Walking into Charlotte Olympia, I felt like I was entering a carefully curated museum where each piece of footwear told a different story. I never thought that so much personality, narrative, and whimsy could be contained in a single shoe. Upon speaking with the salesperson, I learned that Charlotte is a South African designer in her mid-thirties who follows her own inspiration, usually gleaned from her travels. The collections that I saw on display were her cruise line, called "Down Mexico Way" and the spring/summer designs, titled "It Happened Out West." While the Mexican-inspired shows featured everything from tequila bottles to cactuses, the Western footwear was based on traditional designs associated with cowboys, Indians, and the Gold Rush. Each piece was intricately detailed and was stamped with the Charlotte Olympia spider web logo, which Charlotte chose because her favorite childhood book is Charlotte's Web.
On the subject of children's books, I smiled as I held a tiny shoe on display based on the book Pat the Bunny. I discovered that Charlotte designs shoes for all ages, from little girls to women in their seventies and eighties. Many of the shoes for little ones had matching pairs for adults. There is also a shoe for every price point, since the cost of footwear ranges from $15 to $9000 (a bespoke crocodile shoe named for Greta Garbo). While looking through the collection, I realized that many of the shoes are named for famous women, often in the entertainment industry. The staff shared with me that Charlotte is very interested in paying homage to female fashion icons of the past, including her own grandmother. Apparently, she is a very sophisticated, glamorous, and refined woman, who is Charlotte's primary muse.
No season is ever the same at Charlotte Olympia. As I learned, it changes with whatever inspiration its creator has at that moment. When I asked about the average clientele, I was told that there is no such thing. Charlotte receives customers from around the world. "It's addictive," the salesperson explained, "People just collect. Charlotte Olympia is for someone who wants to have not just a shoe, but a work of art."
"A shoe is not an accessory, but a necessity, " Vanessa Noel declared as I sat with the woman who has been a top shoe designer since the 1980s. I went on to learn that making a shoe requires equal parts design and engineering, because the success of a shoe depends on balance and form. As Vanessa explained, anyone can decorate a shoe, but to actually form a piece of footwear to fit a woman's feet is a truly difficult task. Vanessa is very conscious of comfort – "I can't stand when I see women who are unable to walk because of their shoes, " she told me. "It is a sign that their shoes are not well made. " Vanessa, who claims to often walk around the city in six inch heels, makes shoes that will not cause women to need to call a cab after two blocks. She is very proud of the fact that just the other day she "put a congresswoman back in high heels. " Vanessa describes her shoes as "comfy, sexy, elegant, and beautiful. " She designs the entire line herself, and has everything handmade in Italy. She loves discovering and playing with exotic materials. I was able to get a glimpse of her stretch alligator skin that she created herself, and which has become her trademark. It had twenty-four carat gold embedded in the high-quality Louisiana skin, allowing the brilliant shine and color to permeate through the entire material. Vanessa continued to walk me through her workshop as she shared a prototype of translucent alligator, which was streaked neon pink. While gazing at her treasure trove of shoes, she told me about an extraordinary order that she once produced: over-the-knee flat stretch orange python boots. Although customer service is a key element of Vanessa's business model, she is not solely concerned with the needs of her clients; Vanessa also tries to look out for the people producing her shoes. When she became aware that some of the ancient Italian tannery families were developing cancer because of the chromium used in their processing techniques, she commenced researching better methods. She then discussed her interest in being chemical-free more generally - and that passion drove her to open the ecologically friendly Hotel Green in Nantucket. Vanessa's most recent addition to the shop is a new line of handbags. She had been making them for herself for years, but was encouraged to design some for her customers after being