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Charlotte Moss is one of the most recognized and respected names in the design world. In addition to writing over eleven books on design, gardens and entertaining, she’s created her own furniture line for Century, carpets for Stark, fabrics, wallpaper, home accessories, art pieces, china for Pickard, jewelry for P E. Guerin, and clothing for IBU Movement. A couple of weeks ago, Charlotte and I sat down to talk about style.

Hers, mine, and how to acquire it.

BRENDA: I think style is one of those words that intimidates people. A lot of women tell me they don’t know how to find their style. I’ve always been inspired by your clothes and your personal style. It’s classy and elegant. How would you define it?

Photograph by Brittany Ambridge

CHARLOTTE: I’d have to say my wardrobe leans towards the classic. I’ve always been a buyer of vintage Bill Blass, Yves Saint Laurent, Gianfranco Ferré, and for evening, Balenciaga, a treasured Jacque Fath and Galanos. I would say the majority is YSL, and there’s nothing to compare to the detailed lines and quality of construction of Ralph Rucci. In the last couple of years it’s been a different kind of wardrobe all together. I’m classic trousers, boots, jackets and great accessories like scarves and jewelry

BRENDA: You accessorize so well. Your pieces are beautiful.

Photograph by Tommy Agriodimas

CHARLOTTE: I love accessories. I think you can put on a black skirt and a white blouse and wear it five days a week, and if you change your accessories, no one would be the wiser. It’s the “the young French girl program:” straight skirt, a jewel neck sweater, and ballet flats. Simplicity is a concept many people grapple with. I think the reason so many people struggle with style is they are just not comfortable with themselves. We are all bombarded with magazine visions of what people call style, the perfect body, the latest look. If you look at the 40s and 50s, women looked like women. There are a lot of tragic fashion moments out there.

Fashion is not style.

Style is how you present yourself to the world every morning when you get up. If you don’t have good grooming, I’m sorry but you will never have style. Style is about self-confidence and discipline. In my business, the same can be said for decorating. If you don’t have good housekeeping, who cares about your decorating. It all circles back to discipline and self-confidence. 

Charlotte’s gardens have great style.

BRENDA: I think that’s an outgrowth of self-esteem. 

CHARLOTTE: Yes. Self-esteem, then self-confidence, then style. One thing builds on another, but you must put your blinders on and ask yourself, “Who the hell am I? What do I like? What do I want to wear every day? Is a white blouse my signature?” I have a friend who has a big collection of white blouses. She wears black pants, a black skirt, black sweater around her neck and a different white blouse. That’s who she is. That’s her style. 

Photograph by Brittany Ambridge

BRENDA: In the 70s, I looked at Vogue magazine and wanted to look like Lauren Hutton. No matter what she wore, she was classy.

CHARLOTTE: She was known for khaki pants, a white blouse and safari jackets. I have about six vintage YSL jackets; maybe subliminally Hutton was my muse. I think it all comes down to liking yourself and honoring yourself and not being afraid to be that person. I think some of us are raised with mothers who are particularly strong and fathers that don’t want their daughters to stand out. We spend all of our early years trying to please our parents and adapting our life and our look before we even have any sense of who we are.  

Style takes work, and work takes time.

BRENDA: Has your taste changed over the years? 

CHARLOTTE: Yes. I think I wear a lot less color. Again, I’m pretty classic in that sense: black and camel, navy and grey, and accessories to change it all up!

Charlotte’s Living Room

BRENDA: How would you describe your personal decorating style? 

CHARLOTTE: Layered. 

BRENDA: That’s the term I would use.

CHARLOTTE: Layered—hopefully elegant, but welcoming—and I think part of being a southerner is that you want rooms to be hospitable. You want them to receive people with open arms and not feel like, “what chair shall I sit on, because they all look so uncomfortable,” or everything looks like it’s been arranged in a way that should not be disturbed. We’ve seen a lot of interiors where there’s not a chair you could squirrel up in with your dog and read a book, or invite people in to have cocktails without perching on the edge. I love comfortable upholstered furniture, arranged in conversation type areas where you would feel like someone’s invited you to come in and have a seat without even uttering a word. The furniture is talking in that way. I know that sounds a little woo-woo.

BRENDA: Not at all. Furniture, by itself, can be very welcoming and inviting or off-putting. 

