Sarah J Parker; Vogue Sept 05
A good thing about Sarah Jessica Parker is that even though her "life after Sex and the City" is in full swing, she feels that there is time to stop everything and smell the roses. She told the babysitter she'd be back by around four - and she'd be lying to you if she said she was happy being away from her good-smelling son - but here, in New Orleans, at the botanical gardens, she is way into smelling the flowers, especially the smelling part. With each expectant breath she luxuriates in the scent of a rose. "Oh, come here, smell this," she keeps saying. Yogic postures are required to reach your nose to the roses.
It's not just the flowers Sarah Jessica loves in New Orleans. She loves New Orleans. She's living in a house in the Garden District. At Whole Foods on Magazine Street, her son in the cart, she even signed a Sex and the City T-shirt on a worker at the checkout counter, to the thrill of the local paper, the Times-Picayune. Her neighbors invite her for Sunday dinners. "I had never been to New Orleans," she says, "and until you see it you don't understand its beauty. The architecture is unbelievable. There's not a house that's not beautiful. It's a city full of incredibly kind people, full of people who really take seriously Southern hospitality."
And of course she loves the food. "Po' boys are so freakin' good," she says as she passes a po' boy stand on the drive over to the gardens.
It's hot, though, and this morning she was feeling the heat as she filmed scenes from Failure to Launch, a comedy with Matthew McConaughey that involves a guy in his 30s who lives at home and uses his parents as cover to keep him from having to commit to a woman, a scheme that begins to fall apart when he meets Sarah Jessica's character. "You won't believe what I was wearing all morning filming a paint-ball fight," she says.
She has also just finished a movie with the working title of The Family Stone, due out this fall, which stars just about everybody - Dermot Mulroney, Claire Danes, Diane Keaton, Luke Wilson, and Rachel McAdams - and is her first role after Carrie Bradshaw.
But now, she's cool as she strolls the gardens, down the secret rows, past test roses, into the old hothouse, the wet humid home to the orchids. "You know, I am good with orchids, and I don't really know why," she says. Yes, Sarah Jessica is proving herself to be a little infatuated by scents and smells, not to mention good at explaining them. "Oh, dark-blue Lily of the Nile," she says, sniffing. Another rose - but it does not satisfy. "This one's more classic rose, and it's a higher note," she says. "It's more green-smelling than the other one. It would smell nice after you took a shower."
The reason for her olfactory expertise is the project she is most immediately excited about in the wake of Sex and the City: This month she is launching her new fragrance, Lovely - a scent that she has been working on not just for a few weeks or months but for years, so that she really does have a fragrance knowledge, a semiprofessional life among smells. You should see her explain how one ought to apply a perfume to one's arm: "You never crush it," she says. "It's all about the application."
For a long time, Sarah Jessica kept her fragrance passion a secret. Now she is public. And at this moment, before she has to jump back into her car, she has found the perfect rose.
"Ok, here we go, Pretty Lady," she says. "Ok, it's a bit more shy than a concentrated rose. It's not superaggressive." She beckons. "Ok, smell that!"
Sarah Jessica Parker pulls up to the curb at Clancy's, a restaurant uptown, in her rented Volvo, the radio tuned to the local jazz station. Clancy's is just a few blocks from the Mississippi River, but as Sarah Jessica walks in, it feels like the carpet in front of the Kodak Theatre for a moment. Nash Laurent, the impeccable maitre d', greets her easily, familiarly, and brings her to a table in the back. In a minute or two, the house specials arrive - fried soft-shell crab, Vidalia onions with fresh, rich red tomatoes, and for starters, oysters baked with Brie. "I don't eat like this every day," she says, his being pretty obvious.
Sarah Jessica is discussing her post-Sex and the City took her a while to figure out. After all, what's your next move when America thinks you and Carrie Bradshaw are one and the same? Do you pull a Seinfeld and walk away, content to be seen in the occasional commercial? Her answer: You choose your next part very carefully - in this case, a small film from the producer of Sideways. Directed by Thomas Bezucha, The Family Stone is the latest example of that genre-breaking genre, the 'dramedy' or 'comma' - that is, a comedic portrayal of dramatic events, in this case the interior life of a woman who is rejected by her boyfriend's family.
'I play a woman who is extremely successful in business,' says Sarah Jessica, digging into the tomatoes and onions.' IPOs and the South Asian market are her specialty. She's really wound tight, really controlling, really rigid, really-- she lacks certain social skills that are surprising. She's very intimidated by people. She always assumes people aren't going to like her, and of course it is a self-fulfilling prophecy.' The woman's name is Meredith, and the family Meredith meets us a liberal, eccentric New England family, a caring and nurturing family, who are out to hate the woman their beloved son brings home.
