Portrait of Helen Howell Priest in Downtown Raleigh Photo by Jess James
You may recognize Helen as one of Island Passage’s golden Calendar Girls from year’s past. Perhaps you spotted her daydreaming while walking to her apartment downtown (she never had a driver’s license while living here). Hell, there’s a really good chance she pinched your baby’s cheeks or cooed over your bulldog’s overbite. Even though she has not called Wilmington home for the past six years, chances are if you met Helen, you wouldn’t soon forget her innocent spirit, girlish laugh or genuine kindheartedness.
She was one of my first friends in Wilmington and will be one of my favorite people till my last day. Although she is a humanitarian with plans in motion to make the world a better place, she also has a soft spot for our shared passion for beautiful things.
Helen’s revelry for vintage began playing dress-up in her grandmother “Mama Sera’s” cedar-lined closets in Mississippi. Mama Sera loved clothes so much, she saved most of her family’s wardrobe from the 1940’s onwards. Her house was like a wonderland for kids with all the closets to explore, and around the age of seven, Helen started playing dress-up.
“I was a huge tomboy and would have been mortified if anyone saw me in a lace dress but Mama Sera used to dress me up in these 1950’s little Shirley Temple dresses with princess sleeves and smocked bodices and take my picture. I looked so peeved!”
Instead, Helen gravitated to her Dad’s clothes from the 60’s – old Levi’s bell bottoms, Grateful Dead shirts and graphic tees – which started making their way into her own closet.
“My favorite was this royal blue Atari t-shirt with glittery graphics on it. Another memorable one was this baby blue fitted t-shirt with an art noveau design on it with the text, “Cure Virginity.” No idea what it meant but later, my mom saw me wearing it and demanded, “What is that???!!!”
As a teenager, Helen started to become a lot more interested in Mama Sera’s beautiful dresses from the 40‘s. As a general rule, the more silk, lace, polka dots and ruffles, the better. She found herself back in Mama Sera’s closets every year hoping one of the treasured dresses would finally fit. Even though chances were pretty slim that the garment would survive in a teenager’s care, Helen says Mama Sera was always generous and loved seeing her granddaughter in her dresses. “She wanted someone to have fun in them again.”
Since Helen lived something of a vagabond lifestyle with her military family on the move (5 different schools from middle to high school), vintage clothing became an important part of her identity.
“I had to have these vintage clothes that no one else could find. We were fairly poor so thrifting was my means of shopping. It was part of my schtick. My stepmother at the time was an artist so every month, we would pack up the family and she would trade her art (pottery) for upcycled clothes made from artists at art fairs and festivals. Other kids might have thought my clothes were a little strange, but I was a cheerleader so I guess it gave me a license to get away with it! (laughs).”
In recent years, Helen’s style has been noticed on the streets of New York City by The Sartorialist (photo above from 2006) and now by fashion bloggers in South Korea (see below), where she is living and teaching English with her husband Tyler.
During her first several months in her adopted new home, she sent me the following email documenting her cultural transition:
Helen and Jess reunite at The Raleigh Times two weeks ago
during Helen’s brief visit to the States from South Korea.
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Perhaps I could recall the lovely hike we had last weekend, something nice and tame like you might see on a PBS travel show. But instead I’ll just begin with a confession. I fancied that I would be adventurous and flexible food-wise here. That I would be the one American that co-workers lauded for relishing all the local fare. I was lying to myself. I’m so sick of smelling fish. Seafood accompanies most meals, and you know how I hate seafood. I’ll venture to try a friendly little fresh fish filet but that’s the end of the line for me. Here there are species served that I’ve never even heard of before. So imagine this scenario, if you will.
Our school recently had its staff-welcome dinner extravaganza; a lavish, 17+ dish affair. Each course contained fish, and I was determined to bravely try it all and win friendships in the process. But each course just got stranger and stranger. I was starving and thirsty (Koreans usually don’t drink water with their fiery hot meals and when you do ask for water, it comes in a cup the size of a baby’s fist) and the principal and vice principal kept asking me to down rounds of soju (Korea’s intense national liquor). So I was feeling a bit queazy. Then lo and behold, the waitress came and laid the very spawn of Satan on the table. At first glance, it was an unappetizing gelatinous mass of what appeared to be LEECHES. Then as I stared, I realized they were MOVING. Pulsating, quivering, and threatening to writhe across the table and on to my face and bring slow, smelly death. I tried to mask my horror but I couldn’t look away. My co-teacher said, “Do you like?’ and picked one up as it squirmed up her chopsticks like it WANTED to get eaten. I could only blurt out, “Wow, I’ve…never…seen that before!” My head was swirling, I got really hot, and hallucinated that the room was getting smaller and everything on the table was squirming, including the decorative lettuce.
