Jeff Pattie doesn’t care about labels. That’s weird, because the man rents vintage couture to models, celebrities and designers. But in this league of couture, labels are beside the point.
“Obviously they all love designer stuff, but I’ll see something by African American women back in the ‘30s who were sewing at an estate sale, and it blows me away,” he says.
At Southpaw, the sprawling vintage library that elicits popular appeal among authenticity freaks, you’ll find Poiret, Victoria Albert and Madame Grès pieces, but that’s not Pattie’s obsession. The most common denominator of the garments Pattie sniffs out is the maker’s love of clothing.
“If you look at something handmade by someone with talent, it’s there. It’s not always the money or the fabric. It’s about who’s behind the machine,” he says.
Another thing Pattie wants to preserve in a piece of clothing is the spirit. He shows me a floor-length sequined robe without a nametag. A woman took it out of her car for him at a garage because she wanted him to have it. “I mean that is rock and roll. The girl left her spirit in it.”
Normally this would sound like bullshit, but he’s for real. With a medicine bag around his neck, he looks like a keeper of spirits. His great grandmother was 100% Cherokee. He wears five necklaces over his John Lennon shirt, aviators and a bandana. This wasn’t always his look. He got bullied for the platform boots he wore to T. Rex concerts.
His friend, Cory Santiago, told him, “Fuck ‘em, go higher.” That was forty years ago, but that friend is in the next room handling aspects of the business. One aspect is a phone call about the Charles James gown Stephanie Seymour wants to wear.
They don’t have one. Nick Michael, who used to dress Vivienne Westwood in London, explains this in a British accent at the speed of an avalanche on their fire escape, quickly pulling tiny drags from a cigarette. “Somebody probably told her, you should try and find one. They’re very tricky to wear. You’ve got to be a certain person. They’re really well and made, really well made and brilliant, really clever, I mean Halston based his whole line off Charles James. He used to borrow it back from someone he made it for and sell it to someone else,” he says.
Pattie has absorbed all of this, and has one question.
“What sign was he?”
“Cancer,” Nick answers. (This checks out.)
“I feel so much pain in that child,” he says clutching his medicine bag. Inside, he keeps strings of candy-colored beads to give to the right person, and a photo ID of his grandmother. He had a quarter of the space when he started, but she told him he’d have the whole floor. He now fills it with pieces he believes carry memories of a woman’s best night or the party that changed her life. He doesn’t collect anything he doesn’t feel.
That means he must feel a lot. “It freaks me out because there’s so much stuff, and I don’t want anything to tie me down. There’s a purpose to it so I can around that,” he says making a detour with his hand at a diagonal.
When I ask him what he’d do if he had to pack up and leave, he says. “I’m always on the road even in my mind I go.” He says he thinks he inspired the hoarder shows, except most hoarders don’t have a wardrobe of vibrant frocks donated by Pat Cleveland.
The most important part of all of this the Stephen Burrows collection. It symbolizes, in vivid microcosm, a time he lived through, and a moment designers often try to imitate, but Pattie actually does know the score.
He describes a party he went to. “Valentino’s a master, and I love what he did. He really did make women beautiful, but he acknowledged Stephen, and that blew me away.”
He says he thinks Karen Carpenter was a true beauty, but before he can get into it, his mind darts because something has a stronger gravitational pull. “This is history, but it’s simple” he explains, unraveling the rope around a gold dress.
The lively flavor of the restored pieces and Pattie’s determination to give them a second life makes for an interesting living museum, but it can give you the overwhelming sense that there’s too much to see, which is why they’ll pull pieces in advance of appointments. Southpaw changes a third of the clothes because sometimes, they’re badly in need of an update. He calls their studio manager David Viccaro, the grand couturier. David will cut the back of a dress and make it the front or sew a dress into a blouse.
The place does dictate what happens now. Southpaw is a trusted source of textiles, prints, and inspiration for designers who will take a medallion and create a belt, or use the craftsmanship of a bag and come up with a shoe. Some designers model sundresses from his Victorian dresses. “I go backwards, but in a forward way,” Pattie says.
Pattie’s worked with designers from top to bottom, but the ones at the bottom who excite him. “They have no money and they can spin gold out of straw like Rumpelstiltskin.”
The women who had a purchase on his mind were the ones at the rock concerts he went to. Unlike him, the groupies got backstage. “I’d be standing there when the limousine pulled up and would stop and clink clink clink, off they’d go, but I partied with them the whole time.” The clothes he likes trigger something one of the girls wore to a Led Zeppelin concert. When someone shows him something he identifies as Ossie Clark or Janice Wainwright, a b-rate designer from England who most people don’t know, then they’ll have his interest. His secret wish in his yearbook was that he wanted to die in Robert Plant’s echo chamber.
Out of necessity, Pattie’s mom taught him how to buy vintage and transform it. She’d take a dress from the ‘30s and cut it to make it fashionable for the ‘60s. “I was always in tune to vintage, looking at a ‘20s beaded dresses and marveling it,” he says. For concerts, he’d wear a Jean Audrey blue crushed velvet jacket, a scarf, and a cowboy shirt from the ‘30s. Then, he bought them for a few dollars, but now they’ll go for a couple thousand.
The clothes are precious to him, so Southpaw is careful about who borrows. “If you’re a fuck, if you’re designer and you’re nasty to your underlings, or for some of these rappers who damn people, I don’t care if they would spend a million dollars,” he says. “I won’t work with them.”
It took him three hours to name names, because that’s not the most interesting thing about him or to him, but Stella McCartney always uses Southpaw. (Or Pattie will send her stuff.) “Since she was at Chloé, I’ve connected to her in a strong way. I’m so proud of her because she’s teaching people not to kill animals without killing a hide.” He’s had dreams about The Beatles, and dressing a rock daughter is one of the things that connects for him.
When he took a stab at his own line, Keith Richardson’s daughters Alexandra and Theodora Richards modeled the clothes. “They did it without a fucking penny, because they are nice girls.”
When he saw Alexandra recently, he said, “I’m really sorry, I sort of let it go.” He got divorced, but more importantly he didn’t want to deal with some of the phony buyers. “If I had a metal baseball hat, I’d use it. That’s why I lock the damn door.”
He leads me into a room packed to the gills with enough fabrics to line a dozen swimming pools. It’s the only room that isn’t neatly merchandised, and it stores indispensable components for a designer with a curious mind. “This is a horrible room, but I can’t tell you how important this is to us.” The kittens peek out from the stacks of knits. “They christen it,” he says laughing. It’s years of materials carrying the spirits of the girls he admired.
It’s not Robert Plant’s echo chamber, but among the bursting piles of silk and crepe, he’s close.