On a cold, rainy afternoon in Nashville, Tennessee, supermodel Karen Elson, sequestered in the upstairs quarters of a pink-walled boutique, happily shows off a few favorite pieces. She pulls a long white tulle overdress from a rack laden with velvet bias-cut slip dresses from the 1930s.
“This is the dress I would wear if Jack [White, lead singer of the White Stripes and the Raconteurs, and Elson’s husband of almost four years] and I ever renew our vows,” says Elson, who opened her boutique, Venus and Mars: The Showroom, last October with partner Amy Patterson, a Nashville wardrobe stylist. Holding the garment up to her long, elegant body (clothed today in wide-legged jeans, orange suede Biba platforms and a peach satin camisole worn under a pink-and-green tulle overblouse), she swishes the skirt around her ankles, then finds another frock: a sheer, floor-length black lace number in immaculate condition. “I got this at the Paris flea market,” she says. “I was running late, the proprietor was about to close and I begged him to let me shop. This is what I found!”
V&M is a fashion lover’s paradise. It covers two floors of a small house packed with carefully curated men’s and women’s pieces dating from the late 1800s to the early 1980s—many of them picked up by Elson on international modeling gigs.
Elson didn’t move to Nashville with the intention of opening a vintage boutique. But three-and-a-half years after moving to the middle of Tennessee with White, the redheaded mother of two is spending her scant free time at her new store, playing matchmaker between customers and the vintage finery that she adores.
More than a few shoppers drop by to see what happens when a supermodel decides to open a store in a conservative town where the term “high fashion” translates as a rhinestone-covered Western suit. (Mind you, Elson has nothing against the folks who wear those suits. When White performs with the Raconteurs, as he did last September at the Ryman Auditorium downtown, he often sports ornate custom-made suits by local couturier to Nashville’s country stars—and Nudie protégé—Manuel.)
“I’m not judging people,” Elson says of the fashion climate in her new hometown. “I moved from New York to get away from all that. I really feel like style is whatever you want to be; it doesn’t have to be so black and white.”
Between Elson and Patterson, they’ve got the style gamut covered. Patterson, small, pretty and blonde, is dressed a bit more low-key today, wearing pale jeans, a floral wrap top and dark blue 1940s pumps with pale pink fishnet stockings. Elson’s and Patterson’s styles complement each other, as do their personalities. Elson is chatty and decidedly girlie, while Patterson is more reserved and business-like, having spent eight years running her own local vintage store—the original Venus and Mars (the name comes from an old Wings album) in the city’s funky Berry Hill neighborhood.
Though Patterson has been a thrifter since her childhood growing up in Detroit (she visited Nashville on her way to Florida via a Greyhound bus 15 years and decided to stay), Manchester-born Elson’s vintage education came courtesy of some chic teachers.
“There were always designers like Marc Jacobs and Anna [Sui] telling me where to shop,” she says. “Anna—God bless her—would always be grabbing things for me at flea markets. ‘I found this dress that would look great on you.’ I’ve got to give her credit: she really got me into it.”
The two partners met while Elson was shopping at the old V&M, not long after she moved to town. “I remember I came in and went, Oh, thank God!” Elson recalls. “I was feeling really desperate for vintage clothing and I just didn’t know my way around town.”
Nashville is one of those proverbial “big small towns” (the population of Music City is only about 650,000). Both women have connections inside music circles; they’d bump into each other while seeing a band at downtown’s Mercy Lounge or having dinner at Margo, a bistro in East Nashville. Early last year, Patterson announced that she was about to close her old shop. When Elson heard the news, she was disappointed that her favorite vintage haunt was going away. Then she got an idea.
“She sent me the longest text message I’ve ever gotten,” says Patterson. “‘It’s Karen Elson. I’m at the park with the kids… would you call me? I want to talk to you… ’”
Initially, the pair discussed having an appointment-only salon that would rent outfits for special occasions, catering to the town’s stylists who outfit musicians for videos and photo shoots. Ultimately, they decided to go with a more democratic business model, one where customers could find a great 1960s mini dress for $30 on the downstairs racks, or drop a few hundred dollars on a special-occasion splurge, like a 1940s Christian Dior dress.
