Whether you choose a blazer or a ballgown, fashion insiders say, the most important part of looking good is feeling good
By Jessica Langlois, MFA ’10
As an undergraduate at Mills, Laura Compton wore a white men’s T-shirt with overalls, an oversized men’s blazer, Doc Martens shoes, and bright red lipstick on her walks between classes and the school newspaper offices. She called it one of her uniforms— an interplay between ’90s style and Northwestern Riot Grrrl culture. Kristin Kramer’s self-chosen uniform, or “armor” as she calls it today, was a business-skirt suit that made her stand apart from the other jeans-and-T-shirt-clad undergraduates at Mills in the late 1970s. Lili Butler spent her graduate school years at Mills sewing her own clothes and forming found materials into massive sculptures. And Zel Anders donned tailored men’s suits while reading and rereading Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own in Mills Hall and envisioning her own symbolic moment of “walking across the lawn,” or consciously stepping out of boundaries.
While at Mills, none of these women knew they would turn their liberal arts degrees into thriving fashion careers, but today, all four are leading innovators in the global fashion industry. Compton is style editor at the San Francisco Chronicle; Kramer is an executive vice president at Victoria’s Secret; Butler created her own eponymous couture brand; and Anders just launched Tomboy Tailors—the first and only storefront that makes bespoke, tailored men’s-style suits for “masculine-of-center” women.
Compton is not at all surprised to see so many alumnae working in fashion. “Fashion is a huge industry in this country and we need Mills women in it at all different levels,” Compton says. “If I heard that a Mills woman was a top model, that wouldn’t surprise me either.” It’s also an industry that employs many women at high levels. At Victoria’s Secret, Kramer’s boss and most of her colleagues are women; in fact, she’s so used to working in an environment of strong female leaders that she often forgets how unusual that is in a corporate environment.
While fashion is an increasingly viable industry for women to advance in, it is also a critical indicator of the global progress of women. According to a 1999 Journal of American Culture article by sociologist Diana Crane, “While women have always been dressmakers, only in the late nineteenth century did a few women become fashion designers and, in that capacity, begin to have the possibility of translating their experiences as women into clothing for women.” Crane posits that women’s fashion directly correlates with women’s perceived or performed roles, and that periods of social change provide opportunities for interpretations of those roles to be re-imagined through fashion. The eras following each of the World Wars, for example, saw the rise of less restrictive clothing as women were increasingly taking on more active and less socially restrained lifestyles.
In this tradition, Mills alumnae working in fashion directly reflect the ongoing evolution of women’s roles. Despite their wide-ranging roles in the fashion industry, Compton, Kramer, Butler, and Anders have a common goal: to empower women to accurately represent themselves through fashion and use their style to support the intellectual, creative, and innovative work they bring to the world.
Gorgeous and green
Lili Butler, MFA ’84, has been setting trends in fashion design and construction long before she knew she would build a lifelong career as a high-end designer. After studying with top Bay Area figurative artists at UC Berkeley, Butler came to Mills as one of seven fine arts graduate students, where she was encouraged to keep her focus narrow. “When I was in school, I thought of myself as an artist, and of clothing manufacturing and engineering as a hobby,” Butler said over coffee at her home studio in the rolling apple orchards outside of Sebastopol.
Today, Butler has run a successful business as a couture fashion designer for the past 29 years, selling to boutiques all over the United States, Europe, South America, and Saudi Arabia, and dressing women for the Academy Awards, the Grammys, the Tonys, inaugural balls, and State Department and White House dinners. The signature Lili Butler aesthetic is fine fabrics pieced together to create original textiles—torn silk taffeta, silk organza, and Chantilly lace. These materials, combined with her use of boning, smocking, and meticulous embroidery and beading techniques, make Butler’s gowns, tunics, maxi dresses, and long coats sculptural works of art as much as they are articles of clothing. While the clothes she designs are vivid and highly textural, Butler prefers to sew more understated clothes for herself— black linen tunics or long men’s coats.
