Last night I found out that someone really close to me had died. Not close as in I saw them all the time and we always kept in touch in fact, I had not seen or spoken to this lady in just over 10 years. Back when I was 20 years old and thought that I knew everything I worked for a department store on Bond Street in London and it was my first step into the world of fashion. I worked in the fitting rooms on the 3rd floor and helped celebrities and Arab princesses with Armani suits, Kenzo dresses and La Perla swimwear. I was bright eyed and bushy tailed and a university drop out who followed a boy to London and found work in retail until I got a ‘real job’. When the truth was, I had no idea what the fuck I was doing. All I knew was that I was in a city that would chew me up and spit me out when I wasn’t looking and mum and dad weren’t around the corner to rescue me if that happened so I worked my ass off. I was the best fitting room assistant there was.
I will never, ever forget the day I first saw her. Actually…I could smell her before I saw her. Her Marc Jacobs perfume was so heady, so luxurious and so intimidating. To this day, if I am ever out and about and the smell of gardenias fills the air I automatically turn around to see if she is there when of course she isn’t. Why would she be in Australia? The woman only ever went to Marrakech and back every year to the same spa to get the same thing done. The first day I saw her, I actually felt the hives breakout on my chest. She was 6ft, around 60 years old, rake thin, with blonde ‘done’ hair. She was head to toe in black…black Joseph cigarette pants, black cashmere polo neck, black leather biker jacket, black Fendi or they could have been Prada? loafers and huge, black Chanel sunglasses which I very soon discovered she never removed. Never. I think she pointed at a customer with some rolled up report and I scurried over and that was that. I met the managing director. She was like some kind of trendy Cruella De Vil! Actually, thats not that far off! One winter we started stocking rabbit fur coats and scarves and we had PETA doing demonstrations outside the front entrance. Mrs Streider, whom would normally take the staff entrance at some ungodly hour, came marching through the front doors in her usual all black and sunglass attire except this time she was draped in a floor length black chinchilla coat. It was that kind of outrageous, eccentric audacity that made even the protestors too intimidated to actually do anything. Nobody, and I mean nobody, fucked with this woman.
A few other things about her that are starting to come forward in my brain: She hated the colour green. Like seriously detested it, said it was bad luck. All the buyers knew never to include anything green when buying new collections, even if it was the colour of the season. Ok, we will allow British women in their sixties their eccentricities however, the colour of the shopping bags and the huge, lit up sign out the front, the name of the company, the name of the family who owned it since the 1800’s was a very obvious and very forest like GREEN. She also had her hair done every single morning and only ever used La Prairie skin products that were on average about £300 a bottle. Like I said earlier, she wore sunglasses all day every day and she had a wardrobe of them. Apparently it was due to some kind of eye problem but really, I think she hated that she was getting old. Also, I think she may have been friends with royalty. The day the Queen Mother died was the first time I had ever seen her show any emotion. I was upstairs in ‘personnel’ and she came raging past me in tears and rushed up to her office after hearing the news. Shortly afterwards she arranged flowers to be sent to Buckingham Palace. Of course, a lot of this is down to assumption and gossip but needless to say, she was quite the character.
Every department in the store had its own buyer, a buyers assistant, a buyers clerk and a sales manger and they all shared an office the size of a luxurious broom cupboard that was located directly off each department. Every buyer had to know how to work the register and work the floor, still to this day after 12 years in fashion retail I have never known a business to work this way and it was Mrs Streider who had implemented it. Her take on it was that if they didn’t know who they were buying for then they would fail. ‘Know Your Customer!’, she used to say. Every single day she would do a store walk 3 times…once in the morning, once at 1pm for half time figures and once at the end. She would snake her way downstairs and perch on one of the cosmetic stools and wait for either a manager or buyer from each department to approach her and report their departments takings for the day versus target EVEN THOUGH they knew full well she already knew what they were. I actually saw grown men beg their buyers assistant to do the honors. Her intentions were obvious, everyone was to be held accountable and to take that accountability seriously.