The fate of their business plan was sealed when they saw their current space, a 1906 stone–and–clapboard cottage on Belmont Boulevard. It’s directly across the street from Belmont University, and in close proximity to the South district, which is home to several other vintage boutiques including Local Honey and Savant. Elson and Patterson did the decorating themselves—including painting each room, floor to ceiling, a different color. (In keeping with the store’s rock star associations, the main room is painted a Benjamin Moore hue called Purple Rain.) Though it’s far from an intimidating place, there is a definite rock-star vibe to the “new” Venus and Mars.
The downstairs men’s room, painted bright green, is brimming with stellar finds like star-printed ’70s silk shirts and fitted velvet jackets that would easily work into the stage wardrobes of local bands like Kings of Leon or (yes) the Raconteurs. The women’s area, also downstairs, holds both simple cotton day dresses and showgirl-worthy finds like a lavender marabou Lillie Rubin chubby.
Upstairs, in the dusty pink confines of the private salon, are the kinds of show-stopping antique lace and beaded gowns that Nashville’s cabal of country music stylists have long dreamed of having at their disposal for their clients’ red carpet appearances.
At first, the work was slow going. “We definitely had a good couple of months when we were just scratching our heads,” Elson recalls. “We’d come in for four or five hours a day and just move piles all over the floor, from one spot to another.”
“We’d do that at least five times,” Patterson adds, “and then we’d be like, Okay! You wanna go to lunch?”
Elson names the fabulously stuffed-to-the-gills women’s boutique Geminola, in Manhattan’s West Village, as a direct inspiration for the look of V&M. “I think it’s just so gorgeous in there,” she says. “I’d ultimately like to get into doing the kind of customizing and dyeing that they do. But first things first: we’ve just got to get this up and running.”
They claim the store remains a work in progress, but to an outsider it appears to be perfectly put together. There’s a bit of kitsch to the décor, with vintage paint-by-numbers paintings hanging in second-hand frames, and retro lamps with wonderful homemade shades bearing the names of legendary style icons like Coco Chanel and Marlene Dietrich. Victorian love seats and chairs are covered in a velvety, dark rose fabric.
Elson’s penchant for the flapper era is realized with papier-mâché mannequins with wide eyes and pursed red lips wearing dramatic ostrich feather headpieces. The lighting is moody and dark, courtesy of several small chandeliers hanging from the ceiling in each room.
“It’s a bit like an early 19th-century French bordello,” she says. But the women know they have to be mindful of not going overboard on feminine decor. “I think if I just made it exactly how I wanted, people would walk in and be like, ‘Huh?’” she says. “We’re trying to do this in a way that works well for Nashville. There are a lot of different things going on in this town. There are the Belle Meade ladies, who are almost like those Long Island ladies in New York, with their blow-dried hair and whatnot—very high maintenance, but they’ve got style. It’s definitely not mine, but I get it: it’s like the kind of stuff I wear in American Vogue.
“But then there’s this other style, this scene of real punky little girls and women who are into burlesque.” (The burlesque movement in Nashville is strong, and has produced two popular troupes: Music City Burlesque and Panty Raid.)
Elson has a soft spot for this saucy subculture—one of her other jobs is Creative Director of the cabaret troupe known as the Citizens Band, an international group of liberal-minded entertainers with whom she also sings and dances.
“I’d love to do a Citizens Band double bill with some of the burlesque girls here,” she says, but demurs when asked about whether she’d perform with the local troupes. “I have my cabaret moves down”—she says, making jazz hands—“but for burlesque, you need a bit more of a figure, and I just look too lanky, with my nonexistent boobs.”
Her burlesque role model, she says, is Dita Von Teese, in both performance style as well as the work Von Teese puts into her period-perfect public persona. “In my dreams, I wake up and do exactly what she does,” says Elson. “But I’ve got two kids and that brings time limits to putting on makeup.”
KAREN’S FAVORITE BISTRO: Margo, Nashville.
Photography by Amy Dickerson.
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