Birthday Breakfast for the Imaginary

In my free time, I write fiction. My husband says it makes me an easier person with whom to live.

My writing focuses on a Parisian high fashion house inclined to supernatural events. The creative director is Étienne d’Amille and he’s been in my life for decades.

So, he’s my best ever imaginary friend.

He was born during the interwar era in France– March 14, 1959. Every year I try to mark his birthday in some way. When he turned 50, I took a group of my friends (the ones who “knew” him, i.e. read about him) out for dinner and margaritas.

Many of my celebrations are quiet meals at home, where we often discuss what we’d get him for a present or what he might be doing now. 

This year, I made steak au poivre.

For breakfast.

A day late.

I had intended a lovely dinner, perhaps even by candlelight, for this charming imaginary Frenchman whose memories I confuse as legitimately my own. Then I agreed to work for a colleague in the evening and my mom visited taking my daughter away. (She would have been extremely disappointed if we ate the steaks without her.) To further complicate matters, my husband and I used the early afternoon for other activities (or more accurately, one adult activity) that I’m sure Étienne would have also enjoyed.

This particular version of steak au poivre has its own “comedy of errors” moments but let me say, it might have been my best ever. After college, I became a vegetarian. This lasted eight years primarily for two reasons: 1. I don’t approve of modern factory farming and 2. I hate touching meat. Étienne, though, as a Frenchman and a divorcé, likes to cook so I got over my discomfort of dealing with meat “for him.”

Étienne’s Belated Steak Au Poivre

  • 4 small chuck tender steaks, angus beef (I got mine on markdown at Target)
  • black peppercorns
  • Himalayan pink salt
  • half a stick of butter, cut into four equal pieces of on tablespoon each
  • garlic powder (should be shallots but I didn’t have them. I often substitute fresh chives but didn’t have them either)
  • 1/2 cup brandy (I’m a liar. I didn’t have brandy. I had ginger brandy and spices rum, so I mixed them. It worked.)
  •  3/4 cup heavy cream (I’m lying again. I didn’t have cream, so I used half and half)

The process 

(I put photos on Instagram: angelackerman.)

With a heavy-bottomed skillet (mine, of course, is Le Creuset), smash peppercorns. I couldn’t find my grinder, which had my peppercorns in it. I did find a small container of peppercorns and salt that had exploded from the grinder at some point.

Next, pat steaks dry and smash them with a skillet too. Cooking can be great as a form of anger management. I bet Thug Kitchen would agree.

Sprinkle both sides of the steaks with salt and press the peppercorns into the meat. Cook them to desired doneness and place in a warm oven.

Now, the cream sauce.

Take half the butter and cook your shallots or chives or whatever. I added about two teaspoons garlic powder. When it’s appropriately incorporated pour in the alcohol. When that starts to bubble, add the cream and slowly bring it to a boil. Let it slowly thicken, then add remaining butter. When it melts and blends into the sauce and you just can’t take it anymore, smother those steaks and eat!

Good doesn’t matter

Like any human, I have good days and bad. This weekend was hard for me. Blame hormones. A sick cat. Family members who don’t see eye to eye with me. Whatever you like. Reality is… Such is life.

I have been focusing a lot of time and energy on diet and exercise recently, but today (and yesterday) I couldn’t bring myself to lift my weights or go for a walk. Instead, I went to Dunkin Donuts. Had a 250+ calorie iced coffee and not one but two donuts. Some people get drunk, I prefer a sugar high. It didn’t work.

So I talked to some friends. Thanks to them, I felt more myself. My family challenged me to the first day’s training session from the app “Couch to 5K” (C25K). We did it. As a family. Now I can eat something small for dinner and not feel badly.

Looking over some of my notes from today I am reminded once again that the things that make you feel accomplished are those achievements outside your comfort zone: going for a run when you don’t think you have the physical strength, tap dancing when you’re really awful at it…

Or for me, even fashion illustration. And sharing it with the world. My fiction manuscripts are set in the high fashion world (and oddly enough, Francophone Africa). I have always designed dresses and clothes for the characters.

