Insights • Inspirations • Destinations • Design

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Garden Party: Fairs & Horticultural Fantasies

Connecticut. For the past two days I have been researching this tiny-but-perfectly-designed US state. A garden-loving friend told me we should visit the Trade Secrets Garden Fair held there in May (considered the Chelsea Flower Show of the USA), and so I've been trying to work out how. A 14-hour international flight, a 5-hour domestic one, a 4-hour 'rest' stop in NY, a 5am start and finally a 2-hour drive... I'm thinking we could quite possibly make it?

The reason for this crazy excursion? Trade Secrets and the state of Connecticut, particularly the Litchfield Hills, are considered a gardening 'Mecca' for horticultural lovers. My friend told me Ms Martha Stewart (pictured below at the fair) loves it so much she and her assistants go there at 8am on a Saturday with two empty SUVs to fill up. We hadn't planned on seeing Connecticut on our forthcoming US trip (we hadn't even planned to be in the US at this time), but now it seems to be first priority on the list! {Image of garden path above via Design New England. Image of gardening girls below via www.stephaniestanton Image at very top via christinedarnelldesignstudio.}

The fair was co-founded by the inimitable interior designer Bunny Williams (above, with Ms Martha), who bought a farmhouse in the area and then wrote a bestselling book (also above) about its renovation and decoration. She now opens her extraordinary home to visitors on the same weekend. Vanity Fair's Graydon Carter has a weekender in the neighbourhood too. So does Annie Leibovitz, Michael J Fox, Kevin Bacon, Kyra Sedgwick, Christine Baranski, writer Annie Kelly and photographer hubby Tim Street-Porter, and a thousand other low-key celebs. Bill Blass also owned a house in the region and retired there to design out his days.

What do they all do up there? Dig, apparently. "''Gardening is our sport,'' one local explained, dishing the dirt on the social activity. ''People garden here like other people play tennis.''

Indeed, Connecticut's VIP residents love gardening so much, many of them mob the stands at Trade Secrets for the antique cloches, artful topiaries, vintage wares and rare specimens. The people watching is meant to be more amazing than the plants. (And the fashion more amazing than the people!) Regulars include Oscar de la Renta and Carolyne Roehm.

I promise to take some photos, if I can sneak the Leica between the hydrangea leaves. But in the meantime, I was so inspired by this fair I thought I'd post a small selection of some of my favourite images of garden loveliness. Have you noticed how more and more designers are introducing botanical prints and horticultural images into their collections? I predict we'll be seeing a lot of flowers and leaves on frocks and sofas later this year. It's not surprising. Gardens are so wonderful, it's difficult not to resist.

A prediction of things to come? A page from British Homes & Gardens magazine's Feb 2012 issue.

Vintage botanical prints from the fantastic website Vintage Printables (, which lets you download vintage prints (including these lovely leaf ones) for free.

An old but much-treasured postcard from the Chelsea Flower Show one year.

French poet and art critic Dominigue Fourcade's Provence garden. One of the loveliest outdoor entertaining areas I've seen this year. Trust a poet to create an inspiring garden.

A house on Shelter Island that I had the good fortune to photograph last year. Designed by that talented duo Schappacher White, this was the guest cottage. It was as sweet as a pea.

My favourite gardening poster, a vintage Brussels print from the fabulous Izzi & Popo store in Melbourne, in our downstairs 'Gumboot Hall'. 
I can't understand a thing in it, but it always makes me smile.

A collection of treasured gardening books in our Gumboot Hall. These always make me realise I need to strive to be a better gardener! The two little peached lime trees and the miniature Metro entrance and lamp post were bought in a little store off the Palais Royal in Paris. 

If you haven't read any of Adam Nicolson's books, then do – he's one of the best garden writers around. Then again, it's not surprising. His grandmother was Vita Sackville-West.

Gumboots as art. 
I love everything about this. The simplicity of the scene, the double shelves with mismatching prints, the old wellies lined up like a leathery still life on the floor... even the leaf-green runner. So creative. {Via Homes & Garden Feb 2012}

The great Arts and Crafts garden at Hidcote Manor, which, along with Sissinghurst, has inspired Andy Sturgeon's design for the eagerly anticipated M&G Garden at Chelsea Flower Show this year. All three gardens encapsulate the ‘New English’ style of informal cottage-style planting schemes set within a strong, formal framework (often box hedges), although Sturgeon's will feature a modern mix of plants ranging from Aquilegia 'Chocolate Soldier' and Black Form iris chrysographes to clipped holly and domed umbels of hog’s fennel.

