I also found it very interesting that she sites Ree Drummond, The Pinoeer Woman herself, as inspiration for this move. Get back to basics. Live off the earth. It sounds pretty divine, no?
May 30, 2012
Taking Her Leave
By BEE-SHYUAN CHANG
IT was a little more than a year ago that the New York City socialite Amanda Brooks was appointed fashion director of Barneys New York, to some cluck-clucking in the industry. After all, Ms. Brooks, 38, had little experience in retail, other than acting as a muse and later creative director to the fashion label Tuleh, and was more often photographed in preppy classics than the avant-garde brands for which Barneys had been known under the stewardship of her well-regarded predecessor, Julie Gilhart. As the blog Fashionista put it, “We’ve always thought of Brooks as more of a Bergdorf girl.”
Ms. Brooks’s duties included overseeing private labels and creating trend reports, informed in part by the street style of “it” girls, many of whom were part of her impressive network. “We didn’t need more retail help,” Mark Lee, the store’s chief executive, said of the hire at the time. Indeed, a lot of her job seemed to involve attending fashion shows, where she was a front-row regular, and going to openings and galas.
But in March, Ms. Brooks pulled off yet another surprise. She announced that she was not just quitting the Barneys position, but leaving Manhattan itself and planning a yearlong move with her family to a farm in Oxfordshire, England, that is owned by the family of her husband, the artist Christopher Brooks.
Was the Barneys brass disappointed in the high-profile hire? (Through a spokeswoman, executives there turned down requests to be interviewed on the matter.) Had Ms. Brooks — such a clotheshorse that she wrote a 2009 book on personal style — somehow soured on fashion shows? Or, as some in the news media speculated, was the move in support of her brother- and sister-in-law, Charlie and Rebekah Brooks, charged with perverting the course of justice (the term in British law) in the News of the World phone-hacking case?
None of the above, Ms. Brooks said recently, dining on a sunny Friday at Freemans, downstairs from the apartment she’ll soon be renting out. (A North Fork residence will also be leased, to the artist Rachel Feinstein, a friend.)
“It was because of Ree Drummond’s blog, The Pioneer Woman,” said Ms. Brooks, who has recently returned to a blog, ILoveYourStyle.com, that she started after publishing the 2009 book, which had the same name. Reading a New Yorker profile last year of Ms. Drummond, a mother of four who lives on a cattle ranch outside Pawhuska, Okla., and posts prolifically on subjects like how to make cornmeal pancakes (using catchphrases like “yahoo, yippety”) “got me really fired up,” Ms. Brooks went on. “It’s the idea of having a career on your own terms, anywhere.”
At first glance, Ms. Brooks, a consummate urbanite with coolly styled looks, could not be more diametrically opposed to Ms. Drummond. At lunch, several days after the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s annual Costume Institute benefit (to which she wore a minimalist graphite Calvin Klein ensemble), Ms. Brooks was dressed casually in an open-knit beige sweater, black trousers and black flat sandals. Her blondish brown hair fell in an enviable natural wave, and her figure was willowy.
“I lost a lot of weight working at Barneys,” said Ms. Brooks, nibbling delicately at the turkey sandwich with bacon she’d ordered along with an iced tea, then hastening to add, “It was the 14-hour days and then all the traveling.”
Since she married Mr. Brooks in 2001, in a wedding attended by such diverse personalities as Christian Louboutin and Tama Janowitz, the couple have tried to maintain the integrity of their family life, she said, agreeing to limit work events to two nights per week, a difficult feat in the hyperactive art and fashion scenes. They have two children, Coco (not after Chanel, but an abbreviation of Carmen), 10, who has yet to take any discernible interest in fashion, Ms. Brooks said, and Zach, 8.
She said she was reveling in her days off, scrapping her daily Women’s Wear Daily reading habit — “It’s refreshing to clear your mind,” she said. After lunch, she planned to take Zach to a birthday party.
In Ms. Brooks’s view, domestic harmony and success at work are inextricably intertwined. “That fearlessness, to be able to jump around in my career, came from a certain amount of stability and foundation I’ve always had at home,” she said. “I’m defined by my history, my family. I was never looking for my career to define me.”
Ms. Brooks grew up in Bronxville, N.Y., and Palm Beach, Fla., the younger of two daughters of Stephen Cutter, a real estate broker, and Elizabeth Stewart, an interior designer whom Ms. Brooks remembers wearing Alaïa to teach Sunday school. (Amanda’s older sister, Kimberly Cutter, is a novelist.) She attended public elementary school, then Horace Mann and Deerfield Academy, where she was a New England diving champion. While majoring in photography at Brown, she roomed with Patricia Lansing, a daughter of Carolina Herrera, for two years. She also briefly dated Alexander von Furstenberg, the son of Diane, who soon became what Ms. Brooks called “my fashion fairy godmother.” “It had nothing to do with Alexander,” Ms. von Furstenberg said of the bond between the two women. “But I have always had that special complicity with Amanda because of how we started.”
