In The Magazine

The Making of an Original

Tuesday, March 1, 2016
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by Susan Fales-Hill
photographed by Ronald James
styled and produced by Freddie Leiba
hair and makeup by Maysoon Faraj

I HAD A TALENT FOR DRAWING WHEN I WAS YOUNGER, BUT I . . . HAVE LET MY LOVE OF MAKING IMAGES FALL TO THE WAYSIDE. YET IN A WAY, I STILL MAKE A SELF PORTRAIT EVERY DAY,” says Amy Fine Collins. This dreary winter afternoon is no exception to her rule of sartorial inventiveness. She arrives at our meeting in the Carlyle Hotel gallery—a replica of a Turkish sultan’s dining room with deep ruby-red wallpaper adorned with scenes from a desert oasis—in a three-quarter length, cinched-waist caramel colored shearling with orientalist embroidery at the cuffs by Dennis Basso. She peels off the exotic coat to reveal one of her signature day dresses: a spare, long-sleeved black crepe Ralph Rucci number with two sinuous inlaid ribbons of brown silk running from her collarbone down to the skirt’s hem on either side, subtly delineating her taut, five foot ten frame. While the ladies around us sport variations of urban après ski/gruesome weather wear and unkempt mops of hat hair, the only indication that Amy has had to navigate freezing temperatures, five-foot-high snow banks and curbside moats of gray slush is a dainty pair of waterproof suede ankle boots. “I should have worn Manolos,” she murmurs apologetically. Every detail of her ensemble, down to her leopard print Lanvin handbag, achieves the harmony of contrasts that evokes her very character: classic yet modern, ladylike yet sexy, rigorously geometric and western yet exotic, mysterious and remote yet warm and accessible. In a world besotted with “athleisure-wear,” dressing down and celebrities with stylists but little personal style, the Vanity Fair special correspondent, author, mother, wife, social and fashion doyenne Collins is the ultimate 21st-century avatar of a much lamented cultural force.

“She is this kind of invention—she made this look up and it burned itself into our psyche from the moment it appeared and it will never leave—it’s indelible,” says her friend of more than 25 years, legendary designer Isaac Mizrahi. Comparing her to early-20th-century heiresses and cultural pioneers Nancy Cunard and Peggy Guggenheim, he predicts that Amy’s impact on fashion will take its place in the history books. His admiration extends beyond her chicness: “There are layers and layers and layers and they’re surprising. It’s surprising how un-dumb she is…You throw something at her and she always catches the ball.”

To those who know her family, however, Amy’s complexity and depth of thought come as no shock. One of two daughters of psychoanalyst Harold Fine and his wife, Elsa Honig Fine, an art historian and professor, the Fairfield, Connecticut–born Amy spent her formative years in Knoxville, Tennessee. Her mother taught at the historically black Knoxville College and wrote the first definitive textbook on African-American art in 1974, a revolutionary undertaking at the time. The nonpracticing Jewish family was quite out of place in this Southern city with its gentile majority and tiny Jewish community who all worshipped at one of two synagogues. Elsa insisted her daughters attend the local public school so that they would be exposed to “every kind of person.” Amy’s ability to interact with everyone from the former prostitutes she profiled in an award-winning article on sex trafficking to budding designers trying to break in, to the titans and socialites of New York and Paris, can be traced back to this experience.

While the school offered an academically rigorous program complete with the entire Shakespeare canon, Amy and her sister, Erika (a Harvard Law School graduate who now owns an antique shop,) were outsiders. They were taunted for their ethnic origin and their “hippie” clothing and barred from joining the school’s social clubs. Amy found refuge in the school’s “multicultural club,” which had a membership of three: an African-American girl (Malaika Adero, who would go on to become a noted book editor in New York), a Greek Orthodox boy and Amy. The ostracism helped Amy, whose first fashion icon was her own sleekly elegant mother, develop her own sense of style. “All of them could have been models,” she says of her classmates, “but I knew I didn’t look like them . . . I had to accept I was different from most of the girls I knew and then learn to play up those differences. I exposed my outsized ears, left the bump on my nose alone and made no apologies for my height, weight and ethnicity.” In her one attempt to “fit in,” she defensively developed a Southern accent, which she dropped at the urgings of her Swarthmore College boyfriend, a Southerner who said he’d come north to escape the “belles.” (She can still summon the accent on demand, to the great amusement of her many friends.)

