Category - People

A Chat with NYC Paper Towel Milliner- Debra Rapoport
Adam Bernhard- (Former) CEO at Hautelook
Designer- Elene Cassis

A Chat with NYC Paper Towel Milliner- Debra Rapoport

It wasn’t long ago when I first read about Debra Rapoport- a milliner who’s design esthetic isn’t what you would call “average.” She was [and still is being] featured on Advanced Style for her incredibly unique style in her advanced age. She also designs her own hats and accessories out of recycled items such as toilet paper rolls, stainless steel scouring pads and most importantly- paper towels. It was such a humbling experience to sit down with her over tea as she discussed growing up in a creative family, how she got into Advanced Style and life in general. But did I mention THOSE AMAZING HATS !?!?!

Ever since she was three, Debra has always dressed up. She recalls her sister and her never owning dolls, but instead turning to playing dress-up. You see, being creative was always encouraged in her family (especially by her Mother and Grandmother). When she was staying at her Grandparents one time, the siblings took the button drawer out of the sewing machine, dumped it on living room floor and started playing around with them. She remembered her Grandpa saying, “Oh my God, they are making a mess!” Her Grandma then replied, “Be quiet, they are being creative.” Debra has always grown being allowed to wear whatever she wanted and with an attitude that “There’s no such thing as making a mess, it’s all about creativity. Where there’s creativity, there are no rules. Where there are no rules, there is no fear.”

She went on to major in textile design at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh. She then went on to graduate school at UC Berkley, where her graduate work pertained to textiles relating to the body. She was doing mostly weaving and constructions off the loom. Every time she finished something, she would want to change it to work for the body, because a flat rectangle didn’t work. She created a few elaborate knitted wearable pieces for her graduate dissertation. This was also when the term ‘wearable art’ didn’t exist yet (late 60s). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Houston Museum of Fine Arts currently own some of her work.

It was a little over five years ago when she was featured on Advanced Style. She recollected that it was 2009 and Ari Seth Cohen was managing the bookstore at the New Museum. She came in on a rainy day and checked her raincoat. She had pink hair then. He ran up to her and asked, ‘I have a blog of women over 60, can I take your photograph?’ He had forgotten his camera, but borrowed a friend’s iPhone. She gave him her card and invited him over.”I’ll dress up, I’ll undress and I’ll even make ya lunch.” Which seemed to frighten him somewhat. Five days later, she called him and invited him over for lunch. He photographed everything in her apt, from the artwork to her cooking. She also changed outfits a few times. They became fast friends and she coined him as her ‘adopted son.’ A few weeks later, he met Lina Plioplyte, who is a film director. Lina wanted to come on board and do the Advanced Style film. Over the years, Ari and the women whom he has photographed are like a large family. Debra has met quite a few young artistic people and friends of Ari’s. She is known for “collecting young people.” “I think it’s important to mix the ages. The young people I have met are not ageist… They aren’t put off by someone who is 70, 80 or 90. They are enamored and they know there is something they can learn from us and our vitality. It’s been an extraordinary experience, especially with the movie out. Ari has given us a new life.”

Nowadays, she mostly thrifts and alters her clothing. Her friends often refer to her as “gifted and thrifted,” as folks would also gift her clothing they no longer wear and she’ll either wear or alter it to her liking. As far as headwear is concerned, she’s always made headwear; whether it be a paper bag, handbag or a lampshade. In the early 90s, she made lampshades for a company out of banana fiber that she imported from Costa Rica. “To me, a lampshade is a hat, a hat a lampshade..” She was also in the flower business for sixteen years, so she collected vases as well. “A vase is a lampshade…They are all vessels..”

When designing a hat, she starts by working directly on her head. She doesn’t do drawings or work from another form. She started making hats from the banana fiber and then from industrial felt. “I love wearing hats and playing with hair. Because hair is like a sculpture. You can cut it. You can let it grow. I used to have it pink (and other colors). I like to have it pulled out of a hat (as many of my hats have open tops) so it becomes an additional embellishment and texture. Life is about texture. I cook and I eat by texture and color. I dress by color and texture and layering…”