spotted with one on a fashion runway. They come in a wide variety of bright, fun colors and are made with high-quality Italian leather, similar to her shoes. At this moment, while sitting and chatting, in strolled Emma, Vanessa's mother, the delightful inspiration behind some of the bags. I watched as Emma headed straight for these new additions and joked about taking one, before being told that the design was actually called the "Emma bag. " Smiling, her daughter said, "you are welcome to take one. " After looking very pleased, Emma turned to me and began sharing stories from her daughter's childhood, as Vanessa looked on with an amused grimace. Although difficult to believe, Emma said that Vanessa was "a monster" as a child, who once, at the age of four, with her little bit of cash, convinced a Greek herder to allow her to ride his donkey halfway up the mountain. I continued to be fascinated as Emma described their visit to the Emilio Pucci palace with her sister and Emma, and had dresses made for all three of them. Vanessa’s latest creative endeavor is the Noel Shoe Museum, which will be the first of its kind in the United States. It will display shoes from around the world, spanning several centuries, with an aim of showcasing their creativity and the history of their design and manufacturing. Nevertheless, Vanessa’s greatest mission remains to repair women’s relationships with luxury footwear. In her words, “I try to make glamorous shoes that essentially become an extension of a woman’s leg. ”
Smiling, a lovely woman said "I just saw your window, and had to come in. " She was intrigued by the beautiful hat display at Susan van der Linde's current location on 67th Street. She walked around, flirting with a few different styles before finding her way out, promising to return. "It is fantastic to be on the ground level, " Susan said delightedly. She went on to tell me that she worked as a seamstress on the second floor in the Lombardy Hotel and formally opened her label on the fourth floor of a building on 57th Street in 1995. Relocated to 67th in 2014, her small boutique is certainly a standout with its well-crafted styles and warm personal service. The interior of the shop boasts a clean, museum-like light system, a neutral backdrop, and attractive shelving, allowing the focus to be on the colorful and textured fashions. From her wide-brimmed hat made of horsehair and straw, with a luscious navy silk bow, to her round-crowned chapeau of organically draped brown sinamay, each of Susan's creations is innovative with stylish whim. Though known for hats, she also sells a classic loafer, which comes in many colors, and is fabricated in Italy with a comfortable vibram sole. In 2012, bags and clothes were added to the collection. I could not help but run my fingers over a vibrant orange handbag made of water buffalo leather. Sewing clothing since the age of ten and receiving formal training at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), Susan first became "infected with the passion of making hats" when she apprenticed under the esteemed Milliner Don Marshall in Paris. "He taught me that hats have to look like human hands never touched them, " Susan explained. "No stitches should show. And to never underestimate what I learn from a client, to always adapt. " When the beehive style became popular during the 1960s and hat wearing phased out, Don Marshall was one to make intricate fascinators and veiled caplets, adjusting to his clientele. When Susan meets a client, she is always looking for clues. In contrast to autopilot salesmen, who fit customers to their hats, Susan fits her hats to her customers, a luxury achieved by being a small business with the designer on premise, sewing away downstairs. "If someone likes a style they see here, but she wants it in acid green, I can do that. " A person going on a safari will need a wrap-around, so the hat does not blow off. "I love seeing my client's lifestyle, " Susan clarified when discussing her trunk shows, "it tells me what she needs. " And Susan most certainly complies.
Badgley Mischka is a company founded in 1988 by designers Mark Badgley and James Mischka, who were included in Vogue's Top 10 American Designers. Their showroom on 64th Street is impressively grand, as would be expected from such an esteemed brand. While the two men cater primarily to young women, they are sure not to neglect women of all ages. Their style is glamorous, streamlined, and sophisticated, and has been worn by numerous celebrities.
