One of industry’s busiest multi-taskers, Patricia Field has gained worldwide fame as a cutting-edge retailer, ready-to-wear designer, stylist/costume designer, and trendsetter during her more than 40 years in the fashion business. Field, a native New Yorker, cut her retail teeth after graduating from college and working at department stores. In 1966, she opened her first eponymous boutique in Greenwich Village — a store that eventually became known for its funky mix of wild, directional fashion and clubwear for the downtown set. Thirty years later, she added Hotel Venus in SoHo, a store that originally specialized in Japanese imports. (Her namesake Village store was shuttered in 2002.) In April, Field relocated her store from SoHo to bigger digs on the much hipper Bowery — and celebrated her 40th anniversary as a retailer in the process. Field also heads a signature line, House of Field, designed by David Dalrymple, and has recently collaborated on special lines for Candie’s and Rocawear. She also contributes to the Japanese line Smacky Glam. Today, though, Field is best known for her talent as a stylist for the TV and movies — especially for her legendary work as costume designer for “Sex and the City.” Her costumes for the big-screen adaptation of “The Devil Wears Prada,” starring Meryl Streep and Anne Hathaway, will undoubtedly also generate a lot of buzz when that film opens later this year.
NOTE: Quotations taken from this interview appear on the "Last Words" page of Sportswear International issue #205, on sale now.

Of the different career “hats” that you wear — retailer, stylist, costume designer, etc. — which do you enjoy the most?

Well, you know, thankfully I enjoy them all but enjoy them for different reasons. I mean, I love my store for many reasons: it is ultimately my store, my name on the street, my world. And I also love it because I believe there is a certain truth in retail that is nowhere else in our business and that truth is that simply the consumer comes in and she either buys it or she doesn’t buy it. There’s no political correctness and I like that about retail because I am always a speaker of the truth and when the truth is right in my face it’s the best thing. But I also like retail because I love to be with my customers because they are buying and using my products and you know it’s that very – I would almost call it an intimate relationship — with them that I enjoy. And you learn so much from them because they tell you what they think and there’s really nothing in between so it’s sort of what I call firsthand information. So I love all that about retail. But on the other hand, I love the styling for the movies and the TV because you just meet so many interesting people and I think that’s one of the best parts of it. I’ve worked with so many great people and these people don’t attain their places in their professions if they’re not special in some way. So that part of it is really great meeting and working with people like that whether it’s a Meryl Streep or a Sarah Jessica Parker. It’s a real perk, I think.
As far as the styling is concerned, I’ve always thought of it as, I don’t know, I would call it like a cherry on the cake because of having been in retail for 20 years before I started styling. You know, when I started doing my first movie I was so shocked and surprised and the kind of money that they were willing to pay me to do what I do normally with my customers so I’ve always been very humble to that. I always feel that the media field is such a successful field and profitable field and that the whole financial end of it is so much healthier. I always remember that because I came from a much harder-to-make-a-living business than that. So I am just glad that I have the opportunity to do so many different things.

What’s your secret to balancing all of that?

Well, you know, it took a lot of time. When I first started styling it was with movies and TV, and so you’re away. I found myself away from my business for long chunks of time and through the years I’ve come back to my business to find a condition like “Oh my God, I’m bankrupt!” or something like that and it’s a process of fine-tuning it and making it work because up until that time I was always in my business and then I became absent for chunks of time. So until I could get that stabilized it took a while — I’d say about ten years — but in the meantime it’s like you have to move on and go on and try new things and make new things work. Otherwise you sit there and you just get stale out of repetition. I remember when I first started styling and I would be away and then I’d come back to my store. I came back and I felt very refreshed — the break, the change, it was good for me and ultimately good for my business because I was recharged.

What do you think are some of the secrets that every person who works in retail needs to know?

