Nancy and Elaine
Documentary film producer and US liaison for the Miyake Design Studio, Nancy Knox Talcott and her mother Elaine were suggested to me as subjects by Aya and Jun who also feature in this project. "Oh Nancy and Elaine would be perfect for this, they have such amazing style!" Jun promised, "her shoe collection is second to none." Well, that sold it for me, I'm all about the shoes. I emailed Nancy that week and her response turned into one of the most delightful email exchanges I've ever had with a complete stranger. Nancy, who is an only child, explained to me that her mother Elaine had been suffering some health issues, including memory loss, and this had prompted Nancy to return to live in her childhood home to take care of her mother. When I arrived at their Upper East Side townhouse, Nancy was rushing between making us tea in the kitchen and assisting her mother with her malfunctioning hearing aid.
Ruthie: Elaine, how long have you lived here?
Elaine: Since 1953. When...
Nancy: Your hearing aid is out. Let me put it in your ear.
Elaine: I took it out because it was ringing. I have trouble, but you can do it so it won't ring.
Nancy adjusts Elaine's hearing aid and Elaine puts it back in.
Nancy: Sorry about that Ruthie. I have chai tea or I can make a cappuccino?
Ruthie: Whatever you’re having is good with me.
Nancy leaves to the kitchen.
Elaine: I can’t make it stop.
Ruthie: Oh, it’s still ringing?
Nancy: (Shouting from the kitchen) Bear with me, I’ll put it in for you. You have it in the wrong ear.
Elaine: I don’t think so.
Nancy: Oh yeah. The wrong ear.
Elaine: Anyway, what was I saying?
Nancy: Mummy, you’re going to have to be quiet for a minute, while we get this...
Nancy: Isn’t this fun Ruthie?
With the hearing aid snugly fixed into place and tea and shortbread laid out, we all sat down to discuss growing up in New York and working in the fashion industry.
Elaine: Nancy grew up in this house, she went to school at Spence. She moved back in to take care of me and it’s been a wonderful adjustment for us. She lives downstairs with her husband.
Nancy: Thomas Wolfe was wrong, you can go home again. I'm not that sure you should, but you can.
Ruthie: So you moved back?
Nancy: Well we were living in Boston because my husband is a doctor and had a job there, but we moved back to keep an eye on her. He’s working in Washington State for a year on a research project now.
Ruthie: Are you driving each other crazy or is it okay?
Nancy: It’s okay. We have our moments, but who doesn’t right? It’s more, well, I work from home, I work for Issey (Miyake) himself, I work for the Tokyo office, but clearly the commute is a bit rough. So I work from home and my sort of day job, when I’m not doing that, is I work in documentary film.
Ruthie: Yes I google stalked you. I saw that you worked on an HBO documentary?
Nancy: Yes, many.
Ruthie: I think I saw one about plastic surgery?
Nancy: Yes that was the early one. I’ve done a bunch for HBO. I did the Newburgh Sting, one got nominated for an Oscar called God Is A Bigger Elvis, I’m only a producer not a director. Second career, I’m very lucky to have gotten this far. I’m working on two for HBO and one for a different company with a guy I met through HBO which is about people with multiple personalities disorder. I was down in Florida a couple of times for a conference on multiple personalities-
Ruthie: Seems like an appropriate place for that, Florida.
Nancy: It is. Actually, Florida, Colorado and California are the three best states for researching documentaries, particularly for the plastic surgery one. California was the only state where the doctors would divvy up their patients.
Ruthie: Do you find it hard to work for yourself?
Nancy: Yes especially because she has needs, I’m between home healthcare aids so it’s balancing what she needs and what I have to do and the laundry needs to get done and trying to make it work in the context of a real day. But I’ve been doing it since 2001.
Ruthie: How did you get into the fashion industry?
Nancy: Well mummy was a dress designer and she worked at Conde Nast designing for Vogue patterns as one of her first jobs. When I was in college my mother kept saying that fashion would be a great career for a woman, so I thought: "Well, I’m never going to do that then, I’m going to be a lawyer." I applied to law school and I got deferred and so I thought, what the heck!