The Anita Shapolsky Gallery is named for its founder, whom I had the pleasure of meeting when she invited me to No. 152. Having first opened in SoHo in 1982, by the late nineties, Mrs. Shapolsky told me that by the late nineties she was ready for a change, and so she moved the gallery closer to home – in fact, into the building on 65th Street where she had been living for twenty-two years. Since 1997, the gallery and Mrs. Shapolsky have shared a home. The relationship is truly a symbiotic one. "What would you do in a house without art? " she exclaimed. "They take the paintings down between shows, and I'm sick with nothing on the wall. " Her bedroom is tucked into the second floor of the building, concealed behind accordion doors, and in another room of the gallery, a shoe closet is just ajar. On the day that I sat down to speak with Mrs. Shapolsky, the feature exhibit, , was by the artist Russell Connor, whose art riffed on classic painters, pairing them and their masterworks with references to other, more modern pieces. Mrs. Shapolsky said that she thinks of it as an educational show, as it exposes visitors to art history, and brings the old and the new together. Having been invited to a lecture by the artist, I had the pleasure of meeting Russell Connor, and listened as he elaborated on a number of the paintings; each one has a hidden joke for the seasoned art historian. This exhibit was a change from Russell Connor's accustomed style; he usually prefers abstract art for which the Anita Shapolsky Gallery is best known. When Mrs. Shapolsky opened her gallery, she decided to focus on the Abstract Expressionists of the fifties, especially those of the New York school. She had no experience at the time working in or running a gallery, only a great passion for art. "It was madness, sheer madness, " she told me. But despite the mad ambition of the project, the gallery has been a great success. Mrs. Shapolsky drew on her connections to other artists and friends in order to bring the appropriate pieces into her space. Although she knew that the aesthetic was not popular at the time, Mrs. Shapolsky told me that she had grown up with the abstract expressionists, and felt that they represented an important artistic avante garde. The Anita Shapolsky Gallery excels not only at exhibiting important art, but also at connecting that art to people. To be both in a gallery and a home is a unique experience, and meeting Mrs. Shapolsky was a privilege. She is as much a part of the gallery as is the art. On the day that I met her, she was wearing a piece of art around her neck. Her jewelry was made by Ibram Lassaw, whose work can also be seen at the Guggenheim.
The Roosevelt House is primarily an educational institution, housing two of Hunter College's undergraduate programs and hosting a number of book talks, panels, and other public events. But, as the name reveals, it began as a family home. The Roosevelt's moved into this double townhouse in 1908, with matriarch Sara Roosevelt living on one side, and Franklin and Eleanor on the other, along with their five children. On my visit to the Roosevelt House, I participated in a guided tour that illuminated some of its history for me. The building itself, was designed by architect Charles Platt, who also made the plans for the nearby mansion that was home to The China Institute for almost seventy years. This elegant townhouse among the rows of brownstones would set the tone for many of the other structures in the area to be renovated or replaced. Deborah, the tour guide, took us through the many rooms and their pasts. I was surprised to learn that the house was built with two elevators, one on each side, a rare architectural choice for the early twentieth century. The elevators became especially important after 1921, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt fell ill with polio and was confined to a wheelchair. One of the elevators has been retained in its original state, and is shockingly small – the wheelchairs we use today would never fit - but Roosevelt's had a profile similar to that of a dining chair, and so was able to wheel in and out without difficulty. The second elevator has been expanded to allow full accessibility to Hunter College. Upstairs, the library functions as a little museum, containing a selection of books on the Roosevelt's, along with some historic artifacts. The real history though, is in the building itself. "A lot came out of this house, " Deborah explained. President Roosevelt appointed his initial cabinet members in the upstairs library, and among them, the first woman. That same library is where President Roosevelt practiced tirelessly on crutches until he could stand and move sans a wheelchair during political gatherings. A few steps away, the drawing room was the site of Roosevelt's first radio address as president. One floor up is the bedroom where he recovered from polio, and where he often held meetings so that he could continue working minus the discomfort of his leg braces. I found myself lingering close to the walls, hoping they might whisper some of the things they overheard all those years ago. In 1941, Sara Roosevelt died, and the family put the townhouse up for sale. It was a difficult time to sell a house – everybody was at war except the United States, and the whole country knew that conflict was in the immediate future. The Roosevelt's still managed to find a buyer. Eleanor had a strong relationship with Hunter College, and so when they expressed interest, the family lowered the price, making it possible for Hunter to acquire this historic home in 1943. It was dedicated as the Sara Delano Roosevelt Memorial House. Today, the Roosevelt House works to balance its legacy and contemporary function. The house retains all its original crown molding, but the furniture is new, allowing Hunter students and visitors to sit comfortably and not worry about causing damage to antique sofas or rugs. Students at the Roosevelt House study Public Policy and Human Rights, a fitting tribute to the Roosevelt family's influence on this country.
Match 65 was an unexpected find when walking along 65th Street, but a very welcome one. It was a beautiful spring day and the doors were thrown open wide. I found a few tables set up with friends sitting and chatting while sipping a glass of wine. The bar up front was inviting as was the classic French brasserie's menu. I sampled the artichokes, simply prepared with a lemon and tarragon dressing, while others insisted on ordering the classic onion soup, despite the warm weather outdoors. We decided that we had to share the profiteroles filled with vanilla ice cream and topped with a luscious warm chocolate sauce. A perfect pick me up late in the day before heading across Central Park to the West Side.