'In ways that only progressive people can be intolerant, they are intolerant,' says Michael London, the producer.
Playing the sister of Sarah Jessica's character is Claire Danes, who was impressed with Parker's actorly chops - by the way she transformed Meredith from un-self-aware to self-aware in the course of the Midsummer Night's Dream-esque plot. 'She exposes enormous vulnerability easily,' says Danes, who also enjoyed hanging out with Parker. 'I've loved her from afar and now I love her up close. She's just so innately charming and feminine and generous, and she has a beautiful voice. Life is more pleasurable when she's around.' According to Danes, Sarah Jessica never swears, even when playing darts between takes. 'She's incredibly polite,' Danes says. 'She's ladylike. She doesn't curse. I felt downright crass.'
For his part, Michael London admired Sarah Jessica as he watched her make peace with the fact that she was playing an unsympathetic character, which is gracious. 'She wasn't accustomed to being loathed and she wasn't accustomed to being loathsome,' he says. 'Sarah is extraordinary lovable. There's no other word for her.' Like Sarah Jessica, London thinks she made the right post-HBO choice. 'I think the last thing Sarah wanted after Sex and the City was a traditional vehicle, and here she gets to play against type, and we get an actress of depth and texture and feeling for the role.'
'It was the hardest experience I've had in a really, really, really long time,' says Sarah Jessica. 'This character talks nonstop. She's in a lot of pain. She's really incapable of extracting herself from situations she creates for herself. It was an extremely hard part, surrounded by a lot of really, really great actors.'
Dermot Mulroney, who plays her boyfriend, was impressed by her acting but also by her momness. During the filming of The Family Stone, they were both taking care of their respective children - he his six-year-old boy, and she her two-and-a-half-year-old while her husband, Matthew Broderick, was away. In Mulroney's eyes, Sarah Jessica made it seem almost easy, as if working and raising children all at once were no big deal. 'She would show up at an early call, on time, together, good-natured. And then to be sitting at the lunch table and have her say, 'Oh, no, I can't that weekend; I have my new fragrance coming out!'
'I mean, she's not only a really great actress,' Mulroney says, 'she's a really smart businessperson. She's really on the ball.'
Lovely is, as mentioned above, Sarah Jessica Parker's new scent, and yes, technically, it is a celebrity fragrance, Sarah Jessica Parker being a celebrity. But it is not like a lot of celebrity fragrances. Not to look down on the creative processes involved in the creation of certain other celebrity fragrances, not to cast aspersions on the scents and smells of the famous, but some celebrities just sort of phone their fragrance development in. Sarah Jessica is the opposite. She is a little embarrassed about how much she is into it. After getting married to Matthew Broderick, and then having a child with him, and dealing with the issues involved with marrying and having a child with someone, she still did not mention to him her fragrance dream.
'It seemed completely narcissistic,' she says. 'If I dared say it out loud I thought people would say, 'Who do you think you are?' I couldn't say the words out loud.'
Meanwhile, she in fact was known among her friends and family for her own scent. Something that happens on the streets of New York if you are Sarah Jessica Parker is this: You pass a friend who does not recognize you, for reasons having to do with sunglasses and hats or distractions, and then a few seconds later that friend, smelling you, turns and calls out: 'Sarah Jessica?'
Sarah Jessica's long and intensive history with fragrance nearly rivals her more famous relationship with fashion, and it begins with her in high school, when she used Love's Baby Soft. 'I knew that that was, you know, a fling,' she says. Then, as a teenager, while in Portland, Maine, in a play called Death of a Miner, she played the daughter of the actress Mary McDonald, who happened to use Aliage, an old Estee Lauder perfume. 'It was very peppery,' she recalls. 'It was very sexy.' She left the play for a spot in Square Pegs, her first big TV hit, and lived in LA, where, in her local apothecary, she fell in love with oils, that she mixed herself. Then, one day, when she was 20, Sarah Jessica's fragrance life changed forever. 'I met a girl who was wearing just a crappy musk brand,' she says. 'I said 'My God, you smell great!' And she said, 'It's just this thing from Rite Aid.' And I went to Rite Aid and I started using it, and it became part of my mix, up until today.'