I am not an artist. But, while feeling poorly today, I designed the dress in the photograph. It’s worn by a French woman who marries a half-French, half Issa-Somali Muslim man from Djibouti. She’s a trouble maker who lost her left leg (and some other body parts) to an IED in Afghanistan.

Doughnuts might not be good for me. I might not draw well. I must look like an idiot running around my local park. But today, these things soothed me.IMG_1262.JPG

Back to School shopping

My daughter enters the fifth grade tomorrow. In her district, this involves moving to a new school and riding the bus with the big kids. I have never really taken her back-to-school shopping. Instead, I quietly purchase the necessities and her grandmother buys her an outfit or two and that’s the end of it.

Not this year.

She’s older so I thought I’d make back-to-school shopping a lesson in how to handle money. We started by taking $200 out of her savings account. I had already purchased the sneakers, jeans, new coat, backpack and school supplies required. We also had cleaned her drawers, sorting everything by size and removing the items that were too small, soon to be too small or just not her style any more. Those will be passed on to another child.

At the bank, she filled out her own withdrawal slip and we headed to the counter where the teller asked her how she preferred her money. She left with an envelope of mixed bills. We kept the receipt so she could keep that inside the envelope and track her purchases. I took a “mommy” envelope for the times where she would need me to pay with my credit card.

She made a list of items she wanted. With our list in hand (and eventually forgotten in her wallet) we went to the thrift store. The thrift store I frequent is a little… shady. I told my daughter not to bother trying anything on, that we’d buy it, wash it, and then try it. If it didn’t fit, we’d donate it away. We arrived during 65% hour.

We found a pair of Ralph Lauren corduroys, skinny style, with snaps at the ankles. We found two tank tops with the built-in shelf bras. We found a camouflage tank top and a polka dot long sleeve shirt. By far, her favorite discovery was the black cropped sweatshirt, zipper down with a hood, covered with Muppet style fuzz. Total spent: $8

Next, we headed to Target. Since I work at Target, we have my employee discount plus an additional 5% off if we use my RedCard. Hence, the Mommy envelope. And this particular sales week had $5 off a $20 Target brand underwear purchase. We bought two bras, ten pairs of underwear, four pairs of socks, and a pair of buckle laden black ankle boots. Total spent: $50.

After Target, we went to the mall. I have a Gap visa which I opened one year when I wanted to buy the child a coat. The extra percentage off made the deal sweeter. This summer, the financial company offered 10X reward points on purchases outside the Gap. So, when typically it requires $1,000 in purchases for a $10 Gap gift card, this promotion meant you received a $10 gift card with only $100 in purchases. I “earned” $50 in gift cards for making the Gap card my primary card for the summer (which I pay off in full every time the bill arrives).

My daughter found a cropped sweater, a cropped red zipper down sweatshirt and a sweatshirt dress with pocket in the front. She paid $9. I put it on my Gap card and she gave me the cash for the Mommy envelope.

Now a Mommy-daughter shopping trip is never complete without lunch. Child wanted wings. She loves chicken wings on the bone. Her first thought was Buffalo Wild Wings. But after consideration, she decided on the pub near our house. I’m sure Shruty’s Pub appreciates that she chose to support the local, family-owned business.

Our final stop was The Crossings Premium Outlets. I explained to dear daughter that her money wouldn’t go nearly as far here. Her first stop was Charlotte Russe. She bought two shirts for $23. Then we visited Forever 21. She found a leopard print skirt, a nice blouse, and an umbrella for $38.

“Mommy,” she said, “this place really does eat your money.”

She had grown tired at this point. But she really wanted shoes. Women’s shoes. We went to one outlet and it was athletic shoes which didn’t interest her. We had several shoes stores lined up in front of us: Merrill, Easy Spirit and Bass among them. But those are all sensible shoes. The one at the end of the row interested me most and I knew it would appeal to her too. Nine West. We entered and I think my daughter found nirvana.

