great storyteller. My stories are amazing. They're all true stories. Because otherwise, I wouldn't remember them”. These days, without a background in drama or acting, Tziporah performs a one-woman show called The Fabric of My Life, in which she takes her audience on her own sartorial journey through time.

© Robbie Quinn

During that time, Tziporah was ready to combine all her masterful skills and weave another row of yarn into her fascinating life story. On her daily cycle to work, Tziporah got acquainted with Lucie Porges, a Holocaust survivor 20 years her senior, who lived across the street from her and was waiting for the bus. The two got talking, and Lucie, once a collaborator and right-hand designer with Pauline Trigère and now a professor at Parsons School of Design teaching a course called Design Atelier, was blown away by Tziporah’s style. She asked her to come teach her students, who were mainly mature students who were thinking about switching careers to the fashion business. Tziporah was happy to oblige. “I would put 10 outfits in two shopping bags and go to teach the class. I would change in front of the students; I’d strip down to some leggings and a sleeveless top so I could just put on the next outfit in front of the students. I’d explain why this works with this but not with this. It's about proportion and silhouette and color and rhythm and story - all the elements of design that make up style. The most important thing about her teaching, she tells me, is that her students get a visual and visceral understanding of how to dress. Teaching those lectures eventually led to Tziprah teaching her own Masterclass, which she hosts in person or online or in museums and design schools to this day.

Throughout her life and time in NYC, Tziporah Salamon has become an inimitable fashion icon, a style queen, an inspiration, and a muse for photographers, artists, and designers alike. The fabric of her life is laced with her love for exceptional vintage clothing that tells stories just like the lady who wears them. Undeniably, fashion, creativity, and art are in her blood, but her story equally shows that you attract what you put out there.

In the second part of the interview, we talk to Tziporah about the exceptional clothes that find her, her modelling career, as well as ageing, and why it’s never too late to start something new.

Follow Tziporah Salamon on Instagram and her website, where you can find links to her Masterclass, book and latest events.


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