Interview by Samantha Hahn
Doria Santlofer is an exceptionally talented fashion stylist, author, and editor. After working as a fashion editor at New York Magazine, Doria went out on her own to style for Teen Vogue, Allure, Wonderland, Harper’s Bazaar, Cherry Bombe and so many more publications and designers. Additionally, she authored a book titled 50 Contemporary Fashion Designers You Should Know. Recently, Doria aided her mother’s legacy by ensuring her book Food City: Four Centuries of Food-Making in New York came to fruition. It was nominated for a James Beard award in Non Fiction, a well-deserved achievement. We had the pleasure of interviewing Doria about growing up in an artistic household, her reading habits, and her role in bringing Food City into the world.
Samantha Hahn: Hi Doria, thank you for chatting with us. Let’s start at the beginning. Where did you grow up? Your dad is an artist and author, and your mom was a researcher and professor-cum-author. Both seem fueled by curiosity and creativity. What genres of books were around your childhood home? Can you tell us some of your favorite stories from childhood?
Doria Santlofer: I grew up in Chelsea, in a loft that my parents converted from a fur factory in the late seventies. They put up walls for our bedrooms, but it’s basically an open space that they filled with bookshelves and art. My dad’s studio is the back half of the house, so I grew up watching him paint. In the studio, he has floor to ceiling shelves filled with art books – I remember my childhood favorites were always the books on Egon Schiele and Jean Michel Basquiat. As a teenager I loved Hannah Wilke and the Starification series. I remember my dad buying me two catalogs in high school – one of Elizabeth Peyton’s paintings and one of Lisa Yuskavage. I still love them both.
I definitely gravitated towards written stories with precocious protagonists like Eloise (Kay Thompson) and Ramona (Beverly Cleary) and Matilda (Roald Dahl). I love everything by Roald Dahl, even his adult novels like My Uncle Oswald. Eloise in Paris is one of my favorites because she hides champagne corks behind her knees to get through customs and runs around the city saying “beaucoup de this, beaucoup de that.” Early French lessons. E.L Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler was, and still is, one of my favorite stories because running away and living in the Met is the ultimate dream. My mom and I used to read the Catwings series by Ursula K. Le Guin, which chronicles the adventures of a scrappy city cat named Mrs Jane Tabby, and her four winged kittens. Those books were our favorites. When I got a little bit older she would read to me from Jane Austen – Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility. My mother read more than anyone and it was instilled in me from a young age not to disturb someone while they’re reading.
SH: What fueled your interest in fashion? Were there any particular books or publications that inspired or sparked your passion?
DS: There were lots of photo and art books around our house growing up or at the homes of my parents friends – I distinctly remember Avedon’s pictures from In the American West and photographs by Guy Bourdin making an impression. My interest also came by way of movies – my dad had me watching Hitchcock movies before I could walk and I always liked the way that clothing and wardrobe choices could shape a character, even if I didn’t realize it in those terms then – especially Vertigo and To Catch a Thief. I grew up across the street from F.I.T. (Fashion Institute of Technology) and we would always go see the shows that curator Valerie Steele did at the museum there, but in truth having the fashion students as babysitters was the real thing- they would come over with sewing projects and show me photos from the collections. I honestly remember looking at pictures of Marc Jacobs’s grunge collection for Perry Ellis understanding that I was seeing something special.
SH: What books do you like to have around your house now? Favorite genre?
I go through phases and most recently I’ve been reading lots of personal memoir and, to use a term by Maggie Nelson, autotheory. Some titles: The Argonauts, Bluets, Women, The New York School and Other True Abstractions by Maggie Nelson, I Love Dick and Aliens & Anorexia by Chris Kraus, Abandon Me by Melissa Febos, and a book called I’m Very Into You, which is just over a hundred pages of emails that authors Kathy Acker and Ken Wark exchanged over a few weeks in the mid nineties. I got to style Chris Kraus for a British magazine called The Violet Book this winter and she turned me onto Acker’s work – she’s also writing her biography, which is coming out soon. Also, Joan Didion’s South and West A Notebook – I love Joan. I’ve been into books about relationships and love, gender, and theory the past few months, but I think I’m ready to go back to fiction soon. John Water’s said it best, “Fiction is the truth, fool!”
SH: Are you interested in food writing and cookbooks like your mom was?
