Posted on June 28, 2011 by Samara
Melani Robinson is a Manhattan based writer whose work has appeared in The Moscow Times, The St. Petersburg Times, and NBC’s Petside. This essay is pulled from her recently completed but yet unpublished memoir. Robinson has actually seen Daniel Jones live and in person and although she wanted to loathe him–he’d just rejected, Dressing for Neal, she found Mr. Jones to be extremely likeable. He’s recently rejected a second essay and she is currently reconsidering her position.
Dressing For Neal
I glanced at my size-6 black Valentino suit hanging on the door and smiled a little as I recalled the debate we’d had before I bought it.
“You’ll wear it over and over so stop worrying about the cost,” Neal said. I suggested we wait for a sale.
“Anything on sale is a mistake or it would’ve sold at full price.”
Neal said that a lot. Then he’d added that no designer could make a woman feel more beautiful than Valentino Garavani. He should know. Fashion was his life.
Now, a widow at 45, I was dressing without Neal, determined to look presentable for him at his funeral. Presentable was the most I could muster. I had slept on a cot next to my 54-year-old husband during his last ten days in the hospital. Even sick with esophageal cancer that had spread to his liver, lungs and bone, he still insisted I fill out a comment card concerning the fabric and design of the hospital gowns. “There is no excuse for bad garments—ever,” he said rubbing the cloth between his index finger and thumb.
We met in 2002 at the Hyatt Regency Airport Hotel in Pittsburgh. We were both there on business. He was sitting at the bar, wearing a dark-blue linen Loro Piana dress shirt, jeans and tan colored Tod’s driving loafers. Movie star handsome, he was the most elegant man I’d ever seen. I was wearing stretched-out beige Gap capri pants, a wrinkled green T-shirt that I’d slept in the night before and flip-flops. We made eye contact and I felt a jolt of recognition although I had never seen him before.
We talked through that night and into the morning. He told me that he worked in Manhattan for most of his 32-year career in fashion. Although American, he had recently moved to Toronto and was running the Canadian division of a U.S. clothing retailer.
“I run Canada,” he said, as if he were Prime Minister.
I apologized for the way I was dressed; I wasn’t expecting to meet him. He said he hadn’t noticed the clothes—rare for him—he was trying to figure out why I looked so familiar as I confidently walked his way. At the time, I lived in Las Vegas and worked as a corporate trainer for a small hotel. He said he hated Sin City.
“Who designs those casino uniforms—Betsey Johnson?” he quipped.
I shared that I was divorced and had two teenaged daughters. I explained how the girls and I were a team. He smiled and asked if there was room for anyone else in my life. I assured him there was plenty.
By the second drink I had described our drooling English bulldog, elderly black pug, and overly vocal male cat. He said he wasn’t a fan of animals. He had grown up watching his parents struggle to feed the family, pets were not a luxury they could afford. He slipped in that there was nothing worse than dog hair and black clothing. He told me he was 49-years-old, then described his own teenaged son and daughter. The fashion industry was an escape from his unsuccessful marriage. His children suffered because of it.
I barely made my flight. Neal missed his. Once home I told my friends and family I’d met the one. I was a 40-year-old 5’6” blonde haired not the size-2 I used to be, single mom from the West Coast who had dated her share of losers, but found her storybook ending in a bar in Pittsburgh.
Neal was a collector who wore his art. He never purchased clothes the first time he saw them. He contemplated every piece, returning to the store several times until finally he would try it on. It drove me crazy. Usually he wouldn’t buy it, but if he found something he liked, cost was never a consideration. The price tag was the last thing he checked. Each garment in his extensive wardrobe was a masterpiece, some were over 20 years old but still worn regularly. In Neal’s collection you would never see the artist’s signature. He abhorred any visible designer logos.
Always proud of the way I dressed, my style had monetary limits. I was on a daughter's-softball-cleats-come-first clothing budget. I bought a small amount of quality classic pieces at the end of the season, deeply discounted. I would peruse Vogue to see the current trends and add a few inexpensive copies to spice up my boring but sensible wardrobe. I could pay a year of utilities with this, I thought, looking at the price tag of a $2000 Carolina Herrera dress I craved but quickly put back on the rack. Someday I'd get the Chloe jeans that made your backside irresistible but not while I had kids at home. Though I did have a weakness I indulged—I loved leopard print. I was born in Las Vegas–it was in my DNA.
“Nothing good has ever come from wearing leopard,” said Neal the first time he saw the Roberto Cavalli silk blouse I adored, (75% off, Last Call, Neiman Marcus). What a find that was. Strange how that blouse mysteriously disappeared from my closet shortly after he spied it.
Shopping with Neal was an experience—like watching a ballet. He quickly flipped through the racks until he found a piece that caught his attention. Removing the hanger from the rack he would gently shake it to see how the fabric moved and then closely inspect the entire garment for details such as buttons and stitching.
