At the Southern Voices book conference in Hoover, Ala., last weekend, I listened as author Lorna Landvik talked about working as a temp at the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles. (Proving that you never know what you'll hear at these book conferences!) I turned to my friend Jane and whispered, "I've been there, too." (Proving, perhaps, that you never know what you'll read in this column.)
Landvik's newest book is "Oh My Stars." A comedian and actress as well as a bestselling author, she had the Hoover audience rolling. And then catching candy.
We discovered that Landvik can tell a story as well as she can write one. She had worked in Hugh Hefner's video studio (not on camera, she was quick to point out to me later when asked about it). Hefner, she said, recorded "everything," from bunnies at grocery-store openings to the evening's television fare. Landvik's job often included delivering tapes to the man's bedroom.
I visited the mansion once for a cocktail party during men's fashion week. At the time, I was the fashion writer for The Tampa Tribune. What I remember: really good food served in a remarkably tame and tasteful setting. We saw no bunnies, but there were lots of actual animals in cages on the estate's manicured grounds.
This was a lifetime ago.
I was reminded of this - before Landvik's talk, actually - when I picked up the book "Alligators, Old Mink & New Money," by Alison Houtte and Melissa Houtte. This book offers a peek into the often musty and dusty but generally fun and surprising world of vintage clothing. (This proves, I suppose, that there are books written about practically everything.)
Alison Houtte, a former fashion model, was working the runways at the same time I was covering them. This memoir of hers is about this time in her life, but mainly it's about a lifelong love affair with clothes.
Houtte turned this affinity into a lucrative business; she owns the popular vintage clothing store Hooti Couture in Brooklyn. The rag trade comes with its fair share of stories, and Houtte does a nice job of telling hers, from her first days as a fit model for Andre Courreges in Paris to fashion spreads in American Vogue and covers of Marie Claire to suddenly needing a new income at age 34.
When that happened, Houtte decided to use her hard-earned fashion sense to sell clothes in a different way. Her mother and grandmother were her role models, buying the best clothing they could afford and enjoying favorite pieces for years. So Houtte invested her money and her time in building a business around clothes too good to languish forgotten in the back of a closet.
"Alligators, Old Mink & New Money" also is a vintage shopper's guide of sorts. I do enjoy the thrill of the hunt in a vintage clothing shop, but I didn't really glean many shopping tips from this book.
In fact, at times I thought Houtte should have brought more in-depth knowledge to her subject. With so many research resources at our fingertips these days, she seemed a bit uninformed at times. (I cringed when she learned the hard way to check for labels on her shop's vintage jewelry; she let a Judith Leiber piece go for practically nothing.)
The story of how Houtte banked on a beloved neighborhood before it "came back," is much more satisfying. The tales of good and ugly shopping experiences are fun. And hearing about relationships that have been forged over a shared fondness for fabulous old clothes is heartwarming indeed.
This column originally appeared in The Birmingham News.