In The Magazine

The Art of Dressing Well

Tuesday, March 1, 2016
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“I’m having so much fun this should be illegal,” laughs Ala Isham, speaking about the new line of resort wear she’s created. “Some people have asked me, why are you doing this now? But what am I supposed to do now that my kids are grown-up? Stare at a wall?” Seated in the library at NoMad for what has turned out to be very early afternoon drinks, Isham is tall, blond and statuesque, with blue eyes so piercing they could give the fabled Mitford sisters a run for their money. Perusing the extensive list of cocktails, Ala begs off anything alcoholic and chooses a cappuccino instead. I decide that one of us has to have a real drink and chose something tropical and fruity. When the rum cocktail arrives I’m not disappointed, it’s about as tall as the table and has more cornucopia on it than a baroque Italian church.

I take a tentative (and delicious) first sip and realize that I’m going to need to pace myself in order to concentrate on what Isham is saying. She starts by telling me how she got into fashion organically. Having studied art history at Barnard (in between nights out on the town at Studio 54. Steve Rubell even gave her a 21st birthday party, a rare honor which she acknowledges she did not appreciate at the time.), she took lessons from artist Ophrah Shemesh, a well-known teacher at the New York Studio School. She had been making clothes with a designer friend of hers, Antonio Gual, for years. He saw her drawings and thought they could be transferred onto the kaftans Isham was fond of wearing at home. As someone who moves around between Antigua, Newport, New York and Southampton, she wanted clothes that would transfer between those environments and, most important, be comfortable and chic.

She started to think about how her mother and grandmother wore their clothes to dinners in Marrakech in the 1960s and ’70s, where Isham’s aunt, Hetti Von Bohlen, would have fabulous dinner parties attended by everyone from the Gettys to Yves Saint Laurent and the Rolling Stones. More often than not, the ladies wore kaftans, and Isham loves their ease. “You can be dressed comfortably, but you can also look elegant.” She cites the photographs that Norman Parkinson took for Town & Country of kaftan-draped models luxuriating in Venetian gondolas, and iconic images of Sophia Loren and Elizabeth Taylor. “These were incredibly sexy women, but the clothes they wore weren’t so tight.”

As a constant traveler, she appreciates clothes that pack well: “Because we don’t have tall suitcases anymore and we don’t want to travel like that, I think of clothes having to perform several functions. You wear one casually, make it fancier if you go out, then add another layer to make it even dressier. I like the idea that you don’t have to take much but you can look good.”

Isham sees fashion as an extension of the art she was studying. “One piece emphasizes the body and then the other one is fairly loose on top so that when the woman moves, the pieces draw together. In the end, I saw this as my art installation. The woman buying is the art of my own inspiration.” Isham would love to see Meryl Streep, Helen Mirren, Anne Hathaway, Angelina Jolie and Julianne Moore in her designs: “Anyone who wants to feel beautiful and confident.”

Daughter of Prince Alfred Auersperg of Salzburg and Martha “Sunny” Crawford von Bülow, Isham grew up between Austria and Newport. The tragedy that blighted much of her early adult life—her mother’s death in 2008 after being in a coma for more than 20 years, and the trial of her stepfather, Claus von Bülow, who was twice put on trial and acquitted of attempted murder—seems firmly in the past. By launching this line, it becomes clear that Isham is finally able to remember her mother in the way she’s always wanted to, as a elegantly dressed woman found in the company of interesting and entertaining people.

Growing up around so much beauty undoubtedly helped Isham’s sense of style as well as instructing her on the elusive art of relaxation. “Part of it is the need to return to a sense of elegance. We are all in such a rush and don’t really take time to sit down and have a nice meal or really nourish all those personal moments with friends in the way we used to.”

For all of her low-key demeanor, Isham was exposed to a rare and disappearing world from an early age. She remembers safari trips to Africa with her father, a professional hunter, where she would sit cross-legged by the fire, listening to the stories told by real-life Denys Finch-Hattons of their great game hunts in the 1950s and ’60s. Men who, despite contracting vicious tropical diseases, would return to Africa year after year. Summers, when not in Newport, were spent in enormous European houses with families who now struggle to keep their estates up and running. All of these experiences shaped Isham’s eye, but it was the glamorous women in her family who remain in her mind when she’s designing.

Isham’s sense of hospitality and living well comes from her upbringing. Her grandfather George W. Crawford was the founder and chairman of the Columbia Gas and Electric Company, and her great-grandfather Robert Warmack was a founder and chairman of the International Shoe Company. Her Southern grandmother, Annie Laurie Aitken, used to travel to Paris for months at a time and would even move her furniture into her suite at Le Meurice. “She believed in making people comfortable and having them feel at home.”

Her Southern charm and sensibility percolated down to Isham. “I think your eye is formed at a young age, so I was just lucky to be surrounded by beautiful things. You might look at a piece of furniture and not know who the maker is, but you will understand that it’s beautiful. You develop visually that way.”

Her ancestors are unquestionably illustrious, but in keeping with modern times, Isham has moved away from using cooks and butlers because she prefers a simpler existence with her husband of 27 years, Ralph Isham. Together with their four children (two from her previous marriage, one from his and one together) they are a down-to-earth blended family very much in keeping with the 21st century.

In the midst of her newfound fun, Isham is also giving back part of the proceeds to a charitable cause she believes in wholeheartedly. Years ago, Isham and her brother, Alexander, founded the National Center for Victims of Crime (NCVC) and Isham feels strongly about giving back to people without a voice. Part of the proceeds from sales will go to fight crimes against women particularly victims of sexual assault on college campuses.

This charitable aspect of her work is all part of a holistic approach that Isham is taking to her brand. She’s given a lot of thought to the way the website will work. Isham is developing a travelogue to address not only who will wear her clothes but where her customers will wear them. “I wear my clothes on vacation. I thought it would be fun to have a little section on different islands. Where do you go? What are the insider tips? Where do you rent a house?” She will include an inspiration board and collaborate with jewelers like London-based Annie
Summers, whose line of individual pieces works well with Isham’s line. The younger generation is interested too and gives her a lot of advice, and her daughter Sunny has been a huge help with social media.

As for placement, Isham will sell strictly online at first and then hopefully in all the top resort shops. As our time is nearing an end (and my drink woefully done) I want to know if the experience of talking about her family and even dealing with the press has been cathartic for her. She turns to me as we walk out of the hotel and simply says, “You know, it’s just been really nice to remember my mom this way, in all her beauty and elegance.”


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