She goes on to show me some of the cuffs and bracelets she’s crafted. She’s been recycling since the 60s and always loved large bracelets. She would see toilet tissue rolls in the trash. “They are such a valuable piece of cardboard and the shape is fabulous. I slit it up the middle and it makes a beautiful large cuff. I get so many beautiful pieces of graphics in the mail (like a postcard or catalogs from art galleries). I use them to upholster the cardboard cuff and turn it into a bracelet. I add other bits of fabric or ribbon and then I cover them in mesh that I get from sweet potato or lemon bags (or other produce bags). I would also often embellish them with what I call my ‘gems’…shredded paper that I’ve bound and wrapped in thread; creating a large, 3-dimensional gem on top of it. People stop me on the street as they think it’s from another ethnic culture. Because they take on a whole other life. I think that’s what happens when you combine a lot of materials and layer stuff. You don’t read one particular thing, it just becomes a melting of the textures, materials and colors.” She also makes bracelets from paper towels. She’ll either make them into elements and then braid or weave them [similar to the hats]. Or she’ll twist or coil them into a bangle and then paint them. Sometimes she would add elements on the surface. “Everything speaks to me, I don’t try to force it into a form. I saw the paper towels one day. It just said ‘cloth’ and ‘do me.’ I just started manipulating. Coming from a textile background, I’m used to manipulating materials, transforming, making elements and then turning it into something; whether it be a basket or garment… So that’s been my whole life and I just keep following what my inner instinct tells me. I think as we grow older we have to do that in whatever form it is, because that’s what’s going to keep us vital.”

I would like to leave you with Debra’s thoughts on personal style, “Personal style is very healing because creativity comes from within. I love to teach young people that it’s not about what they buy at major stores, but how they put it together as their own personal thing. The things they make. How they embellish themselves and how they can recycle and thrift. And how important that is for the environment and creativity.”

Her hats are currently being made from Viva Paper Towels and come in a large variety of unique style. She also does custom pieces upon request. Her wearable art retails from $150- 185. You can contact her through her website: On why her website is named that, “I’m also encouraging hats to come back and come alive.” VIVA LE HAT!!

Adam Bernhard- (Former) CEO at Hautelook

Yours truly had the exciting opportunity to sit down with Adam Bernhard- the founder and CEO of the popular and ever-growing e-commerce site, Hautelook. What amazes me is that the company is only two years old and is doing remarkably well [whether growing internally with employees or externally with its member base] during this economy. For this interview, I did something a little different. I not only asked some of my own questions, but reached out of my fans as well, asking them ‘if they had one thing to ask the CEO of Hautelook, what would it be?’

LAFashionsnob: What made you want to get into fashion?

Adam Bernhard: I’ve been around fashion since I was a kid. My mother’s in the fashion business. She owned a textile company and buying office. One of my first jobs was working at a retail store- Fred Segal when I was 17 years old…and so I worked there for years. Even while I was in college I worked at Fred Segal. I always loved being around clothes. It was kind of a family industry that we were in.

LAFS: Of all the names you could have named the company, why “Hautelook”?

AB: Hautelook represents a couple things in the fashion business: ‘Haute-couture’ for one, which is high or high fashion, ‘Haute’ the word in and of itself, in French means ‘high’, so the concept of it being a aspirational site we wanted to make sure the name carried with it aspirational thought process. Psychologically, you think ‘Haute’ is a very elegant word and the word,”look” actually is a word used in the fashion business. So on photo shoots, no one really says, “oh I like that outfit”, they say, “oh I like that look” and when you’re backstage at fashion shows they call the different outfits “look 1, look 2, look 3”..etc…depending on when the girls are walking out. In fashion always, there’s the new “look”…The word ‘look’ is highly correlated to the fashion business. So ‘haute’ which is ‘high’ and ‘look’ which is very ‘industry terminology’…just seem to go well together.

LAFS:What is the purpose behind the “legendary big comfy green chair”?

AB: When I had just started the liquidation business, I had just come off running a label called, “Joie” and I was in my apartment and every morning .. I would get up like I was going to work, take a shower, get dressed and go sit in that chair like it was my office. I would start to call my friends in the business and see if they had extra goods for me to sell.  ( My friend had an office up the street from my apartment and when I needed to send a fax I would go to his office and I would sneak in there and I would send faxes from his fax machine because I didn’t have one in my apartment. ) And so that chair lives on and I won’t let anyone throw it away.

LAFS: What sets Hautelook apart from the other companies (ie Gilt, Rue La La)?

