The idea of throwing on a T-shirt and a pair of jeans and running out the door is anathema to Tziporah Salamon, who never leaves the house unless she is fully dressed. And by fully dressed, she means a multi-piece, multi-layered outfit with matching hat, scarf, shoes, earrings, purse, gloves, glasses and other accessories that may take her years to put together.
“It took me seven years to put together one outfit, because I couldn’t find the right earrings for it. I wouldn’t wear it until I found the earrings,” she said in a phone interview with The Times of Israel from Los Angeles, where she, a New Yorker, was visiting a friend whose house had enviable closet space.
The Israeli-born Salamon, 63, has made dressing her life’s work, and it’s hard not to take notice of it. Bill Cunningham, The New York Times’ fashion photographer and others have snapped her picture as she tools around Manhattan on her bike (without a helmet, because it would ruin her outfit) wearing one or another of her unique, colorful, eye-popping ensembles.
All those photos of her on street fashion blogs brought her to the attention of French high fashion house Lavin’s Israeli creative director Alber Elbaz, and he recruited her to model for the company’s 2012 fall-winter print ad campaign. Not long after, London’s Models 1 agency signed the trim, 5’7” Salamon as a model for its classic division.
As exciting as finally getting her first professional modeling gig has been for Salamon, it’s really just a validation of her one-of-a-kind sartorial style. And while she waits for more modeling offers, she keeps busy with wardrobe consultation and style education work. Using her own expansive clothing collection as her instructional material, she offers both group seminars and one-on-one sessions with clients on how to dress, sometimes renting out some of her garments. She is also a performance artist, sharing her personal story and passion for dressing in a one-woman show.
‘I honestly have no idea how many pieces I have all together’
Salamon puts together her outfits from the innumerable clothing items she keeps either in her small Upper West Side apartment or in off-site storage. “I honestly have no idea how many pieces I have all together,” she said. “But I do have over 200 hats.”
Most of her clothing is vintage or antique, bought primarily on an income of tips she earned as a restaurant waitress, hostess and coat check attendant for many years. She quickly realized that new clothes by her favorite designers, like Comme des Garçons, were, unfortunately, out of her reach.
“It was the tips from the coat check that made my wardrobe possible. I bought no health insurance, I had no savings, and I had no children to spend money on. It was all for the clothes,” the single Salamon said.
“I never buy online,” she emphasized. For her, actually touching and getting the feel of the fabric is very important. She mainly shops at vintage and ethnic garment shows in New York, occasionally traveling out of town to check out a special event.
“But I can generally find everything here in New York.”
Not operating on a big budget (she occasionally regretfully sells items when she’s in need of cash), she had never been to Fashion Week until she was invited last winter to London and Paris as a guest of Lanvin.
While Salamon is now absolutely certain that clothes are her calling, it wasn’t always evident that her role in life would be to take dressing “to the nth degree, to show what is possible.”
In her twenties, she earned a Masters degree in education from the University of California at Santa Barbara. As she worked on a PhD in psychology from the California Graduate School of Marital and Family Therapy in Berkeley, she realized that she was not cut out to be a therapist. “I had a hard time separating, cutting patients off after an hour. I couldn’t set limits.”
Her decision to leave school at 28 was traumatic for her, but it was even more crushing for her hardworking Holocaust survivor parents. “My father, who had told all his customers that I was going to be a doctor, was heartbroken,” Salamon recalled.
Her father may have been heartbroken, but her parents were Salamon’s inspiration to find her way into fashion. “Clothing was in my blood, but I had never thought of it as a career before,” she said, referring to her father’s lifelong work as a tailor and her mother’s as a dressmaker.
Hungarian Jews who had survived the camps, her parents immigrated to Netanya, Israel in 1949 with a young daughter, Salamon’s older sister. Salamon was born in 1950, and the family moved into a home her father built on a plot behind a cousin’s house.
“My father’s two younger brothers lived with us for a number of years until they got married and moved out,” she recalled. Her parents supported the family by working in their trade, and they made all of their daughters’ clothes by hand.
Salamon, who can vividly recall details of her Israeli childhood, from the embroidered book cover she made, to the red poppy fields she would run through on the way to school, to the beauty of her third grade teacher (fittingly named Yaffa), was devastated when her parents decided to move the family to New York.
Whereas in Netanya she was the class leader and admired for the beautiful clothes sent to her by her American aunt, who was married to the vice president of Neiman Marcus, when she arrived in Brooklyn without English language skills, she felt stupid and had to endure the insults of the other kids, who laughed at her handmade clothes.
Her skilled parents quickly found work in Manhattan’s garment district — her mother as a fur finisher and her father doing piece work in a factory. Later, her father made tuxedos, and eventually he went into business with a partner, and then later on his own.
“My father was a gifted tailor,” Salamon remarked. When, at age 77, he closed his business, she set him up with a job doing alterations at Bergdorf Goodman, which he kept until he was 85.
“By 14, I had sophisticated taste,” Salamon said of her teenage self. She would shop at Macy’s like the other girls, but she would also ask her mother to sew for her outfits she had seen on the cover of Vogue. “But it wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I really developed my individual style.”
Salamon took a long and winding road of self-discovery through New York’s shmata business, broadly defined, to reach where she is today. Through trial and error and a process of elimination, she determined that theater costuming (ironically, she can’t sew), fashion merchandising, television commercial styling, and fashion design were not for her. Although she landed jobs with (the now-defunct) Charivari boutique chain, designer Norma Kamali, and even at Barneys, the luxury department store, her happiest time was as a waitress at the Jezebel restaurant, where she was not only allowed, but also encouraged, to wear her vintage clothes to work.
Having never formally studied fashion or art history, Salamon is an autodidact when it comes to sartorial style. “God blessed my parents with hands, and me with eyes,” she said about her keen vision.
“For me, it’s like creating a painting” she said as she described her dressing process. She keeps no written inventory of her clothes and makes no notes about which pieces go together to make which outfit.
“Matisse didn’t make notes. He just painted,” she remarked about the artist that has inspired her the most. “I would hang Matisse prints around my home and I’d dive into them,” she explained. “He taught me about depth, color, texture. He sharpened my eye.”
After all these years and all those clothes, Salamon has come to understand what she believes she has been put on earth to do. She took it as a sign that the Torah portion read in synagogue on the first anniversary of her tailor father’s yahrtzeit in 2006 was Tetzaveh, in which God gives Moses the instructions about how to sew the priestly garments for Aaron and his sons.
“From that point on, I made a vow that I would dedicate my life to kavod (honor) and tiferet (splendor), to the honor of God and the memory of my parents through my dress.”
Despite all the bold patterns and bright colors she wears daily, the one garment that means the most to her is her father’s simple cream-and-black striped prayer shawl, that dates back to his bar mitzvah.
“As the child of Holocaust survivors, I can’t help but think about what one piece of clothing I would take with me if I had to flee. It would be that tallit. When I wrap myself in it, I feel my parents protecting me.”