Muse Magazine

Sunday, April 02, 2006

LIFE: Which one of us is different?


Oleg Cassini was my friend- well, about as much of a friend he could be
considering that I only knew him for a little more than a year. I met
him in December of 2004, when he invited me to his home/ company
headquarters on the Upper East Side for an interview. At such an early
stage in my career as a fashion editor, felt like I was interviewing
the president of the United States.

Nervous, I did far more than my usual preparation for a story, researching anything that Lexis Nexis and word of mouth from my industry friends would give me on this man. My preparation paid off. I spoke to him over an hour, and bonded over everything from tennis to my graduate school program. I told him how he, as an American designer, had captured the attention of three generations of women in my family-two of them from half way around the world. Later on he autographed his
book (an ode to Jackie Onassis) for me with a big heart next to his signature. “You ask smart questions,” he said, the message echoing in my head. “You have great style. Better stick with journalism.” I was dying!

Months after the interview, Cassini would keep in touch via hand written notes. The first one came with an orchid plant that was so beautiful I was sure it was sent directly from Malaysia. This was his signature way of saying thanks and I now joined the long list of “important” people in his life that had also received an orchid plant. To keep in the loop with him, I would attend his events at stores and
make sure to say hello. He always greeted me with a brilliant smile, a double kiss and left me feeling like incredibly special. Just for the record, this wasn’t a case of being star struck. I’ve interviewed so many designers and celebrities—none had the charisma of Cassini. This man was 92 years old. He had met so many people in his life that he didn’t have to be nice to anyone. But he was kind to me—and I really,
was no one.

Last summer I was invited to a dinner honoring Cassini with a lifetime achievement award and I was psyched. I hadn’t seen him in a while and was super excited, because everyone was buzzing about the event. I was personally invited to dine with Cassini and his friends. So cool.

But something really strange happened when I arrived that night. I looked around and noticed all of the women there were dressed in couture, blonde, perfectly manicured, buffed and skinny. The men were their male counterparts—like Ken dolls. They looked at me as if I had three heads. I looked at them and then down at my vintage black dress showing my non-stockinged brown legs and bare arms and felt a discomfort that I hadn’t felt in years, the scrutiny that comes with
being different.

As I moved through the crowd, my sense of self increased by ten-fold each minute that ticked by. People were staring not because I was amazingly dressed, they were simply wondering what I was doing there. Their world felt so foreign to me, I could have been on a different planet.

For more than ten years I’ve navigated New York’s many subcultures with ease—Wall Street bankers, Bowery punks, Park Slope dead-heads, Williamsburg hipsters, Bronx b-ballers, fashion icons, etc. Yet, here I was, having gained entrée into the insular world of Upper Eastside’s society set and for the first time, I felt self-conscious. Why the insecurity now?

I think about that night a lot these days. I wonder if living in the city gives you a false sense of the way the world views diversity. Maybe because Manhattan is so forgiving and so accepting of who we are, that we forget there is a world that isn’t so ok with difference especially when it’s rockin’ vintage at a very formal black tie event. My parents were all about assimilation when they came to this country
in the early ‘70’s when racism was still overt and grotesquely accepted. Fast-forward to 2006, when my neighbors are a lesbian couple with a baby girl and my boyfriend is Jewish, and I can’t help but wonder if I’ve been trying to assimilate in my own way? As much as I go to fashion week collections, dressed like my Intermix-shopping counterparts, talk like them, have strangely similar interests, I am totally different.

That became painfully clear at Cassini’s dinner and the realization was
so shocking that I had to leave the dinner. I ran as far away from Gramercy Park as I could get and tried not to think about the dinner ever again.

I didn’t get to say “hi” or even “goodbye” to Cassini that night, a move I now totally regret. The next day I read in the industry papers the soiree was a success and Cassini was his usual dapper self. I wondered if I had just waited a little longer to see him if I would have felt more at ease with my situation. Or, maybe it was an important lesson learned- despite all the clothes, intonation in my voice, taste in music and movies, all the things that I thought made me who I am, I
will always be an Indian woman.

HITHA PRABHAKAR

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