I finally got to Vogue and one day my boss said “Look, it’s 5 o’clock and I can’t get a taxi, so can you run over to 40th street, there’s this designer named Issey Miyake and I'd like you to pick up some things." I went over and was handed two garment bags that were big enough to have been my grandparents. I was like the ant with the Blimpi sandwich all the way back to Conde Nast. I was tired and thinking: I hate this designer, I want to kill him, if he doesn’t kill me first with his clothes! When I arrived I wondered: what’s all the fuss about and then when we opened up the bag and Issey had done these sort of blanket skirts and cloaks - they were so magnificent that everything changed in a heartbeat.
I stayed at Vogue for a while, then I went to Elle and then, um, about two and half years later I realized that this insane, crazy, fashion-girl life wasn’t really conducive to my husband’s life.
Ruthie: What did he do?
Nancy: My first husband was a banker. Wonderful guy. He wanted to go on civilized vacations etc. and I was working at 2am with Duran Duran. He thought it was fun, but enough was enough. So I stopped and I’m thinking: I need a more normal job and I’m looking through the paper and I see “Help wanted Issey Miyake” so I thought why not? I always liked things that were different and Issey certainly fit that bill.
Ruthie: How would you two describe your style?
Nancy: Well mom is classic, no question. When I was little, my mother was a dress designer and she negotiated a four day week so she could spend a little time with me, she would take Fridays off and look for ideas. We’d go out on these adventures, all over New York, to the Village with the hippies and she really taught me how to see. There was always color, her clothes, my clothes, our houses, in the 60’s she wore pretty classic clothes, but they were still mod. I have pictures of her and she’s wearing a pink coat dress and her hair is done in a bow. She wore Marimekko when it first hit the shores. But her clothes have always been classic. My father was preppy and I’m both. I have two sides, there is this side and my wacky chick side. That’s why I love Issey, because it’s completely unpredictable, it’s free, it’s imaginative, bright colors, would you disagree mummy, you’re looking at me like...
Elaine: No I think you’re doing very well, this is the way it was then.
Nancy: She would take me to Paraphernalia. Then in the seventies I discovered Fiorucci I was still a nice preppy little girl. By the time I got to college I couldn't afford really wild expensive dressing, but I found stockings, crazy stockings. In the 80’s it was as though Mary Quant returned, so I always had mini skirts and these outrageous stockings.
Ruthie: And what did you think of this look Elaine?
Elaine: Oh it was very much what I liked too, since we had been shopping together for quite some time.
Nancy: Well, she’s had a few pauses with my clothes. I was wearing this very short Rifat Ozbek dress, (I’m sorry Rifat I love you), and mummy looked at the dress and said “Who is that designer? Is he dead yet!?”
Elaine: Are you sure I said that?
Ruthie: So you liked to shop together?
Elaine: Well we don’t anymore, mainly because now I’m not able to keep up with what Nancy wants, but we do discuss fashion occasionally.
Nancy: I’ve bought her a lot of Miyake, which she wears occasionally, I’ve gone a little past her comfort zone in terms of that. You like my Alaia?
Elaine: Oh very much. Also there’s an age gap here which is to be considered.
Nancy: Kids in my college would say “your mother seems to have a lot of energy” and I'd say “she could wear a toddler out!” She just had always had tremendous energy.
Ruthie: And where do you find this reseviour of energy? Do you have any tips?
Elaine: I think that came with the package. My parents were the same way, particularly my father. He could outrun anybody.
Nancy: There is a genetic component, but I think it's her sense of curiosity. Even today my husband is always tickled if there’s a hot new restaurant, then mummy wants to be there first.
Elaine: I love New York. I love to explore different sections of the city.
Nancy: She likes to go to new stores. When the highline opened she was so annoyed that she wasn’t there.
Elaine: Well, I grew up in New England and when I discovered New York as an adult, I just loved it and I still do. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else and I find a lot of other people feel that way too.
Nancy: When I was living in Boston, all of our family is up there, and I would say to her, “well maybe you want to come up here and live with us?” I got this look like, well let's just say, I never brought that up again. We moved down here. My grandfather was a minister and he was not really happy about having her go to art school. My great uncle was a doctor at Mass General and so she went to nursing school there. Then she entered a contest that the magazine Mademoiselle was running and she won third prize and that’s how she came to New York.
Ruthie: So you found your way here.
Elaine: I found my way here. When I won the prize from Mademoiselle, a few years later when I was free to move, I wrote to, I’ve forgotten her name, anyway the personnel director and introduced myself and said "is it possible that anyone in the field would be interested in talking to me?" and do you know, she set up four interviews for me! So immediately I got a room at the Commodore on 42nd street and I arranged my interviews. I had a job very quickly. I went to night school and worked in the day time.
