The Conde Nast elevator

I walked into Armani, greeted the commessa, pointed to a lovely cream-colored jacket, and asked her if I could try it on.

“No,” she said.

This is a story told at an open mic last week for San Francisco’s Porchlight storytelling series. The theme was “fashion.”

I used to write for Vogue. Since I was a freelancer on the West Coast writing about health and medicine, I didn’t have to worry very often about being fashionable. The only thing I had to dress up was my voice, calling people on the phone. “This is Laura Fraser with Vooooogue,” I would say. For some reason, I thought “Vogue” had to have two syllables to sound really voguish.

There I’d be, in my sweat pants and a T-shirt, with stringy hair, making calls from the kitchen table. My boyfriend at the time would hear me–“Voooogue”–and say, “If they could only see you now.”

Every once in awhile I would have to go to New York City to meet with editors, and then I did have to worry about fashion. I panicked each time I went about what to wear. I’m from Colorado. Suburban Colorado. This was the early 90s and my style could’ve been called “Cowgirl Punk,” and the cowgirl part was unironic.

Each time I went to New York, I tried hard to wear the right thing, and inevitably got it wrong. I’d buy a navy Ann Taylor suit with a wrap skirt and look like someone’s corporate secretary. I got a yellow floral babydoll dress with fishnets and Doc Martens and look like I just stepped off Haight Street, which I had.

So I decided to play it safe on one trip and just wear black. I wore loose black palazzo pants with an elastic waist, a black sweater, and a black Gap T-shirt, just like Sharon Stone wore at the Oscars. I met my editor at the Royalton, a swanky restaurant where Conde Nast types ate lunch. The host seated us way in the back, at a table where the kitchen door bumps into your seat if you lean back too far. I could just make out Anna Wintour in the distance, but only because of her sunglasses. A waiter came to take our order, recognized my editor, and apologized, offering to reseat us. He glanced at me by way of explanation for his faux pas.

My editor said we were fine where we were, looked at what I was wearing, and then kindly told me, “Maybe you should get something a little more structured.”

The next time I was in Italy, I didn’t mess around. I went straight to Armani. I was going to buy a suit I could look great in at Vogue for the next ten years, even if it cost me a month’s rent. I walked into Armani, greeted the commessa, pointed to a lovely cream-colored jacket, and asked her if I could try it on.

“No,” she said.

Come no?” I asked her. Why not? “Io scrivo per Vogue.” I write for Vogue, I told her. In Italian, “Vogue” actually does have two syllables.

She shrugged. “Mi dispiace,” she said. Sorry.

She must’ve realized I couldn’t afford it. Or else I was too fat and they didn’t have my size. “Per che no?”

She sighed. “Signora,” she said. “Lei ha una vita bellina ed un culo un po—esagerato. Una giacca corta sarebbe un disastro per Lei.

For all my years of reading Vogue this was actually the first good fashion advice I’d ever heard. “Madam,” she’d said. “You have a nice little waist and a somewhat… exaggerated bum. A short jacket on you would be a total disaster.”

Frustrated, I asked her if there was anything in the store that would work on me.

“Of course,” she said, and pulled out a lovely long-waisted jacket in a creamy green light wool. I put it on, and I was transformed. I was long and lean and chic. I was Anna Wintour-worthy.

The next time I went to New York, it was winter, and no time to wear a spring suit. I told my editor I could only have coffee downtown. The next time I went to the Conde Nast building, a couple of years later, I wore my Armani suit, walking with purpose, feeling sophisticated, and a little Italian.

I got into the elevator, the only one in the world with a weight limit of 132 pounds. I pressed the button for Vogue. Towering next to me were two genetic freaks who looked like they stepped out of a Ralph Lauren ad. They glanced at me, and then shared a meaningful look with each other. I was sure they were wishing they, too, were wearing Armani suits.

They got off the elevator below me, at Self or Glamour or Bride’s. As they got out, I heard one say to the other, “Shoulder pads?” and then they both cracked up.