I’m not exaggerating, I almost lost it. Luckily, nobody really seemed to notice I was about to pass out. They were too busy tearing up the plate. When I found my voice again, I squeaked (trying so hard to appear cool and collected), ‘So, uh, what is it?’ Well they weren’t leeches (I’ve never heard of a culture that eats leeches) but they go by a nearly as nauseating moniker, sea worm. Or as I later saw on the menu, sea squirts. Then a co-teacher informed me the next week, “Well, we call them ‘pehnees.'” Me: “Oh, pennies? Well I guess they are kind of copper (as though the average Korean would have any idea of the name or color of our 1 cent piece)” Her: “No, PEH-nees. You know, like a man?” Me: “OOOOhhhh!” That’s right, this wretched vermin is named after manparts.
As if to prove I hadn’t yet adequately faced my gastronomical ineptitude, the server’s next offering was a little bed of writhing octopus tentacles. As chopsticks descended, the tentacles clung to the plate as though anticipating impending doom. No matter, diners just pried them up, the octopus’ tiny suction cups making sticky “SCHLOP! BLOP!” noises as they separated from the plate.
Post-script: none of the creatures in this story were alive when they appeared on our table, they were just wiggling happily with muscle memory, perhaps recalling a lovely jaunt across the ocean floor from the day before.
This letter is running long, and sadly does not yet contain cultural insight or accounts of great personal growth, only my naive realization that I’m just another normal human who finds a great deal of comfort in familiar food.
So I’ll tell you more about other interesting things I learned at this soiree. Staff dinners are gregarious affairs, in direct contrast with cheap, cold, distant work dinners in my past. Never talked to the principal before? No matter, he’ll just invite you to sit down right next to him and then pour you round after round of soju until his face is radish red. The principal seemed impressed that I liked to drink. Or so I thought. A little later, my co-teacher informed me that when someone in authority or higher social standing pours you a drink, you’re supposed to cover your glass and mouth with your hand and turn to the side while you drink so that person can’t see you in the act. It doesn’t matter that everyone knows what’s in the bottle, and that the person in authority poured you the drink, so clearly they want to partake. No, the drinker must pretend that nothing’s happening. It gets even stranger when you realize that even those who are drinking soda or water while the boss-guy is drinking soju still turn away and cover up. So, instead of the principle and VP being impressed with my drinking skills as I imagined, they were more likely inwardly laughing at what a giant faux pas I was committing for brazenly downing my shots right in their faces.
Yeah, I’m having a great time and thoroughly enjoying all thrilling and bewildering moments that immersion in another culture brings.
That was just too hilarious not to share!
Now, back to regular programming on Helen’s personal style…
Helen modeling for Island Passage and Test Shots with Photographer Harry Taylor / Bottom Left: Helen backstage at my Blue Velvet Fashion Show at Lumina Station (wearing Tyler’s grandmother’s dress from the 1970’s)
ff: What are some of the greatest influences on your Personal Style?
“I’ve been fascinated by different cultures since I was little which led to my infatuation with styles from different cultures. Growing up, a lot of my neighbors were from India and Pakistan. I was entralled by the women with their Bindi and all their beautiful fabrics, prints and textures.”
ff: Style Icon:
“Glam Rock David Bowie, Freddie Mercury, Katherine Hepburn, Cate Blanchett.”
ff: What are some of your surroundings in South Korea that inspire or influence?
“Korean Buddhist temples have really intricate wallpaper and hand painting on ceilings and walls, which is reflected in the prints you see in the clothing here particularly in the intensity of color and intricacy of detail.”
King Sejong’s temple in Jeongju
Sights on Helen’s walk to school
Subway art installation
Helen’s students showing their DIY style skills
Meeting a cheeky new friend in Bali
ff: What is the local fashion community like?
“Korea has a thriving fashion industry. Young Koreans are very fashion forward and pay a lot of attention to detail. The men are some of the most stylish I’ve ever seen. Man purses are a big thing as well as mixing prints (example: tweed on polka dots on argyle). In addition to their penchant for mixing prints, I love how Koreans play with proportion. They love oversized tops, dolman sleeves, big blousey cuts paired with tightly fitted bottoms. I also see a lot of exaggerated chunky knit scarves that are extra long. I dig that kind of experimentation and have been incorporating more proportion play in my own looks.”
ff: Since you are still collecting vintage for your revamped Etsy shop upon your return to the States, what sort of styles are you seeking?
“Korean or Japanese vintage has a lot of amazing, hyper-colored intricate prints from the 60’s and 70’s with bright mod prints. A few local fashion bloggers have taken Tyler and I’s photos (see the post HERE) mostly when I’m wearing vintage hats or scarves although vintage doesn’t seem to be as popular. Up until recently, Korea had been very poor so they see new clothing as a sign of success. Vintage is downplayed and mixed in subtlely.”
