Purple Magazine
— The Essence of Fashion Issue #41 S/S 2024

amy fine collins

Portrait of Helena Rubinstein by Kurt Von Pantz Portrait of Amy Fine Collins by Iké Udé




photography by OLIVIER ZAHM


Amy Fine Collins, a New York fashion icon and journalist, champions a creative approach to style amid the tumult and superficiality of the fashion world. She heads the International Best-Dressed List, a renowned American institution celebrating the most stylish individuals.


OLIVIER ZAHM — As an American fashion journalist and fashion critic, you have experienced fashion for the past three decades. American fashion has a rich history. How would you define the difference between American and European fashion design? 

AMY FINE COLLINS — Are you speaking not just about today, but generally and historically?

OLIVIER ZAHM — Yes, since the 1970s.

AMY FINE COLLINS — The world did not start in the ’70s, contrary to many young people’s belief. [Laughs] You can trace the idea of America copying Europe back to the 17th, 18th, or 19th century. But it’s true, the references start with the ’70s nowadays.

OLIVIER ZAHM — We can’t remember the past.  [Laughs]

AMY FINE COLLINS — There’s nothing there. Just a void, a knowledge vacuum, no interest, apparently. America is a new country, and a lot of the traditional American designers did look to Europe or even worked there. Oscar de la Renta worked for Balmain. There was a thriving business going on for years and years, in which the couture houses made their most significant money not from selling to individual clients but from selling the rights to copy designs to manufacturers in America, which meant New York, generally.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Who did they sell the rights to?

AMY FINE COLLINS — To companies and manufacturers and department stores. So, there were legitimate copies made, kind of a precursor to licensing agreements. A garment would sometimes have the brand name and sometimes not. There was Dior’s America-specific label that read “Christian Dior–New York.” And there were places like the department store Ohrbach’s, which specialized in selling Paris copies. They had to pay a fortune for the rights to Paris dress patterns. That’s how high fashion in America existed. You can go back to the 19th century, with the traveling fashion dolls and the books and the magazines with fashion plates of the latest French styles. That was the way fashion generally trickled down from Paris and then circulated. The origin point was never New York. What eventually happened here, distinct from European fashion, was the whole idea of sportswear as fashion. This really took off during World War II, when there was no fashion news from Paris. We entered the war later, and we were not as harmed by it. We also didn’t have the same draconian rationing on fabrics, buttons, and other dressmaking materials that took place in Europe. So, these designers emerged almost entirely out of Lord & Taylor, a now extinct department store. It was a fresh American look, which was sporty, utilitarian, and ready to wear. Someone like Claire McCardell is a perfect example. She designed these really chic cotton playsuits and wrap dresses that could move into evening wear. You would see American fashion editors of that period, like Babs Simpson, wearing these clothes. In fact, that’s how my mother and my aunt dressed.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Was American fashion more about liberating the body?

AMY FINE COLLINS — Yes, in the summer they wore sandals that wrapped up the leg, often by Isadora Duncan’s brother Raymond. Or else ballet flats. There was something called the popover dress that easily buttoned on and off. And another designer, Bonnie Cashin, was known for having a truly American sensibility but would not be recognized as high fashion in Paris. These looks, mostly by women, would be hard to translate into a French or European idiom because it was about movement, about driving cars, about running around with your children or entertaining at home without a lot of staff. That started the whole American movement in fashion. Sportswear didn’t really mean athletic wear or athleisure like we have today. It was more about separates. 

OLIVIER ZAHM — But did the word “sportswear” exist at the time, or is it something that we read retrospectively? 

AMY FINE COLLINS — I believe the word emerged a little later.

ALEPH MOLINARI — It was a fashion that was more about comfort and mobility, about being able to work and be relaxed, which is still highly prevalent in American fashion today.

AMY FINE COLLINS — Very much so. I formulated this idea about the essential difference between French fashion and American fashion. French fashion, traditionally, has been about stasis, and American fashion has been about movement. This is where American fashion departs from French fashion. I’m speaking more historically right now, but it still permeates today.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Is American fashion more about everyday wear and workwear?