(On a little aside, we sold our house this week, just 3 weeks after we listed it. Apparently it was the Arts & Crafts-style garden that endeared it to the two sisters who bought it. I was so thrilled, as I spent most of my renovation budget on the garden rather than the kitchen, which is apparently where the money should have gone.)

Bunny Williams' glorious conservatory-inspired dining room, impressive alfresco pool house, and whimsical, folly-inspired bathroom at her Connecticut weekender, all of them inspired by her gorgeous garden. Bunny calls her bathroom 'Bath in a Garden Folly'. She says she was inspired by the grand garden rooms of 18th century Europe. Imagine washing the exhaustion off here at the end of a gardening day? {Images via Design New England}

Bunny's out buildings, which are just as elegant as her 'in' ones. {Mislaid credit: please notify me if you know}

A garden-inspired dining room at a Virginia home, also designed by Bunny Williams. The hand-painted trellis wallpaper is by Gracie.The topiary at left is planted in an antique urn from Treillage, Williams' New York garden store. {Via Architectural Digest}

An incredible trompe l'oeil in a grand American conservatory. Look at the roof. Just beautiful.  {Via Vanity Fair}

Windsor Smith's deliciously verdant hall, which has been featured repeatedly in the blogosphere but is still worth a little gaze. {Via House Beautiful}

An enchanting green house set up for afternoon tea. So simple and yet so sweet. {Via Millie's Laurel Hedge and Tove Anderson}

And lastly, it's a terrible photo, but this was my Valentine's Day gift to The Man this year. It's supposed to be a 'wisteria heart', created from entwined wisteria vines. 
Yes, I know. Rather wonky up top. It was difficult to train. (Or maybe it's the gardener whose skills are dubious?)
I had to point it out to him on Valentine's Day. (I didn't need to cover it up because he would have never guessed what it was before then.)

It was my little horticultural gesture of love.

With that, the blog is now taking a break for a little while. It's been a delight to see you here, and even more lovely to read your kind and thoughtful notes. I apologise for the brief halt in posts, but hope to see you back here again very soon!

Saturday, March 24, 2012

A Little Thank You From Miss Coco...

Coco would like to say a sincere thank you to everyone who kindly sent their caring comments and 'get well' emails last week. We were all very touched, and apologise if we didn't get back to everyone who wrote in.

She is still, well, vomiting (I can't think of a more ladylike term for this), so I suspect her stomach and digestive systems have been compromised by the near-death, chocolate-scoffing experience.

However, apart from that minor ailment she seems to be very much back to normal health. (For which read: Utterly Naughty As Usual!)

We were all grateful she pulled through. Cooper most of all.

With licks and love from us.

The Genius of Jason Wu

Jason Wu stormed into the fashion headlines when he designed Michelle Obama’s iconic inaugural ball gown. He hasn't stayed out of them since. Up and up the Snakes and Ladders world of Style he has climbed, dressing stars such as Mad Men's January Jones (love that name), Amber Valletta and Diane Kruger along the way.

Now Mr Jason Wu is considered so significant in the world of fashion, Target recently asked him to design a line of Wu-some apparel for the cheap-but-slick chain store.

The first collection, released in stores on February 5, 2012, has been so well received, many of the pieces have sold out faster than you can say wu-hoo! (Sorry.)

Here's a little lookbook from the man who continues to take Manhattan by storm. Oh – and here's his bio from the wonderful Wiki, just to fill you in.

Born in Taiwan, Jason Wu moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada at age nine and attended Eaglebrook School in Deerfield, Massachusetts and Loomis Chaffee, in Windsor, Connecticut. He learned how to sew by designing and sewing for dolls, and went on to study sculpture in Tokyo. Wu continued this career path at sixteen by learning to create freelance doll clothing designs for toy company Integrity Toys. He decided to become a fashion designer while spending his senior year of high school in Rennes, and studied at the Parsons The New School for Design at The New School. He later interned with Narciso Rodriguez. First Lady Michelle Obama is a noted Jason Wu customer.
She was introduced to Wu by AndrĂ© Leon Talley, Vogue Magazine's editor-at-large, who had been advising the current First Family on their appearance. 
Appearing on the cover of Vogue, Obama wore a Wu design, a magenta silk dress. Upon her arrival in London during the First Lady and President Barack Obama's first official European trip, Obama wore a chartreuse silk sheath dress designed by Wu; the next day she wore a Wu coat during her visit with the Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom.

And the Cinderella gown of New York Fashion Week 2021...

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Trench Coats And Other Fashion Question Marks

So. This post's gonna cause a lot of up-in-arms. (Although judging by how stylish you all are, they'll most likely be Marc Jacobs-clad ones.) But I think there are some things that need to be said. Or at least discussed in a reasonable fashion.