Ruthie: What did you do at night school?
Elaine: Studied design, pattern making.
Ruthie: Were you always artistic as a child?
Elaine: I always was.
Nancy: She’s decorated two homes -
Elaine: But, that’s how I got into design.
Ruthie: It’s so different now, trying to get an interview nowadays is impossible it feels like-
Elaine: It’s very difficult today.
Nancy: Well everything’s harder today. Everything is less creative.
Nancy: You know when I was at Vogue, I remember we were going to do a plaid story for this one issue because everyone was doing plaid. We would call up all the designers and say: "We're doing this plaid story. What can you come up with?" Then we would look at what they brought us and decide. I mean it was creative, it was like you were making something together.
Ruthie: I think it's got to do with the Internet and how quickly things turn over. There is it's no time to sit and ruminate on an idea. It's got to be out there now.
Nancy: That is the advertising element. It's a different world as you say, everything's so much more immediate and I'm equally guilty. If I see something I like, I want to know where I can buy it and I will track it down. (Laughter)
Ruthie: You are a fashion hunter.
Nancy: I was in Paris once and it was a Sunday morning and I was taking the noon flight. I took my last walk and my last croissant and I saw this dress in a window. It was this silver sequined dress and I thought: I have to have it. The shop was closed and there was no name on the door, but I saw a business card on the desk in the back. I was wearing my camera around my neck and used the telephoto lens to zoom in on the card that had a phone number written on it.
Nancy: I got off the plane in New York and of course by then it was Monday and I called them and talked them through how to mail the dress to me.
Ruthie: Did she get this from you Elaine?
Nancy: Do I get it from you?
Elaine: Oh, I think so.
Nancy: That's why I do a lot of research now because I'm a digger and I don't stop digging until I find what I'm looking for. Yeah, I think we're very similar.
Ruthie: Yeah, I was going to ask how you are similar and different in your personalities?
Elaine: I think…I don't know. What do you think Nancy?
Nancy: That's an easy one. So, our heritage is English, Irish, Scottish maybe a little Welsh. She got all the reserve of the Brits and the Scots. I am the crazy Irish-Welsh. If she goes to a funeral she sits there demurely and is very much like Jackie Kennedy. Whereas, I'm crying on the floor. She is much more reserved.
Elaine: That is true. I am a minister's daughter after all.
Nancy: Well I'm a minister's granddaughter, but I mean …I'm much more extroverted and I'm much more emotional, good or bad.
Ruthie: Are you an only child?
Nancy: I am. How could you tell? I wanted siblings. Yeah, there were series of miscarriages and I ended up being the only one.
Ruthie: Do you think that means you had a closer relationship than perhaps some of your peers and their mothers?
Nancy: Yes and no. And the reason I say no is because she worked. At that point in time most of my peers' mothers did not. But the time we did have together was certainly of a higher quality, I think, than a mom who is just always there.
Ruthie: Did you resent the fact that she worked or did you like it?
Nancy: I don't ever remember resenting it. I remember being really proud of her because my mother did something. And she went to glamorous sounding places and she flew on the Concorde. I loved our outings. Walking down the street in 1968 you'd see a bunch of hippies laying in the street and she would teach me to look at the colors they were wearing, how to see things differently, to take inspiration rather than judge.
Elaine: We would have fun shopping together on my days off.
Ruthie: What kind of age were you?
Nancy: So, it would have been between the ages five and fifteen.
Elaine: That's about right.
Nancy: And you'd have been in your forty's.
Nancy: Being an only child with a slightly older parent means that, on the one hand, the parent is a lot more settled and she knew exactly what she wanted to do and she was very into her career. But I see a lot of young mothers sort of running around just willy nilly these days and I had the benefit of somebody who sort of was comfortable where she was. She always made everything into an adventure. We were exploring something new or she would make up these games when I was very little. Remember apothecary?
Elaine: I don't remember that, do I?
Nancy: She would take crepe paper in different colors and put lots of glasses of water out then we would put the crepe paper in the water which would turn different colors.
Elaine: And then make collages!
Nancy: We would make paper dolls and cloth dolls too. There was a doll called "Now Girl". The pattern was in Women's Day. It was this goofy doll that must have been patterned after Twiggy. She was wearing a miniskirt and had fishnet stockings and vinyl boots.
Ruthie: And you would make this out of a kit?
