NEW YORK — Designers and insiders generally race through the highs and lows of their careers in Q&As with Fern Mallis. But the perennially understated Patricia Field recapped hers at a much more measured pace.
After 50 years in fashion, why rush? Whether revealing her striking hair color — “poppy and pillar box red” — or crediting Candy Pratts Price for starting her costume designer career by recommending her as costume designer for the 1987 film “Lady Beware,” a pyschodrama starring Diane Lane as a window dresser, 30 years later, Field sounded grateful as ever. “That is one of the nicest things that anyone has ever done for me. I always tell people that I am so grateful that she did that,” Field said of Pratts Price.
A more lasting job lead came from Sarah Jessica Parker, whom Field met on the set of “Miami Rhapsody.” The actress suggested Field to “Sex In the City’s” Darren Star, who hired her for six seasons. “It is never a situation where I’m telling you what you’re going to wear. I’m giving you the choice. After a while, you know what people are comfortable with,” Field said. (That was the case with the tutu Parker wore in the show’s opening credits — a $5 find from a showroom bin — but selling the producers took some work.)
Recalling her own single days in the city, Field was all about jazz, catching performers like Sarah Vaughn and Dinah Washington who personified “that torchy side of jazz.” Raised in a family where the unwritten law was everyone went to college, Field abided “happily” taking government and philosophy classes at NYU without really studying, just getting by. “I even thought that people who didn’t go to college were not so smart. In those days, they had commercial classes for girls where you could be a secretary to something. But I didn’t really think about my career. My mom would always go, ‘Oh, you should be a diplomat or you should be a lawyer,’” agreeing with Mallis that she wound up being a little bit of both.
“After seeing an ad for a manager of a department at Alexander’s. I knew I could do it. I knew it was easy. I always tell people, ‘Do what’s easy. Don’t do what’s hard.’ Because if it’s easy, you’re going to do it well and you’re going to be good at it.”
Field recalled driving to the Bronx in her red Sunbeam Alpine convertible sports car like the one Elizabeth Taylor drove in “Butterfield 8” to dig up designer suits at Loehmann’s. With the Mod movement happening in 1966, the-then 24-year-old Field used $4,000 from a trust fund her father had set up to open a store called Pants Pub on NYU’s campus. When she relocated to 8th Street, her business and romantic partner Jo-Anne Salvucci encouraged Field to use her name for the store.
“I didn’t have a problem on the gay side. I never really thought about it. It wasn’t an issue for me. What were issues for me and what I was focused on was my business, my career…the gay part was never an issue.
“One day in the mid Seventies, I see this kind of ragamuffin in pink pants, sort of stumbling down the steps to my store, and I’m like, ‘Who the hell is this?’ P.S. Patti Smith,” Field said. “One day she said, ‘I bet you wonder where I wear the clothes I buy from you.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I really do.’ She goes, ‘On stage. Come to one of my shows.’ It was her last show in New York. And there she was in this $200 silk chiffon blouse, wrinkled and crazy. She’d come in and buy this olive green mink coat — drop it on the floor. She’s very irreverent. I really liked her.”
Missy Elliott is another favorite, because “she is just herself and real.” The musician will appear in the new series “Star” by Molly Rodgers, who told her friend Field that the producers want Elliot to wear a dress. “I told Molly, ‘If I get an idea, I’ll call you, but I doubt it.’
After expanding her store from the Bowery to Elizabeth Street, Field said it dawned on her at the end of last year, “‘What the hell am I doing here, making myself more work?’ I realized I was in business for 50 years. I thought, ‘You’re crazy. Sell it.’ I only miss the people.”
Field also spoke of the challenges of sequels. “Even if you create the original, it’s hard to knock yourself off. The original is what makes it. But I really do believe if they want to do a ‘Sex and the City,’ they need to do it with four gorgeous, young, sexy, juicy girls that love to wear clothes.”
The costume designer is at work on Darren Star’s “Younger” for TV Land, featuring Hilary Duff, Sutton Foster, Debi Mazar and Miriam Shaw. She also has an e-commerce business that features art and painted one-of-a-kind clothing, which she hopes to wholesale as well. Describing a meeting with Bergdorf Goodman’s Linda Fargo, Field said she was told, “‘Your prices are too cheap. Raise your prices. We don’t sell prices like this.’ I said, ‘So buy them at my prices and make all the mark-up you want.'”
Enjoying the endeavor all the same, Field said, “I think people like this because they are sick of mass-produced clothing. I used to hear it in my store the last couple of years — ‘Everything’s the same, I can’t shop anywhere, all the little stores and the good stores are gone, you’re the only one left…'”
The discussion ended with a message of tenacity. “Make sure you love it. It’s a wonderful industry. You can make things look gorgeous if you have a beautiful heart. But you have to love it because if the going gets rough, you still have to love it,” she said. “It’s not just the fashion industry — it’s the same with any career. Do what you love and do what’s easy.”