It has to do with just that.

I've been browsing through the glamour blogs – or 'glogs', as a friend of mine calls them – and I've started to realise that some of the things many of us think of as 'fashion classics' – such as the beige trench coat, the white shirt and so on – are actually rather challenging to get right.

Before you all start to pummel me with your Kelly bags, let me try and explain. And then give me a ten-minute head-start to get away.

The Beige Trench 
Ah, the ol' trench coat, as Maxwell Smart would say. Now I know a lot of women love trenches, so I'm gonna try to be tactful about what I write. I can't promise anything though so if you're wearing a beige trench right now, look away.

Beige is not an easy colour to wear. It makes many blondes look bleached, and many brunettes look even more consumptive. I don't know about you but I'm not aiming for the TB look this year.

Designers often try to lift the colour up a notch, but it still tends to sit on the dull, dishwater-y side. I mean, look at the shade of the Burberry trench above. What would you call that? Gobi Desert?

Even the colour sounds a little boring. Beige.

And I know we shouldn't mention the war, but beige trench coats make me think of the French resistance. And of course English troops too. (NB Did you know that only officers and Class 1 Warrant Officers were allowed to wear them? No other ranks were permitted to. I suspect the other ranks were quietly pleased about this.)

So. I'm thinking that it's time to let the epaulettes go. Rest in peace little shoulder pads. And as for that little D-ring that was supposedly for the attachment of hand grenades? Well, I mean who's carrying hand grenades around nowadays? John Galliano?

Yes people, it's time to let the beige trench die a dignified death.

Oh – one other argument. Beige trench coats are so ubiquitous now that I'm tickled pink when I see one in colour. Wouldn't you rather be standing next to the pink girl (above) at a Trench Coat Convention? Me too. Doesn't she look much more FUN?

In saying this, there's always an exception. The always-glam Janet from The Gardener's Cottage blog looks splendid in her J.Crew number.

(By the way, French fashion law dictates that trenchcoats should be tied, never buckled, with the tie positioned slightly to the right. Or the left – I can't remember. Even better, leave the belt untied. It gives a more elegant line. And the sleeves should be pushed up slightly to show the wrist. Or so I've been told. But again, Janet proves you can do what you want and still look hot.)

Short Skirts on Women over 20 Years Of Age
Coco Chanel believed that women over 20 should never show their knees. (Okay, over 40. I'm just stretching the truth for the argument.) And I have to say, I'm beginning to feel the same. Knees are ugly. Have you ever see a pretty one? Even Ms Wintour's are a little on the bony side. Skirts are SO much prettier when the hems are not up around your eyeshadow. Chanel believed that skirts should skim the knees. And so do I. A hint of knee is elegant. An entire kneecap is frightening.

Feel free to disagree with me on this. I know a lot of friends who do.

White shirts
I've had a love/hate relationship with white shirts for years. I know the collars frame your face well. I know the white lightens your complexion. (Which is why Chanel often put white collars on her black dresses.) I know the cuffs look sexy. And I know the whole outfit makes people think you are clever, competent, and classically stylish. But busty girls can't wear them. I don't know why but it's true. Maggie Alderson once did a column on this. She agreed with me. I can't even wear Anne Fontaine's designs. (The High Priestess of the White Shirt Wearers – pictured above.) My boobs would look very bad in this.

White shirts look best on lithe figures. If you're a girl with cleavage and you want to wear a white shirt (as I do), then you need to find one that's fitted. Such as this. Isn't it pretty? Just love those cuffs. Such a sexy part of a shirt, don't you think? I call this the 'Librarian Chic' look. Love it.

Suede is fashion's biggest farce. I know many of you agree with me on this. Whoever thought of it really needs to be taken out the back and horse whipped with cow hide. It's a fabric that only looks good in the store. Once you put it on – especially shoes – it picks up bits of fluff and dust, wears thin within the first week and attract water like nothing else. Seriously. I once had a pair of suede shoes in London that I didn't dare wear. Eventually I took them out of the closet for a big First Date. It was supposed to be sunny that afternoon but wearing suede is like doing a rain dance: a shower is bound to fall. And when it does: so long suede. You can kiss those little cuties goodbye.

(PS Sorry Christian Louboutin. Normally I loved your shoes. But just not in suede. Not even hot pink suede.)

[Image at very top via Kate Spade]

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Love Of A Dog

"Free To Good Home –" the ad said. 
"Jack Russell/Maltese terrier. Slightly energetic – (I loved this, the way they'd tried to downplay what was obviously a crazy personality) but still full of love. Likes the beach, sitting on the heating vent in winter and licking feet. Also likes walks, lamb chops and chatting to other dogs. Looking for loving new home."