Well, I think that the main thing in retailing is honesty because you build a clientele and the way you build a clientele is by serving them in an honest way and by offering something that they’re going to take home with them and that they’re going to enjoy. Then they will come back. Whatever that means “enjoy” — whether it means that it looks good on them, they get compliments, they feel good, they get use out of it — I think that’s very important in retail. And that’s on the customer’s side.
I also think what’s very important in retail is a balance between the creative and the practical, or the business end of it. Because ultimately you have to have a business that supports itself in order to be able to be there. I’m always aware of that balance and I push it to the most creative level possible but still, at the end of the day, there has to be a bottom line. But you can’t just think of bottom line because then it’s the opposite — you get kind of boring and then you’re not really standing out with any form of signature of your own. And then you just blend into the world of retail which today is very difficult for a small retailer because of all these mega-retailers. And I think the only way for a small retailer is that they have to at some point establish a signature which they’re known for, which people identify them with. That is how they become a destination. And that takes time. I know in my store — I opened up my store in ’66 and I would say by the late ’70s I really started to form a signature and identification that people recognized. It’s a process. It’s not like you go into business and — boom — you have this idea and then all of a sudden it’s a success and everybody knows you. So you have to really love what you do because I believe it takes time and if you don’t really love it you’re going to give up because the money comes but that takes time, too. Intrinsically you have to love what you do — that’s what keeps you there to finally attain something.

When did you first realize that you loved fashion?

I don’t really know. I mean, I always I guess had my own personal style as a young person but when I went to school I studied liberal arts. I studied languages and philosophy; I was going for an education more than I was going for a career education. When I got out of school I knew ultimately that I wanted to be in my own business and I chose to go to work for a department store as a kind of college graduate kind of level entry because I thought: This is easy; I could do this. I wanted to be able to do something that came easy for me because then I could do it and be a success at it. So that’s what I did and I went to work for bigger companies and I learned sort of the ins and outs of the fashion retail business and then after three years I opened up my own shop. So I can’t really say I had this calling that I knew inside of me that it was it. It kind of came from a logical point of view: I want to be in my own business, I want to be independent so what could I do that’s going to work for me that I like and is easy and is doable? And that’s what it was: fashion.

You’ve moved your store to a new location on the Bowery. What are your thoughts on the current retail scene in Manhattan?

The current retail scene in New York, I think, is reflective of the current retail scene all over. It’s just become global. Of course New York was the last holdout and more and more it’s conforming, especially the fact of New York being so high priced real estate. That also plays a big part in the retail picture, which is also of the global nature. But I think still in New York — and I’m happy to say this because at one point I was thinking oh, I don’t know — there’s still a chance for somebody young and independent and a start-up company to take hold. It’s just a little harder because of all those other situations. But you see it in retail in New York. You see places like Lower East Side and Nolita and Williamsburg; there are still ways to lead yourself even though it’s much more difficult because of the competition. Ultimately you do have to offer something that’s special. And when I say something special of course it could be something special as far as design or merchandise. Maybe it’s something special as far as atmosphere or the way you present yourself even as a person to your customers. There’s got to be some little things that are going to help take root of a young start-up business.
So the current retail scene is definitely global, which becomes more and more generic and which becomes less and less interesting from a New York point of view as far as I’m concerned because if you go to a store in New York or you go to Las Vegas or you go to Los Angeles or you go to Miami, it’s the same merchandise in the same chain stores whether the chain stores are Gucci or the chain stores are Zara. But, on the other hand, I’m into the chain stores like Zara and so on because I think that it’s much more democratic: normal people can buy great looking clothes up to the minute without having to take out a mortgage. And I think that’s healthy.
And as far as the current scene in New York in general, I’m feeling a little pick-up I’m happy to say. I think that during the ’90s it all kind of went away — the social scene, the club scene, the art scene… You know, the cultural scene. It also became corporate and I found myself going out less and less and all my friends as well because you go to places and it’s not your kind of place. You don’t really belong there and it’s kind of generic and you’re not relating and having as much fun. But these little places are starting to come back again so I’m happy when it’s about clubs or little galleries or little shops. I’m feeling a little comeback and I’m happy about that.

You’ve collaborated on special lines with Candie’s and Rocawear. How were those experiences for you and how does your creative approach differ when you work on a collaborative effort vs. alone?