Now, my daughter is ten. She wanted some heels. She can’t wear heels to school, and she’s spending her own money, so I don’t want to tell her what to buy. I allowed her to pick out one pair of ridiculous sparkly strappy shoes. She wanted two. One pair was platform. She didn’t keep those. She decided on a beaded pink pair and a pair of leopard pumps. She spent $45.

The depletion of her envelope made her visibly sad. She opted to stop shopping and bring home the remaining few dollars.

I asked if she understood why we shopped in the order we did.

“What would have happened if we came here first?” I asked.

“I would have spent all my money,” she said.


En route: Hijab practice


When I traveled to Tunisia in 2012, I learned to tie a hijab. I used this skill twice during my travels, once very successfully and the second, well, a tad dismally.

I am renewing my hijab practice since I will certainly need to cover in Yemen.

I struggled to use the same scarf that I did in Tunisia, but it kept looping over my face. I used a more narrow scarf in a jersey-like fabric and that became much easier to maneuver.

I made some YouTube videos of my initial attempts. I like the red scarf, and have a purse that matches it. Continue reading “En route: Hijab practice”

Press Release: Fashion manufacturer expands (1998)

This was one of my first freelance PR clients. This event had a very specific purpose. This fashion manufacturer was expanding at a time when everyone else in the industry was outsourcing to Mexico or other locations. They were expanding, and they had purchased an old mill where the owner had a bad reputation. The client feared they would not be able to attract employees, so they hosted an Open House.

I publicized the event and attended the open house to talk with media personnel. The TV crews showed up as we were breaking down the event. We put the displays back together, lined the mannequins up and had a trusty employee who had stayed to help clean up give a demonstration. The manager’s family had to stand in for the guests, since the well-attended event had ended.

It yielded a really nice pair of television news stories on our local channel.

mahoning1 mahoning 2

Excerpt: How Haute Couture Sells Prestige

Seducing the Masses:
How Haute Couture sells Prestige for Fashion Houses

By Angel Ackerman (December 2010)

Anyone who has ever watched “Style with Elsa Klensch” on CNN, noted the dresses of
female celebrities at the Oscars or flipped through the pages of a fashion magazine like Vogue or
Harper’s Bazaar has seen the fantastical creations of modern French high fashion or haute
couture.  While the industry technically caters to celebrities and the wealthy, the importance of
modern haute couture depends on it building an image of pizzazz for a fashion house.  Individual
houses rely on haute couture not to sell extremely labor intensive art pieces from the runway, but
to promote mass market merchandise such as ready-to-wear, perfumes and franchise goods
(cosmetics, sunglasses, purses and ties).  The glamorous image of haute couture draws everyday
consumers to cheaper more mainstream goods by offering them a small attainable piece of
luxury.  In simple terms, this paper will look at why haute couture still exists and concludes that
the answer rests in the image high fashion creates and how it influences consumers to buy
perfume and ready-to-wear.

To understand this interaction, it may be beneficial to offer a definition of haute couture
today.  Claire Shaeffer, not a scholar but a sewing expert, provides a relatively succinct and
precise definition of this aspect of the fashion industry.  She states:
“To earn the right to call itself a couture house and use the term haute couture in its
advertising or in any other way, a member of the Chambre syndicale (1) must design
fashions that are made to order for private clients and involve one or more
fittings, have a workroom in Paris with at least 20 full-time workers, present a
collection of at least 50 designs, day and evening garments, to the press in Paris in
January and July for the spring/summer and autumn/winter seasons and show the Collection to potential clients in the respective couture houses in a determined place.” (Shaeffer 2007: 7-8)

These rules cannot even begin to explain how incredibly complex haute couture construction is,
though Shaeffer also provides a summary of the buying experience of a 21st century client in the
Dior couture house.  As Dior is one of my case studies for this project, I will devote some space
to this so that the reader may see exactly how this industry remains old-fashioned, labor intensive
and as a consequence, cost-prohibitive.  The mechanics of this sales and service process are
nearly identical at every house.