“This is made for you. Try it on,” he said, handing me a simple yet elegant Pink Tartan blouse I would have never chosen.
“I can’t believe my luck, a guy who knows more about women’s clothing than me.” I said to him on our first shopping expedition.
“Of course I know more. It’s what I do.”
My hunky boyfriend also turned out to be my gay best friend with fashion flair. When I shared that with him, he thanked me and said, “Gay men are clean, well-dressed, have impeccable taste and smell good. If it weren’t for the sex, I could be gay.”
Once, while shopping at Holt Renfrew, the Saks of Canada, I had my back to Neal looking at a row of clothes. I thought I heard him call my nickname.
“What?” I said as I turned to face him.
“I didn’t say anything.”
“You said Mel.”
“I didn’t say Mel, I thought Mel.”
We married on Christmas Eve 2005 in a small chapel on Las Vegas Boulevard. Neal wasn’t thrilled with the location—exchanging vows on the Strip wasn’t the most dignified setting—but he softened when I told him that style icons, Cindy Crawford and Richard Gere, were married at the same place. The date was chosen to guarantee we would always be together on our anniversary. Surely even Karl Lagerfeld was home early on Christmas Eve?
“Great dress,” he said, reaching for the neckline of the capped-sleeved ivory lace sheath I was wearing. “Oscar de la Renta. I cut the label out, it was itching.” He would have fainted had he known it was a knockoff.
Neal studied the clothes people wore as they passed on the street. “Leather pants, on a middle-aged man? What was he thinking?” He looked aghast at such a tragic mistake. “Hello David, you’re looking sharp. New clothes?” he asked a homeless guy who hung out in his trendy Yorkville neighborhood.
“Thanks for noticing Neal,” David said, a bit prideful, as he shook Neal’s hand and took the bills Neal always kept in his front pocket for the homeless.
The worst thing I ever heard him say about anyone was, “She has no style.”
Neal’s last request was that I give a party so we could laugh, share stories and toast him.
I held the soiree a month after the funeral at a restaurant in Toronto we frequented. Confident Neal would have loved it, I wore a pewter-colored silk Armani bolero jacket and pant, paired with a pale pink Akris knit top. I paid retail and didn’t flinch at the price, an obvious indicator I was in shock. I asked the guests to add a touch of pink to their attire. It was a color he wore often. Everyone received a photo of Neal in a silver frame engraved simply with his first name. I had pale pink, drawstring, flannel bags made to hold the frames. A smaller version of the shoe bags he coveted. “Nice touch,” I could hear him say.
I couldn’t stand to move his clothes so they remained exactly as he’d left them in our closet. One year after his death, I purchased a wooden trunk and finally decided I would keep only the mementos that fit inside and give the rest away. I filled it with the stuff of our relationship: the clothes we had on the day we met, his worn Bottega Veneta, leather briefcase containing several small Moleskin notebooks—filled with his precise Catholic school penmanship. A metal shoehorn he once misplaced and was certain had been stolen. “A great shoehorn is priceless,” he said when I told him that was a ridiculous conclusion. All of the photos of us, my wedding dress, his bathrobe—unwashed and balled up to keep his scent still clinging to the neckline inside.
“I’ve kept only what fits inside the chest,” I told my friends. “I’ve given the rest away.”
Except for: seventy-three dress shirts: twenty-nine white, fifteen pink, seven lavender and nineteen more in a variety of colors and stripes. Forty-two pair of pants, eight gray, seven brown, six black, four navy, and seventeen pair of jeans. Eleven suits: four navy, three gray, two black, one brown and a tuxedo. Forty-four sweaters: twenty-three cashmere (heavy gage), eleven wool, and ten cotton. Forty-two coats: twenty-one sport coats, nineteen jackets, and two cashmere topcoats. Twenty-four pair of shoes: six cordovan dress, two black dress, twelve loafers, four pair of leather water-resistant, patent leather tuxedo slippers, and a pair of cowboy boots.
Neal’s Opus was moved from his closet to twenty large plastic bins stacked in the garage. The soles shined on the Lucchese cowboy boots he’d wanted but never worn—a gift from me. As he unwrapped them I shared that Ralph Lauren had worn boots with a tuxedo.
“He did?” He said in mock surprise. I’d forgotten, he had told me that.
While spring-cleaning my house two years after his death I decided it was time.
Borrowing a truck, I took the bins from the garage to his son’s apartment. I tried not to think about what would happen to the clothes that didn’t fit. Before I made the delivery I retrieved his favorite navy-blue cashmere Ermenegildo Zegna topcoat out of a container and put it on a wooden hanger in the coat closet. It was worth the ache to see it hanging there again, where two years later, it still remains.
I remembered what he had said with authority, “A navy topcoat is much more stylish than black.”