After college, she enrolled at Columbia Business School in a slight act of rebellion against her parents, feeling she “had to learn something practical” and planning to pursue a career in arts administration. The experiment did not last long. Calculus and accounting drove Amy screaming back to the art history department where she belonged. It was while doing an internship at the Whitney Museum that she met Bradley Collins Jr., the quietly elegant scion of an old New York family whose great-uncle, Samuel Isham, wrote the first history of American art, in an uncanny parallel to Amy’s mother’s own pioneering scholarship. Amy and Bradley married in 1986 and moved to the Upper East Side, where they have lived ever since. Bradley is a professor of art history at Parsons.

Amy made the transition from academia to journalism by writing articles, first for scholarly art journals like the one founded by her mother, Women’s Art Journal, then for more mainstream publications, like the Village Voice’s now defunct style supplement, V. Her article on a retrospective exhibit of designer Geoffrey Beene titled “The Wearable Lightness of Beene” caught the designer’s attention. “I hadn’t interviewed him for the article,” she confesses, “because I was approaching his work as an art historian. He wrote me a note asking ‘How do you know me better than I know myself? Can we have lunch?’ ” That lunch turned into a lifelong friendship and collaboration; she became his muse and joined his circle, which included Robert Rufino and Alber Elbaz. She credits Beene with helping her truly refine her style. “My look before Beene was kind of a first draft,” she explains, “He made me realize I could push things a bit further, be more severe, more graphic.” She appreciated his avant-garde mix of high and low, using rubber tubing in belts for example, not to mention his “visual puns” and Peter Pan collars, and credits him with being the first to “have a center panel shaped like a woman’s torso so the woman’s body shape was slimmed and referenced.” Many of his design elements have become mainstream, and all of the principles he instilled, including primness wed to sensuality, remain the underpinnings of Amy’s carefully curated wardrobe.

Beene also pushed her to write more about fashion, of which she says “at the time was impossible to write about in an academic setting; fashion was considered unworthy of scholarly attention.” Amy’s award-winning articles, along with her two decades’ worth of volunteer work at the Met Museum’s Costume Institute, have contributed greatly to changing that perception. As her friend of many years, Hamish Bowles, Vogue’s international editor at large, puts it, “It’s significant that she’s a serious art historian, and it’s wonderful that she’s been able to bring that level of erudition and research to fashion and style history. There have been very serious costume historians, far less so in the sphere of 20th-century fashion and style. To have that elevated insight and perspective has helped to transform how we all think about those areas and experience them and expanded our knowledge.”

Since 1993, she has been a special correspondent at Vanity Fair, where she brings the rigor and the highly trained eye of an art historian to all of her subjects, be they decorators, legendary journalists, designers or celebrities. She has also long been a member of the select group that elects the members of the International Best Dressed List. In 2002, just before she died, Eleanor Lambert, the list’s founder, wrote a letter bequeathing the list to four friends, including Graydon Carter, Vanity Fair’s editor in chief; Reinaldo Herrera, a VF contributing editor and husband of designer Carolina, Aimée Bell, VF deputy editor; and Amy. Since the list moved to Vanity Fair, Amy has become its face.

She remains a sought after “model and muse” for established designers like Carolina Herrera and Azzedine Alaïa, as well as newer fashion stars like Zac Posen and Thom Browne. She loves to wear clothes by designers she knows; all of them revere her connoisseurship. “She appreciates the craft and art of making clothes…and not just clothes to wear, but conceptual ideas that make fashion interesting. She will always be very special to me because of her appreciation of how I approach my way of making clothes and how I don’t want to be like anyone else…and this is exactly who Amy is too,” Browne says in an email.