AMY FINE COLLINS — Yes, like what you wear to the office. I think of a woman like Jacqueline de Ribes, standing in a beautiful salon in Paris, dressed magnificently in Dior or Maggy Rouff. And it’s not about sudden movement or running, although Jacqueline herself was a great athlete. Then you had Calvin Klein, who picked up that sportswear idea of ease and casual elegance. So did Perry Ellis in the ’80s — in a somewhat preppie style. At the same time, there were designers doing more conventional and Parisian-inflected evening wear. Halston was quite original, actually. His colors, textiles, and cut were unlike anyone else’s.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Halston was an exception, for sure. He had this sense of glamor, color, and movement.

AMY FINE COLLINS — Yes. I mean, he was not a European designer. He couldn’t be more American. He came from the Midwest, but his patterns were almost like Japanese origami. They look really interesting when they’re laid out flat. It was almost like a conceptual, abstract, mathematical layout.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Like Kenzo.

AMY FINE COLLINS — Yes. A lot of the Japanese patterns are complex. Halston’s started with complexity but ended up looking so simple — fluid and definitely about movement… He achieved something very particular. And, of course, there was Geoffrey Beene, whose work really had nothing to do with European fashion at all. It was something that arose from his own imagination, erudition, and knowledge of the body. 

OLIVIER ZAHM — To come back to the ’80s and the ’90s, we’ve seen a lot of interesting designers emerge from New York. Isn’t it a bit disappointing that we don’t really see as many today? We’ve lost Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, and a lot of designers from the ’90s. Perry Ellis was important. There’s still Marc Jacobs, Zac Posen, Phillip Lim, and maybe a few others. But it’s a little pocket of designers, and if we compare it to the economic power of fashion in America, there’s an imbalance, don’t you think?

AMY FINE COLLINS — Oh, there’s a great disparity. I mean, Thom Browne is a very international brand right now, and he has changed fashion in terms of the proportions and the kind of suiting that men wear. The fact that men even wear suits and ties again — women, too — is because of him, and so is the gender fluidity of today’s clothes. He exists on an international platform — he shows in Paris, and he’s huge in Asia. But there aren’t these megalithic luxury conglomerates here. There are funds that invest in multiple fashion brands or buy up fashion brands. 

OLIVIER ZAHM — But in New York, there’s still real creativity. There are a lot of designers, a constant emergence, and even a sort of avant-garde underground fashion, but it doesn’t really transfer into a bigger business. At the same time, the American fashion market is one of the biggest and most important. Is it that the CFDA [Council of Fashion Designers of America] is not doing its work? Is there an institutional problem, or is there economic investment and the scale to hire younger designers?

AMY FINE COLLINS — The CFDA does have a fund for emerging designers, but that’s like Louis Vuitton’s contest. That alone doesn’t go far, and it can also make you fall far.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Because you’re suddenly under the spotlight?

AMY FINE COLLINS — Exactly. That happens a lot here. A few friends of mine won the young designer award from the CFDA in the ’90s, but they didn’t have a chance to build an infrastructure for their company, or they had shady investors. They became flashes in the pan, not by their own choice.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Like Zac Posen who was widely celebrated by the press.

AMY FINE COLLINS — Zac Posen had a huge flowering, and he’s still enormously respected and still working, but as a business, it hasn’t worked. Maybe American investors have never really understood how fashion can translate into big business. Maybe the manufacturers of mass clothing have understood that. But turning luxury high fashion into a big business is not really the mentality. And most of the investors are straight white men, and most think of fashion as a volatile and frivolous business to stay away from.

OLIVIER ZAHM — We’ve been interested in the New York fashion and design scene since the ’90s — Bernadette Corporation or Susan Cianciolo. There’s a true community. Young people are very interested in fashion, and they take fashion seriously. They even embrace it as a form of art. And this pollination or this bridge is very creative, even more than in Paris, maybe like in London. It’s a bit disappointing to see that America is not using these resources and this young community and the transformative energy of fashion. Is it that the young designers are not taken seriously enough? 

