By Ellen Ryan | February 20, 2012 | Style & Beauty
Madras, the former English name for the Indian city of Chennai, is the cotton associated with British colonial rule of the subcontinent. Brits of a certain class became known for sporting clothes of the lightweight material in India’s heat, and the plaid is a meme of prepsters to this day. Think of the Washingtonians known for wearing bow ties: conservative columnist George Will; in-his-image pundit Tucker Carlson (who abandoned them years ago); the late liberal Senator Paul Simon. From them we get a sense of solidity, an appreciation of the past with a whiff of hipster individuality.
While madras bow ties are the constant motif of Watkins’s collection, there are also two madras four-in-hands. Watkins has stewardship of six of the 14 ties, while his father has the rest—but no one claims actual ownership. “None of us [in the family] are really collectors,” Watkins says. “These were passed down through the generations. They came to me fully formed and have stayed constituted as a group.”
But does it truly matter? He cultivates them. He can trace their provenance. He knows how to wear them—and does so quite often in warmer months. So did great-grandfather William Bell Watkins Sr., who bred horses, hunted foxes, and built a sailboat in his barn in Clarke County, Virginia. “Like many men of his generation, he made sport of being a snappy dresser,” says Watkins. Senior acquired six of the ties (or more—some of them have no labels) decades ago at a Bermuda store named Triminghams.
Watkins recalls Senior’s son, William Bell Watkins Jr., wearing cravats, vests, and “a necktie with a giant safety pin beneath to make it stand out, as only a 90-year-old man can do and look fantastic.” There he is in a photo from his youth, hair slicked back in that Roaring Twenties style, decked out in a pin-striped suit with superwide lapels. Junior, too, hunted foxes, as well as ran a mill and bred animals of all sorts, including horses, sheep, peacocks, and guinea hens. One of the two four-in-hand ties came directly to Watkins from his grandfather. Then came William Bell Watkins III, a longtime Berryville auctioneer and amateur carpenter who passed on to his son a love of “construction, mechanical things, and neckties, so I learned a lot from him.” Father and son trade the ties back and forth, so the concept of ownership is fairly fluid.
Watkins, 29, studied urban planning and historic preservation at Columbia after graduating from the University of Virginia. “I wore [the bow ties] around [campus],” he says. To the football stadium, like gentlemen scholars of old? “I wasn’t much of a sports fan, so there was one opportunity blown.” His approach: “They’re made to be worn. They’re beautiful and interesting and rare. But you have to be judicious to avoid being typecast—so don’t wear them every time you dress up. A lot is in the attitude; I wear them without irony. Taking pride in the way you look is a family tradition.”
Perhaps a fifth Watkins generation will continue that, but for now he is happy to share his pieces and show delighted cousins and friends how to tie them. “Everyone has to put on clothes,” he says, “so why not have some fun with it?”
"Once a piece is quality, it remains quality always,” says Thomollari, 30, who lives in DC. “And I love continuing the story of the previous wearer, to imagine the life and experiences she had.”
As president of DNA Luxury Consulting, Thomollari advises a variety of clients on how to position themselves as luxury entities, and she says she needs to look the part. But rather than just buy contemporary designers, she works with timeless pieces as well, to merge the best of both vintage and modern.
“Every year I buy less but of better quality,” she says. Her three favorite additions from the past year: a 1970s beaded Oscar de la Renta dress with yellow, green, and pink stripes, a birthday gift from her mother; a deep-red, crushed-velvet de la Renta cape, also from the ’70s; and a short, black and green Bob Mackie dress, all sequins and beads, that “makes me smile. I feel like wearing it to the grocery store. I might have in Las Vegas.”
Born in Albania, Thomollari had an eye for fashion early: “I used to lay out what my parents should wear to parent-teacher meetings.” She started collecting during senior year of high school, with a Versace jacket and high platform shoes she bought in New York.
While on vacation in 2001, Thomollari discovered Daniel Espinosa jewelry, and upon her return found that no US stores carried the line. When she expressed interest in opening its first stateside location, the company decided their American flagship should be either in Los Angeles or New York City. She chose LA and asked her parents to invest. For years she sold to high rollers and celebrities, attended galas, and shopped the Rose Bowl flea market.
