Posted by Igigi Blogger on February 20, 2015
“STYLE IS BEING YOURSELF ON PURPOSE.”
It’s the kind of rainy day that qualifies for an umbrella when Catherine Schuller arrives at IGIGI’s headquarters, swaddled yet luminous in a black trench coat, scarf, and a topped cowboy hat with a feather, the latter (borrowed from her driver) matching her ensemble with the same rightness as a monocle bestows on a detective. She shakes off the mist outside as if dusting off lint and we finally greet each other after a few months of correspondence for IGIGI’s signature styling program (coming soon!). A hug, pecks on the cheek. Despite a five-hour flight from New York, Catherine looks pulled together, stepping in a languid yet confident pace. She channels a mystical energy from the multitude of jeweled rings on her fingers to the saucy, sunlit waves fanning her face like a sleight of hand. American Hustle comes to mind and if the way we walked were a testament to our prowess, Catherine carries the spirit of music. I can’t help but murmur, “You look great,” as I take her all in, standing nearly six feet tall in high heels.” She beams. “Thank you.”
As she picks out IGIGI clothes for her two seminars in San Francisco that weekend, our customer service manager, Brandi, joins her and the two are delighted to re-connect. Like any image consultant, Catherine has loads of advice about styling and body awareness. The right fit is key. Activating your style comes with knowing your figure first. Don’t hide your best parts. Her definition: style is being yourself on purpose. Herein lies the charm. In practice, all of this translates effectively as she offers solutions and methods without platitudes or cheerleader rah-rah. She looks at you seriously in the eye and you also feel a similar reverence for your body as a temple, one that deserves the same thoughtfulness and loving attention you’d give to arranging succulent plants for a wedding. Physically demonstrative, Catherine gestures to Brandi about what works for her body type and identifies the correct kind of drape and material to enhance her curves. As equals, they look together for outfits that Brandi can model for Catherine’s seminar.
Catherine is what some would call a magnetic force field, with a crescent smile and Joan Crawford-like cheekbones. At 18, she voyaged to New York, a place she frequented during her college years for a drummer boyfriend. Educated but with an ear to the street, she had a rolodex of friends in the Warhol crowd and proliferating music scenes where she eventually met the nascent frontwoman of Blondie. Yes, that punk band. Don’t let me give you any more spoilers, though. Although the structure of this interview is a Q & A, Catherine writes like Jack Kerouac, narrating her adventures in an honest, moving, and loosely confessional way. She has the right amount of self-examination and momentum, switching gears when it’s the right time. The manifesto of her life unfolds generously and we hear, emphatically, how she staked her multi-dimensional success from her initial setbacks.
1. You initially started off wanting to be an actress and a comedian but had to pave your own way and ended up into the fashion industry instead. What were the reasons for your wanting to pursue a career in media in the first place? Did you have any hesitation because of the lack of “ordinary” representation at the time in terms of body size, awareness, and diversity? Was there such a thing as “plus-size fashion” back then?
I originally came to New York City with my then-boyfriend from Pittsburgh, PA. Billy O’Connor was the best drummer in my hometown and I was tired of going to hear him play cover tunes at mixers and frat parties and weddings. He was too good and was considering a career in music and we talked about going to NYC to audition for a few original bands. I took my dad’s car for the day and drove like crazy to NYC and dropped him off at a friend’s loft in Greenwich Village. He managed to get a few auditions for new and upcoming bands and finally landed a spot in the Stillettoes, an early punk band before punk was punk. One of the girl singers was Debbie Harry who quickly dominated the group and soon became lead singer and changed the name to Blondie.
(Bill and Debbie, 1989)
It was an exciting time in NYC. CBGB’s was just forming and Max’s Kansas City and all the bands who came out of that were playing nightly around the downtown scene. I was instantly addicted to the creativity and self-made aspect of what they were doing. The movement caught on and everyone was coming down to check out the bands. I was the first person to see the Ramones play and I thought they were awful. However, the next night, David Bowie came down to check it out and said, “This is going to be the next BIG THING!” I thought, I’d better pay attention if Ziggy Stardust likes it….I was hanging out with all the Warhol people and got to know Debbie pretty well and all the different players were so fascinating at that time. I thought I had better not just be “the drummer’s girlfriend.” I started to study acting and put my portfolio together, but I knew I was not your typical model body type. I also played the violin but not well enough to join a band. Also, I was still in college as a junior and visiting Billy on a regular basis every month, watching him rehearse and play. I was trying to figure out how to get to NYC after I graduated so it was important to see how he was progressing as I thought he’d be my way in upon finishing college. I had actually auditioned for Debbie when she was putting the girl group aspect of the Stillettoes together. I asked to join and she said, “Too bad you have to go back to Pittsburgh.” I don’t think my mother would have understood my quitting school to join the NY punk rock scene! I shouldn’t have stayed on the sidelines when Debbie decided to form Blondie. We liked each other but I was ten years younger than she was and too reticent to really “include myself”….Too bad I didn’t become a photographer, grab a camera and start archiving everything I saw in those early years. I would be a millionaire in archival footage because I was in all the right places.
