Helene Verin

Helene Verin is a former professor at FIT who recently relocated to Palm Springs. We talked to her about her new life, working in the shoe industry in New York in the 70s and 80s, and more.

Photography: Adam Humphreys

What made you decide to move here, and how does it compare to your old life in New York City?

I moved during COVID. I was a professor at FIT, and we started working remotely. My son was in LA, and  I always had a fantasy (about Palm Springs). I always wanted to live in the Royal Hawaiian.

Is this what where we are right now?

Yeah, Royal Hawaiian Estates. Donald Wexler was doing a lot of work in Palm Springs, but they wouldn't sell to Jews then. So he built the Royal Hawaiian for his mother and her friends, for Jews for aged 55 and older. So that's the only place I’d ever heard of in Palm Springs. Anyways... I came to see it and there happened to be a for sale sign. I bought it in about 10 minutes on WhatsApp. It was just meant to be. I knew it when I walked in.

And how are you liking it?

Everyone thinks of me as the quintessential New Yorker and can't imagine I'd ever leave. But I just adore it, I just love it. I realized I've been cold my whole life.

How did you get into the shoe business?

Andy Warhol was my friend, and he used to do shoe illustrations for I. Miller. And I was at a loss because I came from Minneapolis, and I was working in public TV, and I was frustrated. I didn't know what to do. And somebody said to me, "Be a shoe designer. There's no American shoe designers." So the next day, I enrolled in Parsons, and I started selling shoes at Henri Bendel's then, which is on 57th street, because everybody said you had to learn about the fit of shoes before anything else. And then I found a job working in one of the last fashion shoe factories in Brooklyn. It was right above a mattress factory. So I had the immediacy of finding something on the street, well, for example, mattress ticking downstairs, making it into a shoe, and it would be in the window of Saks the next day. Whereas now we're so used to waiting for the prototype. It's like then waiting... Because no shoes are really made in America anymore, it's like an eight-month proposition of getting something to market, where then it was so immediate because you could just have an idea-

It was so much better, wasn't it?

Oh my God, it's just... For anyone that's like a tactile... Like, my students, for example, they all learn all of the obviously computer spec sheets and everything like that. And so you just send it via spec sheets and everything. I don't know how to do any of that stuff because it was way before that I would do a silly drawing, and it was always really fun to see what the factory would do with it. But there was a level of spontaneity, which I think can't exist anymore because of the factories being all over the world.

Do you think overall design is not as good because of that?

I think you can actually tell the stuff that's made on the computer versus the stuff that's made by hand. So I do miss the hand and I miss that people don't probably even realize that are younger, because they were brought up on... I mean, my son of course would be, "This is an idiotic thing to say."

I dream about bringing Italians just to do it in America, but-

You can't.

It's like a whole ecosystem that you have to uproot. You'd need to have the tanneries and all the other...

The lasts. Yeah, everything.

You've written books about American Shoe Designers Arsho Baghsarian and Beth Levine. If you were going to make another book about a shoemaker who would it be?

A woman named Margaret Clark. Margaret Jerrold was the name of the shoes. My thing is '50s and '60s mid-century-modern American women designers because they always had men's names in the label. So you don't know who these people are, but they're actually the ones who Manolo Blahnik and Christian Louboutin actually reference. They're the originals, the American women designers. It’s a tradition that has not gotten enough attention. Everyone thinks of these European men, but it really isn't about them.

It's really these mid-century American women.

Like, this month in Vogue, somebody copied exactly Beth Levine's stocking boots that she won a Coty for. I mean, it's not really relevant to knock off. And that's what most American companies are brought up thinking. You've got to knock off the Europeans. And it's wrong because Americans have their own... We have our own... I mean, we know this in fashion now, Bonnie Cashin, blah, blah, blah, Calvin Klein. But we have our own very American quality, which should not be diluted.

Helene is wearing her own clothes and Mika Extra Black.