Photograph by Brittany Ambridge

CHARLOTTE: And I want to see things that speak about the personality, about the person, whether it’s their art or a collection on a tabletop. I don’t care if it’s their basket of needlepoint and a stack of book and magazines sitting next to their favorite chair. It speaks them. What interests them

The shelves in Charlotte’s library are filled with leather bound scrapbooks she’s put together herself.

BRENDA: I’ve gone through life with Mies van der Rohe and a “form follows function” style. Except for wanting a flock of Claude Lalanne’s sheep chairs, like Yves Saint Laurent had, where I’d throw open the French doors and have them streaming in from the courtyard, I didn’t have anything that didn’t have a purpose. That’s not me now, but I’m not sure how to mix patterns. Is there a common thread we should follow like using the same color family?

Charlotte’s New York Study

CHARLOTTE: No. I’m not a decorator that can talk about all of the guidelines and rules. I’ve always operated on instinct. I think instinct is what makes good decorating. If you start looking at a rule book, you’re missing the point, and your eyes are missing everything around you that may be a candidate for making that room right. I can’t do that “decorator talk” about how to arrange pictures and what color goes with what, why plaids shouldn’t go with a print. I just don’t believe in any of that. I think you have to let your eye guide you, and the only way you’re going to develop that eye is by educating it: by reading, asking questions, even by going shopping when you’re not going to buy anything, just to see what’s out there and to see what you’re drawn to. Go to museum exhibitions, antique shows. I recently went back to Paris, my first visit in two years. The first day I just wanted to walk and explore. Paris is a visual feast at every turn. But you don’t have to go to Paris, just keep your eyes open wherever you are. There are so many ways to educate your eye that doesn’t have to be about buying something.  

BRENDA: Some people may not understand that it’s that simple.  

CHARLOTTE: And that’s okay because that’s why people like me are in business. People, for the most part, have the money and don’t have the time. We have great clients, and we laugh with all of them about the whole process. We have fun! There are some people who are never going to understand how to make a place warm. They’re never going to understand how to dress. I think it’s the same person, actually. You can put on expensive clothes but not have any style. And you can buy a lot of expensive furniture and not have any style. Spending is not going to do it.

Where is your heart? Where is your soul? What are you really interested in?

When I was on Wall Street, we were all starting careers, but we had to dress great every day. I would spend my weekends, going to every sale in town, trying to find great suits, because I couldn’t shop during the week, and I had to make the money stretch. If you don’t have the money, you have to spend the time, and if you’ve got the money, you can either spend it yourself, or hire someone else. It’s really a pretty simple rule. If you’re not willing to spend the time investing in yourself and cultivating your interest, you will just end up spending money again and again.  

BRENDA: One of the things I love about you, is you know so much about history and how people lived through the centuries. I think that comes through loud and clear in all of your books, and it influences your design choices. You’ve obviously been educating yourself over the years. 

Charlotte’s former home in Aspen.

CHARLOTTE:  I was born and raised in Virginia, the seat of American history. You don’t necessarily have to be absorbed by it, but you can’t not be aware of it. I’ve always loved history, but it’s also understanding the zeitgeist of a period of time and connecting the dots. If you look at the curves of Louis XV furniture and you look at fashion and the style of garden parterres, there is a thread of thought that can be drawn up through any period in history. You look at Art Deco buildings and then look at the fashion of the time—the long, silk charmeuse dresses, long and skinny, so were the buildings—it starts to make sense. It’s part of the human condition, and it gets evidenced in a lot of different ways in a certain period of time. I find this all fascinating and want to know more. 

Some of my favorite books Charlotte has authored.

BRENDA: The older I get, the older my design preferences become and the antiques I love. In my 20s, I was enamored of Art Deco. Not American Art Deco, but really nice European pieces: Lalique, French bronzes and the oversized posters. I love Edgar Brandt and all of his iron work. Ruhlmann and his beautiful furniture and the wood he used, but now I’ve gone back even further in time. Now I want to be an Italian old lady. 

CHARLOTTE: I think what you are saying is you appreciate a lot of different things as I do, but in the end, we all have to sort out who are we? What do we want? What’s our style?

Thank you, Charlotte. I loved our time together.

Love, Brenda

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