After the January show for the press, the fashion house will host weekly shows for clients.  Each client books appointments with the head saleswoman (directrice) with their individual saleswoman (vendeuse).  A client always has the same vendeuse, so that the vendeuse can understand the client’s style.  Most of these saleswomen speak fluent English in addition to French. The client will try the sample garments, usually unzipped because of the small sizes, but the vendeuse is adept at working around this.  Changes are discussed, items like the fabric or
length of skirt are all customized. On a client’s first visit to a house, the première (literally, “first”
or head of the sewing workshop) will take about 30 measurements of the client’s body, head to
toe, so the staff can make a dress form to replicate that client’s shape.

The première main (or “first hand,” the top-skilled seamstress in the workshop) will
create a muslin toile of the garment.  The workshop staff will cut real fabric with the toile as a
pattern.  The garment is sewn together loosely (basted) for the first fitting.  The client tries the
garment, the staff evaluates it and marks changes before returning it to the workshop.  They
remove every stitch and every piece of the garment pressed before being reconstructed for the
second fitting.  Embellishments such as embroidery or beads are added.  A second fitting occurs
and if everyone is satisfied the process may stop there.  Significant changes mean deconstructing
everything to press every single piece again.  The final step is always to add the label, which at
Dior includes the date of the collection and the fabrication number.  This summary is extremely
simplified, and does not address a complex garment or a fashion show (Shaeffer 2007: 14-16).(2)
As this summary demonstrates, haute couture embodies everything old-fashioned.

Everything in haute couture is done by hand, from seams to sleeves, beads to feathers.  If a
fashion house does not employ the “hands” (“mains” as called in French) for these jobs, it hires
outside contractors for it.  Chanel is famous for its 2002 purchase of House of Lesage, France’s
oldest embroiderer that traces its origins to Charles Worth, the founder of haute couture.  This
house provides lace and other embroidery work for three of my case studies: Chanel, Dior and
Lacroix.  Imagine in today’s world of sewing machines and cheap international labor, an army of
people in France with jobs as intricate as being the “little hand” (“petite main”) that sews sequins
or, my personal favorite, the left-handed “hand” who finishes zippers (Shaeffer 2010: 96).(3)

Despite its old-fashioned methods and its roots in the mid-19th century, haute couture
always has embraced a global business model aimed at surviving in the roller coaster
environment of the early 20th century.  This model depends on image.  Trends in demographics
of wealth, exploitation of global media, creative franchising, incorporating international business
partners and, perhaps most importantly, connection with technology that allowed the
manufacture of ready-to-wear and mass market merchandise have allowed haute couture to
survive.  This project will discuss how image and clientele intersect in haute couture to promote
ready-to-wear and other consumer goods.

To explore this, I have compiled chronological timelines of major trends at several haute
couture houses, using three legendary French houses as case studies: Chanel (founded 1909),
Dior (1946), and Yves Saint Laurent (1961).  I extrapolated data on licenses for mass market
goods, sales and the performance of haute couture throughout the 20th century.  I applied my
findings to two newcomers, Jean-Paul Gaultier (ventured into haute couture in 1997) and Christian Lacroix (1987).  The traditional houses of the former trio developed mass market practices as a means of survival in the face of World Wars, economic crashes, globalization and the information age.

The latter two are different.  Gaultier opened his ready-to-wear house in
1977, waited twenty years to delve into haute couture and earned his official designation in
2001.  Lacroix opened his doors in 1987 but declared bankruptcy in 2009.  Now, Lacroix is
known for scents marketed by Avon.

