Today’s interview is with the beautiful Catherine from the blog, Aesthetic Alterations. Catherine’s blog has been a favorite of mine for some time because she combines lovely writing with absolutely beautiful photography. Catherine has a very well edited, thought out closet and a fresh point of view – did I mention that she’s an Hermes lover living in rural Oklahoma? I was delighted to have the opportunity to interview her and hope you will enjoy meeting her as much as I did. Also if you’re going to Paris anytime soon – read on for a treasure trove of fantastic advice!
First things first- who are you? What do you do, and where do you live?
My name is Catherine and due to a weird chain of events, my boyfriend (a.k.a. Mystery Photographer or MP) and I find ourselves living in rural Oklahoma, where he took up a new tenure-track creative writing position. Fortunately, the move didn’t affect my work as an developmental editor (one of my clients calls me a “book whisperer”) or as a fine-art photographer. In fact, we laugh about it. Somehow our professional lives have only gotten better since arriving. Maybe it’s because there’s nothing to do but be productive. He’s now got three books under contract, and I’m actively developing, exhibiting, and selling my photographic work. Meanwhile, my editing business grows like crazy, and the success of my clients has me dancing in my office a lot these days.
Another way to put it is that I’m self-employed in the fields of publishing and art. Every day is work, work, work, and I’ve never been more fulfilled. I’m the sort of person who does best when pursuing things on my own terms.
Hermes Farandole necklace (I love it wrapped up like that!) and Hermes bangle
You live in Oklahoma, an area I’ve never been to and am very interested in. Can you describe it more, and what the culture is like there?
Rural Oklahoma . . . About the only thing that prepared me for our first summer here were the movies about the Dust Bowl era, and even locals compare the effects of those months to effects of the Great Depression (the drought harmed a lot of farmers and ranchers in the area). After arriving, I’d look out the windows and see yet another dust devil ripping across one of the pastures of the farm we rent. Fortunately the winter and spring have been more conducive to the landscape, and I take many walks through the pasture and woods or go say hi to the menagerie of animals that live on the farm. I never get tired of listing off the landowner’s pets–two llamas, a horse, two goats, three donkeys, a pot-belly pig, and whatever cats might be around. Deer and wild cats populate the woods on the property, and we’ve heard tell of a bobcat living back there.
Most of my time these days is spent on the farm, which lets me avoid the overall drabness of the surrounding area. It shouldn’t be a shock to learn that rural Oklahoma isn’t the most trend-setting place, particularly in the sartorial department. The two big cities – Tulsa and Oklahoma City – have their elite stores (which are small by even Minnesota standards, where I last lived), but the selection is usually a bit too loudly colored or patterned for my taste. There’s a bit more preference for Texan bling in Oklahoma City, whereas Tulsa is generally more restrained.
Catherine’s lovely bag collection – Hermes and Longchamp
Both cities have a very wealthy constituency, but Tulsa in particular resists conspicuous consumption. By and large, I’m overdressed everywhere I go (just by default of having considered the accessories and the lipstick – or, goodness gracious, the big hat or dress), and I think carefully before wearing something as recognizable as an Hermès Kelly to a social or art function because no one does that. This is not the place for flashing logos–which makes me all the more pleased with my Hermès collection. Hermès (aside from the Kelly) never stands out as anything but well made and classically beautiful. Hermès is always appropriate–and it’s one reason I’ve been passionately collecting pieces since moving here.
Catherine in Paris: Anne Fontaine shirt, Hermes scarf
I know you recently returned from Paris! What were some of your favorite sights? Anything surprising to you, you weren’t expecting?
Oh, Paris! How much space do I have for listing my favorite places?!
