The Sexagenarian Who Teaches Women to Be Stylish

Tziporah Salamon. Photo: Courtesy of Tziporah Salamon

Wearing nothing but footless black pantyhose, a long-sleeved black shirt, and red lipstick, Tziporah Salamon, 63, is ready to get dressed. A dozen women, mostly middle-aged and clad in sensible workwear, watch as she stands with a clothing rack and a row of shoes. They have assembled on the Upper West Side on a chilly April evening for her two-hour seminar, “The Art of Dressing,” which she has delivered more than a hundred times for thirteen years.

Part instruction and part show-and-tell of her extensive vintage wardrobe, the class is normally held at Tziporah’s apartment on 72nd Street but was relocated at the last minute to her neighbor’s home, nearby on 70th Street, because of renovations. This doesn’t seem to faze any of the students, most of whom had heard about the seminar through word of mouth; a few others know Tziporah from the local synagogue. “The first time I saw Tziporah was about five years ago, on the No. 5 bus,” recalls one woman in a dramatic shawl. “She got on, and what she was wearing just took my breath away. I thought, Boy, I wish I knew that woman.”

Tziporah (or “Tzippy,” as her friends call her) is a cult style icon in New York, beloved by the Times’s Bill Cunningham and street-style bloggers like Advanced Style’s Ari Seth Cohen. “Bill has never not photographed me,” she tells the class. “I don’t always make it into the paper, but he always takes my picture.” Last year, she was discovered online by a model scout who booked her for the fall 2012 Lanvin campaign, photographed by Steven Meisel. “They were looking for unknowns,” she explains. It’s her first and only campaign to date, but in February she approached Models 1 in London, and they signed her immediately. “So I guess I’m a model now!” she says, shrugging.

Tziporah Salamon’s Lanvin ad. Photo: Lanvin

Tziporah began her seminars in 2000 at the behest of her late friend Lucie Porges, a former designer who taught at Parsons. Porges asked Tziporah to share her clothes and styling advice with a group of students, and Tziporah continued to do so every semester until Porges’s death in 2011. She also provides one-on-one personal wardrobe consultations to women looking to dress more creatively, and occasionally opens up her closet to designers like Diane Von Furstenberg and Ralph Lauren, who have approached her for archival references.

The crown jewel of Tziporah’s collection is her assortment of hats. She owns well over 200 of them, many stored in her linen closet (“Give me a hat over a sheet any day!”). Her Oriental textiles, some of which are more than 200 years old, are another highlight (“I keep them on a rack in my room because I like to feast my eyes on them”).

Her approach to dressing is “like making a painting,” she says, with her body as the canvas and her garments as paints that she mixes to find balance and proportion. She won’t buy something unless she knows exactly what she’ll combine it with. “When I’m out in the world, I’m always completing outfits in my head,” she says. “It takes me years sometimes. And then I’ll see something, and it snaps — ‘Oh, those are gloves I need for the such-and-such!’”

Despite her astounding wardrobe, she is not wealthy. Her mother, a dressmaker, and father, a tailor, both survived concentration camps during World War II. She was born in Israel in 1950 and emigrated with her family to New York in 1959. “I owe everything to them,” she says. “They sewed all my clothes, and my mother went to great lengths to make me into a little doll.” Her parents instilled in her a keen eye for tailoring, and she alters almost every piece she buys, replacing buttons, hemming sleeves, and adding darts.

Addressing her class, she starts her seminar with the basics. “Know your body,” she instructs, throwing back her shoulders and taking a wide stance like a ballerina in second position. She advises going to a department store, trying on as much as you can, and “taking a good hard look in the mirror.” Personally, she never shows her calves. “After years of running, they just don’t look good anymore,” she says, pulling on a pair of loose pants that taper at the ankle. She feels similarly about her midsection. “You know, after you turn 50, you just don’t want to show this anymore,” she adds, patting her stomach. Her audience chuckles in agreement.