Enjoying the Brie-covered oysters now, Sarah Jessica explains that musk appealed to her as an oil, the way it mingled with clothing, the way it lived on in her closet. 'Musk tends not to be considered ladylike, for people who don't shave under their arms,' she says. 'People tend to think of musk - while everybody likes it, especially men - as confident and forward and a little less gender-specific. Florals tend to be female and more marketable, and palatable.' She liked that the drugstore fragrance was really, really, cheap. 'At that point I'd come to understand that good things can come from all sources,' she says, 'that the finest department store in the world doesn't necessarily have something better suited for somebody, and I was thrilled at the price; it was $6.99 a bottle.'
How into the perfume was she? So into it that she eventually ordered it by the case directly from the company. So into it that when the company was about to go out of business they called her and asked if she wanted to buy some. 'You know what?' she said, 'I'll take them all.' She kept the 590 bottles in a storage space.
For a long time, she was happy with her fragrance life. 'The combination of the oils and this drugstore thing, I thought, was particularly winning,' she says. 'And I really stuck with it for years and years and years and honestly to the satisfaction of cabdrivers - it was just a crowd pleaser.' But as her bottle supply dwindled, she finally screwed up her courage. She spoke her fragrance dreams to her husband.
'He's a rather principled person,' Sarah Jessica says. 'He doesn't want a lot of people looking at him or us. He doesn't want to encourage anything that would make people pay more attention to us. But when I mentioned it to him, he said, 'You should! Absolutely! Everybody knows your smell!'
The next thing Sarah Jessica Parker knew, she was in touch with some fragrance people. They met in an unscented office downtown with Catherine Walsh, senior VP of cosmetics and American licenses for the Lancaster Group Worldwide. Walsh was impressed with Parker's perfume preparations. 'She knew olfactory how she wanted the fragrance to smell,' Walsh says.
Sarah Jessica presented a mix of her personal fragrance to Walsh. 'She had her concoction with her,' said Walsh. (Walsh uses the word concoction in the best possible sense.) With Sarah Jessica's homemade scent as a guide, they set to work, meeting regularly to talk and smell, usually over lunch, which would usually be sushi, a food the smell of which does not linger. Sarah Jessica was into it - some might say extremely into it, which is her M.O. 'She's calling all the time with ideas,' says Carolyn Strauss, president of HBO Entertainment, and a friend of Sarah Jessica's since the early days of Sex and the City. 'She's exhausting.'
Sarah Jessica Parker sat down with professional perfumers, sometimes called noses, who put the chemical portrait of a perfume together. This was for her like sitting down with Coco Chanel or Ethel Barrymore. Meanwhile, she was bringing samples home to her sisters, who were spraying them on one another, on their clothes. They were like a bunch of fragrance mad scientists. Sometimes she would ask her husband to smell something. 'I knew it was wrong,' she says, 'when Matthew would say, 'Uh, do you sell braces and handkerchiefs here as well, ma'am?'
After many weeks, they were close. They had the name - Lovely was Sarah Jessica's idea, as was the egg shape of the bottle. And they were getting very close on the scent of the scent, with mandarin and apple and bergamot and rosewood, with lavender cutting through, and for a second scent course serves up patchouli, and then finishes with a cedary if delicate musk.
'By the end the changes were so minute,' says Catherine Walsh, 'we were on the molecular level. We were chopping and cutting atoms at this point.'
People on Sarah Jessica's side, such as her sisters and her mother, were excited, while people on the fragrance-company side were also excited, even though a deal had yet to be signed and they had to keep everything completely under wraps, super-hush-hush.
They just needed to sign the deal, which is why everybody involved freaked out when Matthew Broderick went on the Late Show with David Letterman and spilled the beans. On that evening, she was at home, sweeping the kitchen while watching TV. 'I don't know what happened on that show,' she says, 'and Matthew will tell you it is the weirdest thing. Matthew knew it was a state secret. I was being cagey about it. I wasn't telling anyone.'
Letterman asked Broderick how his wife was. He replied that she was beautiful - a perfect start. Letterman asked what his wife was up to, and the part of Broderick's brain that was excited about the fragrance's development - and this is just a theory, since husbands' brains are really so little understood by science - told Letterman on national TV that she was making a fragrance.
At this point, according to Sarah Jessica Parker, the thought that went through her mind was, 'Is he out of his freakin' mind?'
As Broderick continued, Sarah Jessica discontinued sweeping and, again according to her, shouted, 'Noooooooooooooooooo!'
Letterman said that she 'always smells lovely,' which has Sarah Jessica nearly convulsing, in that Lovely, as we now know, was the still-secret scent's name.
After screaming at the television for a period of time, she regained her composure and settled on an extremely reasonable course of action. 'You know what?' she recalls thinking. 'I am not going to mention this to Matthew. There's no reason to get him upset. It might have gone by without notice, and why make him feel bad?'