At Mills, Butler was mentored by studio art professor Jay DeFeo, who encouraged her to follow her own path—ultimately combining fine art and fashion design. “Jay flipped all over the place,” Butler recalled of the artist’s unusual use of materials and technique. “Because of that she was shunned for a long time by the greater art community.” Today, nearly 25 years after her death, DeFeo’s work is celebrated globally, with recent major retrospectives in San Francisco and New York. Under DeFeo’s guidance, Butler created large-scale, found art sculptures draped in fabric and won exhibitions at California College of Arts and Crafts and at Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino.
Though Butler found early success in the San Francisco gallery scene, she still made a living by designing clothes for the prominent women she met through DeFeo—and DeFeo herself became one of Butler’s most valued customers. “Jay knew I was dirt poor,” Butler said. “So she would come over once a month and buy one of my pieces of clothing so I could pay the PG&E bill in my rented business space.” Butler once created a black and white silk kimono for DeFeo, based on a swath of golden silk DeFeo had brought back from Thailand; when DeFeo learned that she was dying, she asked to be buried in the garment.
Butler’s technique of saving and piecing together scrap fabric was a forerunner to green design, an approach that style editor Compton says has come in vogue only in recent years. “It’s really pioneering that she was doing it that early,” says Compton. The philosophy of reusing materials came from Butler’s mother, who would collect remnants from fabric stores and buy discounted clothes to dismantle and sew into something new. “In the ’60s I would get clothes that were thrown away and repurpose them into far-out things,” Butler said. “Today, I still can’t wait for my fabric to get down to a couple of yards because then it becomes special. It can be torn into pieces and mixed with other things.”
As much as her passions for sewing and art have been at the core of her career as a designer, so is Butler’s deep sense of camaraderie with other women. Several years ago, Butler transitioned from a busy life of operating showrooms around the country and managing a 40-person staff to running a smaller operation focused on individualized fashion consulting. She works with successful, professional women—doctors, judges, CEOs, musicians—helping them choose clothes that make them feel comfortable and confident while also taking risks and exploring new aesthetics. She encourages her clients to stop questioning their own appearance as much as she coaches them to stop judging the appearances of other women. “Fashion is not a frivolous industry,” Butler contended. “The way we express ourselves through how we look and how we dress identifies us and also unites us.”
A boutique of one’s own
The power of personal style as a unifying force is certainly true for Tomboy Tailors customers. Company founder Zel Anders, MA ’94, has had problems finding clothes that fit her well and suit her taste since she was a teenager. By that time, she had rejected women’s ready-wear and bought her first smoking jacket from a 70-year-old tailor at an Italian menswear shop in San Francisco. “I was already wearing mostly menswear, so I decided if I was going to be wearing it I wanted it to look good,” Anders said on a summer morning over the din of shoppers in San Francisco’s Crocker Galleria, a few feet from the Tomboy Tailors storefront.
Anders wore a dark, three button pinstripe suit over a pale blue hidden button shirt with French cuffs. Known as Leslie Lewis during her time at Mills, her chosen name, Zel, was stitched subtly at the edge of the cuff. The entire ensemble was a Tomboy Tailors original including her shoes, Allen Edmonds wingtips that are carried in the store in sizes six and above. Anders is also working with other companies to carry men’s shoes in size five and even smaller.
The February 2013 opening of Tomboy Tailors has been perfectly timed with a sea change in queer rights and perceptions of women’s fashion. With Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act recently overturned in the Supreme Court, there is a groundswell of women looking for dapper suits to wear to their weddings or simply seeking out quality clothing that reflects their sense of self. Meanwhile, butch and tomboy clothiers are popping up from coast to coast—including Oakland’s Saint Harridan, run by Mary Going, MBA ’12—but Tomboy Tailors is the only shop in the nation with its own storefront that offers bespoke suits for women. Still, it’s a trend that’s long overdue. Veterans like Butler and Kramer are excited to see fashion expanding in this direction, and Anders’s customers often joke that she stole their idea, saying they’ve wanted to see a shop like this for decades.
