In perhaps the most unexpected setting for a forward-looking conversation about style, WAG sits down with Jane Wilson-Marquis at a design-cluttered table nestled within her fairy cottage of a retreat in the woodlands of Putnam Valley.
Every inch of the surroundings, her summer home of some 20 years, is filled with artworks and fabrics, mannequins and ephemera of a life spent embracing the arts.
Despite the artful — and sometimes whimsical — setting, Wilson-Marquis, a British-born fashion designer who splits her time between the Hudson Valley and Manhattan, has a most practical approach to the art of dressing, which she sums up in the most succinct manner.
“You have to feel good about whatever you’re wearing,” she says.
And she knows for many, that’s quite the challenge.
“We’ve all bought clothes that we bought for whatever reason and we never take it out of our wardrobe.”
Wilson-Marquis has made a career out of helping people avoid that scenario with designs that tap into something deeper than fads and passing trends.
In fact, she says she’s been told, “People have to know who they are to wear my clothes.”
And, that seems a very fair assessment as she takes us on a journey through images and sketches, fabrics and completed designs.
“I’m a bit about… everything, as you can tell,” she says with a laugh. “I like to help people push the envelope slightly… but it’s about you. It’s got to be about you.”
It’s exemplified in her bridal gowns, which are known for their timeless elegance and rich detailing.
“Here’s your wedding dresses, and, as you can see, they’re not your everyday wedding dresses,” she says.
They are as different from each other as the brides who will wear them.
But Wilson-Marquis’ dedication to distinctive clothing even extends to the basics, as she shares that even finding the ideal T-shirt is no easy task.
“The neckline is essential,” she says.
And she knows that while a woman might not be able to articulate it in fashion terms, they realize one thing right away:
“A lot of my customers just know something’s not working.”
They might have dozens of pairs of pants, but very few they actually wear, she says.
She wants that to change — and has felt that way for a very long time.
She talks about 1960s England, when she was growing up in the era of Mary Quant and long straight hair and super-slender figures were considered ideal.
“If you didn’t look this way, then you weren’t in fashion — and that was the end of it.”
Wilson-Marquis is all about embracing personal style, creating a signature look, citing Katharine Hepburn as a prime example.
“She stayed with it. That was who she was.”
THE ROAD TO FASHION
Involved in the worlds of dance, theater, fashion and antiques in England, Wilson-Marquis came to New York to dance, eventually settling fully into the world of fashion.
In the late 1970s, she partnered with Cora Hysinger to form Cora & Jane, headquartered in a SoHo salon that produced distinctive hand-beaded eveningwear.
“We had eight Italian ladies working for us,” Wilson-Marquis says of the operation that would outfit the likes of Diana Ross and be featured in publications ranging from Harper’s Bazaar to Women’s Wear Daily.
The collection, she adds, “sold to Saks, Barneys, Bergdorf, the whole thing.”
Though they remained friends, Wilson-Marquis says the creative team would eventually split and she went on to a namesake design firm on the Upper East Side.
“We went from black beading to white dresses,” she says of her transition into the wedding market.
Soon, she was selling what she called nontraditional wedding dresses — “‘Alternative’ sounded too political” —that blossomed into bridal-party wear, custom-tailored eveningwear and more.
“Our whole idea was to give people choices,” she says. “It just mushroomed into this.”
Within the Jane Wilson-Marquis umbrella, she has a line devoted to customized ready-to-wear specializing in jackets and vests.
“We did these trunk shows, and it was very well-received.”
She’ll show off a selection of images, one featuring a dramatic jacket modeled by Daisy Jopling, the British-born violinist now living in Peekskill, while an advertising campaign plays off the mother-daughter theme to show how her fashions flatter women of all ages.
“We’re really more about style than fashion,” Wilson-Marquis says.
She is there to answer needs, keeping a core line of designs always available to her clientele that includes musicians, artists and businesswomen.
“We decided to turn the whole fashion world upside down,” Wilson-Marquis says of the unusual approach. “We want to be the place… if you bought a jacket from us last year and you loved it, you can go back and buy it again in a different fabric.”
The concept has really connected, especially with those who find themselves in different climates and need different fabrics but want to maintain a certain look.
“I have customers who are traveling all the time.”
A NEW PATH
Next up for Wilson-Marquis is a teaming up with fellow Brit Adrian Littley of Oliver Littley, the Savile Row tailor. The collaboration, with a working Oliver & Jane name, will have a hub featuring men’s and women’s bespoke designs at Gilmor Glass in Millerton, where Wilson-Marquis already features her designs. The new direction, she says, is designed to have a distinct appeal, but also a reachable audience.
“We wanted to do affordable luxury,” she says.
The plan is also to secure a space on the Upper East Side — one that may carry a tea theme.
“Your typical boutique is a cold environment,” she says. “In order for us to go bricks and mortar, you have to have a destination, you have to have a story.”
And the venture would be broad in scope.
“I would like to have a store where people could look at everything — have accessories, hair, makeup, jewelry…”
Lately, Wilson-Marquis says she spends two or three days a week in the city, with the rest of the time in Putnam County.
“We design up here,” she says. “We really take care of private customers. We visit them or they come to me, here or in the city.”
Even though custom design has been around for ages, she says many women are still new to the approach.
“For most women, they’re sort of shocked that they can make that choice.”
But once they do, it’s quite a collaborative effort.
“It’s listening to what they feel comfortable in,” she says. It’s all about, “caring for your customer and making them feel the best they can.”
They realize, she says, they are “getting a superior product,” one made with fine fabrics (“mostly silk and wool. It’s natural fabrics, Irish linen, Swiss cotton”) and custom details.
“I like to use vintage fabric so people really do get the one-of-a-kind (effect),” she says.
She pulls out a silver-threaded 1920s-themed piece that she refers to as “The King and I” jacket.
It’s displayed, fittingly, steps away from an Oscar Wilde quote: “One should either be a work of art or wear a work of art.”
These days, Wilson-Marquis says, people are gravitating more toward quality over quantity.
“That’s the new way of things.”
It’s a way that fits right into what Wilson-Marquis has been doing all along.
In a fashion world filled with demographics and market studies, her distinctive approach is again evidenced when Wilson-Marquis is asked to sum up who is her customer.
“Anyone who wants something special, I suppose.”