It worked out in various ways. Certain situations worked out very well and other situations didn’t work out as well. For example, when I collaborated with Candie’s it worked out well from the standpoint of the pr and the press and so on. That was all fine. Candie’s is a company that has licenses for all their products so there’s a bag licensee, there’s a shoe licensee, there’s a sunglass licensee… they have about 15 different licensees. We designed a line of shoes and we designed a line of bags for our first collaboration. The bag collaboration — the company who holds the license is called LaRue — worked out really well. The product came through, the product was sold, the product reordered. It was really good.
The shoe situation on the other hand didn’t work out as well because I believe that the company, which was Steve Madden who holds the license, they just did not get behind it. They had their own internal problems and it kind of went down the drain in a way because they didn’t really make, produce or sell it. People were trying to buy it and could never get a hold of them. You know, they weren’t behind it.
But what happened with the bags was that my contract with Candie’s was just for a season because I try to do that when start to collaborate with somebody because I don’t know what we’re getting into and I feel like well, let’s get engaged before we get married. So my contract with Candie’s was up but my experience with La Rue was very good and they were very interested in continuing with me and we are still working with them — directly.
The Rocawear situation? The desire was very strong between Damon Dash and I but in the end there were internal problems with the company and there were changes that were going on internally inside of Rocawear and that affected, I think, the performance and the production and the sales of the collection. I mean, you can’t fault people for things that go on but I really think this idea of getting engaged before you get married is good because you never know what’s going to happen and then all of a sudden you’re like locked into a situation with a nonperforming company but then you’re sort of handcuffed.

And then you can always give back the ring….

Exactly! You can always give back the ring. But the second part of the question about how I approached it or if I approached it differently with a company like that? Well, I do, because coming from retail — and before my store I worked for a big chain store and big volume companies — I understand retail at many levels, and I probably understand mass retail even better than I do luxury retail. So our process with them is that we started from our retail base with our most successful styles, for example, or trends, and from that base we developed the product for the company, for the Candie’s or the Rocawear or the whatever, on a more accessible basis. Not watered down to nothing, still having the signature, but because we could work with companies that could produce volume we were able to make it more accessible — which is very important to me, accessibility. Even in my little business I’m very strong about keeping the prices accessible because I believe in serving the world, not just the 1% of the people who have money to blow on anything. So basically we approached it by keeping the signature there and then what would happen is when our partners would take their moment, they would reflect and react on their customers since they know what their customers are looking for historically. Like they might something like, “Well, Macy’s is interested but they want this sort of thing in a group. They need more expansion on the patent leather line.” So it was collaboration of the needs of the producer-seller and us, which was fine with me. I’m not the kind of designer that’s like, “Oh, no, you cannot touch my design.” I’m like, “Fix it how you need to fix it.” I mean, in the end it’s about making things that people want.
So I’m not saying that the styles got watered down but they maybe got adjusted here and there to conform to the needs of what these companies thought was wanted. And that’s about the difference, but I think that the product still always retained our signature. I loved the idea of working with Rocawear because I thought that Rocawear had all that capacity to produce and sell and they had their name but what they didn’t have was that sexy female edge at that time, and I thought that we would good ingredient for them. And we would have but the company internally was going through so many changes that, well, whatever…. But I would work with them again if they got themselves into that same mood and wanted to go in that direction. I would be happy to work with them.
We also work with a big Japanese client. It’s called Smacky Glam. It’s a big company and about two years ago they created their own brand. So we do the creative direction for the brand. We send them trend reports quarterly and then I do all their advertising campaigns: the concepts, the realization and whatever. So we’re very closely connected with them and I do press with them. So that’s yet another collaboration. I don’t really design their line but I kind of do the creative direction of it, so that’s like another sort of outlet for this fashion-crazy person. And my people in my store, they help me on that. Whenever it comes to designing fashion directions, they’re sort of my team for that. And when I do styling, David Dalrymple and Molly Rogers are my styling team. So you have to have little teams all over the place.

Your work on “Sex and the City” spawned so many style trends. When did you first realize its power and were you surprised by it?

I was surprised by the success. I never really experience such a mega-hit before. It was the second season that the thing just blew right open and we were sitting there astounded like “Oh, my God. This thing is like crazy.” That show it permeated the whole world. It was practically in every country. Maybe it wasn’t in the deepest part of Africa or something but it was everywhere — everywhere — to a point that wherever you go they know you because of the TV. I always personally loved TV when I started working with TV because I realized that I loved the sort of democracy of TV and the potential power of TV because it’s so worldwide and it’s so accessible.
I think one of the most important things about “Sex and the City,” and a few other shows, is that it really elevated to the consciousness the power of TV. I don’t think Hollywood pooh-poohs TV anymore. I notice, for example, that there are some new pilots going on now and I’m involved in one of them, and there are a few others, and all these feature people, whether they’re directors or actors, they’re all getting into TV now. I always loved TV. I loved it because it could reach everybody. It has the potential — and “Sex and the City” totally proved that. So it was a great experience. What can you say? When you’re in something that becomes a fantastic success it’s fantastic, it’s happy, it’s great.
As far as the fashion is concerned, I think looking back it was nothing planned or orchestrated. But because it happened and I sort of got away with it and it all worked out, it just freed women to dress more creatively and more freely — show their arms, wear low-cut things, be stronger about their femaleness. When we first started I remember it was like, “Ok, she works in an office so she’d wear a suit that looks like a man’s suit but it has a skirt or could have a pant.” I think “Sex and the City” kind of fractured that whole thing, which I’m happy for because I want women to feel their power. I’ve always been that way and something like “Sex and the City,” as powerful as it became, it was a great vehicle for that so I was very satisfied on that level.

