Programming note: For more on fashion and culture, watch the premiere of “American Style” on Sunday, January 13 at 9 p.m. ET.
“At this point, we’re in the gutter. We’re mainly in jogging clothes – either sweats if you’re sloppy, or the Lulalula-whatever that is. But we keep it so simple. We show up at the opera in f*cking flip flops!”
Tziporah Salamon, the 67-year-old fashion consultant and one of the stars of the 2014 “Advanced Style” documentary, is mad. The Met Gala had occurred earlier in the week, and Salamon was borderline offended by the outfits she saw documented on the red carpet.
“One of the rules of dressing is that wherever you go, you have respect to the occasion. So when you go on a job interview, you’re dressing for it. When you’re at graduation, you’re dressing for it. When you go to church or temple, you’re dressing for it. And Monday night, we’re honoring Rei Kawakubo. There’s not one designer whose arc is as wide as hers, so surely you or your stylist could have found something from her body of work to put on. Instead it was strapless, strapless, strapless, and it’s boring!”
Inside the apartment of New York's most eccentric dresser
We’re in Salamon’s sumptuous red living room, where prints of Matisse paintings line the wall and trinkets cover almost every available surface, very much resembling the late Vogue editor Diana Vreeland’s “garden in hell.” Her entire kitchen, which features paper cut-out monarch butterflies attached to the ceiling, is approximately the size of a twin bed.
Salamon has lived in this one-bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side since 1982. She flits around the room, opening her treasure chests to reveal precious robes, showing me family portraits, and occasionally, knocking a jewelry stand off her art deco dressing table with her ferocious energy.
Salamon was hardly the only one decrying the banality of the celebrity gowns worn at the Met Gala, but its easy to see why she’s more riled than most: Dressing for the occasion is the single most important element of Salamon’s day-to-day life.
“This takes a lot of my time,” she says, motioning towards her elaborate outfit consisting of loose-fitting pants tied up with a sash and a Chinese robe. She has been teaching seminars on the art of dressing since 2000, and now, her first book of the same name is out with Rizzoli.
Salomon’s own style is an Orientalist explosion of silk trouser pants paired with Chinese robes. She often wears capes paired with elaborate neckwear, and the rule is always more is more.
“As more money comes in, there will be more jewels,” she laughs.
Playing a vivid game up of dress up for an audience of one – me – Salamon wears a base layer of leggings and a ballet pink long sleeve undershirt as she tries on multiple pairs of pants, adding and subtracting different sashes, layering robes on top of robes, and finishing each look with a hat.
“They’re the exclamation point,” she says.
When I ask why so many people are afraid to wear hats, she replies, “I think maybe too much attention. We feel safer doing what everyone else does.”
A naturally theatrical woman, she recounts the story of her life from the beginning. The daughter of Hungarian Holocaust survivors, with whom she moved from Israel to Brooklyn, she spent her 20s in academia, earning a master’s degree in education. She then became a high school teacher, working part-time towards a PhD in psychology in Berkeley, California.
After her mother died in 1981, Salomon dropped out of her PhD program, moved back to New York and started working retail so she could truly immerse herself in her passion for clothes. She supported herself working at vintage boutiques, department stores and antique-y restaurants.
Salamon’s mid-life eureka moment happened when she was 49, attending a Jewish spiritual camp in Woodstock, New York. During temple, the rabbi asked for a volunteer to come up and dress the torah.
“That sounded fabulous to me, so I raised my hand,” she says.
When Salamon rose to take her place, the rabbi whispered, “Yes, I noticed you were a good dresser.”
From there on, Salamon realized that her unique style of dress could be her tikkun olam, the Jewish teaching of performing good deeds to better the world.
Salamon recalls being embarrassed by her interests as a child. She was always daydreaming up outfits up in her head and, afraid this marked her as different or a freak, she kept her interests hidden from view. When she began dressing for herself as an adult, her father was, she says, “horrified.”
Whenever Salamon would have lunch with him at the Bergdorf Goodman cafeteria, where he worked, he would tell her not to wear a hat because it embarrassed him. Inevitably people would come up and compliment Salamon’s outfit, but he remained unconvinced.
“No, they know you’re crazy and that’s why they’re coming up to you, to appease you,” she remembers him saying. “I understood it from his point of view, because as the daughter of Holocaust survivors, (I was) so sensitive to their pain. You don’t want to be a peacock in the camps because you’ll be the first to go. So lay low, fit in, and shuffle along.”
As Salamon grows older, she sees herself as taking on the role of teacher, leader, and, surprisingly, high priestess.
“I don’t want to be misunderstood about this or to sound as if I’m coming from an arrogant place, because this for me is such a humble realization,” she says.
In a world that seems to value constant, crushing ambition above all else, it’s refreshing to meet a person whose most important goal is to craft her identity through clothing, day after day.
As I leave her apartment – feeling woefully underdressed in black culottes, a shirt from Zara and leopard print sneakers – she hands me her business card, which is printed with a quote from Oscar Wilde: “One should either be a work of art or wear a work of art.”
Tziporah Salamon sees herself as a Matisse.
“It was Matisse that turned my eyes into diamonds,” she says.
“The Art of Dressing: Ageless, Timeless, Original Style” by Tziporah Salamon, published by Rizzoli, is out now.
Photography by Landon Nordeman