Upon arriving in Paris, I was overwhelmed to learn just how moved I could still be, even after having been a dozen times before (my last trip was ten years ago, however). If I were guiding a friend around the city, I’d take her first to two of my favorite public parks: the Parc Monceau in the 8e and the Parc de Bagatelle in the Bois de Boulogne. Both are full of delightful “fabriques” and sculptures, and the Parc de Bagatelle is one of those hidden treasures few tourists know about. I would also take my friend very early in the mornings to the great royal grounds rimming Paris so we can walk through the parks alone: Fontainebleau, Versailles, Sceaux, and St. Cloud, for instance. And I would of course give a personalized tour of the Louvre. The Louvre is hands-down my favorite place inside Paris. My boyfriend and I took out a year’s pass so I could visit whenever I wanted during our six-week stay.
Parc de Bagatelle
Things that surprised me or were unexpected . . . . I don’t think it’s an exaggeration that I was in a state of constant over-excitement. I was surprised whenever I found something the same after ten years – but also if something had changed. Familiarity was mixed with newness at every step. But – one thing that surprised me all over again was the practicality of the Parisian winter wardrobe. I can’t emphasize it enough. Black pants, black coat, black shoes–all well-fitted and classic. Black or gray or brown Longchamp tote. I saw that over and over and over again. While there are certainly stunning women in stunning ensembles on the street, real-life Parisian dressing in the winter is more classic and practical than perhaps implied by street-style photographers. When I wore my red leather jacket by Joseph out on the streets, I felt flamboyant.
I was also surprised by how many women carried an Hermès Kelly or other classic Hermès sac - carried it without any fanfare and as a daily bag. Once, outside of Ladurée, I caught sight of woman’s Kelly haphazardly hanging from a baby stroller as she pushed it along, yammering to her family. I can’t explain how freeing it is to see these precious bags used in non-precious ways – nonchalance is a large part of great style. Also, I was surprised that after all my haunting of the big department stores and high-end boutiques, nothing could beat the aesthetic brilliance of a vintage Hermès bag.
Catherine in her red Joseph jacket
What are some recommended shops that are lesser known that you’d recommend in Paris?
I have to admit, I did much less poking around in shops than I wanted to–if I wasn’t photographing, I was exhausted from photographing. But I did go to an old haunt of mine: Jack Henry in the rue Charlot, where you can find beautifully constructed garments that whisper of old-school workmanship. I bought belt lengths (including a black python) and buckles from the marvelous Losco, where the wide selection of colors and textures made it nearly impossible to be restrained in my choice. If I weren’t collecting Hermès bags right now, I would have snatched up a box bag made by Isaac Reina (rue Sévigny), who used to work in the creative department of Hermès. Seriously, those bags were beautiful, and he was even there in the store, working at a large table! I also longed for a leather bracelet at Aftelier Jean Rousseau (rue Duphot), as their croc and snakeskin bracelets are simple, lovely, and far less expensive than those at Hermès.
Hermes scarf and Marwari bag
Paris is filled with other beautiful things besides fashion, of course. Like perfume! Some of my favorite perfume sniffing experiences happened in the small boutiques throughout the city, such as at Serge Lutens within the Palais Royal and at the newish Kurkdijian boutique nearby (rue d’Algers). A friend designated Gerard Mulot as the best boulangerie in town (corner of rue Lobineau and rue de Seine)–and I agree. Near to that boulangerie is the boutique of my favorite candle maker: Cire Trudon. And my daily life would not be complete without loose tea and incense from Mariage Frères–I brought home kilos (literally–or, to be completely honest, a friend brought the kilos home for me–she’s such a dear!). I also discovered a new tea shop whose flavored green teas are utterly different from Mariage Frères (earthier) and just as amazing: Dammonn Frères. I wish I had bought kilos of that, too, but I brought back only a couple 100 grams.
Did you get anything special while in Paris? Can you share more details?
Yes! And thus the reason I didn’t get either a Jean Rousseau bracelet or an Isaac Reina bag.
I acquire most of my Hermès pieces through resellers due to better selection and much better prices, but the horn pendants and other Hermès necklaces I adore come up too infrequently, so I buy those new. The Parisian boutiques were filled with these favorites of mine, and I acquired three: a golden Dalvy horn pendant, a horn and silver Tsuba pendant, and–the most beautiful piece of all–a unique porcelain pendant from the limited edition Petit H collection.