She then produces a long, rectangular purse with gold handles and emerald-colored leather and gamely passes it around the room. “That’s the Rolls-Royce of bags,” she says proudly. “Prada only made five of them. Madonna has one.” She spotted it for the first time when she was working at Barneys and a customer came in with one. Years later, she was browsing at the Pier Show in New York when she happened upon it again. “I grab it, I hold on to it,” she recalls to the class, clutching the bag to her chest. The vendor told her it was $800, and she convinced him to let her pay it off over the course of a year.

Since most of her clothes are vintage, they’re often patched in places. “See?” she says, raising one leg to show barely discernable stitches at the inner thigh. “It’s from the bike.” Tziporah gets everywhere on her turquoise Milano Bianchi bicycle, which she rides without a helmet. “I know — bad girl.”

Tziporah’s style wasn’t always a point of self-assurance. “When I went off to college, my mother made a wardrobe with capes and culottes and everything,” she says. “I looked like Ali MacGraw in Love Story.” But her bra-burning classmates at SUNY Buffalo were not impressed: “Everyone was like, ‘Where does she think she’s going?’” Later, studying for her PhD in psychology at Berkeley, she hung out with hippies and hid her copies of Vogue between Mother Jones and Ms. magazine. “God forbid anyone saw!” But she could only keep this up for so long. “Twice a week, I would go to the stores on Telegraph Avenue [in Berkeley], just to look and to feel and to touch. I didn’t buy anything — I didn’t have that kind of money. Then, at 29, I had a life crisis and I thought, Oh gosh, what am I going to do? So I moved back to New York to pursue fashion.”

When she arrived in Manhattan in 1979, she got a job as a salesgirl at the now-defunct Charivari, then one of the city’s most fashionable boutiques. But even with her employee discount, her $7-per-hour salary didn’t go far. “So I figured out how to shop at vintage stores. The clothes are made better, and they’re much cheaper. I got this for $60, and it’s incredible!” she says to the class, modeling a tailored Victorian-style jacket.

She also worked at Jezebel, a bohemian theater district restaurant owned by a woman named Alberta Wright, who encouraged her eccentric dressing habits. “I walked into the kitchen, and there’s this black woman with dreadlocks wearing this wonderful headdress and frying up okra. She says to me, ‘What are you wearing, dear?’ and I said, ‘Oh, I don’t know, a Yohji Yamamoto jumper,’ which is what it was. She gave me a job.” With Tziporah manning the hostess stand, Jezebel became one of Manhattan’s hottest restaurants in the eighties. “Alberta stretched me,” she recalls. “She would bring in these amazing hats for me and say, ‘Here, wear this tonight.’”

Still, Tziporah often felt self-conscious. Her father, who had closed his tailoring shop and was working in the women’s alterations department at Bergdorf Goodman, often criticized her flamboyant appearance. “It was very much the Holocaust survivor mentality,” she explains. “The message was ‘Stay down. Don’t draw attention to yourself.’”

Her Jewish faith was ultimately what brought her relief: In the late nineties, she met rabbi Reb Zalman, one of the founders of the Jewish Renewal movement. “I was all dolled up, and he said, ‘You represent Hod in the Tree of Life.’” Zalman was referring to the Kabbalah, in which “Hod” represents splendor and humility, and Tziporah found the association empowering. “That’s when I began to take dressing very seriously and was no longer ashamed,” she tells the roomful of rapt women.

Bill Cunningham discovered her on the sidewalk outside of Bergdorf Goodman shortly thereafter. She was going to visit her father, and Cunningham would often linger there to photograph the customers.

Between Tziporah’s multiple costume changes — about a dozen, overall — and lengthy stories, the class runs overtime, but none of her students seem to mind. As she begins to put her clothes away, a woman opens a bottle of wine and passes around tiny cups for a toast. “The point of this class isn’t to get people to dress like me,” Tziporah concludes. “What I want is for you to dress like you. I want you to make your own individual statement. I just show you what’s possible.”

Shop: Tziporah-Worthy Pieces