Growing up in the 80s in Texas, it seemed like anything was possible if you tried hard enough and paid attention. Our pop culture social chronicler Paul Bradshaw reflects on his East Texas upbringing, and how his lifetime quest for style and substance helped direct his aspirations further.
As a young man growing up in rural East Texas, style wasn’t often on the menu. Homogeneity was the standard, and if you couldn’t buy it at JC Penney or Montgomery Ward, chances were it wasn’t in your repertoire. Fortunately for me, I would encounter some remarkable people on my life journey, who opened hidden doors, showed me new vistas and introduced me to invigorating information and experiences.
At the ripe old age of sixteen, I had the good fortune to be sent on a six-week art history tour of Europe. Our chaperone and fearless leader was Marjorie Shepherd, the wife of the mayor of our small town, and a true force of nature. She kept her hair dyed Lucille Ball henna red. She wore bright colors in layers and was always bejeweled and bangled. It was effortless and sophisticated. It was worldly, in the literal sense of the word. I was in awe. Of course, in our small town, she was often gossiped about and called “different”—that lovely word we use in the South, never in a positive way. I thought she was magnificent.
Everywhere we went on that grand tour, she would run into people she knew on the street. I was agog. I couldn’t imagine that level of coincidence. Now, of course, having a few more stamps in my passport, and having made dear friends scattered across the globe, I’ve had the same experience—a familiar face in a far-flung place. The greeting of “What are you doing here?” always brings a smile to my face and the memory of that magical Marjorie to mind.
I really wanted to bring something special back for my mother. I knew she loved rings. She was never much for earrings or necklaces, but she always has collected the most beautiful rings. Emeralds and diamonds and opals and turquoise, each with a story she loved telling about them.
I came across a loose Alexandrite stone in a shop in Cairo. The deep purple color called to me, the light playing in the awkward cut of the stone. It was perfect. When Mom opened the box and beamed at the stone, my nascent instincts were reinforced. Choices didn’t have to be expected to be chic. She worked with a local jeweler to design a completely modern setting in gold. She called it a dinner ring. And, lo these many decades later, she still loves and wears that ring.
I’LL TAKE THAT IN BURNT ORANGE
The University of Texas provided my next great leap forward. This was 1980; I was finally an “adult” and my curiosity was boundless. Disco was dying and preppy was everything. I was certainly an avid participant, but in my own way, letting the style take me to new places. I was mad for madras plaid—the intense, vivid colors so delicately applied to the cotton, intersecting to create deeper hues.
My first year introduced me to the concept of the “formal.” Previously, I had only ever worn a tuxedo to a sibling’s wedding or to my high school proms. Rental was really the only option. But here at college, I had a hunch that I ought to own. My hunch paid off. Between fraternity and sorority formals, debutante balls and charitable functions, that first tuxedo gave me a fantastic return on investment. My friends and I would try to outdo each other in the cummerbund department. My all-time favorite was a Mola, a traditional quilting done by the Kuna Indians of Panama. The folk art quality juxtaposed with a formal tuxedo resonated with me, and in fact I still own and wear it.
Of course, one begins college with the hope of fitting in, and ends it having tried on a variety of persona, searching for the best fit. By the time I graduated, I was ready for a whole new level of discovery.
NEW YORK’S STATE OF MIND
Throughout my young adulthood, frequent visits to New York had begun adding elements of New Wave and Punk into my repertoire. A motorcycle jacket. Some Doc Martens. A ripped jean here, a torn tee there. And I began to take an interest in my environs. Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine, with its brightly illustrated covers, Bruce Weber’s stunning, subtly homoerotic photo essays, and Greg Gorman’s spectacularly fresh LA Eyeworks ads showed me a creative world I wanted to join.
So, I let a New York bound jet engine blow the ink on my diploma dry. A roommate from college got me hired at a trendy restaurant in Tribeca, where I dove into the downtown scene. Waiting on visionaries like Willi Smith, his sister Toukie, Robert DeNiro, Harvey Keitel and other notable New Yorkers, I had a front row seat to these people who were carving out their own niches in a very glam world of which I yearned to be a part.
Falling into the club scene, I began to notice how some people tried way too hard, and others seemed to effortlessly own a room. Their style seemed innate. I window-shopped for ideas, the actual items far out of reach of my meager waiter’s wages. But the New York streets provide so much for the style-hungry. A black cashmere topcoat became a staple in my wardrobe, its secret thrift store history hinted by its ragged lining. A dented, slightly tarnished silver champagne bucket became my totem to a louche life. In my fantasy, one always had a bottle of champagne at the ready.
Keith Haring’s activist graffiti was still omnipresent on subway surfaces and downtown buildings. I bought art on the street from NYU students struggling to make ends meet, even as I was trying to solve the same puzzle. I met amazing, vibrant people… artists, musicians, actors, writers, photographers…each swimming upstream, finding inspiration and using their gift to inspire anyone willing to pay attention. I paid close attention.
TEXAS, OUR TEXAS
Soon the siren’s song of Texas called me back. Dallas was starting to happen. The Starck Club was the epicenter of cool. My job at a big advertising agency, writing copy on an IBM Selectric typewriter, was hopelessly romantic. The place crackled with an electric energy. When you are surrounded by co-workers with the literal job title “Creative,” you are in a world of constant inspiration. In fact, your profession offers added justification to your thirst for all things new and different.
Where downtown New York had a rough-edged energy to it, Dallas was all slickness and gloss. Especially at fun-fueled nights at The Starck Club that brought five star nightclubs to Texas. I began to feel the pull of a more Bohemian vibe and settled back into Austin. I met Liz Lambert through a good mutual friend, but had no idea what was about to transpire with her seeming folly of buying the old San Jose Motel on South Congress. That story is well told now, but for me, seeing such an amazing synthesis of one’s personal aesthetic fully realized… I can’t overstate the influence.
To reference Yoda, there was no “try”. She just did it. It was effortlessly cool. It redefined what chic could look like. It took me all the way back to Marjorie Shepherd. And, it finally sunk in: Anyone with a certain level of means can buy stylish things. In today’s marketplace, we are well-taught about brands and labels. But to truly find style is to find reflections of one’s hopes and joys on a magical journey of life.
Today, whether I’m soaking in the laid-back vibe of west Sonoma County at my farm, or the beautiful collision of tradition and visionary thinking in London, my senses are on high alert. I’ve been lucky enough to meet the most amazing, creative people. And they’ve been kind enough to let me tag along.