(Debbie and Bowie, 1989)
When I did finally graduate in May, I moved up to New York in June and started taking acting classes and putting my portfolio together. I was told at every turn that I had to lose weight as I was 5’10” and 160 pounds. Every agency told me that I needed to get down to at least 120 and my body just wouldn’t go below 140. I went to Ford and one of the bookers in the agency told me to lose 50 pounds and turned around. She literally told me I was “too heavy” and walked back to her desk, leaving me dumbfounded and ashamed. I tried to do what they wanted, but it was a real struggle and even though I was taking dance class and doing everything I could to diet, it was frustrating. I was taking acting classes at the time and got into a few plays and realized that without the demon camera reminding me of my size, I could play any role I was suited for as long as it was my character type. I also learned that I was funny and could make people laugh. Comedy became my forte and I met a few fellow actors and we formed a group called THE NERVE! I thought up that name because I wanted to find the nerve to be myself. I realized that my outcast state of size rejection probably was counterpart to a lot of people not “finding their place” because they didn’t conform to what was the flavor of the month in the entertainment business.
I quickly learned that being yourself is the best way to go ….get known for being who you are and you will define your own category. Debbie Harry was 5’2” and look at the style icon she has become over the past forty years! She etched out her own niche and became the only one of her kind. Much better way to go. So, I was piecing all the lessons together and comedy writing and performing were something I enjoyed because they were creative outlets and something I could control. Build it and they will come. We performed for about six years and I was asked to become a model at Ford during my time on the stage. When they told me I should model I said, “You should write for my act!” But I did check out the possibility and went back to the same agency that had rejected me three years ago, went one flight up to the Special Sizes Division and was signed immediately. I asked them why the booker downstairs hadn’t told me about the plus-size industry that was just forming. Teresa Zazarra who everyone called “T” simply said, “She probably didn’t want to offend you…” Oh yeah, telling me to go lose 40 pounds wasn’t offensive??? Any way, I was well on my way to creating my own path and I never looked back. I even had to pad up for a few jobs…got my portfolio together and the clients were rolling in to the industry. I was one of the first models for the A&S Department store launch of the Liz Claiborne line, Elisabeth. I could see the future and it was looming large…
I was acting and modeling and doing my comedy review. I moved into Manhattan Plaza, the artist’s complex on West 43rd Street, continued dancing and auditioning. I joined Screen Actors Guild and was on my way, carving out my journey. I realized I was a role model early on when I walked the runway and women would stand up and really cheer for me….especially when I was walking with the straight size models. I felt like an underdog, though, in the overall fashion industry. But we were the darlings of the industry because the retail world was in a recession and they realized that 45 million women were being underserved. They started to design clothing that was proportioned just for us…Liz Claiborne was an important first because that was truly a designer who was paying attention to potential customers who she could have felt would bastardize her brand. But she also saw the money on the table and it was realized when her numbers improved 14% immediately upon doing the Elisabeth line.
(Catherine Schuller, 1989)
2. You’re seen as a pioneer. Do you have any advice you’d like to share about body standards and acceptance? What was the environment you grew up in and how were you able to refine your own confidence?