AB: Part of it I think, is the culture and the roots of our business. This business comes from me being in the apparel business. We had never seen this idea. We had a liquidation  business (post my running a label)  and the business really came out of us wanting to provide brands with a better way to clear their access inventory by protecting the brand from anything that would harm their brand identity and we wanted to figure out a way to make more margin for them. So it was a fortuative timing that we happen to launch the site during one of the worst economic downturns that this country has ever seen. So we were fortunate enough to have that on our side and we had the wind in our back and it really just took off so quickly.

LAFS (on behalf of Crosby Noricks-PR Couture): Given the proliferation of similar sites, how do you continue to differentiate Hautelook and retain/extend your community?

AB: As a first-mover we have an advantage that our site is recognized as one of the leaders in the space. We are able to leverage that because we are a west-coast based company in and of itself the culture and the brand of Hautelook is more of a casual-lifestyle brand,compared to the east-coast players in the space who are much more New York based and east-coastcentric so we have more of an inviting atmosphere of inclusiveness rather than exclusiveness and we wanna make sure that our membership continues to grow with that feeling of being a member is open as an invitation to all people no matter who they are, where they are, at what social bracket they’re in, what ethnicity they are, the gender…Now we have mens. So our focus is to differentiate by being inclusive rather than exclusive  and we are letting brands know that we’re reaching a huge customer base of customers that wanna know more about what’s going on w/style as opposed to us dictating what we think style is.

LAFS (on behalf of Crosby Noricks-PR Couture): Why should a designer consider a sale through a company like Hautelook? Any success stories to share?

AB: When we first started the site, it was an exhaust vehicle for brands to be able to clear their inventory. What we quickly realized was that this was a incredible marketing vehicle for brands to be able to reach our close to three million customers on a regular basis. Seventy-five percent of our member sales , when they buy something from the sale from the brand, they go to that brand’s website . Fifty percent of the people that buy something from one of our sales they go and go buy and purchased that brand post the sale at either brick-and-mortar or online store and twenty percent said they bought an item from that brand post the sale at full price. So we’re getting brands a new member into their the brand culture and this is the real exciting part of what’s happening in the flash sales base that is not just a exhaust vehicle, but it’s a marketing vehicle.

LAFS (on behalf of Crosby Noricks-PR Couture): How does Hautelook promote itself off-domain?

AB: We have been fortunate enough to have our community of members basically build our business. The bloggersphere has really retold our story, brought sixty percent of our members into our membership base into our database and it’s been really a fantastic word of mouth growth . Plain and simple, it’s one of those phenomenons where people like to talk about it. It’s one of those things, people like to hear about it, it’s great, they like to share. Like the proliferation of the social web , people like to share what they’re doing more so then ever. So as they continue to share (girls love to share about their shopping experience) so we are continuing to escalate our ability to allow them to share information. And you’ll see something coming out in our iphone and ipad apps in the next couple months.

LAFS (on behalf of Crosby Noricks-PR Couture): What excites you about coming to work each day?

AB: I think it’s the atmosphere and the people here.We’re doing so many new things every day it’s a undiscovered territory where our business is there’s no road map in doing what we’re doing. It’s the discovery similar to every night we re-merchandise our store so every morning there’s new discovery for our members and it’s similar for me when I come to the office . There’s new challenges every day, there’s new exciting frontiers , new problems, there’s always something new for us to focus on. This is a very young atmosphere here, the employees are all very young and it’s exciting to see how everybody’s just working towards the same goal and it’s a very pleasurable place to work.

LAFS (on behalf of Crosby Noricks-PR Couture): What are three things you wish you had known before you launched Hautelook?

AB: I think not knowing sometimes allows you not to have fear. There’s a lot of things that if I knew it, I probably wouldn’t have been able to build this business as big as it is. The three things I wish I didn’t know, I still wish I didn’t know. So I know now what I knew then, I probably wouldn’t have started this business. My advice would be: don’t worry about you don’t know, learn what you don’t know and don’t be afraid. You have to just go with your intuition some of this obviously when your building a business from scratch it’s all about that feeling that you’re gonna have to make a decision and once you make a decision you’re  have to stick with it. You have to be big enough to admit you’re wrong. At some point, when you know something’s not going your way you have to cut bait and move on.

LAFS (on behalf of Rebekka Lien): What is your life goal?

AB: I enjoy life. So I live as hard as I work and my goal is to experience life as it comes to me. I want to see the world. I love travel. I love that we (here at Hautelook) put a stamp on a new form of doing something, which is the new form of retail. So for us to have a lasting impression on the mindset and way in which people shop, that’s really exciting  for me.