She added: “When I met her, she was very kind of WASPy and I didn’t even think she was that pretty. But I loved watching her grow. She learns, she absorbs, she’s very entrepreneurial and she’s very nice.”
The two women had lunch a few years ago, and Ms. von Furstenberg agreed to write a foreword to Ms. Brooks’s book. “She told me, ‘It’s time for you to figure out who is Amanda Brooks,’ ” Ms. Brooks said. “ ‘Not Amanda Brooks who works for so-and-so. It’s time to define yourself as a woman.’ ”
Ms. Brooks has never been shy about attracting powerful mentors. Her career started with an internship with Patrick Demarchelier, the fashion photographer, after she approached him at a French restaurant on the Upper East Side. Then there was a stint at the Gagosian Gallery, secured after chatting up Larry Gagosian, its founder, at a shoe store in the same neighborhood.
After working for Tuleh and Hogan, the leather-goods company, she consulted and then became director of fashion for the agency William Morris Endeavor, working with more mainstream brands, like Revlon and American Express. “Amanda is a complete person,” said her boss there, Mark Dowley, former chief executive of the agency’s marketing division. “Because she’s so pulled together, she’s incredibly disarming, but that can also be very intimidating.”
Ms. Brooks’s friends, though, described her as down to earth. “She’s a jock,” said Amy Astley, the editor of Teen Vogue, who is also married to an artist, the sculptor Christopher Astley, and got to know Ms. Brooks in the North Fork, where she also has a home. “She’s the girl who is swimming in the sound in April. She’s not a prissy fashion girl at all.”
Ms. Feinstein agreed. “Amanda is fearless,” she said. “If she decides to do something, she isn’t worried about what people might think.” She added: “She’s incredibly genuine. It’s hard for people to realize that someone like her is actually how she is. People want to dislike her because they can’t believe she’s had all this.”
At Barneys, though, Ms. Brooks faced challenges for which her charmed life might not have prepared her. She was part of a new management team, led by Mr. Lee and including Daniella Vitale, a veteran of Gucci, and Dennis Freedman, formerly of W magazine, that has tried to carry out a mandate to reinvent the store — an uphill battle.
“These last few years have been the golden age of luxury,” said Howard Davidowitz, a retail consultant. “During this golden age, Barneys has been a train wreck. It’s sort of undeniable. It’s almost in bankruptcy. Why is that?”
His theory: “From a merchandising point of view, they focused themselves out of business. If you have a big store, you have to have a wide range of customers. Otherwise, you won’t do enough business. They were way further out on the fashion curve, and that means much more risk.”
On May 7, after Ms. Brooks’s departure, Barneys announced that Perry Capital had become the new majority owner after a debt-for-equity deal.
Not that this is Ms. Brooks’s concern any longer. Instead, she is facing the challenge of branding herself just as the extended Brooks clan seeks greater privacy. (Through her, Christopher Brooks declined to be interviewed.) Ms. Brooks acknowledged that she was self-conscious posting on Twitter about herself, rather than a brand or a company, and that one of the qualities she most admired about Ms. Drummond’s work was that “she doesn’t exploit her children and husband.” But, “I love Instagram,” she said. “I love just posting a photograph and not saying anything.”
What kind of dispatches will be coming from Oxfordshire, where Ms. Brooks said she had spent most of her time on visits wearing jodhpurs? “It’s about a different perspective of living on a farm,” she said. “I’ll be looking for style, of course, as I do now. It might be the way I arrange a cheese plate, or how I arrange the flowers in a guest room.”
While Ms. Brooks refused to discuss the investigation rocking her extended family, she underscored her own toughness, telling of how four years ago, between fashion stints, she trained five months to push a dog sled 250 miles in Arctic Norway to raise money for charity.
“I’m adventurous,” she said. “I’ve always done well in situations that were unfamiliar to me. I’ve thrived on them.” A little bit of a chameleon? She lit up. “I’m not a little chameleon,” she said, “I’m totally a chameleon.”
Though it’s not yet clear that she can blend in entirely with the common folk. “If Amanda has one Achilles’ heel, it’s maybe not knowing how to play every situation,” Mr. Dowley said. “Not everybody knows what’s the latest thing in Vogue.”
But Ms. Brooks said she’s determined not to disappear. “I’ve just been programmed,” she said. “I’m success-oriented.” Mentioning plans for a second book, which will focus on stories of inspiration and influence over her 20-plus years in the fashion business, she mentioned the science lectures she loves at Rockefeller University, her collection of vintage books and being inspired by the work of the Pulitzer Prize winner Siddhartha Mukherjee.
“I’ve spent my entire career devoted to the vision of others,” she said. “This year away is for introspection. For myself.”