ALEPH MOLINARI — Or is it that the past of comfortable and functional clothes is still very present today? Because even though people spend on luxury items, they dress in a very casual way.

AMY FINE COLLINS — Look what they’re wearing on the streets — their underwear, essentially.  Undershirts, shower slippers, bras.

ALEPH MOLINARI — They can wear expensive bags or accessories, but they’re not really wearing a full outfit. It seems that fashion here is more of a social ritual and is taken out only for certain events, like a wedding or a reception. 

AMY FINE COLLINS — Or a picture on Instagram. [Laughs]

ALEPH MOLINARI — Exactly. Perhaps it’s the past mixed with the way that luxury fashion operates as a status signifier. But we don’t see people supporting  young brands, except for the community around them.

AMY FINE COLLINS — I guess there is a suspicion or indifference among investors who don’t traditionally invest in fashion. There are a few people who know what they’re doing, like Andrew Rosen, who has invested in brands like Theory, Proenza Schouler, Rag & Bone, and Alice + Olivia. He likes to bet on the new talent that’s going to be the winning racehorse. But to get these pure finance guys interested is a problem. They need an education. At the same time, we’ve lost a lot of the small retailers. There were shops in towns across America that specialized in new designers and high-level clothes, and they were really important. There is also an absence of real leaders. If you had a Diana Vreeland or a John Fairchild who was at Women’s Wear Daily declaring that this person is extraordinary and this is how we have to dress, it would create a big ripple effect. But there are no benevolent dictators of taste

OLIVIER ZAHM — This is what Tom Ford was for a moment. Now, it’s maybe the time for Thom Browne to have this impulse.

AMY FINE COLLINS — It could be. It took him 20 years to arrive where he is today. It was his 20th anniversary in 2023. 

OLIVIER ZAHM — You’re very close to him. How would you describe his fashion and his work? 

AMY FINE COLLINS — He’s completely true to himself and his own sensibility. He has never wavered and never tried to please anyone. He just kept going and going, paying no attention to naysayers. They used to laugh at him and how he was dressing, in shorts and shrunken jackets. But the eye begins to adjust. Men’s suits were never really sexy. So, it’s the simple things that he has done. Taking a uniform and making variations on it is a very good, solid foundation on which to build the codes of a brand. But I’ve had men say to me: “What is it with Thom Browne? Why are the jackets so short?” And I say, “Well, what’s your long jacket covering? Your ass.” So, his idiosyncratic proportions have brought attention to different erogenous areas, including the ankles. It sort of eroticized men in a way that was not typical. He calls this the male cleavage. 

OLIVIER ZAHM — Now he’s at the CFDA, and he’s a rare example of a young designer who’s been persistent and finally achieved recognition on both sides of the Atlantic. It’s an optimistic sign for American fashion because now you know that the CFDA can help the industry in that sense.

AMY FINE COLLINS — Yes. And Thom’s  message to young designers is always, “You just have to work hard and keep going.” Don’t be in this to become famous. Don’t expect immediate success because that’s the lesson of his story. 

OLIVIER ZAHM — We also wanted to speak about style. Fashion is a lot about change, trends, risk-taking, and provocation, and style is more of a personal decision. Is style more important in America than in Europe?

AMY FINE COLLINS — No, Americans are consumers, so I think that they are more on the fashion end than style because it’s about purchasing new things, changing, disposing. I remember when Hamish Bowles first moved here from London, and I used to go with him to fabulous thrift shops. And he was just shocked by what Americans gave away. He was finding Balenciaga couture and Syrie Maugham furniture everywhere. So, there’s always that sense of the new, and you have to spend in order to get to what it is that you want to be.

OLIVIER ZAHM — What is your definition of style?

