Male fashion designers have often chosen certain women as muses. Hubert de Givenchy had Audrey Hepburn. Yves Saint Laurent had Loulou de la Falaise. Alexander McQueen had Annabelle Neilson. They've designed collections centered on them. Dressed them. Created iconic pieces for them.
There are also designers like Nellie Partow who are just immersed in the world of women. "It's a collective of everyone I meet," she says of her inspirations, when we meet at Milk Studios in New York City. "I've got a very strong mother, a lot of incredible women, my mom's sisters—my aunts. I've been very fortunate. I really respect and appreciate women who have paved their way in their life and have this strong sense of self."
Her elegantly minimalist designs attract an array of these accomplished women, many who become friends. The postmodern artist Laurie Simmons (and mother of Lena Dunham) is an avid admirer. "When I first arrived in New York in the '80s, you had to hide your love of fashion to be taken seriously by the male conceptual art world," she says about coming to fashion later in life. "I got to wear Partow on the most wonderful night of my life," Simmons shares. "I was preparing for my retrospective this year and wanted to wear a pink men's suit. My husband [artist Carroll Dunham] said, 'No, you should wear light blue.' Sure enough, Nellie had the most beautiful powder blue suit I've ever seen. It was the most amazing suit I've ever worn on the most important night of my life."
"They're clothes that celebrate a woman at her best," says actress Jenna Elfman, "in a way that's not materialistic or arbitrary. When you're not 20 anymore, you want clothes that make you feel good, make you confident."
"You should feel good no matter your age or body type," Partow agrees, admittedly stating what should be obvious. "Fashion is getting better as a community, and it's recognizing that," she continues. Partow certainly has acknowledged that during the nine years she's had her own label. Her clothes—all developed in Italian fabrics—emphasize balanced tailoring and minimal embellishment; she favors sweaters and trousers, which are also her top-selling items. "I love a great trouser and a beautiful knit sweater. My idea is to be able to give women elements in their day-to-day life that create ease and an approachability but so they still feel individualistic and modern in their own right."
Partow Resort 2020 did have one main muse, however: Georgia O'Keeffe. "It wasn't so much about her actual artwork that was inspiring me in this collection, it was her and the fact that she was so far ahead of her time. She was very modern, and I loved the life that she lived," says Partow.
For the first time, Partow introduced prints: a painterly stripe. She chose colors inspired by the New Mexico desert that O'Keeffe inhabited and painted. Bright orange, saffron and poppy mimic sunsets and cactus flowers. Adobe and tobacco ground the collection in neutral tones. On her flared dresses, she included stone tiger's-eye buttons as a tribute to O'Keeffe's habit of collecting. "The silhouette and the inspiration was very much about Georgia herself," explains Partow. "She was a trailblazer and had an incredible sense of style. She had a definite wardrobe that was her uniform, with those big cotton dresses and belting them."
Partow has blazed her own trail too, by choosing to focus on the desires of women who are fully in their prime, mature in their convictions and experienced in their choices. Even her advertising campaigns reflect that by casting models like Karen Elson and Tasha Tilberg, women who have been in the industry longer than many of their younger colleagues have been alive.
"Those women have a certain level of confidence that for me was very much part of the DNA of the brand, and I think that just comes from life experience and that it should be celebrated. There's a real beauty in getting to a certain stage in your life."