Quotes from Korean fashion blogger:
“A fashionable couple who must be from another country came into this store. Actually, I think the match of blue-red color could not be stylish, because of color contrast. However, he made them harmonious. Personally, I like his boots. It has unique shape, and it makes him more fashionable. Her way of wearing clothes reminded me of a Japanese layered look. She showed us her dark orange t-shirt by opening her green cardigan. I like her unique patterned coat as well. Her green scarf, which was bent on her head, suited her blond hair, fair skin, and big eyes. This scarf was the best item we saw that day!”
ff: How has your shopping style evolved before & after your time in South Korea?
“I prefer to buy things from local artists whenever possible to support their businesses. Before Korea, I worked in retail for a long time and eventually started selling my own vintage on Etsy and at trunk shows. I was able to collect and keep whatever I wanted and had a lot of resources for finding beautiful vintage clothing and accessories. Since I still have a tomboy streak and have more time for running, hiking and camping in Korea, I purged a lot of my frillier, fancier things. I look for more functional pieces now with a lot of versatility – things I can play in, things I love now and will continue to love not just next year, but five years from now. Sustainability and social consciousness is very important and another reason I love vintage so much. I try not to buy things I don’t need or don’t come from a humane source which makes things challenging. Living in Asia, I have a lot of friends from Southeastern countries where sweatshops are prevalent, which made it a lot more real to me. Since I live in a 350 square foot apartment with a wardrobe that fits only 20 hangers, I have to be intentional with my purchases.”
ff: What are a few special items you did decide to purchase?
1. Handmade woven sarong from Bali –
“Mine is a deep navy with floral motif. I wear it as a skirt/shawl/wrap. You must wear one to go inside their temples so Tyler got one too. They’re not matching though!”
2. Antique necklace from Indonesia –
Pendant is a mini bottle with turquoise inlay and filigree.
3. Painting –
“In Bali, we stayed with this family and the dad was a devout Hindu and a 5th generation traditional painter which was deeply meaningful and spiritual to him. We bought a painting of a Hindu goddess that he drew. It’s really beautiful.”
ff: What is one item from your personal collection that you would never part with?
“My necklace that used to be an art noveau pocket watch. It’s 14K with small diamonds. My grandmother found it on the ground on her campus when she was in college in the 1940‘s. It still works and I wear it often.”
ff: Can you share with us your Style Mantra?
“Cultivate gratitude and joy, and you will recognize more beauty in yourself and others.”
The last time I had a chance to catch up with Dan Burke over a few beers at Cucalorus’s fundraiser at 128 South, he shared with me the details on his chance meeting with Russell Brand in NYC and the possibility that his British Taxi service just might be driving around one of Britain’s most notorious badboys. Turns out Burke did not secure Brand quite yet but he did pull a Beckham. Not too shabby, Dan!
Click HERE to watch Dan’s British taxi in action as Beckham makes his grand entrace at H&M in Times Square
David Beckham with Dan & Rosemary Burke
at Beckham’s H&M Collection / Superbowl Event
Bakery 105 “Official” Grand Opening
Tuesday Feb 11th
105 Orange Street
WHO: My friends at 128 South have opened a second wedding/event venue just as beautiful as the first directly across the street – and they are inviting us to come celebrate! WHEN: Tuesday, Feb. 11th 2014 Time: 4:30pm (Ribbon-Cutting); 5:00-9:00pm (Open House) WHERE: Bakery 105 at 105 Orange Street, Downtown Wilmington
The interior of new event/wedding venue, Bakery 105
SPRING FASHION PREVIEW
Wednesday March 12th at 7pm
@Cameron Art Museum
Wilmington Dermatology Center presents
SPRING FASHION PREVIEW
TICKETS: Click Here!
STORES + DESIGNERS:
Beanie + Cecil
CCH Collection (NYC designer!)
Eye Care Center
Just Like Honey
Lilies & Lace
Style Girl Vintage
The Wonder Shop
“Style Girl” Jess James, FASHION FIX and Style Girl LLC events founder,
Wardrobe Stylist and Focus on the Coast Fashion Editor
& Dr. Rosalyn George of Wilmington Dermatology Center
Emily Rodriguez and Monica Kelly of Steven Ward Hair + Makeup Artist Tess Wheatley of Blush Haus of Beaute transform our featured models showcasing some of the best beauty looks for Spring
Must-have, age appropriate looks for spring modeled by local celebrities in their 20s to 75+, style and beauty secrets, season essentials & deals you won’t wanna miss from your favorite boutiques & designers! Mini-makeovers with BLUSH, delectable bites from CAM Cafe, signature Midnight Moon cocktail by Mixologist Joel Finsel + sweet treats from One Belle Bakery
$25 – Limited Space.
Get your tickets today – CLICK HERE.
First 25 guests to purchase tickets online will be entered to win some fabulous prizes!
Details on raffle prizes for Make a Wish coming soon.