Walking into Tomboy Tailors, you won’t see racks of jackets and shirts. The shop is inviting with plush sofas, a baby grand piano, and several beautifully framed copies of early 20th-century oil portraits by Romaine Brooks. A marble table displays cotton, wool, and cashmere swatches in pinstripe, houndstooth, pinpoint, and plaid, imported from England, Italy, and Scotland. Silk kerchiefs, patterned bowties, colorful suspenders, and wingtip shoes and loafers are on display near the door. Everything else is made to order.
Anders said that women’s clothes, which are more susceptible to quicksilver changes from one season to the next, are chronically of lower quality than men’s clothes—a major reason why her customer base encompasses butch, lesbian, and trans-masculine individuals as well as heterosexual women. But the reason she opened Tomboy Tailors was not simply so that other women could find high-quality bespoke suits; it was to provide a welcoming shopping environment for customers shopping outside of their traditional gender roles. Anders said rude, questioning looks and poor customer service were a given when she used to go clothes shopping.
The sentiment must be widely felt, because Tomboy Tailors opened to a swell of media attention, with write-ups in the New York Times and a mention in Bitch magazine. Tomboy Tailors was most recently featured in Entrepreneur magazine. Anders has been touring regularly in the short months since opening, hosting pop-up fittings in New York, Seattle, and Los Angeles. This fall, Tomboy Tailors will be part of an LGBT fashion show taking place in New York during Fashion Week.
Anders, who earned her master’s in English literature at Mills after completing a BA in applied economics at the University of San Francisco, said her time at Mills encouraged her to make sure the work she did would create positive change. “Yes, we’re helping individuals get the clothes they want, but I also think it will help change social norms in terms of the binary expectations of what’s expected to be worn,” Anders said. Anders sees a clear correlation between properly fitted clothing and women’s confidence. “Maybe clothing shouldn’t be important to us, but it does affect our emotional well being,” she said.
Even just a few months after opening shop, she is already actively using her position to give back to LGBT and women’s issues. Tomboy Tailors has made a donation to the National Center for Lesbian Rights, and Anders is a vocal supporter of abortion rights and women in politics.
Laura Compton, who ran a story on Anders in the Chronicle’s Style section in January, said she’s not at all surprised that Anders is a Mills woman. “It’s a quintessential Mills combination of being independent, filling a niche, and just standing up and saying ‘I don’t like the way this industry is working and I’m going to do something different here.’”
Confident and in command
From her executive position at a leading apparel brand, Kristin Kramer ’79 is driven by a similar independent spirit and sensitivity to the diverse needs of the women she serves. After working as a buyer for Bullock’s Wilshire and I. Magnin department stores in Los Angeles for 10 years, Kramer took a job with L Brands Inc. in Columbus, Ohio—parent company to Victoria’s Secret. Now an executive vice president at Victoria’s Secret Design Studio in New York, Kramer specializes in launch and innovation for bras, bridging designers’ creative visions with commercially viable products. Though she works on the business end of the industry today, Kramer has been engaged in personal fashion since grade school. She recalled taking her first paychecks from three summer jobs during college and buying five new dresses on the spot.
Ever curious about changing styles and trends, Kramer sees specialty retail like Victoria’s Secret as an ongoing conversation with the customer. That customer-driven mentality is a reflection of the current zeitgeist in the fashion world. “A lot of rules are being broken—color rules, fabrication rules, what to wear when, what not to wear, casualization,” Kramer said in a phone conversation from her New York City home. “People feel empowered to be an individual and to do what they want to do.”
Whether she’s chatting with shoppers in stores or engaging in live chats with up to 500 credit-card-holding loyalists, Kramer is always listening for customers’ needs. In 2006, she guided the launch of one of the company’s most successful products, the Secret Embrace Bra—a label-free bra with no seams or stitches. “You could wear that bra through a 16-hour flight to China and feel like you don’t even have a bra on. There are literally no pressure points,” Kramer said. She emphasized the value of this kind of technology, saying that not worrying about the com fort or visibility of undergarments frees women to think about more important things. While the undergarments that make some women feel most confident will be ultra-feminine, for women like Kramer, the perfect bra will not draw any attention so that she can look completely in control and feel in command.