Moving to Washington three years ago, she finished her degree at Marymount University, launched her boutique consulting firm, won her pilot’s license, and started a very successful fashion blog. Hailed as a trendsetter because of her innate understanding of style, flair, and poise, she has appeared in magazines from China to Albania to the United Arab Emirates.
This past May, a blog entry mentioned an event at which “I was especially excited to wear one of the most beloved dresses in my entire collection: the Alexander McQueen butterfly dress I purchased from the Roan boutique in Richmond, Virginia. He was truly my creative inspiration.” The photos show her modeling the lovely frock with a pair of barely walkable Christian Louboutin heels, a mix of Hermès and antique bracelets, and a headdress of orange feathers that set off her raven hair.
In recent years, Washington has witnessed an influx of more stylish dressing, thanks in part to the Obamas. Naturally, Thomollari applauds that shift. As for closer to home? “I hope to have a daughter someday,” she says. “Hopefully she’ll like my sequins and bead dresses and won’t think I’m crazy.”
The world's first synthetic plastic—technically, a thermosetting phenol formaldehyde resin— Bakelite had many industrial uses. The public knew it as the basis of toys, jewelry, and heatresistant kitchenware. Inexpensive, lightweight, and colorful, accessories by Bakelite (and other brand names) were enormously popular through the 1930s until World War II.
Davidov’s love of color led to an accomplished career as painter and a fashion illustrator. She holds a master’s in fine art from American University. She is also a writer whose work has appeared in The Washington Post and Lucire magazine, and she has designed sets for The Washington Ballet. Not surprisingly, she and her husband have collected such artistic objects as pottery, furniture, and sculpture.
“When Bakelite got big in the ’80s, I called Mother and said I’d like to have her bangles,” Davidov recalls. “She said, ‘Aren’t you glad I saved them all these years?’ ”
Collecting actively from the early 1980s to the early 2000s, Davidov reveled in wearing, displaying, and color-coordinating her pieces. She bought low, before most collectors got serious. One of her favorite items is what collectors call the “Philadelphia bracelet,” so named, according to Davidov, because of the “fierce competition” the pieces generated when two appeared at the Philadelphia Art Deco show in 1984. Hinged, striped, and laminated, it closes with a satisfying snap. In addition to its distinct design, both aesthetically and mechanically, the bracelet has all five Bakelite colors (highly unusual, according to Davidov). For all these reasons, it is unique and has generally sold for more than other Bakelite jewelry.
In 1988, she cowrote The Bakelite Jewelry Book, a detailed look at the material’s history, with Ginny Redington Dawes. “I was feeling guilty about spending money on plastic. That’s why I wrote the book,” she says. “It became known as the bible on Bakelite,” she says.
Seven years ago, Davidov divested herself of more than 100 classic Bakelites, mostly bangles and brooches, but also necklaces, dress clips, round boxes, and the occasional belt buckle, manicure set, and ring.
“I saved the hottest pieces,” she confides. “And those that had special meaning to me.” Among these: her mother’s pieces, and anything her children bought for her; cuff bracelets in boxes signed by dancer-actress Josephine Baker and other European performers from between the wars; a figural of President Roosevelt’s Scottie, Fala; handbags, including a green clutch with a carved fox handle and a black ostrich bag with a translucent amber-colored handle; and a charm bracelet of Monopoly figures—“a link to the past and the present,” she calls it.
Particularly popular with collectors are later bracelets featuring polka dots or bow-tie designs. Two such bangles sold at the 2005 auction for a combined $8,225.
In another nod to her past—the natural crystals she collected at a childhood home in Little Rock, Arkansas—Davidov has now created Rock Island Jewelry, a collection of rhinestone necklaces and bracelets that retail at Saks Jandel and were featured in a music video of Grammy nominee Nadia Ali. Davidov often combines styles from her new line with Bakelite pieces. “It’s all meant to be worn and enjoyed,” she says. “If you can’t see it, what’s the point?”