Fifteen years ago this month, Carrie, Charlotte, Miranda, and Samantha made their stilettoed, hand-on-hip HBO debut in Sex and the City, launching an enduring and profitable series that has attracted devotees around the world. The franchise’s fandom was built in large part by the stars’ individual styles, which were assembled by the show’s costume designers, Emmy Award winner Patricia Field and her New York staff.
Field’s mainstream renown is closely aligned with the hit show as well as her styling for The Devil Wears Prada, Ugly Betty, and Confessions of a Shopaholic, among others. A new documentary film about her company, the House of Field, however, makes little mention of Sex and the City, instead focusing on Field’s celebrated reputation in New York’s downtown creative circles. Titled The Little House That Could, the film’s narrative structure is rather thin but provides various interesting perspectives on the various ways in which the House of Field has served as a haven for multiple generations of drag queens, transsexuals, club kids, artists, performers, and others.
This month, the film will have its world premiere at Frameline37: The San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival, potentially exposing larger audiences to the more counter-cultural side of this style icon’s fame.
Directed by a former Field employee and current Los Angeles DJ named Mars Roberge, the film features interviews with Field collaborators and New York legends like Paul Alexander, JoJo Americo, Susanne Bartsch, Johnny Dynell, Field’s former visual director Artie Hach, Kenny Kenny, Amanda Lepore, Martine, Perfidia, Lauren Pine, Armen Ra, Codie Ravioli, Kenny Scharf, Chi Chi Valenti, and others (a core House figure that goes largely unmentioned is Sushi, who was Field’s longtime creative director). They profusely recount the ways in which Field, known as the House “father,” inspired, sired, or hired them.
Armen Ra, who thankfully injects humor and sarcasm into the film, remembers Field saying that the store was a kind of “transsexual welfare system” by giving marginal youth a means of making a living when few other places would hire them. The pop artist Kenny Scharf applauds the Field store for being a unique place where, he says, “The freaks always felt at home.” Field herself is interviewed during a hairdressing appointment. Wearing a salon smock, Field’s famously bright red hair is pinned back as she smokes a cigarette, describing her boutique as a “studio of artists,” a kind of community where “everyone, you know, made each other’s life enriched.”
Many documentary films are ultimately paeans to their subjects and Roberge’s film is no different. At times the film takes on a bit of a saccharine quality, especially given the fact that Roberge was a past employee who partook of the Field family atmosphere. But unspoken tensions do creep in as a subtext to the film. Field, the Manhattan matriarch who embraces transsexuals and drag queens—arguably the most marginal of New York’s creative classes—also played a central role in configuring a dominant mainstream model of urban post-feminism via the women of Sex and the City.
On any given day, downtown artists and performers angrily tweet or post about the rawness of a gritty city giving way to the fresh faces of haughty hipsters and uppity Carrie wannabes. Even some of the film’s interviewees lament the bloated busloads of suburban fans of the show that traipse through the Field store mocking employees and gawking at the wigs, jewelry, and garments so zealously sought after by downtown stylists and “it” kids. And yet Field herself, who was indispensable in crafting the glistening turn-of-the-century cultural moment that Sex and the City heralded, remains largely immune from the taint of the stiletto/ latte/ does-Big-love-me legion.
Rather than examine associations with the Carrie Bradshaw brand, the film produces comparisons of the House of Field with Andy Warhol and his Factory. Field’s longtime wig stylist Perfidia recalls doing a wig for Warhol Superstar Holly Woodlawn, who reportedly compared the store’s atmosphere to the Factory’s own celebration of queer theatricality. Field herself, in her often imitated, gravelly voice, joyfully recounts Warhol walking into her store and exclaiming, “Pleasure to meet you! You’re famous!” And yet Armen Ra recalls Field actually being opposed to hiring transsexual icon Amanda Lepore at the store, saying, “Pat was not into Amanda working at the store. I had to fight to get Amanda into the store.” Ra goes on to explain that Field would complain that Lepore spent all her time at the store gazing at her own visage in the mirror. Warhol, I think, would have eagerly brought Lepore to his Factory and probably filmed her endlessly contemplating her image just as Edie Sedgwick liked to do.
Several interviewees in the film gush about their encounters with celebrities, including Pete Burns, Carole Channing, Cyndi Lauper, Farrah Fawcett, Lena Horne, Lil Kim, Bette Midler (whom Ra recalls being “really weird”), and Sigourney Weaver. Being an icon, however, does not imply having one’s behavior in the store go unpoliced, especially by Codie Ravioli, the House of Field “mother.” She remembers kicking out John F. Kennedy, Jr., who apparently entered the store with his girlfriend and spent much of the time grimacing and muttering “freaks” at the employees. Ravioli then proceeded to kick him out, saying, “Your mother had class! You didn’t get any of it!”
Ravioli also remembers a moment when Madonna repeatedly and discourteously turned her back to Field at an event. Agitated as she tells the story for Roberge’s camera, Ravioli relives her anger at Madonna and recalls her 1983 single “Holiday” when it “cleared the dance floor in Danceteria. Do not start. Don’t give my father shade!” Younger celebrity clients have fortunately fared better during their encounters with the House. Field’s Tumblr lauded recent visits by Lana Del Rey and Miley Cyrus, who stopped by to consult with the newest generation of Field’s personnel. [subscribe2]
Victor P. Corona, Ph.D. (victorpcorona.com) is a sociologist at Hofstra University. He is currently writing a book that traces a social and aesthetic lineage from the Warhol Factory to the Club Kids and the current generation of performers, artists, and nightlife personas in New York. He lives on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.