The famous Jacques Cousteau once said: “There are no boundaries in the real Planet Earth. No United States, no Soviet Union, no China, no Taiwan … Rivers flow unimpeded across swaths of continents. The persistent tides — the pulse of the sea — do not discriminate; they push against all the varied shores on Earth.”
I like this notion. If only it were all that simple. And yet in some ways, it is that simple. It can be that simple if we unearth simple tools for making our world feel a little smaller, a little more of an interconnected web — a world-wide web, if you will permit such a corny transition. One of the ways I’ve consciously sought to build links to all corners of the earth is by making a sport of searching for makers of clothes the world over — ha! Bet you didn’t see that one coming. And in this sport, my racquet of choice for the smashing of borders has long been a little-known website named Etsy.
Of course, Etsy is no more a secret than the fact that I have an inclination toward stretching the mundane (such as, say, shopping on Etsy) into absurd comparisons to philosophies expressed by French explorers. Be that as it may, Etsy has indeed provided me with some of the more cherished connections to parts of the world other than where I lay my head 65 percent of the year. I derive incalculable joy from feeling a kinship with the creative hands that make the things that occupy space in my life: It elevates them from “things” to stories and fragments of the lives of others. As Alice B. Toklas expressed, “One must draw nearer to creation in order to create.” I am grateful for any small manner in which I can achieve connection to the breath and heartbeat threaded into my clothes, my furniture, my anything. In fact, so infatuated am I with craftspeople that if I met Jesus, who was a carpenter, I’d likely say, “The water into wine party trick is cool and all, but what I’d really like is for you to show me how you build a chair from start to finish.”
Through Etsy, I’ve found for myself a supplier of vintage kimonos in Osaka and a cotton shirt maker in Portugal. I’ve collaborated on the realization and production of a six-pound robe, the design of which was inspired by sunsets of the Atacama Desert, with a craftswoman in Bulgaria. (I know the exact weight of this work of art because once, returning from Morocco with overweight luggage, I was forced to dig out the heaviest thing from my suitcase and carry it by hand onto the flight, and you guessed it, it was Porphyria’s own robe.) I’ve also become friends with a custom rug maker in India via Instagram, but that’s a story for another season.
Most recently, thanks to Etsy, I’ve discovered what I believe to be the most perfect sweater dress — made to order in Lithuania by Atene Malinauskaite — one fit to carry me through the lassitude of summer’s dusk and into the brisk elegance of autumn. It is to share this good news that I come to you to today. “The Perfect Sweater Dress!” A bold assertion if there ever was one. Can something so plain as the sweater dress aspire to uniqueness and perfection? Permit me to submit the evidence in three incarnations:
For your casual trip to the farmer’s market…
…Wherein you inadvertently knock all the produce off the shelves with your bulbous sleeves and thusly decide: Perhaps this dress is not the dress for your casual trip to the farmer’s market.
I don’t quite recall what mandate of insomnia first delivered me to this dress by *Atuko on Etsy, but once I found it (or did it find me?), I recognized all the ingredients that make up my recipe of perfection. Let’s start with color: the flawless shade that is dove gray, the color I imagine heaven to be painted. Then there are the obvious features: the blouson sleeves for one, so unapologetic in their bloussonness. But what I find most endearing are the finer details of the dress: the single pleat on each shoulder that creates a certain structure not unlike a shoulder pad; the asymmetrical hem, rendered neatly in the front and left unfinished in the back; pockets set so low that serve no distinguishable purpose to anyone but Gumby, and yet one couldn’t imagine the frock without them. Everywhere the evidence of thoughtful design is sewn into the deceptive simplicity of this garment.
Here, I am wearing it monochrome-style with mules by Brazilian shoe designer Sarah Chofakian and a little infusion of color afforded by my vintage Hermès “Cavalcadour” scarf (here’s another option for under $100) wrapped taut around the strap of my bag.
