Me, My Spots and I

My name is Carli, I am 26 years old and my skin is my enemy.

I don’t recall a time, month, week or day when I haven’t had spots. This isn’t a cry for sympathy, or even a particularly woeful moan, it’s simply a statement of fact. You might eye up the woman wearing Manolos on the train, or the one with the Mulberry Alexa on your bus, but my secret hobby is to scrutinise the pores of every woman I meet – on the commute, at work, and each one of my friends. The added interest (torment?) is that most of the lovely girls I work with, and count as my friends, are blessedly blemish-free. Sure, they might get a zit after a heavy weekend, or suffer the odd blackhead, but by and large their skin is clear, tight, fresh. In contrast, mine is marked with spots, scars and other ravages which in the past year have included a nasty bout of seborrheic dermatitis, resulting in patches of dry crusts across my face, neck, back and chest – the final insult to a quarter-life of waging war against my own skin.

I am not suggesting I suffer from full-blown acne: I don’t. And many sufferers of persistently flared skin will probably treat my ‘afflictions’ with disdain. However, a shared obsession is the desire to inspect the skin of the flawless, to ask a million questions about skincare and diet to try and pinpoint a crucial difference separating me with peachy clear flesh. Not forgetting the unity there is in the ‘magic’ of three more mole-hills erupting from our chins seemingly overnight.

I’ve tried the creams, visited the derms, had the tests, cut out the food groups. But essentially I am just unlucky. My mother has the skin of someone half her age, smooth, even and fresh-looking, but she still maintains she suffered until almost middle age with troublesome skin. Yes, sometimes I despair, wishing desperately for ONE DAY of clearness, where foundation could be a frivolous extra and not the one liquid saving my self-confidence, but the low moments of my early twenties have been replaced by curiosity as to what it would feel like, would I would look like, if I could treat my face as something to experiment with, not as a minefield, and if makeup was about enhancement only, not coverage. God the creams, the potions, the lotions I’ve tried. If I’m ever wondering why I don’t have savings, a quick look inside my makeup bag and bathroom will make a few Shu Uemera-related suggestions. Of course, some things need a prize merely for existing: YSL Touche Eclat is a joy for my under eyes – did I mention I had a genetic tendency to under-eye shadows? You’ve got to laugh, when every beauty ‘no no’ I read about in magazines is or has been a feature of my face.

My pet hate? ‘Friends’ who tell me that it’s so freeing not to wear foundation, how they ‘get so many compliments’ on their fresh-faced no-makeup look. I often express amazement and approval at their own good luck, but really the response I’m often reaching for is: go to hell.

Yes, I have plenty to be thankful for in life, and no I don’t have a life-threatening affliction (touch wood). But clear skin is my Everest. It only just occurred to me that I couldn’t remember a time with unmarked skin – it must have been a time pre-hormones. But I’ll keep on climbing my mountain and try not to be too hard on my face – but in the meantime if you need me, I’ll be in the skincare aisle of Boots.

New York Fashion Week

Having just arrived back from a week’s holiday in Spain, I am woefully late to the New York Fashion Week buzz. But like many regular tweeters, my interest is always piqued by the well-crafted show build up of the Victoria Beckham brand. Full marks for her democratic and enthusiastic social media conversation, and also it seems, full marks for another great collection.

From the few new collections I’ve looked at today, the focus seems to be on the relaxed, and the undone. Not undone in the sense of messy, but in the sense of shape, of a ‘yes I know I look good’ confidence, without the contrived over-formality. Victoria Beckham’s collections have been a surprise over the seasons – each time they deliver a new angle to her style ethos, and this has journeyed from the structured body-con of the first collection, via sporty and Sixties influences and landing, for SS14, in a Celine-like aesthetic that is both tailored and effortlessly relaxed.

