Monday, April 2, 2007

An Ode to Helen South Alexander

From the Spokesman-Review newspaper, September 28, 2004:

Of Helen South Alexander's many gifts to Spokane, the swans of Manito Park are perhaps her most manifest legacy.

They were given to the city in 1968 by her late husband, the longtime Spokane civic leader Philip Alexander. But it was Helen who became the ardent supporter of the graceful white birds, remaining a lifelong patron of a group called Manito Park Swans.

In fact, two of the original cygnets that swam at the pond were named in the couple's honor: Philip of Macedon and Helen of Troy.

In many ways, Helen South Alexander was a lot like the swans she loved: A woman of style and elegance, she walked through life with a majestic air, said those who knew her. She beautified her surroundings not only through her work as an interior designer, but also as a patron of the arts.

A longtime Spokane resident, Alexander died last Friday. She never disclosed her age and was adamant before her death that it didn't appear in her obituary.

Mrs. Alexander, I salute you...nay, I worship you. I actually met Mrs. Alexander in my capacity as Principal Horn of the Spokane Symphony, while she was in her long-time capacity as patron of the Symphony, and of all arts in Spokane. She was beautiful, ageless, and impeccably gracious, always distinctive in her dress, however I had no idea of the contents of her closets until the auction in which her clothing was sold, some months after her death in 2004.

At this point it has been a couple of years since that auction, and more than ever I feel that it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. There were 3,000 to 4,000 clothing and accessory items of the most glorious nature, chosen with a designer's eye and in almost exclusively ideal condition.

Mrs. Alexander's second husband was chairman of one of Spokane's big department stores, and she had ultimate access to the best clothing of the time even though she was living in relative isolation in Spokane. That alone would not have guided her taste...she was a prolific artist of dress.

While wearing the most beautiful and forward-thinking clothing as a young woman in the 30s and 40s, it was the 50s through present at this auction that most impressed. it would be hard to name an important designer from the 50s, 60s, 70s or 80s that was not represented in Mrs. Alexander's least several times. There was an entire table of Ferragamo pumps, a rack just of 70s Diane von Furstenburg wrap dresses, some with tags. I yearned for a quintessentially Mod red coat by Pierre Cardin, an unused, iconic Bonnie Cashin coat, a WWII-era Red Cross hourglass suit/uniform with all kinds of interesting pins and patches. Frankly, I yearned for everything from a 30s velvet gown to an ornate Christian Lacroix suit from the short, for everything!

An early 1970s Oscar de la Renta hand-painted black leather coat was probably the biggest sale of the auction, at $6,000. One buyer--reputedly (my friend quizzed him) with stores in Los Angeles, London and somewhere in Asia--spent voluptuously, as if there were no limits with items of this quality. There were buyers from many places, all there just for vintage clothing from one woman's highly distinctive closets.

Next time: A sampling of what I was able to take home from this great collection.

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