After walking down the 65th Street sidewalk, and going through the imposing bronze doors, I found myself in a place of worship, a place of connection, and a place of significant history. Moreover, it is a synagogue that stands as evidence of religious and cultural movements, technological and artistic development, and the evolution from being a Jew living in America to being an American Jew. I have passed by this grand building for decades and always imagined stepping inside. Being invited in by Cara Glickman, Vice President of Finance and Administration, was a welcome moment, but little did I expect to spend the next two hours receiving a comprehensive tour and education on this world renowned building. With only thirty-three German Jewish immigrants, Temple Emanu-El humbly began on Grand and Clinton Streets in 1845. In 1854, the temple relocated to 12th Street, and in 1868, garnering more congregants and support, it moved uptown to 43rd Street until 1925. In 1929, Temple Emanu-El consolidated with Temple Beth-El, another reform institution of Germanic Jewish ancestry founded in 1874, and opened as a new complex on 65th Street, complete with the Beth-El Chapel which features a Byzantine double-dome roof. In 1963, Temple Emanu-El expanded its religious school and opened an adjoining facility up on 66th Street. The move to 65th Street was as much a political statement as an acquisition for a larger religious practice, we learned from Mark Heutlinger, who joined us on our tour of the building. A twenty-five year veteran of Emanu-El, serving as the Administrator, Mark demonstrated his wealth of knowledge and an unprecedented passion for this institution. As we were walking, he explained to us that the move uptown said “we, as Jews, are here, and we are not going anywhere. ” It was an acculturation into society, preserving of faith and heritage, “the Temple’s construction was the embodiment of the ideal of Emanu-El to fit within the mosaic of New York life. ” The main sanctuary was designed as a basilica structure, setting a tone of grandeur with its high ceilings, delicate stained glass windows, and exquisite arc. As a response to a long history of second-class status, the Jewish culture would now be “second to none, equal to all. ” With initial reactions ranging from “how dare they” to “wow, ” the temple was redefining life for Jewish Americans, offering permanence and pride. Aesthetically, the temple is an “eclectic mix of different architecture. ” On the 66th Street wing, the Lowenstein Sanctuary built in 1962 is of modern style. The lobby on Fifth Avenue, known as the Marvin and Elisabeth Cassel Foyer, is a “singular expression of art deco style, ” complete with beautifully designed radiator covers and sculpted door handles. Mark continued to explain that the synagogue was uniquely designed such that the cantor and rabbi would stand at separate podiums so as not to obstruct the vision of the arc (restored during the temple’s restoration from 2003 to 2006). Mark opened the ark for us, revealing seven torahs split into two rows, for “a semblance of congruency. ” Above the ark, one can see a slip curtain opening to the choir room complete with a grand electronic wind pipe organ. Placed in chronological order, some of the most breathtaking parts of this main sanctuary are the stained glass windows. The stained glass sends a message of ancestral and religious history. As we walked to the back of the sanctuary, we stared at the visual representations of biblical stories like Noah’s Arc and meaningful symbols representing the Twelve Tribes of Israel. The Tribe of Reuben was identified by an eagle, which is also representative of the United States, an amalgamation of the “American Jewish Experience. ”Within Temple Emanu-El resides The Herbert and Eileen Bernard Museum of Judaica, featuring both treasured and permanent objects acquired over the years by the temple. The oldest item in the room is a thirteenth century Hanukkah menorah. Other items included collapsible menorahs and even a dollhouse menorah designed to hide their religious identity in response to continuous European anti-Semitism forbidding Jewish expression. One of the Museum objects is a torah breastplate emblazoned with an Eagle and an American flag, sending the message that the Jewish Americans, as early as the 1890s continued to communicate, “We are American. ”In conclusion, Mark announced proudly that Congregation Emanu-El is the largest temple in the United States, and together with the nineteenth century Dahany Temple of Budapest, it is considered to be the grandest possibly in the world. So integral to the Jewish American identity, it is one structure that certainly shapes the cultures and neighborhoods on the side streets of Manhattan.