The same vibe was felt at Altuzarra. The collection’s crux seemed to be a series of separates, and again, the word ‘effortless’ would spring to mind. Beautiful fluid fabrics and the stark boldness of stripes and split skirts made for a cool and confident collection. Earlier in the day everyone’s eyes were on Alexander Wang, who since being announced as the new creative lead at Balenciaga has managed not to lose his own label’s vision. Influenced by the nineties logo mania, and quoted as saying he drew inspiration from a time when fashion was more ‘fun’, Wang’s SS14 girl had attitude, but in a softer and yes there’s that word again, effortless sense, not the tough rock girl of last season’s Givenchy and Saint Laurent chick. God I better carry a thesaurus for the rest of the week…

NYFW

I Used To Be A Fashion Writer

I used to speak fluent fashion. I could whip up 500 words on the Oscar red carpet, the latest designer choice by Michelle Obama, or Alexander McQueen’s death. Fashion by observation was my thing – a contribution to the conversation on a much-derided topic: why we wear what we do, why we care, why it affects us. The main criticism levied at my choice of word-fodder was that it was shallow, unintellectual, unchallenging. I vehemently disagreed and still do – the world of fashion is ever-changing, ever-challenging, and part of a wider social dynamic that plays it part in our evolution. Writing about fashion could encourage people to wonder, to dream, and to fall in love.

But aside from that, it was fun. I could tell you the red carpet dress heroes of the last five years, joyfully dissected in the early hours of the morning after an awards ceremony – a side effect of the LA time difference. I could give you the colour palette for AW13 and advise which designers do it best. I could advise on a street style blogger to follow, a new Scandinavian high street store, an up-and-coming eco-friendly leather brand.

Except that I couldn’t. Not anymore. For the last three years I have been working on the Other Side for a single brand. I have therefore become single-minded. Challenging and fantastic in its own ways, I realised that no longer do I ponder the Paris shows, hitting refresh on style.com until new looks are added. Nor do I ever offer a professional opinion on Michelle Obama’s evolving style, or which shoe designer is the next Big Thing.

Every brand is an island. And as a protector of that island and it’s communications, I speak and breathe a language particular to its parameters. I navigate the unchartered waters of social media conversations, but from a propaganda and police role, instead of a challenging or commenting voice. I am good at it, and I cherish the experiences I have. But the realisation I had lost my ‘fashion’ voice has been sneaking up in the back of my mind – and I want it back. My brand voice and my own voice are not mutually incompatible.

Writing under the alias of Wardrobe Wisdom I had a place. I no longer have the alias, but I have me – my own opinions and my own interests. And you’ll be seeing more of those as I coax my inner fashion girl out of her hiding place. And let’s face it, I have until next awards season to brush off the cobwebs and get stuck in.

A Belgian Break In Brussels

A couple of months ago, on a whim, Mark and I booked a weekend break in Brussels. Chosen for it’s proximity near to the top of the SecretEscapes search list more than overriding desire to go there (although the waffles were a big factor) we booked it, and EuroStar tickets, and set off last weekend.

Firstly, can I say how much I enjoy European train travel. The Eurostar took 2 hours 7 minutes from St Pancras, with a stop at Lille on route. I found the whole experience much more civilised than hauling out to Gatwick or Stansted for a sardine-packed flight. Starting at St Pancras negates the need for a transfer, and the money saved can be spent on breakfast at the Booking Office Bar (we didn’t have time on this occasion) and then in the very good choice of shops in the St Pancras shopping arcade. Beats the undercooked omelette and pack of Pringles we would have ‘enjoyed’ at Stansted.

We left London at 9am, already a warm day, and arrived in Brussels at lunch time, greeted by blue skies and sunshine. Hurrah! We stayed at the classic Stanhope Hotel – traditional decor and impeccable staff. It apparently has a 5 star rating, which I would have quibbled on the grounds of the slightly tired bathroom if the rest of the visit hadn’t been very pleasant indeed. A lovely breakfast included, and very helpful staff.

We were located in the European Parliament quarter, which we found on a Thursday night turns any bar in its vicinity into Canary Wharf on a sunny day – suits everywhere, crammed into every millimetre that still commanded the sun at 7pm. On our first night there we wandered locally and stumbled across a French restaurant with a group of people sitting outside – on that basis we went in, and enjoyed a very nice meal.