LAFS (on behalf of Emma Zerner-model/singer/actress): How do you always look and feel “haute” and meanwhile retain your sense of self?

AB: Hautelook doesn’t define me. It’s a company that we have all built together so I am still me and I think part of our ability to build this business was my relationships out there in the marketplace and I think it’s you need to be true to who you are -always . People who change over time, I guarantee you, people from grade school will say I’m the same guy I was then , nothing has changed about me, I do exactly the same things I was doing before . Like everybody else, I eat, I sleep, I breathe, I exercise. I have the ability to meet with people that because of this business allow me to continue to collect deeper levels of information because we have garnered a status here at Hautelook of a “frontier blazer,” and so that’s exciting for me . I now am able to spend time with individuals that  are leaders of business to completely understand how we can develop our business.

LAFS (on behalf of Jane Chen): What are your favorite stores or places that you go to that always has that something special for everyone?

AB: I’m very particular with my gift-giving. There isn’t one particular store where I shop. When I buy gifts , I really think about what that person’s likes are and anytime people ask me what I should get them I say what do they do? What are they into?What are their hobbies and passions? Mine are pretty evident, you see around the office, I have modern architecture books, art books, calenders by famous artists… So for me, I’m pretty transparent. Art, architecture and travel are my passions so when people buy me things, they know and so when I say to my friends and when I go to buy gifts for people, I really focus on who they are and what they like rather then the stores i find appealing to me because I’m buying something for someone else.

LAFS: In closing, what advice would you give to young entrepreneurs wanting to start their business, and in this shaky economy?

AB: This is the best time to start a business. It’s all about change right now. It’s all about evolution. People are looking for different ways to do pretty much everything. So I believe this is the one of the most opportunistic times we’ll have in our lifetime. The economy has turned in a way where there’s a lot of great talent out there on the streets of if you’re able to start a business and get some great people, whatever you do, do it with conviction. If you believe in it, you gotta go for it, that ‘s the number one thing.  I think being an entrepreneur is one of the most exciting things you can ever do. but what you need to understand when you’re an entrepreneur is the highs are very high and the lows are very low. so you better be thick skinned if you’re gonna start a business. You gotta be able to ride the wave and be able to understand that there’s gonna be good days and there’s gonna be bad days. If you just go to work somewhere and you’re just getting a check every week, yes that could be fulfilling, but if you’re going to go the route of an entrepreneur, you have to have that mindset of when it’s going great, that’s when you need to worry, because it can turn in a second. and so you need to be able to ride the highs and ride the lows and keep a calm, cool and collected head.

NOTE: Many thanks to Executive Assistant Christine Elmassian for helping to set up the interview, to Adam and to Kate Petreccia of Paqit for providing five boxes of Paqit for my five fans that provided me with questions. And the lovely people who provided me with questions: Crosby Noricks, Rebekka Lien, Jane Chen and Emma Zerner!!

**You can sign up to become a member of Hautelook on my blog. Thanks!**

**Photo of Adam provided by Hautelook….. 2nd photo is of the Legendary Green Chair (taken by me)**

Designer- Elene Cassis

I had the chance to sit down with and view the Fall/Winter 2010 of New York designer Elene Cassis. Elene is a graduate of Parsons and felt very prepared and driven to start her company right after. This June will mark the one-year anniversary of the start of her company. She defines her style, inspired by Chanel and Ralph Lauren, as “classic beyond belief with a modern twist.” Her clothes have a general color palette of black and white and have a European meets Jackie-O meets London feel. She uses natural fabrics and all the pieces are lined with silk. She is extremely detail-oriented in that she checks the quality of every piece before it goes out to boutiques. Her pieces have been seen on Booker T. Washington’s daughter, the Shannon twins, Stephanie Pratt, and the ‘Linda’ dress has recently been worn on Cheryl Burke.

The classic silhouette was evident in the collection I viewed. The dresses are very versatile in that they could be worn during the day and then jazzed up a bit to wear out on the town in the evening. They are also structured to fit curvier women as well. Elene believes that “everyone should feel special and wear designer clothes.” Prices range from $300-400 and are available in boutiques around the country (one being Petro Zillia here in LA). Her NY showroom is located at 252 W. 38th St. (between 7th & 8th Aves.) and her office number is (212)784-0696 and fax is (212)784-0699. Check out for online shopping and more information.

Special thanks to the designer, Elene Cassis and Carla Bate of Spin Shoppe PR!

Copyright © 2013. Created by Meks. Powered by WordPress.