LAURA McLAWS HELMS, VINTAGE VIRTUOSO: WHEN ART AND FASHION MEET

LAURA HELMS

At 11:30 on a Saturday morning, the Gimme! Coffee shop in Williamsburg bustles with locals and tourists. After scrambling for a table, I was joined by Laura McLaws Helms, a self-proclaimed “consulting fashion expert and cultural historian.” Strawberry blonde-haired and wearing a honey fox fur coat over a mustard yellow cashmere turtleneck that enhances her hazel eyes, Helms is a combination of a gap-toothed Lauren Hutton meets 1960s French actress Natalie Delon. At just 30 years old, Helms channels her love of vintage through writing, editing, curating and consulting for clients such as jewellery designer Eddie Borgo. When she’s not drawing mood boards or tracing the history of trends, she also publishes her own magazine, The Lady. 

Initially started as a zine collaboration between Helms and a former Vogue Italia fashion editor, the bi-annual publication evokes a female sensuality absent from the newsstands. “We wanted to capture a femininity that I think has been lost,” Helms says. “Women tend to be portrayed as this one-dimensional individual,” she explains, referring to other magazines. With a print run of just 1,500 copies and almost sold out, The Lady is like an art piece: Helms is currently working on the second issue, due in May and promises the circulation will be bigger with a distribution reaching far more selling points. “I don’t think print is dead. People still engage with paper in a different way,” she says.

Helms has turned a passion for vintage into a business. In 2007, she started a blog called ‘Sighs & Whispers’ where she posts vintage editorials and advertisements from various magazines, from the women’s erotic bible Viva (Penthouse’s sister publication) to the then-provocative Vogue Paris. A magazine collector, she scans images from either her personal collection or archives and libraries from around the world. Although she finds beauty in almost every period, Helms is mostly drawn to the etherealness and earnestly erotic portrayal of women in 1970s fashion photography, with models all dolled up posing suggestively yet demurely, whether lying in a poppy field wearing a nightgown or sunbathing while wearing multiple diamond rings and exuberant red lipstick. You get the drift.

She finds that people are “attracted to my aesthetics and eye,” which may explain the now cult following: her Instagram account (@laurakitty) boasts a total of more than 7,500 followers. The number keeps on growing, many of whom are influential personalities in the fashion industry. Her account has been featured multiple times in ‘Instagram accounts to follow’ lists and fashion show music producer Michel Gaubert left a comment a few months ago saying that “Laura posts the best vintage pictures on Instagram.”  Did she ever expect her online presence to create a cadre of followers, aficionados and professionals alike? “I think people with similar aesthetics are drawn to each other,” she says. “I am drawn to other people’s and it’s the sense of being within a network of people who share an ideal of beauty or a shared ideal of looking at the world.”

One of her key influences was her mother, an art historian specializing in Italian Renaissance, who taught her “the best way to understand cultures is through the objects and the history of objects. Then we can understand ourselves through that.” She owes her love affair with fashion to her Swiss paternal grandmother, who had all her clothes custom-made. Her grandmother’s Haute Couture-filled wardrobe soon became her dream playground: “She noticed I was obsessing with the designs from the forties, fifties and sixties, so she started buying me those Tom Tierney paper dolls,” Helms explains. Those paper dolls – a series of books devoted to a different era – marked the beginning of her fashion education, from eccentric designer Elsa Schiaparelli to wunderkind Cristobal Balenciaga. “The only reason I really wanted to learn to read was so that I can learn about clothes,” she says as she sips her chamomile tea.

Today though, the era of her choice, if she had to pick one, is the 1970s: “From the British designers to Studio 54, there was an enjoyment of fashion and clothes,” she says. “It was all about affirmative ideas too. Sexual mores, women in the workplace.” As her go-to photographers, she cites Guy Bourdin, for his “stylization of women and forms,” Deborah Turbeville, for her “dreamy, internal world” and Martin Parr. “A Parr retrospective at The Barbican in London back in 2000 changed my life and made me want to be a photographer,” she recalls. Her favorite models include Jerry Hall and Ingrid Boulting, two complete opposites – one full on glamour, the other pre-Raphaelite nymphet.