We had a very narrow ideal about what was acceptable as a model’s size. Twiggy was a huge phenomenon and actually was much thinner than the models at the time… I think the designers embraced the straight up-and-down body (it was much easier to design for someone with no curves in the way) and somehow it was acceptable to starve yourself to fit in. It was the days of trend dictation; everyone was wearing the exact same thing in the exact same way. Designers were very powerful and had immense clout in the ’70s. It was difficult to get them to see another standard of beauty. You could just feel the prejudice. Like, as if we would lose weight if we wanted to be accepted. That we “let ourselves go” and were out of control. It couldn’t have been further from the truth. I dieted and exercised, took dance classes, rode a bike around Manhattan, and the best I could do was be a size 14. Well, go figure!! I was raised in an environment where my mother did not want me to be obsessed with my outward looks and she felt my eating disorder was something she didn’t want to deal with and never spoke to me about it. Of course, she was of the generation that didn’t discuss sex with their children, any emotional issues, any “problems” one might have had. It wasn’t dealt with, you were just supposed to conform as best you could and not think about the ramifications. I was fortunate I had wonderful sisters and aunts who were role models for me. They told me I was smart and pretty and funny. My brother, on the other hand, always teased and bullied me. I had a lot of mixed messages in those days. I said I emerged victoriously late in life, almost in spite of all the negative comments I was forced to endure. I said I was “bullied into greatness.” I spent a lot of time enjoying the art in myself and learning to be my own best friend and didn’t really need anyone’s approval and started saying that I enjoyed my own company. People love people who love themselves first. I learned that I was very non co-dependent and that was probably my most attractive trait. I had zero neediness.
3. How have you managed to whittle down all the different styles women can have into 5 categories? Do you think it’s important to stay consistent in your style or to change it up?
I actually came up with five different body shapes first because my mantra was “Know Your Shape, Show Your Shape.” I realized that women needed to understand their figure types before they could achieve balance and proportion in their clothing choices. The style types emerged because the clothes needed to have a message that was consistent with the inner spirit of the wearer. The full-figured woman was really my target for my early image consulting work and I realized that all I had studied at Parsons School of Design after my modeling career was about the missy customer. No one was addressing the plus-size client as a fashion icon in her own right. You know what they say about riches and niches. Once I found that the woman I was as a model was as forgotten in the fashion world as the modeling world, I became a role model and an image consultant, empowering my clients with image based principles that helped them work with who they were inside and out and what they wanted to achieve in their careers and lives. I always create these little sayings that act like laser beams into the psyche. I said that, “Style was being yourself on purpose” and I was helping women discover what their purpose was. My first company was Emerging Visions Enterprises and the acronym was E.V.E. My press kit said, “All About Eve.” I figure she was an iconic woman who wasn’t a size 6 and certainly wasn’t afraid to take a bite out of something!!
So, the five style categories grew out of the studies I did at Parsons with the brilliant book program Style Source and the Universal Style program. That platform identifies the modern styles for women and even men. The approach has a lot to do with your personality, your goals, how you see yourself within the world. It helps define and align who you are and what you want. The five styles are Natural/Sporty, Traditional/Elegant, Romantic/Feminine, Dramatic/Alluring and Creative/Artistic. There is an assessment that you as the image consultant give the client and their style type emerges from the answers they give. No one is just one style for the most part. We are three dimensional creatures and we have hybrid styles that are a combination of the core classic and subcore traits. For example, if you have a casual lifestyle but enjoy showing off the contours of your body, you’d be Natural/Sporty (core) and Dramatic/Alluring (subcore)…there are a lot of different combinations with identifiable traits from the garments so that one’s clothing is truly reflective of what their style is. It’s a fascinating system and makes wardrobe building and pairing a lot easier once you do everything with those guidelines. Just as you should always complement (not cover up) your shape, you should complement your inner spirit by wearing what’s appropriate to your lifestyle activities and goals.
I have always been a Dramatic/Alluring and Creative/Artistic type. I never feel comfortable unless I wear clothes that speak to that style. So, I change up my look but if you notice it’s always based on a combination of those styles and has been that way since I first moved to NYC. I may dress for a role that could be Traditional, but my true essence is more eclectic, free-spirited and unique.
(Catherine wearing IGIGI)
4. You’ve really done a lot of things–fashion design, modeling, image consulting, comedy, etc. Which form of self-expression makes the most sense to you and who you are?
That’s a great question. Someone asked me what I do and I said, “On which day?” I find that as I’ve gone through all the various phases of what I did, I had the umbrella of “plus” to contain it under. And I didn’t throw the baby out with the bath; I just added to the bath water. Like, I used to tell people if you want change, that’s good, but take yourself with the change and don’t change the chicken, change the pot! I now am a Fashion Curator and created an entity called Runway the Real Way… just like what it sounds like–fashion for the rest of us. This job is the sum total of all I have studied and experienced. It’s a combination of modeling, styling, inventing, writing, always keeping myself upbeat and lighthearted all through the trials and tribulations. ‘Cause none of this should be an excuse to beat yourself up more. I wouldn’t be a very good role model if I didn’t walk the walk, and talk the talk. I am constantly trying to TRUST more and not plan too much. I get it organized and then let ‘er rip. I find that leaves room for the universe to surprise me and send a few daily miracles my way. And I LOVE NEW YORK…it’s always been my sandbox and playground. I get a kick out of how challenging it can be, but how worth the lessons you learn are. Like the song says, “If you can make it there, you’ll make it anywhere…”
5. Can you give us an example of how your own personal style evolved? Is there a stark contrast from how you dressed then to how you dress now? What were some of the styling methods you honed and how did you figure out what worked for you and what didn’t? Did it take several years?
