Ali MacGraw — legendary actress, model, stylist and animal rights activist — is standing next to me before a small continental breakfast at the Lotos Club on the Upper East Side. We’re in the breakfast room debating between blueberry or strawberry yogurt. The selection’s whatever but the historic space is striking and handsome, like something from another world, another Manhattan. And here’s MacGraw, right at home, bustling about, mingling with fellow diners while pouring coffee for us both.
She is charismatic and charming, impossible not to gravitate toward. In an all-black outfit (a tee, skinny jeans, flats), with a blue scarf, a stack of blue beaded necklaces and Santa Fe silver hanging from her lobes, she is exactly what you think of when you use the word “chic,” minus the intimidating or untouchable context that often goes with it. At 78, she says her style hasn’t changed much, though she appreciates that there’s less stress on “the look of the moment” when it comes to fashion today — that now, one can dress however he or she wants and still look stylish.
MacGraw met Ibu’s founder, Susan Hull Walker, at The International Folk Art Festival in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where MacGraw lives. Artisans from all over the world come to participate and everybody in town volunteers. “2,000 of us do the grunt work: bring the water, sell the stuff, unpack,” she says. “It’s on this gorgeous pavilion between all of our museums on a hill under the New Mexico sky.”
Each year she would spot Walker, whose style appealed to MacGraw, a self-described “thrift shop, hippie market kind of [woman].” She finally introduced herself to Walker, who asked MacGraw to be an ambassador and design a collection. From there, a collaboration was born. MacGraw has been working on the project gratis since last August. She sees it as a way to do her part.
“A woman in the developing world spends an average of 90 cents out of every dollar on education and health care for her children and family,” explains the company’s website. “For men, the statistics are closer to 30%, so that supporting women has a multiplier effect as her family and community also benefit from her choices, leadership, and prosperity.”
“When a woman brings money into the household,” says MacGraw. “Suddenly she can’t be treated quite the same way as before.”
We talk a lot about style. A fire burned her house down in ‘93 and took with it many of her designer treasures, including original Halstons. MacGraw has since stuck to a uniform: tees, black skinny jeans and ballet flats, plus accessories — just like what she’s wearing today — and, “one or two things a year that are hair-raisingly expensive but I know will last my lifetime.”
“I remember in those early days spending too much time worrying about whether I looked okay. That is really boring. The minute that every single thing is perfect, you’ve lost your sexuality, as far as I’m concerned. Where’s the juice?”
“I once bought this dress for a dinner when I was a movie star and felt very conspicuous. It was colossally expensive — one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. I had it shortened, which meant I couldn’t return it. I put it on and went, ‘This dress is wearing me. There’s a face in it, but who is she?’ What a lesson.”
MacGraw says really sincere, heartfelt things like this throughout our conversation and then, about a half a beat after, makes fun of herself.
“With all of the different stages — and when you get older, there are a lot of stages — you do get to a point where you think what’s really, really, really important?” She prefaces her next sentence with “don’t throw up,” then says, “The most important thing is the quality of your friendships.”
“Perfect…I don’t think it exists,” she adds. “It’s a peculiar obsession. Being a decent human being, interacting and connecting with other people — really, really connecting — is more important than anything.”