Put on your favourite Margaret Howell shirt, polish your Church’s brogues, The New Garconne: How to be a Modern Gentlewoman is out today. Written by freelance fashion editor and founder of the Disneyrollergirl blog Navaz Batliwalla, and published by Laurence King, this is the definitive guide for the grown-up tomboy. There’s a history of garconne style, a useful directory of ‘the brands and places that a modern gentlewoman prefers’ and a section on the ‘master pieces’ or components of a hard-working wardrobe. My favourie chapter is ‘The Advocates’, a series of interviews with 14 Modern Gentlewomen from around the world; like Bella Freud, the artist Polly Morgan and accessories designer Laurence Dacade. The women talk about their work, life and style – Kristen Naiman vice president at Kate Spade New York is ‘happiest in a man’s button-down shirt’, collects blue and white china and loves to walk – and are photographed either at home or in their work space. Most are surrounded by carefully curated objets, have a low-maintenance beauty routine and mix vintage finds with modern menswear-inspired items; as Navaz says in The Heritage chapter, ‘ The essence of the New Garconne lies in a certain duality. A harmonious yin-yang of masculine feminine influences; the highbrow complemented by the humble.’
I have known Navaz for over 20 years, we met when we were both working at Nat Mags (now Hearst Magazines) in the 1990s and if there is anyone more suited to writing a book about being a Modern Gentlewoman, I’ve yet to meet her.
Here Navaz answers some questions on the book-writing process and being a Modern Gentlewoman ( I refer to her as DRG which is short for Disneyrollergirl the name of her ace fashion blog):
TNMA: I agree that time is the greatest luxury – how long did it take to coordinate and write your book? And, from a personal perspective, I am finding the process harder the second time around, possibly because I have more time. How did you stay focused?
DRG: I had a year to get the interviews and shoots done and write all the words and then it took a few more months to fine-tune the picture research and edit everything. Having never worked on a book before, I had no idea how complex things like image rights are; even if there’s a picture hanging on someone’s wall, you have to get permission from the artist. Who knew?! I stayed focused because I knew I wanted the book to come out in 2016. The book was commissioned in autumn 2014 and I was given a year to do it. If I’d missed that deadline it wouldn’t have come out until 2017, and even though the style in this book is timeless, with anything vaguely fashion-y timing is crucial.
TNMA: I love all the Gentlewomen you’ve chosen – did you find interviewing them was the best part of all (I really enjoyed that aspect of Style Forever)? And why do you think that is?
DRG: Yes, I was a bit nervous as I’m always nervous about interviews, I’m always convinced the recorder will breakdown! But all the women were so generous with their stories and their insight, I wish I’d asked for more pages now. It was genuinely enlightening listening to the recordings. Those little observations someone makes, that they articulate so perfectly; like when Bella Freud explains about that moment you discover someone has the same taste in books as you and you feel a connection. It was also fab to have a legitimate reason to poke around their houses and studios!
TNMA: You mention in the foreword that it was a challenge getting all your Advocates. Was it difficult working across different continents? What did you find challenging?
DRG: One reason was trying to explain the concept in a nutshell. Without the images I think the ‘gentlewoman’ concept is quite hard to define to people who aren’t in our world. Like if I say to you or Preston Davies (Keep It Chic), ‘Oh you know, she’s the woman who mixes Céline with Cos and Levi’s and she reads Monocle and The Gentlewoman,’ you instantly know women like that. But someone like my mum would be… ‘What? What’s Cos?’!
And then there are quite a few fashion industry people in there and the thing you forget is that you just can’t get hold of them for six months of the year. They’re always travelling, which means you end up with all the photoshoots and interviews in a short space of time. Then there are the gatekeepers. There were a couple of high profile people I tried to get, but you have to go through so many layers of people you just think, ‘hmmm…maybe I don’t want her after all!’ One of my favourite interviewees was someone who almost didn’t want to be found. I won’t say who it was – I’ll let you guess! – but she was someone who doesn’t have a huge digital footprint. She’s very much a behind-the-scenes, low-key person, so she was very reticent when I finally tracked her down. I basically kept badgering her! She agreed because she liked the concept and, of course, she was just perfect when I interviewed her.
TNMA: What makes an enduring classic, a master piece?
DRG: For me it’s usually something that can’t be bettered and has utility and a balanced kind of beauty. And I think fashion-wise it tends to be things that aren’t age or size -specific. For me, it’s the simple things that have just one interesting detail. Lots of women love the Hermes Cape Cod watch that Martin Margiela designed, with the double tour strap. It’s distinctive, yet simple. Watches came up a lot I noticed, I do love a good watch!
TNMA: Does every gentlewoman need a notepad? I’ve noticed it’s a recurring theme…
DRG: Yes she does! She loves tactile, sensorial things. Paper products make us feel like we’re making something happen, it’s more of a permanent intent than typing on a phone. And there’s nothing better than revisiting old notebooks to spark new ideas.
TNMA: I like the Laurence Dacade quote about comfortable shoes – what do you think is the best way to wear flat Gentlewomanly shoes?
DRG: I wear all my flat shoes with cropped trousers. In the summer I like them with bare ankles so you can see some skin. In winter I wear them with ankle socks which is a bit more gamine. I also love the look of long skirts with socks and brogues, it’s s very arty, Japanese kind of look.
TNMA: What did you learn from the book-writing process? Did you discover any new favourite Gentlewoman outfitters (via your advocates)?
DRG: The main thing is how fulfilling a seemingly, overwhelming project is when you take it to its conclusion. It really is about the journey and conquering fears and preconceptions! Another thing I learned, is if people love an idea they’ll find a way to make it happen. So I guess your job is to make them fall in love with the idea. You also have to stick to your vision but know when to compromise; you’re making a commercial product after all. Yes, I discovered some lovely beauty emporiums from my advocates’ recommendations but I’m not telling you what they were. They’re all in the book!
TNMA: What is the most important thing about being a gentlewoman?
DRG: Cheesy as it sounds it’s all about being true to yourself, treating people with kindness and respect and appreciating the good things in life. Oh, and knowing where to find the best vintage Bass Weejun loafers, of course!
The New Garconne: How to be a Modern Gentlewoman is available HERE. And here are some Gentlewomanly master pieces: