By RUTH LA FERLA
Published: March 19, 2010
NECKS craned for a glimpse of Patti Smith as she settled at her
customary corner table at Da Silvano in Greenwich Village, a favorite
afternoon haunt, earlier this month. The wonder was that the patrons,
silver haired and sleekly buffed, could pick her out at all. Ms.
Smith was understated, even self-effacing in her mannish jacket,
boater shirt and beat-up jeans. Watching her sip hot water and lemon,
you could easily have mistaken her for one of any number of
androgynous downtown hipsters adopting skinny jeans and boyfriend
coats as a low-key urban armor.
Was she trying to merge with the scenery? Ms. Smith shrugged,
noncommittal. "My style says 'Look at me, don't look at me,' " she
said, a hint of testiness ruffling her easy composure. "It's, 'I
don't care what you think.' "
So it was surprising to learn that her roomy gray jacket, with cuffs
that unfasten at the wrist, was designed by Ann Demeulemeester, a
high priestess of Parisian vanguard chic. Her jeans were Ralph
Lauren, prized by Ms. Smith for their racy lines. Her boots, a gift
from Johnny Depp, who wore them as the Mad Hatter in "Alice in
Wonderland," were the perfect fit, Ms. Smith exulted, "like when the
magic cobbler made your shoes."
She has a rarefied feel for that kind of evocative detail no stray
seam escaping her scrutiny. That might stun her fans, who think of
Ms. Smith as a gnarly rocker, thrashing and howling soulfully on
stage. But style-world insiders embrace her as a kindred spirit whose
discerning eye and sensitive fashion antennas might be the envy of a
veteran stylist. Ms. Smith's look, after all, is nothing if not rehearsed.
"She is very aware of her style and she controls it," said Ms.
Demeulemeester, a longtime friend and fashion collaborator. (Ms.
Smith favors the designer's mannish white shirts, inspired by the one
she wore on the cover of her debut album, "Horses.") "It's about
being conscious of who you are and using all the strength you have to
Back in the public eye, if indeed she ever left it, with a
best-selling memoir and a series of concerts that promise to burnish
her legend, Ms. Smith is the same deft communicator and, not less,
the canny custodian of her own image. In conversation she was
gracious, even genteel, giving no sign of the trash-talking
provocateur who dropped explicit sexual references into magazine
profiles when she was at the height of her career, and peppered her
comments with expletives.
Yet from time to time, a certain flintiness took over. "The thing
I've always liked about performing," she said, storm clouds gathering
in her eyes, "is that I decide what I want to wear, whether I want to
comb my hair. No one ever told me what to do, and no one tells me now."
At 63, she has hung on to that resolve, sloughing off layers that
strike her as inauthentic or alien to the character she crafted in
the '70s, as the gangly diva of downtown punk.
"Even as a child, I knew what I didn't want," Ms. Smith recalled. "I
didn't want to wear red lipstick. When my mother would say, 'You
should shave your legs,' I would ask, 'Why?' I didn't understand why
we had to present a different picture of ourselves to the outside world."
A star attraction at iconic events like the final night of CBGB, the
fabled Bowery club where she performed as a girl, and at a string of
public outings throughout the past decade, she has cleaved to her
signature style, an unlikely fusion of glamour and grit. In her
raffish T-shirts and boy coats, in concert she is the anti Gaga,
rejecting gaudy, serial costume changes, refusing to bend with every
shift in fashion's wind.
That constancy has made Ms. Smith a trendsetter for several
generations how many young girls emulate her look of pegged jeans,
boyfriend jackets and white shirts without ever realizing it? And her
style resonates with designers as diverse as Christophe Decarnin of
Balmain and Limi Yamamoto of Limi Feu, for whom Ms. Smith has been a
kind of spiritual muse. "The capacity to accept anything that happens
to her," Ms. Yamamoto said recently, is a source of constant inspiration.
Ms. Smith has filled out over the years, no longer the lanky consort
of Robert Mapplethorpe, the taboo-smashing photographer she
memorializes in "Just Kids" (Ecco/HarperCollins), her lyrical tale of
coming of age in Manhattan. She is youthful just the same, fresher
and more alluring than she appeared in recent photos, her turnout
more artfully calibrated than her stage persona would suggest.
Her abiding passions are reflected in her style, a thoughtful
pastiche modeled on her cultural heroes. At any time, it may owe a
debt to the Harris tweed jackets she spied on a couple at the
Metropolitan Museum, to Veruschka, the '60s runway Amazon, or to
vintage Keith Richards and John Lennon. She combed shops for months
in search of the striped linen trousers that evoked Mr. Lennon
because, she said, "something in those pants spoke to me of myself."
She likes to knot her white shirts at the waist in homage to Ava
Gardner. Her stringy men's ties are a simultaneous nod to Frank
Sinatra and Bob Dylan. Like the beat-up biker jackets she hunted down
long ago in thrift shops on the Bowery, they are totems.
Ms. Smith, who dropped out of college at 20, cultivated a fashion eye
by studying movies like "Funny Face," and photographs of movie stars
in Photoplay and of models in 1950s Sears catalogs. She encountered
high fashion at 7 when she chanced on a cache of discarded Vogues and
Harper's Bazaars. "At home we couldn't afford them," she said.
"I remember a lot of Penn photographs," she said. "His wife was so
elegant," she said, referring to Lisa Fonssagrives. "I was very moved
At the time, fashion magazines "were such a window into the culture,"
she added wistfully. "There would be a spread on Morocco, another on
what to wear to a fox hunt. I studied those pages all through the
'60s. I became very knowledgeable."
She refined her expertise, combing the Salvation Army store in
Camden, N.J., near her home. The shop, a dumping ground for the
castoffs of the rich, was filled with high-end labels, some that made
their way into her closet.
In high school Ms. Smith thought nothing of wearing used Dior dresses
or pink shantung capri pants with a Kelly green raincoat in honor of
Audrey Hepburn. Ms. Smith waxed nostalgic describing Ms. Hepburn in
"Funny Face." "She was the beatnik girl in the bookstore who wants to
go to Paris. That was me at the time."
Nor did she mask her effusive romanticism. "People wouldn't know this
about me, but I adore ball gowns," she said. "I love their cut, their
architecture and the thought of the hands of so many seamstresses
working on them."
Steven Sebring, who followed Ms. Smith with a camera for his 2008
documentary, "Patti Smith: Dream of Life," caught her surly defiance
when he photographed her in a floor-length Dior evening dress that
was steamily laced up the sides.
"There's a chicness about her," he said. "She had the authority to
pull it off."
She can swan like a high-strung society diva. And she was glimpsed
during New York Fashion Week at a Chado Ralph Rucci show, mingling
with uptown stalwarts like Amy Fine Collins and Martha Stewart. Last
month, in a concert at Milk Studios, she dedicated her final song,
"Because the Night," to Alexander McQueen, who took his own life in
February. "I just wanted to send some positive energy into his
continuing travels," she explained.
Yet her wayward appearance has drawn scorn and, on occasion,
hostility. She writes in "Just Kids" of giving birth at 19, only to
be sneered at by hospital nurses, who called her "Dracula's
daughter." Stung years later at being dismissively described by one
of Andy Warhol's gatekeepers as a ringer for Joan Baez, she sheared
off her shoulder-length waves, as she writes, "machete-ing my way out
of the folk era."
Reactions to that peremptory gesture impressed her. "Though I was
still the same person," she recalls in the book, "my social status
was suddenly elevated. My Keith Richards haircut was a real discourse
magnet. I miraculously turned androgynous overnight."
Nighttime excursions to Max's Kansas City, a societal mixing bowl for
artists, actors and slumming politicians, found her, she writes,
dressing "like an extra preparing for a shot in a French New Wave film."
She sifted, accordingly, through her skimpy repertory of striped
boating shirts and red kerchiefs "like Yves Montand in 'Wages of
Fear,' or the long black sweater, black tights, white socks and
Capezios, that were my take on Audrey Hepburn in 'Funny Face.' "
She gathers references with a magpie eye; they serve in the book as
mnemonic triggers, taking her back to the gritty carnival that was
St. Marks Place in the early '70s, the cramped, art-strewn quarters
she shared with Mapplethorpe at the Chelsea Hotel, and the coveted
round table in the back room at Max's, once home to Andy Warhol and
In those days she took to giving fanciful names to her outfits. There
was her "Song of the South" get-up: straw hat, Br'er Rabbit jacket,
work boots and pegged pants; the "tennis player in mourning," a
black-on-black ensemble accessorized for evening with white Keds; and
her Anna Karina in "Bande à part": dark sweater, plaid skirt, black
tights and flats.
Never averse to role-playing, she reveled in those costumes: they
were meant, after all, to render her unforgettable. Posing for a
photograph for her friend Judy Linn, Ms. Smith lighted a Kool,
hoping, as she writes, that it would lend her a bit of professional swagger.
"I know I'm a fake smoker," she confided to Ms. Linn, "but I'm not
hurting anybody and besides I gotta enhance my image."
Yet she she's no actress, Ms. Smith insists. "I have neither the
discipline nor the desire to turn into someone else."
Superstition and a kind of stubborn pragmatism guide her sartorial
decisions. For tours, she said: "I pack lighter than anyone else in
the band. I only bring what I can wash in the sink." And she wears
the same garments over and over, "because for me they become
emblematic of a certain tour."
She makes no secret of scanning jewelry and clothing for signs and
portents. "To me these things are talismans," she said, her fingers
brushing the 200-year-old Ethiopian cross that dangles at her throat.
"This cross is something I hold on to when I'm singing." Though she
lost her husband, the rock guitarist Fred Smith, in 1994, she still
wears her wedding band "one of my most precious possessions."
Admirers find her disheveled look alluring. Such observations seem to
please her. Gaunt and bony as a girl, she was told by a fawning
Salvador Dalí, "You are like a gothic crow."
Yet in the sunlight streaming from a corner window, her features were
soft, even seductive. Calculated sultriness has never factored into
her fashion equation, however.
"I like to be comfortable," she said evenly. "Sex has never been my
thing. I just wanted to feel like myself."