Offering a variety of garments and sizes is critical in creating an atmosphere of inclusion among customers. “We have a lot of market share, and we couldn’t do that unless we cater to a lot of women and their desires,” Kramer said, adding that their products aim to fill different “emotional spaces,” such as romantic, provocative, casual, or effortless. “At the end of the day, it’s not only about how that customer is going to look in the product, it’s about how she wants to feel.”
Kramer says one of the best things about her fashion career is working creatively with her colleagues on products and aesthetics. The designing and engineering of bras in the company’s New York sample room demands a level of high-end tailoring that Kramer doesn’t want to see become a dying skill set. In her managerial position, she can protect the vision of her designers and empower her associates—almost all of whom are women. “I don’t have an MBA, so I learned those communication and advocacy skills through the conversations I was having as a student at Mills,” Kramer said.
Kramer feels lucky to use her position at a major brand in order to do good. Presently, Victoria’s Secret is fundraising for the James Cancer Clinic in Columbus, Ohio. Over $44 million has been raised to date by all the L Brands business units; the current campaign Kramer is co-chairing for Victoria’s Secret aims to generate another $3 million when matched by the corporation. She is particularly proud that every dollar raised will go directly to cancer research.
“We used to have a T-shirt that said, ‘Relax, it’s just bras and panties—we’re not curing cancer,’” Kramer said with a laugh. “But now we’re literally doing it, and we can’t use that phrase anymore.”
Covering real women
For San Francisco Chronicle Style Editor Laura Compton ’93, her work in journalism and fashion has always been a means to advance equality and justice. She began her career as an intern at Newsday’s Washington DC bureau, when the paper broke the story of Anita Hill’s sexual harassment allegations against then–Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas—coverage that drew major media attention to harassment in the workplace. During her three years working at the Sacramento News & Review, an alternative weekly paper, she introduced an annual women’s issue, and, at the Chronicle, she has maintained her sensibility for representing women in a realistic and empowering way.
“We’ve certainly seen the ways fashion can encourage destructive behaviors and influence girls who are vulnerable,” Compton said from her desk in the Chronicle’s bustling newsroom, looking stylish but comfortable in dark skinny jeans, ankle boots, a black blazer, and a chunky necklace. “It’s something I always have in the back of my mind in coverage and photo shoots,” Compton said, adding that she would never feature a model in a position that compromised her integrity or humanity. To illustrate her commitment to covering “real women,” she pulled out the page proofs of an upcoming Sunday Style section spread, featuring a dance troupe in which non-professional dancers learn how to be showgirls in order to gain confidence and celebrate their diverse body types.
After joining the Chronicle in 1998, Compton initiated the paper’s coverage of the Bay Area fashion scene. “There was larger trend coverage, and a fashion editor who was being sent to New York, Paris, and Milan, but there wasn’t coverage of what I felt was more interesting, which was the start-up, independent, local designer scene,” Compton said. Even though she was copy editing stories fulltime for the Datebook section, Compton worked after hours and on weekends to generate stories on Bay Area individuals creating their own labels. “Most of the designers I’ve written about over the years have been women who’ve done their own lines or paired up with a collectively organized store,” Compton said.
Later, as style editor, she ran a story on personal stylists helping women address life transitions via their wardrobes—be it a stay-at-home mom returning to the workplace or a bank executive wanting to express herself in a more feminine way. Like Lili Butler, who today does more fashion consulting than design, Compton agrees that women feel best when they are able to portray themselves accurately through fashion and style, and that camaraderie and guidance is important in achieving that.
According to sociologist Diana Crane, “In the past, fashion [encouraged] women to be dissatisfied with their appearance and to make regular changes in their clothing in order to conform to changing definitions of style . . . . [But] fashion [is ceasing] to represent a social ideal and instead disseminates a variety of choices, some of them representing marginal lifestyles.” These choices provide women a path toward their most authentic self-expression—be it with a seamless bra, an upcycled couture gown, or an expertly tailored men’s suit.
“Fashion is not about following the trends. Everyone chooses how to present themselves, and how to express themselves,” Compton said. “It’s about enhancing what you like about yourself, rather than trying to fit into what somebody else thinks you should be.”