So little ‘ol me…20 years old, in London, dressed in crummy Top Shop, bare faced, very thick South African accent, fresh off the boat, had only ever heard the word ‘Armani’ back home when I watched the red carpet of the Oscars on telly, was at the fitting rooms and was picking the stuff off the floor after some rich ‘It girl’ had finished trying it on when 3 racks of Kenzo were wheeled in by Mel, the buyer. ‘Tammy! Would you be able to try and merchandise this on the back wall?’ Me: Huh? Merchan what?’ Mel: ‘Just put it on those empty fixtures and try to make it look nice!’ Fuck. So I did. I made it look nice. Turns out, I could put outfits together. The following day I was taken off fitting rooms (yay!) and put at the front line…number 1 sales girl and in charge of merchandising. In my tiny mind I thought the buyers went to Paris and Milan and bought nice things, the managers flogged it and we helped. So when an announcement was made that the store was looking for 5 trainee buyers I applied in all my obnoxious, South African, 20 year old ignorance…I could go shopping all day! Easy Peasy. I thought we were going to just get interviewed by personnel as that is where we had to meet with the forms we had to fill in. ‘Who are your top 5 designers?’ ‘How would you describe your personal style?’ – I cannot remember what I wrote but thinking back on where I was in life, I doubt the girlfriend of a popular SA skateboarder who hung out at punk gigs and skate parks was going to write ‘Stella McCartney’. Anyway! Waiting for the meeting and instead of being lead through to the boardroom we were lead up another flight of stairs…the wrought iron circular stair case that no one ever climbed unless they smelled of Marc Jacobs gardenia perfume and wore sunglasses at night. Oh God.
I can’t remember whether I was 3rd or 4th but I do remember wanting to die from nervousness. Like sheer, utter terror. I felt like I was about to go into the principals office. Only in England does one compare the relationship between employer and employee to that of a 6 year old scholar and a principal of a ‘whites only’ school during apartheid. Anyway, thats what it felt like. Her office was all cream and white and simple. She had about 6 pairs of black loafers, one pair of black boots and a pair of black patent heels lined up perfectly along one wall. Her leather jacket was hung over the back of her chair and she had a Joe Malone candle burning. Her desk was vast and spotless. No computer, just paper and a pencil that definitely could not be sharpened any further beween her fingers. And…her sunglasses. A row of about 6 pairs sat neatly along the side of her desk on top of several fashion books. ‘Hi Tammy, please sit’ Then just as I did she pipes up: ‘It’s plugged in’. Oh God, I thought I was going to cry but just before I did she started laughing and offered me a bottle of water. ‘Why do you want to be a buyer?’ Tammy the Genius: ‘Because I like clothes’ – Well, I don’t know if that is exactly what I said because I babbled for 20 minutes but I may as well have just said exactly that. When I had finished dribbling words I took a deep breath and a drink of water and then, I swear to God, she took off her glasses. She looked…old. Much older than I had realised. Tiny eyes in a very long face. I couldn’t tell if she had ever been beautiful but she was striking, you know? Like Meryl Streep in about 10 years if she never had botox. She took off her glasses and looked at me and said: ‘Tammy. You are not a buyer. You are a manager. And someday, you could do MY job’ What do you say to that? I’ll tell you what you say! You say: ‘Oh’.
I never became a trainee buyer, well not at that store anyway…about 7 years later I became one for 6 months buying dresses for a huge chain store in South Africa and I hated it…I mainly couldn’t deal with the emotionally unstable humans who lived on a diet of black coffee and not much else. No, it was 3 days after that meeting that I was made junior manager of a small department on the ground floor and given a £3000 pay rise. 6 months after that and at the age of 21 I was made full fledged manager of the jewellery and hosiery department and it was there I stumbled for the first time. Nothing was going to plan. The staff were difficult, I hated the product, I was homesick and me and my boyfriend were fighting like cats and dogs. One afternoon, Mrs Streider walked across the floor, grabbed my arm and said, ‘Come! Walk!’ I wanted to run in the other direction, at the same time, I felt a little proud because she had never done this with anybody else. I think even the mannequins in our store windows turned to stare at us agog! She opened the door and marched me up Bond Street. Her long legs striding with me trying to keep up next to her as she asked me questions and I well, I just started to cry. Those that know me will know that I never cry. Even when something is really sad, I never cry. I just can’t. I really want to and I try really hard but I can’t. The only time you will ever catch my face leaking will be out of pure and utter frustration. I hate not knowing everything, I hate not living up to expectation, I hate trying hard only to see it fail. I hate wanting to get my point across and being unable to articulate myself and I hate, fucking HATE letting people down. I cried..outside Dolce and Gabbana on Bond Street in the middle of the day while the person I wanted to impress just stood and waited for me to stop. And when I did, she said: ‘You finished now?’ I said: ‘Yes’ and we walked back to the store and as we did she told me that I knew how to do the job and she knew I did and that I understood fashion, I understood people and that I should stop fucking about. I couldn’t believe she said fuck.