My mother was a great seamstress and I used to sew my own clothes and that freed me up to be very creative. My favorite pastime was to look through pattern books in the department store (the stores had fabric departments in those days) and buy remnants for next to nothing and make my own clothes. I had the most amazing wardrobe; I shopped thrift shops and put together these really inexpensive funky looks that were so interesting. High school was just a big fashion show for me. I learned a lot about image and perception. I had people asking me to shop for them and do their makeup when I was 14…. It just came naturally to me. I really wanted to go into fashion and move to New York and go to a fashion school but my guidance counselor met with my mother and told her my grades were too high to go into fashion. I was crestfallen. I had to go to college, so I studied Psychology and Music. I feel like those were wasted years, but I really graduated when I moved to NYC and took advantage of the life my boyfriend was living (and I had helped him get to NYC, so I felt justified…) I always had a personal style and had my clothing reflect that. Clothing was hard to find then, too, cause I was plus-size – all of 145 and 5’10”….and the pants were too short, etc. So, sewing was a great way to make things fit properly. And then I started plus modeling and hardly ever wore clothing in those days that expressed who I was and what I was trying to do in the world. The plus-size stuff was caftans, muu muus and not tailored at all….some brands were great like Tomatsu but I could fit into straight size 14s so I mostly shopped large missy sizes. I felt as though the plus-size industry didn’t realize this customer was younger. The clothes were so matronly in those days…and like I said before, no one thought we were fashionable because their notion was, if we really wanted to fit in to the fashion scene, we would have lost weight…
6. What are some of the takeaways from your seminar in SF (for the people who weren’t able to make it)?
I taught two seminars over the weekend…. One on helping image consultants understand who the plus size image client is and how to service her. I basically taught my Figure&Fit and Shape Shopping program (horizontal proportions) and taught them about the Fashion Fit Formula (which is the vertical proportions) as well as exposing them to sizing chart differentials, shopping and retail resources, and the overall philosophy and approach to wardrobe building for this double digit diva. I gave an overview of my journey, my career and how I made it work to help educate and elevate this customer. I said in the past we would Segregate and Elevate the plus-size woman, telling her to come into the plus-size department and put her up on a pedestal and tell her she is different and special. But now we are in the age of Integrate. I love what I am doing with my Fashion Curating which I’ve named Runway the Real Way. Innovative Integration, Fashion Diversity on the Inclusive Catwalk. All ages, sizes, shapes, genders, heights, ethnicities, nationalities, persuasions. We all need to celebrate our individuality and that fact that we embrace our differences and highlight those as assets, not fitting in to some drab conformity that we don’t understand even.
Teaching them about who this woman is really fascinates me. I’m talking about respect and honor and acceptance and seeing a different interpretation of beauty because style has nothing to do with size. Especially opening them up to shopping for shape and style across the current brands. Sizing charts are confusing, measuring is sensitive, etc. I ended the first day with a mini fashion show using two models, one woman’s petite size 18 and 5’3″ and Brandi, who works in the Igigi headquarters, who is a beautiful, tall size 24/26. The image consultants really appreciated seeing IGIGI’s clothing and how it was designed with details to emphasize and detract from figure features… I had just finished doing a review of the points of illusion dressing and how you can use vertical lines, convergent and divergent stripes, pattern placement and minimize volume and streamline and take the eye where you want it to go when you are dressing for all the differentials. It was a great tie in and illustrated the points of my talk beautifully…
(Model wearing IGIGI)
The other seminar I taught was on Runway the Real Way and how to produce fashion events for fun and profit. I have produced over 60 shows and realize that diversity rules… not only in the style of clothing, but in the models themselves. I have a very ecumenical approach and it is really so far away from the one-size-fits-none mentality…. we are individual and unique and we should learn to complement, not cover up. The Curvy Cooperative is something I’ve always wanted to start. The motto is “Because Unity is a Plus”… it occurs to me everyday and I put it into practice in my daily life and my philosophical meanderings.
–Jane Yu, staff at IGIGI