AMY FINE COLLINS — Well, Yves Saint Laurent said it best: “Fashion fades, style is eternal.” Style has to be personal and connected to the individual and that identity. Style is clothing and character. Fashion, I think, is more of a business. John Fairchild used to call clothes without any real merit “body coverings.” So, a lot of fashion is just “body coverings.” Not really original and not something that a woman could work with to give herself a singular style. It’s also really confusing because of stylists now being so involved. Here there is the idea that you can buy anything — class, for instance — and everything’s for sale here. You can buy style by hiring a stylist. 

OLIVIER ZAHM — But, style is not something that you can really buy, at least in the long run. 

AMY FINE COLLINS — People like conformity, generally. They want something because someone else has it. The person with style wants something because no one else has it. It’s scary to be different and to take risks. 

OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you scare people with your singular style? [Laughs]

AMY FINE COLLINS — A lot of people. [Laughs] But it’s not the intention. Simon Doonan likes to say that “chic isn’t kind.” 

OLIVIER ZAHM — Going back to what Yves Saint Laurent said about style being eternal, is it also a way to not age? Style is better than plastic surgery, which is a losing battle against time, a lost cause. [Laughs]

AMY FINE COLLINS — Yes. You can never win that. And there’s a difference between a woman who finds her style and stays consistent with it, and a woman whose style is set at a certain time and doesn’t evolve. Like the women or men who hang onto their youth, and they’re stuck in time. They are attached to whatever they consider to have been their prime. But if you never conformed to any period or style, you’ve just kind of tunneled your way through time, dressing and looking like no one but yourself. Diana Vreeland did that. She doesn’t belong to any particular period. I don’t know if you know Polly Mellen. She’s almost a hundred years old. She has a silver bob and often wears a black turtleneck, which she hasn’t veered from for decades and decades. But you don’t have to be a woman in fashion to find your way out of time. You’re not trying to cheat time, you’re beyond time. 

OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you buy a lot of clothes or not so much? 

AMY FINE COLLINS — I have way too many clothes, but that’s because I never get rid of anything. I don’t consider it a serious collection in the sense that it’s not properly conserved.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Let’s speak about the International Best-Dressed List [IBDL]. It’s a New York institution that has been around since the ’40s and that you help to keep alive and develop.

AMY FINE COLLINS — Someone has to be the standard-bearer. The list is interesting and fun; it’s a record of how we’ve dressed and whom we’ve admired. The people who have developed an interesting style should be acknowledged for it. 

OLIVIER ZAHM — What’s the history of the IBDL?

AMY FINE COLLINS — The list was created by Eleanor Lambert, who was trying to establish America as a fashion center and New York as the capital. She had a mission to give legitimacy to American fashion designers. But oddly enough, there was a predecessor to the International Best-Dressed List coming out of Paris — from an American, Mainbocher [born Main Rousseau Bocher]. He generated the list anonymously in the ’30s, and he never admitted that it was he and his PR who concocted it. It would be picked up by all the wire services, which is how news was distributed. Then the Associated Press, United Press International, and the Hearst syndicate published it. When the list stopped in Paris because of the war, Eleanor saw an opportunity to continue it in New York to stimulate American fashion industry. She came up with the CFDA, the Costume Institute’s Party of the Year, Fashion Week, and all these tools to try to make American fashion respected and legitimate, — and a big business. 

OLIVIER ZAHM — You carry the history of the International Best-Dressed List, and you make it happen. I believe this idea of style representation or style celebration is very New York. I can’t imagine something like this in Paris — I don’t know why. Is it very New York for you?

AMY FINE COLLINS — It is. And everything is constantly changing here — the people, the architecture, the places to eat. So, this experimentation can be felt only in New York. 

OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s not LA, either, because LA is the red carpet and the Oscars, the movies and celebrity culture. Paris is more discreet in a way. People don’t dress so flamboyantly, even though they have easier access to everything. They keep a certain distance from fashion. New York, I would say, has this sense of flamboyance.

AMY FINE COLLINS — Americans are more showy, more exterior. It can very much be a performance. 


[Table of contents]

The Essence of Fashion Issue #41 S/S 2024

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