Three years I stayed at Fenwick of Bond Street. I realised that luxury fashion just wasn’t for me and got a job at the new Urban Outfitters on Oxford Circus as the women’s accessories manager and entered a new chapter and a whole different kind of retail. But it is luxury fashion and old school teachings that will forever be my foundation. I ended up managing several different departments at Fenwick, all under the watchful eye of Jil Streider. Man she used to give me a hard time! One day she stormed over and blasted me right there in the middle of the shop floor in front of everyone! Later that day she asked me to coffee and I told her that my heart fell into my stomach when she scolded me that afternoon: ‘Well Tammy, I shoot from the hip’. Incidentally, when Alex from Acclaim Magazine told me that my new weekly column with them needed a name that very incident with Mrs Streider came to mind and I said, ‘Shooting from the Hip‘. That was at the beginning of July this year. Then about 2 weeks ago I was driving home from work and nearly had an accident with a green car at a fuck show of an intersection near my office and out of nowhere I remember Mrs Streider saying, ‘Green is bad luck! Never buy a green car!’ and then went on to think about her for the entire drive over the WestGate Bridge. A week after that my little sister asked what perfume I would like for my birthday and I asked for Marc by Marc Jacobs perfume, the one with the black leather bow around it and is heady with gardenias. I have always loved the smell but have always avoided it because it had always reminded me of ‘her’. A week later, last night, an old colleague and friend who is now a buyer at Fenwick emailed to tell me that Mrs Streider had died in her sleep on July 2nd. Lucy wrote: ‘I know this is a random message but I always remembered you being very fond of one another’.
When I left I gave her a black and white card, I forget what was on the front but I know it was black and white. I wrote that if she hadn’t moulded me, or saw what I didn’t, I fear of where I would have been and slid it underneath her office door. An hour or so before home time she approached me, kissed my cheek, gave me a hug, peeped over her black Gucci’s so I could see her watery eyes and just said ‘Thank You’. That was the last time I saw her. She has crossed my mind countless times ever since. I went on to manage a team of 60 at Urban Outfitters turning over a £1 million a month in my department alone sometimes. I did the buying thing for a minute when I returned to Cape Town and then was Women’s Wear manager at David Jones here in Australia and became a State Manager for another clothing company in Western Australia before deciding to move to Melbourne and pursue a career in writing. Whenever I have faced troubling times over my career or hit a wall I would hear her voice telling me what I should do. Everything I know about retail stems from that amazing, scary and I’m almost certain, borderline crazy woman. It’s funny how the name of the column, the perfume and the green car all came up in the same month that she passed. Much like how I was talking about Neneh Cherry to a friend, named my goldfish Neneh Cherry, was asked to interview Neneh Cherry for Acclaim and then a week later the goldfish died! Talk about a series of events!
I don’t know if I have quite painted the picture of how wonderful and fascinating this woman was. If you never met her, you will never quite understand. Imagine trying to explain Michael Jackson to someone who has never heard of nor seen a photograph of him! It’s the same! No exaggeration! I’m not even trying very hard to articulate it well I just need to record my memory of her somewhere for the same reason I like to write everything down, I never want to forget. I doubt Mrs Streider would enjoy being spoken about on such a thing as the Obnoxious Owl but I know that she would see the funny side…even if it is through jet black Chanel sunglasses.