The next morning, with Broderick still asleep, Sarah Jessica took their son to school. As she strollered, her BlackBerry began filling with messages from her publicist, who was frantically deflecting fragrance calls; the press had jumped on the story as if it were a breakthrough in medical science. Sarah Jessica was certain all this would ruin the fragrance deal. As it turned out, the fragrance executives were Ok with the whole thing. They even thought it was kind of funny, after a period of time passed. 'It was fine,' Sarah Jessica said. One thing Broderick had going for him, as far as forgiveness goes, was his own personal scent. 'He smells so good it's ridiculous,' says Sarah Jessica. 'He's just lucky like that.'
What do you wear to launch a fragrance? How do you choose the dress that will represent you and your scent to the world? After the fragrance deal didn't fall apart, a team was assembled to find the dress that would be for Lovely what khakis and cool accessories was for Sarah Jessica's Gap ads. Thus, Sarah Jessica hired Trey Laird, the creative director on the Gap ads, and Laird and the Lancaster fragrance team and Sarah Jessica, among others, sat down and considered a dress. The as-yet-undersigned dress needed to mimic what they had decided was the classic nature of the fragrance (lavender), and it needed to also to address the fragrance's old-fashioned glamour (florals) and its forward-seeming sexiness (musk). It needed to be, in a word, lovely.
Obviously, Sarah Jessica has logged her time on the red carpet, and she knows her was around a special dress, so before she discusses precisely how she arrived at the dress in question, let's look at her history on the red carpet.
Somewhere between Square Pegs and Sex and the City, Sarah Jessica grew from being a red-carpet novice to what might be a red-carpet expert, a red belt. Driving around New Orleans on a summer afternoon, Sarah Jessica consents to a kind of torture: while passing peach trucks and on her way, ultimately, to the house she is renting, she looks back in paparazzi history at photos of her on the red carpet, from the dawn of her career until now - she reviews her own fashion education and the evolution of the red carpet itself, dress by dress.
To reiterate, this is an intense experience. These are photos of her past that she had not prepared herself emotionally to see. It is an exercise that is at times embarrassing, at times stressful, though to her credit she never demurs, no matter how she feels about it; she never leaps from the car. Her first comment gives an insight into how much the red carpet has changed in the opinion of a participant.
'Oh, my God,' she says.
She begins in the eighties, when fashion on the red carpet was not about wearing fashion. Stars laughed in the face of the glamorous red-carpet styles of the past. As Sarah Jessica uncovers her face, she sees herself at the premiere of At Close Range in 1986. 'Leather jacket,' she says, 'punky vintage-looking, a la Madonna. I bought that at Fred Segal, if you must know.' She is shaking her head. 'This was very much in fashion, this sort of unconstructed shoulder, you know. Comme des Garcons. I was really super young; leathers were really big in California.'
The clothes memories are rushing back to her now.
April 1987, wearing a vintage purple housedress, walking with Kevin Bacon at an AIDS benefit: 'These are like common dresses worn by working women or mothers. These are the classic chiffon forties dresses, which by the way, people weren't doing that so much then. It was just a really cheap way of dressing, like I would get these from thrift-store bins for $1.99. I'll wear vintage all the time today, but I'll wear reconstructed vintage, like Galanos, or old Dior.'
At the Slam Dance premiere, 1987, the antifashion look is becoming more architectural: jodhpurs from a riding store, a Alaia top, black flats. She is ruthless. 'It was a style that was developing in Southern California, specifically in Los Angeles. The jodhpurs are from a real horse store in New York; I mean, this I think is an atrocity, this purse across the-- it's unthinkable.' She looks away, almost swears. 'Jeez Louise, this is horrible,' she says.
She takes a time-out. 'I would say that I was very much a sheep, not a shepherd,' she says. 'I think that when you grow up and you're different, all you want to do is find a way to be the same. And then as a more mature adult with experience on your side, you realize the beauty of thinking on your own, and having your own ideas and opinions, whether or not other people agree with them, like them, object to them, aesthetically understand them - it kind of doesn't matter'
But now, something is happening at the end of the eighties in red-carpet fashion: We see it in the culture and in Sarah Jessica's red-carpet picks. Fashion is suddenly about fashion. The thrift-store dress she wears on a 1989 red carpet is not an old housecoat anymore, but an old beautiful dress, a thing of glamour. 'It cost me, I think, about ten dollars. It's a beautifully made dress, beautiful silk with burnt-out velvet over it and a nude body. I wore it a lot. I would definitely wear that dress again.'