I looked at this ad, and the pixelated photo with it, and contemplated the idea. For the past three months we had endured fertility tests in an attempt to start IVF, but I was ready to pull out early. It was demoralising, frightening, and unexpectedly lonely. For months I had sat in clinic waiting rooms while RR was at work and for months I had quietly watched other couples hold hands while I sat on my own. It wasn't his fault: I had told him he didn't need to miss work. But a part of me wished I'd been more selfish. There is nothing sadder than sitting in a fertility clinic looking at a poster of a happy family when you're all on your own.

A few months later, after a gruelling work trip to New York, a bad publishing deal, some pummeling deadlines and a traumatic house move, I waved the white flag. "Let's get a dog instead?" I quietly suggested. So we bought Coco home.

Now I don't know why the previous owners called her Coco since she doesn't look anything like Ms Gabrielle Chanel. (More like Courtney Love on a bad peroxide day!) Nor does she act like her; with hauteur and smoothed-down sophistication. In fact, she's as mad as the Mad Hatter. Maybe more so. But it seemed like fate that she came along. I was writing a book about Chanel at the time. What were the odds of finding a dog with the same name?

I remember she looked at me as we drove up the mountain, wagging her tail in a courageous way. I remember thinking how brave she was, getting into a car with a stranger, and how well she faced uncertainty. I thought: I could learn a lesson or two from you little girl.

Then reality hit. And our home exploded. For the first few months Coco wrecked havoc on our lives. She chewed through iPods, iPhones, new shoes, new gardening gloves (see image above) and even my manuscript notes. I punished her, then cuddled her with guilt. It was clear I had no idea how to be a good mother.

But we persevered. We bought her a playmate – a Cavalier King Charles spaniel, which we called Cooper, after an Adelaide beer. (Don't ask.) She loved him at first lick. Then we bought her toys to keep her bright mind occupied. We encouraged her to dig outside (rather than in our shoe cupboards), and, after failing at Dog Training Group (we were the bottom of the class), worked out our own Coco Education Classes. It was a long, slow road.

But even though I adored her (they both sleep in our bed), I never really felt that rush of protective love some people have for their children and pets. I was too scared I guess. I still wasn't sure she'd stay, you see. I wasn't even sure where we'd be in two years.

Then last night she snuck into the pantry and – in typically Coco fashion – helped herself. This time, though, it was a packet of raspberry bullets. Chocolate coated. All 400grams worth. Chocolate is poisonous to dogs. It can kill them in 24 hours. Dark chocolate is worse (cooking chocolate is lethal!) but milk chocolate is just as bad. Coco went crazy from the sugar rush and then proceeded to gulp all the water bowl and vomit her way through the evening. Big chocolate-y vomits. Which smelled like you wouldn't believe. I stayed up most of the night watching her and cleaning up. We ran out of paper towels and fresh blankets at 2AM. It wasn't an easy morning.

Then, at 9AM this morning, barely coherent from lack of sleep, I looked up "chocolate and dogs" on the Internet. "CHOCOLATE TOXICITY," it said in big letters, and I felt the alarm bells go.
"Dogs that accidentally eat chocolate can become excited and hyperactive and then very thirsty. Vomiting and diarrhoea soon follow. The effect on the heart is dire. Death is possible, especially with exercise. Many pet owners assume their pet is unaffected as the signs of sickness may not be seen for several hours. Death can follow the next day."

Within two minutes, I had the leads, Cooper in his car harness and a sickly Coco in my arms and we were racing down the road to Moss, our lovely vet. He ushered us all into the surgery (Cooper stood on the table too) and calmly checked her heart, her eyes, and her stomach. When he said that she must have vomited most of the poison up, I gave a little murmur of thanks. And then I burst into tears.

That's the thing with dogs. You can hold them at arm's length but they'll still somehow sneak their way into your hearts. I had always looked after Coco. Walked her. Fed her. And ensured she was okay. But I'd never really cared for her. It was difficult loving a dog that was so naughty. And maybe I wasn't quite willing to remove the guard from around my heart?

But then she almost died. She ate some chocolate licorice and almost died. Driving down to the vets, sobbing "I'm sorry, I'm sorry" as she lay sadly on the seat beside me, I realised she had been the strong one all along. She had brought us all together and made us laugh. She had saved me from my loneliness and infertility. And she hadn't wanted anything in return but love.

So this is a tribute to Miss Coco. She may be naughty, and she may not look anything like Miss Gabrielle Chanel, but she's very much a dog with a heart.

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