Petit H pendant
The porcelain piece was the special find of the trip. The Petit H collection is a small group of objects made from Hermès workshop scraps, and it travels the world irregularly, showing up at one boutique at a time with many items specifically produced for that shop. The Sèvres boutique just happened to show a Petit H collection during the month of December 2011, so I was able to view it regularly. Every time, I was drawn to the one porcelain pendant on display–porcelain has long been an interest of mine. Due to the expense and the delicacy of the piece (I’m a clutz and regularly fall over my feet even when wearing flats), I resisted.
But on New Year’s Eve, MP and I just happened to be in the neighborhood, so we went over right before closing time. It was still there, and I tried it on – and fell hard, so I arranged with a sales associate to have a few minutes for deciding. It was lucky timing; if I’d shown up ten minutes later, the Petit H venue would have shut its doors for good. The coincidence was too great to be dismissed, so I took it home, and it’s one of my favorite Hermès pieces.
Hermes scarf and Church’s loafers
Any other random advice for Paris?
Don’t over plan. The city is so rich with history, architecture, art, museums, parks, shops, restaurants, cafés, entertainment, markets, views, and whatever else you love–you’re going to stumble upon the most amazing things at every turn. Wandering is the best way to experience the city and its delights. I know that there are guidebooks providing itineraries for whatever length of stay you’ve arranged, but I advocate dismissing them.
About the only site I would strongly encourage seeing is the Louvre. That’s it. I advocate getting a year’s subscription (it’s around 60 Euros for a single person; 90 E for a couple–and really, really cheap if you’re under 30, like 15 Euros) and going for an hour or so each day of the trip. There’s a special entrance for card holders, so you can bypass those wretched lines that suck up time. Plus–and this is no small thing–this arrangement gives you fast bathroom access when you’re in the center of Paris, and as someone with a small bladder, I like that a lot, LOL.
Holding cheesecake while wearing Hermes silk!
What are the items in your wardrobe that you wear the most? I know you have a special thing for Hermes scarves, do you wear them lots?
My everyday wardrobe is pretty simple, as my blog shows. If you show up at our house, I’m likely wearing J Brand denim, an Anne Fontaine blouse or J. Crew buttondown, staple shoes, and a biker jacket of some kind. I love biker jackets, and my favorites are an Isabel Marant in gray wool (AW10), a Joseph perfecto in bright red leather (AW10), and a classic All Saints version in a faded black. In summer, I wear dresses to beat the heat.
A simple wardrobe is a great canvas for Hermès accessories, which are my favorite wardrobe items. On average I wear a scarf every other day, whether around my neck, around my waist, or in my hair–and almost every day, I wear an Hermès necklace or pendant. It’s the Hermès jewelry that’s gotten the most use–pendants, necklaces, bangles, and bracelets–so I’m always happy when I add another special piece.
Hermes Bolide bags
What are the most treasured items in your wardrobe that you saved up for, lusted after, now you have? What would you love to add to that?
Hermès bags and jewelry and silks. I’ve longed for Hermès pieces for as long as I’ve been visiting France, starting back in 1992, although it was a few years later that I committed to someday acquiring an Hermès bag. I was a graduate student back then–and then I got married, and then I took up photography (talk about expensive!), and then I got divorced and I created my own business instead of working for or with someone else . . . which is to say, the timing wasn’t right. But the longing was real, and I was surprised to discover during those years how few people could even stand the idea of my wanting Hermès, much less acquiring it.
By the time I moved in with MP, I had a few scarves, but I kept those shut away in a drawer for the first year we were together. I was too nervous to even mention them. Then, over time, I became able to save for more pieces–a Herbag, a couple of bangles, a couple of horn pendants–and I started to share my feelings about Hermès with MP. He was so beautifully supportive, so I started to save for the bigger things. The most treasured of these are a 160cm Silver Farandole necklace, a Raisin 35cm Trim II, a Black Box 35cm Kelly, a Gold Box and Toile 31cm Bolide, and most recently, a Vache Naturelle 37cm Bolide that I’m in the process of restoring.