Yes, there were some missteps, even as things progressed. The five-dollar white T-shirt that she wore with Jack Purcell sneakers, a white cotton skirt, and a black Chanel bag to the opening of the movie The Lion King, which she attended with her future husband, who voiced the part of Simba, the lion king, is not something she would again attempt. ('I met him before he was Simba,' she says. 'Did you think I liked him only because he was Simba?') But even the mistakes were a step toward what the red carpet was becoming, what it is today, as you might discern from her calm but subtextually hysterical recounting of the ensemble she wore to the For The Boys premiere in 1991. 'I remember exactly this whole thing - I put it all together myself. On my feet, which you can't see, are some Christian Lacroix shoes that I still own. This was a bra that I wore as a shirt, which was rather bold and tasteless, I understand. And this was a fancy designer's coat that I borrowed for the evening ; I saw it somewhere, borrowed it, and returned it; that might have been my first borrow. And I did my own hair and makeup as usual, and I bought everything, bought these pants at Lord & Taylor's and had them tailored. They were a palazzo and I had them brought in to a peg.'
By 1996, showing up on the red carpet to the premiere of The Cable Guy at Mann's Chinese Theatre with her husband, she is, as she sees it now, where she wants to be. 'I like that very much,' she says of the simple black jacket and white pants. 'I just think it's so simple. I think it's very possible that I could wear something like that today. I would make them a little more narrow. And I would make the jacket shorter 'cause I'm short. I just think my hair looks fine. I did it myself, obviously. And I think Matthew looks great.'
She is happy with the red Prada on the red carpet for the opening of State and Main in 2000 - a red dress of Roman simplicity - and she beams at a dreamy pink Oscar de la Renta, with an organza flower on her arm. 'At this point in the red-carpet game,' she says, pleased, 'I wore what I responded to, and that was it.'
To a New Year's Eve performance of The Producers in 2003, she wore another fanciful dress from de la Renta, the man who was coming to define the higher stakes, and higher standards of elegance, that stars by then were coming to expect. 'It just suited the night so well,' she recalls happily, 'and I kind of think that's what it should be all about: Like what suits you.' De la Renta suited her well, too, for the 2003 CFDA Fashion Awards, and then - this is what they call a fashion moment; you will probably remember this - did a green two-tiered taffeta cocktail pouf for her to wear to an American Ballet Theatre fund-raiser in 2004.
'I really love Mr. De la Renta,' she says. 'I love him. This reminds me of the kinds of things that kind of epitomize the de la Renta woman that I hope to be someday.'
These final images in her trip down fashion memory lane are very much what the red carpet is today: shorter dresses; architectural silhouettes; everything a bit more formal, elegant, glamorous. The red carpet now is a little old-fashioned, but also forward-looking and sexy, a description that also approaches a kind of summation of the idea of Sarah Jessica Parker herself, who at the end of this fashion experiment, is very happy, if drained.
As the car pulls up to her destination in the beautiful old Victorian-homed neighborhood of the Garden District, she puts down the folder of her red-carpet past. 'I can't believe I got to wear all those dresses,' she says.
During the fragrance-fashion meetings, the Lovely team determined that this dress would have to transcend time, if possible. 'We wanted the dress to last,' Sarah Jessica says. 'We wanted it so that you wouldn't look at it and say, 'Oh, that's definitely 2005.' And so of course, everybody said Mr. De la Renta.'
The Lovely team went to his studio. Sketches were made. People touched fabrics. People were pleased. The sticking point would be the color. There was only one color that the dress could be, a pink, a particular pink that the entire fragrance campaign was built on. There was only one bolt of this pink.
'It was the perfect color,' says Sarah Jessica.
'The dress itself, it has a very full skirt and a very tight strapless torso,' says de la Renta. 'You know, she is not extremely tall, but she can wear anything really,. She has a sort of chameleon kind of body. She can transform herself to anything she wants to be. She can be an ingenue, a flirtatious lamb, a Marilyn Monroe type. She just looks great in my clothes, and you know what I do is the essence of femininity - she is herself the essence of femininity.'
In the end, the dress that you will see a thousand times on TV this fall and all over the printed world (and even in the very magazine you're holding) is a dress she could wear to an opening, a spectacular gala - a dress that she might wear to the premiere of all premieres.
'It definitely has that red-carpet quality,' Sarah Jessica says. 'It's the very unadorned. It's very simple. There's no hyperbole about the dress. It's simple and really classic. It's perfect.'
'I have a problem concerning wearing it again,' she says. 'I have too much sentimental attachment to it. It's coddled like a baby in my archives.'