What do you consider your greatest achievement in your career or life?

I consider my greatest achievement the fact that I inspire the youth. That is my greatest achievement; that is my happiest achievement. And I feel that I do because they tell it all the time. Young people that I don’t know come up to me on the street and they say, “You know, because of you I decided to start a career in fashion” or “I decided to make this thing happen” or “I saw you and I was so inspired to do this.” To me, that’s the greatest achievement.

What would you still like to accomplish?

I guess having new experiences and moving on and doing new things. I want to grow. Not that I want to abdicate anything I’ve done but I want to do more things. I don’t know where. Who knows? Whether it’s direct a film or whatever’s going to get my juices flowing and make me want to get up every morning and stay vital.

Who or what has been your greatest inspiration during your career?

There are several, but at the base of my inspiration I would have to say are my grandmother and my mother. They inspired me in different ways. My grandmother inspired me in two very important ways. Number one, she taught me the meaning of love. She taught me how to love and be loved. Number two, she taught me the value of education, information, dignity. She taught me many things, many positive things [like] being very proud of who I am and where I come from. And I think those things are important for everyone to have a good and positive outlook in their life.
And my mom inspired me. The most ways that she inspired me was that she, in her in inadvertent way, taught me to be independent and strong because she was. So she was a role model. Not that she lectured me on anything — she never did — but just watching her as I grew up, her being the role model. What do they say? The seed doesn’t fall too far from the tree.

How would you define the phrase “well dressed”?

There are different factors. “Well dressed” would be, for example, individual, interesting style. That’s a little more abstract, but then more particular, “well dressed” is wearing clothing that fits you. And when I say “individual, interesting style,” I mean something creative, something personal that comes out in the way you present yourself. It doesn’t mean this label or that label.

What places in the world do you love or find inspiring?

Just in general traveling is inspiring because it’s so educational but in particular I’m very attached to Athens, Greece. And the rest of Greece but I really do enjoy Athens on a personal basis because — well of course I’m Greek and because it’s easy — and because it’s kind of a city that has not been over-touristed. Being a little foreign, people tend to love to go to the islands because it’s the sea and the beaches and it’s easier to wrap your brain around. As a result, Athens is kind of overlooked and as a result of that, it’s kind of an insider city. It has its own special style that is not an international style so much — that style is just much more laid-back and free. People go out at night, they enjoy and the stress level isn’t there at all.
I enjoy going there because I love to go out at night and the music is live. Greece is a country of 12 million people so all the top musicians that are playing in clubs can make a living. Of course, they have discos and that but the Greek style is that you go into a club, there’s a band, there’s like 10 pieces of live instruments and singers and the people love their entertainers, they buy flowers, they throw flowers…. People have fun. So that’s one of my special places.

Let’s talk about the new store.

I’m kind of excited to move onto the Bowery. My long-term customers are all very happy because for some reason they see me as like a downtown East Side person. For some reason I guess they saw my stay in SoHo — which was very successful for me and I’m very happy I did it — as me being out of my element, so to speak. I’m happy to go there because at this point the area is growing so I feel very confident about that and I feel that I can be freer there.
But at the same time, whatever has developed in my store and my career, that’s all an ingredient that when I move to the East Side I bring with me so I think that my new store is going to be very funky but at the same time very evolved. And that’s exciting. The layers are all there of this career of this store or this time of this store from ’66 to now, and some of the layers are actual some of the physical layers that we’ve retained like the Hotel Venus sign or some of my paintings by Keith Haring or whoever. It’s just like a very pentimento kind of situation and it’s exciting because when you walk in it’s Patricia Field and it’s funky or whatever but it’s still got that history and that gorgeous eye candy. So I’m excited by it.