Amy continues to nurture a cadre of up-and-coming young creators. Her insistence on her own uniqueness has helped designers follow their stars. “She’s a benefactor and muse all in one,” gushes Stacey Bendet, founder of the charmingly retro and highly successful Alice + Olivia line. Bendet met Amy a dozen years ago when she was just starting. The two are now like sisters, and Amy, who has worn Stacey’s creations to the Costume Institute Ball, is godmother to Stacey’s daughter Scarlet. “She has such a true understanding of the garment,” Bendet says. “It’s the ultimate compliment when she says she likes something. She’s inspired so many pieces that I’ve done. She is in a constant state of glamour. She looks like a regal queen on a paddleboard in Fisher Island,” she continues, revealing one of Amy’s secret hobbies: paddleboard yoga. During our Carlyle confab, Amy pulls out her iPhone to show a picture of herself doing a headstand on a floating board. “I have a secret life as an acrobat,” she says with a laugh.

Beyond her glamorous career and social life, Amy’s greatest passion is her twenty-two-year old daughter, Flora, a Chapin graduate who is now a senior majoring in English at Vassar. When asked how she managed to raise such a sane, unspoiled child in the midst of great privilege, Amy explains, “I tried to maintain a sense of order and predictability in the way she grew up, and to laugh with her as much as possible. I suppose she saw beautiful things like clothes as the creative expression of the designer friends around me, not as consumer goods.” Flora’s response is more succinct: “Books.”

It was a book titled Candy, by Kevin Brooks (published by Scholastic), that first piqued the then 11-year-old Flora’s interest in the topic of child trafficking. She insisted she and her mother attend a lecture about modern-day slavery at their local library on Fisher Island. “There were only four of us: me, Flora, another lady and Polly Mellen.” But Amy’s obsession with the issue of domestic sex trafficking was born, inspired by her gifted and inquisitive daughter. The result was “Sex Trafficking of Americans: The Girls Next Door,” which, with more than a million hits, was the most read article in vanityfair.com’s history at the time. It helped change laws and is one of Amy’s proudest contributions to the field of journalism.

Her days begin late. “I’m on California time on the East Coast,” she says wryly. She exercises religiously, following a demanding regimen of Pilates and yoga, plus swimming in the summer. She writes every single day in the burgundy study/closet of her elegant and whimsical Park Avenue apartment. On her bureau plat, which is flanked by two built-in chiffoniers, with drawer upon drawer of her jewelry and accessories, sits a card—hand drawn by a very young Flora—that reads in a childish scrawl: “You are the beest Moma in the wole world.” On certain days, she will interrupt her writing schedule to meet a friend for lunch at Michael’s, the media elite’s canteen, or La Grenouille, the throwback to an earlier era of glamour. Every year, she looks forward to the American Ballet Theater galas (this fall she astonished in a double-faced satin mermaid gown by Zac Posen,) and of course, the Met Costume Institute Ball. The museum has been a long-standing philanthropic commitment for her because, as she states, “It builds community.” She also chairs the annual POSH clothing sale and gala for the Lighthouse Guild, to which she was introduced to by her close friend Somers Farkas, and it raises more than a million dollars a year for the organization, which provides healthcare services to people who are blind or visually impaired.

With a daughter graduating from college, she admits she’s ready for her third act. Her book, The God of Driving (published by Simon & Schuster), a memoir of her fear of driving and her unlikely friendship with the instructor, a Turkish immigrant and the “God” of the title who helped her overcome it, has been optioned by a film company. She’d like to bring the International Best Dressed List to a broader platform. For his part, Hamish Bowles would like to see her curate a show of her own stellar wardrobe: “I think it would be interesting to see her many interests brought to life in a museum context.” Whatever form her next incarnation takes, it is certain to be as show-stopping, meticulously researched, “soignée” and unapologetically unique as the lady herself. As designer Thom Browne put it, “There is no one like Amy Fine Collins.”


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