My most cherished “accessory” in this look, however, has to be my manicure crafted with stone-cold precision by master artist Maira at New York studio Paintbox Nails. I am usually entirely too timid for nail art, but feeling as though I’ve found a uniform in this dress (and unabashedly intend to wear it daily for at least a week) that is both a statement-making piece and something of a blank canvas, I’m emboldened to let my nails do some talking.
*If you’ve clicked and see “1 in stock,” fret not! It always says that, because they make it once you order it. There are also other colors.
For a trip to the therapist…
…Wherein you wish to telegraph the message that today, conversations about hair are off the table (as are any examinations of the paradox of the mother-daughter bond, thank you very much), but you are happy to discuss the shoes you bought during a layover in London.
I’ll concede a limitation: Dove gray does tend to lend itself, in my mind, toward pairings with other neutrals more so than with sanguine colors (though with the right red, the combination of colors is sublime). Yet even a color-lover such as myself can find liberation in muted tones: Color does not always have to take the starring role; sometimes shape or movement can handle its own just fine on the stage. And always, of course, there is texture.
To know me is to know I spend most of my waking moments in headgear these days because I find hair exhausting (a subject worthy of deeper exploration with my would-be shrink, no doubt), and here I do so while introducing the texture of pleats.
I find intrigue in the amoebic nature of head wrapping. Much like you can’t step in the same river twice, you can’t tie a scarf the same way twice, either. And frankly, since I have no established head wrapping technique, I enjoy fighting with long swaths of fabric until I have formed some sort of amorphous nest atop my head to be a delightful, if sometimes tortuous, dalliance with the game of chance. Besides, turbans interest me because they carry significance in a multiplicity of cultural contexts. For me, they are a nod to 1930s glam and to my Ghanaian heritage. I once asked my mum to instruct me on the intricacies of head wrapping — of “boh-ing duku,” as it’s called in (Anglicized) Twi — via Skype, a request at which she scoffed. “It can’t be taught,” was her riposte. “Just do it.” (Okay, Nike.) And so I did. And when I showed her my feeble yet proud attempt, she laughed and said, “Keep trying!” An admonition I’ll undoubtedly be unpacking with said therapist for a small lifetime.
The rest of this look is all uneven tuck and even more textural play from my vintage Nicholas Kirkwood shoes, the suede of which is daintily embossed to give the appearance of lace. With trousers as long and wide as these, the shoe’s detail remains hidden unless (until!) I quite deliberately cross my legs to reveal its angular, architectural form. But I am content being the only one in the know about the gem hidden beneath my hem: a sartorial Easter Egg, one might call it.
For that day when you have a power lunch at noon…
…and a 2018 Posh Spice convention after work.
The neckline of Atuko’s dress is wide enough that I can ostensibly wear the dress as a skirt, which is a deeply satisfying notion for one never content with wearing a garment only as it is intended to be worm. In my experimentation with the sweater dress, however, I stopped before I had dropped it to my waist and decided instead to see where wrapping its sleeves about my chest would get me. The process got me to a sort of faux-sweetheart neckline, which then sent me reaching for a blazer. Safety pins go a long way for rigging this look, but buyer beware: This is not a styling trick to test when you’ll be rabidly waving your hands, singing along to “Hip Hop Hurray” at a Naughty by Nature concert; you will flash someone. It is, however, perfect for cocktail parties where you already know everyone and therefore won’t need to shake hands.
As for the blazer: I am defined by my love of a good blazer — the double-breasted-er, the better. The current object of my affection is Blazé Milano. The incisive peak lapel lined in contrasting trim, the Italian tailoring and the whimsy of their signature inverted smiley pockets: What’s not to love? (Well, besides the price tag. Topshop’s double-breasted suits may not be quite as expertly tailored, but they do get the job done in a pinch, especially if you make the effort to make small changes like replacing buttons and having your dry cleaner shape the waistline a smidge.) Which brings me back to perhaps my favorite thing about Atuko’s sweater dress: its affordability despite its uncompromising quality. That and the fact that the dress also comes in black and white, which essentially means: Pardon me while I log back onto Etsy to complete my neutral winter wardrobe trifecta…
Photos by Sara Kerens.