Nancy: It was a pattern and she would get the fabric and had the sewing machine in the basement. I mean, she would do more of the sewing.
Elaine: But she learned to sew very quickly.
Nancy: I did learn to sew, but when you've got somebody who's really good at something, you sometimes think: okay, I can do this but I'm going to find something I'm really good at. So I was a little better at music than I was that was a sewing, photography too.
Elaine: This is fun to reminisce like this!
Ruthie: What you most admire about each other?
Elaine: What I admire most about Nancy? One thing, she is extremely organized. She can remember things and where she put them. She is kind. Extremely kind. She gets cross with me, but that's not what counts. She gets up and makes my breakfast.
Nancy: I think everyone should do that, it's easy.
Elaine: Also curiosity, she's very much interested in the lives of other people, the books she reads. That kind of thing.
Nancy: Thank you. My mother has always been a lady. That's not to say that I'm a harlot or anything like that like, but when I was in college and younger, she would be up in her pearls and in her skirt at 7:30 in the morning! It's beyond the dress though. She never says what she thinks if it's unkind. There's always a dignity, that I totally don't have! She's very capable. I love her and her enthusiasm for new things. I mean we take her to see the Christmas windows every year and she critiques them. If they do a bad job, she's a first one the let them know!
Elaine: That's New York.
Nancy: No, its you though.
Elaine: I love the creativity. It's so incredible to see how a store that has been fifty years in business is still coming up with new ideas.
Ruthie: Many people would walk by the stores and not even see them?
Nancy: She sees everything.
Elaine: Nancy has recently introduced me to what the museums are doing for older people. People who aren't able to get around. It's amazing.
Nancy: All the museums have programs.
Elaine: They teach people something new. They give them something to work on themselves. One of the museums showed us a certain art show and then took us through another room and gave each little pots of paint in different colors so we could make our own art.
Nancy: It was thrilling to me to see her so excited.
Elaine: It is quite remarkable.
Ruthie: So Elaine, you have more of a social life than I do.
Nancy: Yes! I did a film for N.B.C. It was a special called Christmas at the White House, First Families Remember. They had this party for it at a subterranean disco in the Meat Packing District, about five sets of stairs down. She wanted to go! When we got there, she is like: "This is so cool. Are the Bush girls here?"
Ruthie: Have you two ever been through any difficult times that coming through together made your relationship stronger?
Nancy: My father's death.
Nancy: He had a brain tumor and he was in a hospice for almost three months. I was living in the city and working on eighteenth street. Every day I would work until two o'clock and take a bus up to the Bronx to the hospice. We would stop at fifty-something street, mummy would get on, I'd have a seat for her and we go up together. This went on for three months. And I think it really, yeah, um -
Elaine: It was hard.
Nancy: Yeah, I mean, it was... we got each other through it. I do think that the mother/daughter relationship is very complex. There are times when we're so much alike that we do clash. When I was younger and more extroverted, I think she didn't understand me at all for a while there. I was wilder, but we've always had that essential bond. Now it's very different because I'm taking care of her.
Ruthie: So are you feeling more maternal towards her?
Nancy: Yes, but it's like having a feisty teenager on my hands! She fights me every step of the way. She looks all sweet, but she's tough.
Elaine: We're both strong women!
Nancy: Our clashes aren't usually...
Elaine: It's hard to grow old. Suddenly you have to give over control to someone else.
Nancy: There are times when I'll say, "No you can't go down to the store by yourself" and it's frustrating for her.
Nancy: I think the thing that a lot of people miss is that, just because your parent is older, doesn't mean they're not in there and if what they love doing is experiencing new things, they're going to stay happier and healthier if you keep helping them do that. We take her on vacation. We take her around town.
Ruthie: Where do you two like to shop?
Nancy: I like to shop internationally. I love new designers, but also Miyake and Alaia. I'm a shoe fetishist. These pink shoes are Roger Vivier. In New York I go to Saks for shoes. Long ago we both loved Design Research. It was interior design, fabric, clothing.
Elaine: Design Research, oh the color! The back stairs were painted orange! I like Saks, Anne Klein, Chanel.
Nancy: We both like Chanel, but I have a hot pink suit piped with black and she has a navy one.
Nancy: I think it's sad when I see mothers and daughters who don't get along, because we women run the show. Whether it's working, or having children, if we don't have the benefit of one another's knowledge or just strength or enthusiasm, I think we really lose out.