Given this collection, I have to think carefully about what I would like to add to my everyday wardrobe. I find DVF wrap dresses special enough to build a small collection. I dream of a vintage Rouge H Box Hermès bag someday (model undecided–I’ll know it when I see it). And I will save for a few more Hermès enamel bangles. In all honesty, I don’t long for a lot of designer or iconic clothing or accessories. I love looking at Chanel, YSL, Jean Gaultier, Prada, and many others, but I’ve passed over various pieces so often, I just don’t think they are for me. Still, I keep considering a Chanel bag–so we’ll see. My 40th birthday is right around the corner, now, so something special and unique needs to be found.
In Las Vegas with her Hermes Marwari bag
What percentage of clothing do you buy on sale vs. full price?
80% of my clothing has been bought on sale or from resellers; 20% full price. Some things just don’t go on sale–or easily sell out in my size. By and large, however, I find my items via sales, eBay and resellers and a lot of research. I can’t emphasize that last element enough. This is especially true for my Hermès collection. I put a lot of man hours into the hunt for an Hermès treasure, and I’ve learned how to recondition and care for Hermès leathers, making it easier to acquire affordable “finds.”
Hermes scarf and Jige clutch
Can you share a piece of advice on shopping/style/budgeting that you’ve learned over the years?
Move to Oklahoma!
I’m half joking and half serious. You see, in Oklahoma I don’t shop–and that alone saves beaucoup bucks. Our lifestyle has changed in other ways as well. We no longer go out to the bars, restaurants, movies, etc., etc. with any regularity. Socializing isn’t a normal thing. Our expenses went way down. I would love to live in New York or San Francisco or Philadelphia, but until that happens–I’m able to buy Hermès, as well as other things. In other words, lifestyle choices are the backbone of my budget, as it should be with any budget. Do you own a car? A house? Do you have children? Credit card debt? I have none of these, so my discretionary funding is larger at the moment.
Catherine wearing one of her beloved Hermes horn pendants
I’m also a firm believer in multiple bank accounts–all of them separate from a partner. From a specified account, I purchase all of my own luxuries–which keeps me responsible to my own security. Another budgeting/shopping tip I use is something a call “The 2X Factor.” If I’m hesitating about something–like a pair of shoes–I ask myself: What if I were willing to spend twice as much? Would the thing I’m looking at still seem a good choice? Would I be able to buy something else–something specific I know would be excellent? This question keeps me from purchasing middle-of-the-road pieces, whether they are on sale or used or supposedly a quality item. Sometimes, saving money isn’t about acquiring the cheapest thing–it’s about finding the pieces that last or even get better with age.
Catherine’s delicious roasted chicken!
What are your other passions and hobbies?
My greatest passion is photography. My process is very involved–from medium-format black-and-white film to hand-printing images using 19th-century processes. Another great passion is art history (I did many years of graduate work and research)–specifically about the art and gardens of the 18th century. A third great passion is French paysancooking. My culinary awakening happened at the table of an amazing Norman woman whose cooking would beat any great chef’s. I try to bring a little bit of that taste into my life through French cooking and baking.
Taking some photographs while wearing her Kelly
Finally – please share something surprising about yourself :)
When something reallypleases me, I laugh like a Muppet. It’s true! Ask MP!
I read through this interview a few times while putting it together, and have to say that I really adored Catherine’s answers – she is so down to earth, well spoken, and has such a well thought out view on her own style and favorite items. Plus, I’m definitely referring back to this the next time I go to Paris! I have a whole new list of shops that I’ll need to check out. Thank you again Catherine for your time and lovely photographs, and for more of her, visit Aesthetic Alterations.