Business books on fashion argue whether or not fashion is a success or if it will continue
to have world influence.  The End of Fashion by Teri Agins, a Wall Street Journal reporter
covering fashion, calls the modern fashion industry a failure because of declining profits (even
though mainstream brands like Levi Strauss continue to make millions, they are making less
millions than previously).  Fashion Brands by Mark Tungate, a marketing specialist, studied how
fashion brands develop and use their image.  I built on their observations by studying both
French and English language sources (books by people in the industry, biographies, newspapers,
magazines, interviews with designers and corporate representatives, official web sites, and
academic journals).  I tried to interpret data regarding who bought haute couture, its effect on the
French economy, global profits in the luxury market and how specifically perfume and ready-to-
wear increased profits for fashion houses.

Many of these items cannot be directly compared.  For instance, sales figures are
presented in the literature as French francs, Euros, dollars and even pounds.  Even when they do
correspond in currency, the years are so far removed from each other that the figures cannot be
compared without adjustment for inflation.

My goal is to explore the relationships between haute couture, an industry which costs
fashion houses millions of dollars a year, and mass market fashion goods.  Agins blames the lack
of haute couture profit on the industry’s indulgence in art and talks about how multinational
entities — including two big French corporations: LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessey) and PPR (Pinault-Printemps-Redoute– purchased fashion brands in the nineties.  She proclaims haute couture a failure and implies that fashion as an industry will continue to decline.  Agins neglects to consider fully the impact of image and marketing these
mass market licensed items, something Lou Taylor focuses on in “The Hilfinger Factor and the Flexible Commercial World of Couture.”  Similar to how the lower-end brands like Tommy Hilfinger use the specific selling of a lifestyle image, that’s exactly how haute couture incurs profit.  Image leads to the sale of overpriced designer goods. Taylor calls this phenomenon “brilliance in commercial flexibility” (Taylor 2000: 129)

While Taylor addresses mainstream American fashion entities, his findings are supported in the business realm by Alain Chaffel, a French economist, also credits the success of haute couture to “brilliance” but he refers to
handicraft and creativity (2008: 46).

Haute couture often sparks a debate about whether or not high fashion sewing influences
everyday clothing trends.  Fashion scholars argue about whether fashion trickles down from
haute couture or “mops up” from the street (for example, Jenkin Jones 2002 vs. Hastreiter 1993),
but a bigger lesson can be learned.  On one hand, scholars like Taylor study mass market goods,
while haute couture attracts scholarly attention for its artistic value and impracticality.  No one
seems to acknowledge that haute couture spawned the modern fashion industry, and it did so by
incorporating global business practices at its very origins.  Its sensitivity to the global market and
its adherence to French values makes haute couture a relevant topic that combines the
preservation of culture with international economic success.

Haute couture follows strict French trademark and production rules, as an appellation
d’origine contrôlée, despite tracing its roots to Charles Worth, mentioned earlier as a founder of
House of Lesage.  Worth was an expat Englishman who made Paris the center of the fashion
universe.  While fashion seems quintessentially French in reputation, only two designers from
my five case studies are French.  All three of my iconic French houses are led by non-French
designers.  Chanel’s Karl Lagerfeld is German.  Dior’s John Galliano is British.  Yves Saint
Laurent’s Stefano Pilati is Italian.  This offers a direct contradiction to the stereotype that the
French do not like foreigners involved in their business, another reason why haute couture is a
pertinent industry to study today.

(1) Already Shaeffer introduces a complexity into this definition.  Producers of haute couture must belong to
the official French fashion union.  They can only join the union if they have a “godfather” who is already a
member of the union who attests to their craftsmanship and worthiness and fulfill all the other criteria in
Shaefferʼs definition.

(2) To get a small taste of the craziness before an haute couture show I highly recommend “The Day
Before: Jean-Paul Gaultier,” part of a reality series on the Sundance Channel.  The Day Before, Season
1, Episode 4, featuring Jean-Paulʼs spring 2009 collection. Valentino: The Last Emperor is a feature-
length documentary film about Valentinoʼs last collection which is available in Skillman Library.

(3) Shaeffer points out that itʼs rare to find an ambidextrous “hand” who can easily sew both sides of a
zipper, so many houses have an employee whose primary job is to be left-handed.  This level of detail
and intricacy is typical of haute couture.