DS: Not until recently. Around the time that I began working on finishing Food City, I also started styling for Cherry Bombe and Bon Appetit and made some friends in the food world. My mom, the food historian, always said “I’m not a great cook, but I’m really good in restaurants,” and I feel more or less the same. I tend to make healthier, macro-y things at home so that I can have anything I want when I eat out. I like the Sprouted Kitchen Bowl & Spoon cookbook because it takes all of those healthy things I know how to make and adds a few twists to make everything taste better. I haven’t gotten too far with the Sqirl cookbook yet- so far I’ve only made the Turmeric Tonic- but it’s one of my favorites when I’m in LA and I’d like to attempt some of the recipes. I did make lots of pasta this winter because my friend, Colu Henry, just put out a cookbook called Back Pocket Pasta, which is truly easy to follow and everything is so delicious.
SH: We adore Colu’s book! What other publications do you enjoy?
DS: I love looking at several of the independent fashion magazines and I’ve been lucky to style for some of my favorites- Lula, Violet Book, i-D, Dazed and Confused. Cherry Bombe, Gather Journal, and Bon Appetit for beautiful food writing and photographs. I consistently read and obsess over the New Yorker. I’m also addicted to podcasts especially when I’m working on the computer or prepping for a shoot – I love The Daily with Michael Barbaro, the New Yorker Radio Hour, Fresh Air and How I Built This on NPR and Longform.
SH: Where do you carve out space to read at home? Is Norma Jean (the cat) into cuddling up with you when you’re reading?
DS: Everywhere! But reading in the bath is my top choice – most of my books are a little warped on the bottom from getting wet. I’m never too precious with books, most are underlined and folded because I like going back to favorite passages. I’ve probably said too much and no one will ever loan me a book again! If I’m on the couch or in bed, Norma loves being involved. Reading a good book with a cat on my lap is definitely my idea of a good time. I’m going to make a great old woman.
SH: What prompted you to pen your first book, 50 Contemporary Fashion Designers You Should Know, and what was your experience working on that book?
DS: I was asked to write that book by Prestel, which is a publishing house that focuses on art and photography. It was an intensely educational undertaking because I profiled 50 living designers via a combination of research and interviews. I learned so much working on that and it was nice to have some context about the clothes I was styling for photoshoots. Writing is the opposite of styling in many ways and for me it’s healthy to do both. Styling is very visual and physical and also very social and collaborative, whereas with writing is solitary and still, it’s a slower process. It can be challenging to switch make and forth between the two, but I really appreciate the different parts of my brain that styling and writing force me to use.
SH: When we found out about Food City: Four Hundred Years of Food Making in New York, we were simultaneously excited about it and saddened to learn that your involvement with it came about because your mom suddenly passed away after working on it for five years. It’s beautiful and amazing that you jumped in to see it through. Has working on it, helped you cope with the grief of losing her? Did you learn anything new about her through her writing? I am so sorry for your loss.
DS: Bittersweet is a good word for it. I’m not sure if or how it helped with grieving, but it has kept me connected to my mom in a way that was very different than just missing her. Through working on Food City, I got to know her as this intellectual force, this scholar who was so engaged and involved with her community. I’m so lucky to have a very artistic and passionate father whose work defines him in such an inspiring way, but my mother took longer to find her true interest, as many of us do I think. She got her masters in Food Studies from NYU when she was nearly sixty and her life took on this whole new meaning. The book has gotten such amazing attention and accolades, which makes me so proud, but of course I long to share it all with her, to have her see it’s success. Food City was just nominated for a James Beard award in Nonfiction, which is such a wonderful honor.
SH: The book reveals how and where food was produced and manufactured in New York city throughout history, along with stories about the people who made and consumed it. From the first golden wheat fields of what became Wall Street to the local food makers throughout the city today, Food City provides both a historically sweeping and deeply personal account of New York City’s food industry. Tell us your favorite tidbit from the book.
DS: One of my favorite parts is about the “Brewery Princess” in the Drink section of the book, which tells the story of Josephine Schmid inheriting her husband’s brewing empire in 1889. Schmid was 36 when her husband died and left her the Lion Brewery, which sprawled between 107th and 109th on the West side of Central Park, as well as the fifty saloons that he’d acquired throughout the city. The story of Josephine is so detailed, I love that only six years after taking over the business, she “built a limestone mansion in a style reminiscent of a Loire Vallery chateau at Fifth Avenue and 62nd Street.” I love that Schmid became this beer mogul at a time when women weren’t even working in that industry.
SH: Lastly, can you share some of your five favorite books with us plus one that’s on deck?
DS: Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan, Franny and Zooey by Salinger, Heartburn by Nora Ephron, The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles, Speedboat by Renata Adler. On deck: Nightwood by Djuna Barnes, The Men In My Life by Patricia Bosworth, and The of Eddy: A Novel by Edouard Louis (I know that’s three!).
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