Although ‘Sighs and Whispers’ became her calling card as a vintage fashion magazine publishing expert, Helms loves the present, being quick to point the difference between feeling nostalgic and having a simple veneration for the past: “When I look back, I don’t necessarily look back with a sense of nostalgia and think ‘I wish I was there and it’s sad that I wasn’t,’” she explains. “Of course, I wish I could have all those beautiful clothes from back then but I like to watch the evolution of their significance in culture. I think that’s what’s the most interesting: to look at their influence today, how things change and evolve.” She is after all, a historian.

Born in New York City, Helms lived in London between the ages of seven and 18 then returned to New York to enroll at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, earning a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Photography and Imaging. She practiced photography and worked for several years with Robert Polidori, an architectural photographer known for his acute architectural interiors. She then decided to pursue a Master’s degree in Fashion History, Theory & Museum Practice at FIT. Her museum experience was an impressive debut: Through an acquaintance of her mother’s, Helms first worked with award-winning curator Kohle Yohannan for ‘Model as Muse,’ the exhibition that ran at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2009. “Within two hours of meeting, Kohle gave me a list of models and wanted me to write bios in X amount of words, on the spot” she recalled. “It was a test of course. I sat down and wrote them really easily because I’ve always been obsessed with models in fashion magazines. When I was done, he said, ‘these are perfect.’ He didn’t even edit them and they went straight on the wall!” Not too shabby for a curating debut.

After working on various museum exhibits, among them, ‘Vivienne Westwood’ at The Museum at FIT and ‘Beauty CULTure’ at the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles, both in 2011, she is taking on full reigns for the very first time as lead curator for an exhibition on fashion designer Thea Porter. The exhibit of the same name, due to open in February 2015, will be held at London’s Fashion & Textile Museum.

Since she has now taken on the role of lead curator, I ask if she looks for anything particular when visiting other fashion exhibitions. “I’m kind of old school in that I like it to teach me something,” hinting that most fashion exhibitions today convey more a sense of spectacle rather than an emphasis in providing information; in other words, museums are looking to produce bankable exhibits.

She cites the 2011 Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition ‘Savage Beauty’ about the brilliant yet troubled designer Alexander McQueen, who hanged himself in 2010. The exhibit, which broke attendance record, was generally praised for its astounding presentation of the array of works he created, combined with a ‘death of angel’ atmosphere. Helms, however, thought the exhibit failed to portray him as the genius cutter he was: “I would have loved to see some of his patterns,” she says. “Even just one garment deconstructed, something to get a sense of the actual work that goes into these pieces. The holograms and presentation were beautiful but I ended up leaving without a sense of the real work and the real person behind it.”

For Helms, a well-thought out exhibition is one that is properly illustrative and completely harmonious, qualities she intends to apply to the Thea Porter project. She cites the 2011 retrospective ‘Madame Grès: Couture at Work’ at the Musée Bourdelle, composed of an apartment, studio and great hall that belonged sculptor Antoine Bourdelle, in Paris as being a prime example of harmony: “The clothes were intermingled in different spaces,” she explains. “They told the story of her career almost in a fragmented way. It was really amazing to see her pleated gowns counter posed with a Roman sculpture.”

With an ever-growing love of the past and unparalleled excitement for what derives from it, Helms has accomplished what many yearn to reach in an entire lifetime. With other (confidential) fashion exhibits and consulting gigs in the works, the key, it seems, is to literally do what you love – eventually, the rest will follow: People will inevitably turn to those who do things from the heart. She is quick to say, “A love and a pursuit of beauty is what drives me. I get a total thrill from it all.”

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