We hadn’t really researched the city before we arrived, aside from looking up a couple of recommended waffle cafes. At the station we bought 3 days travel cards, which entitles you to use the full metro, tram and bus service in the city – European city transport at its best. Honestly, every time I come home from such trips the extortionate price, unrelability and plain old stuck-in-its-ways state of the Underground makes me a little more mad. The Brussels trams were our main lifeline, transporting us between the more obvious ‘tourist’ clusters of the city and the main centre. 14 Euros for three days too, are you listening Boris?

I was pleasantly surprised by Brussels. I thought it would be pretty to look at and it was, but some of it was breathtaking, and some just plain interesting. As a budding photographer, Mark enjoyed the architecture, the views from the various high points and the projects as part of the city’s World Fair contributions in the 1950s – the more famous Atomium and the beautiful Oriental museum, with its Japanese and Chinese monuments and objets d’art.

One of the funniest things was the lack of people. In a city. We kept thinking we’d stumble across them but often didn’t! On the Saturday we finally ended up at the retail centre of the city at Place de Louise, and this was busy, but certainly no Oxford Street. That evening we ate in an amazing restaurant in the same area, which was deserted by the time we finished. Although it made for excellent service, we asked our waiter where everyone was. He shrugged and said as it was never sunny in Belgium, everyone had probably fled the city for impromptu weekend breaks.

Speaking of ‘escaping’ the city, although we didn’t get out to Bruges, we did take a tram south to the edge of the city and to the Bois de la Cambre. It’s the start of a dense forest which apparently goes on for miles, but at the start was styled more as a wooded park, with openings for sunbathing, and a very cute lake with the Chalet Robinson restaurant in the middle. A friendly ‘captain’ will ferry you across in a small boat for one Euro. Even here, on a sunny warm day, it was super quiet. In hindsight it would have been a lovely area to hire bikes – Brussels has a ‘Boris Bike’ similar scheme which is cheap and easy to navigate.

The Grand Place is the main tourist hotspot. In our enthusiastic explorations on the first day we came across it accidentally, following the cobbled streets until we found first the museum quarter (art lovers will enjoy the frequent exhibitions at the Margritte and BOZAR museums) and then the Grand Place. (“What’s that big spire?” “I don’t know – let’s follow it!”) This was busy – the obvious tourist-magnet being the amazing gothic buildings, including the impressive town hall, and the centre square where there is often entertainment. Surrounding the Grand Place are picturesque back streets, with everything from chocolate shops (so many!) to Leffe cafes, jewellery shops, souvenir rubbish shops, and plenty of restaurants professing to be the best ‘moules frites’ in the city. We declined to test the statement on the basis of many having pictures of food on the menus. Somehow makes me instantly suspicious…

We may have missed out on moules frites but overall the food was amazing. On the last day we made it to the recommended waffles cafe: the Liege waffles with icecream and hot fudge sauce were to die for. From the fantastic ‘Enjoy’ restaurant on Saturday night, to the pitta cafe (such a great idea, pittas stuffed with pretty much anything you like) there was a range of food and drink on offer for all tastes.

On our last day we also hunted down the Jeu De Balle flea market. And we found some Brussels locals! Clearly out for a bargain, it had attracted a huge crowd even in the baking midday heat. Testing my very average French, I started a haggling conversation with a unwitting stall holder for a crystal whisky decanter-cum-perfume bottle (I have the beginnings of a fledgling collection) which quickly descended into shaking head and nodding head, but in the end I was triumphant. From old cameras to vintage books, via pocket watches and fuse boxes, you really could have found anything. But don’t forget to haggle!

Thanks for having us Brussels, it was a fantastic antidote to London’s packed streets.

Stanhope Hotel

Brussels

Brussels

Brussels

Brussels

Sam’s Kitchen

The city of Bath is home to the Roman Baths, beautiful Georgian terraces and ‘original’ Victoria tea rooms with the primary purpose of ripping off tourists. What it’s not renowned for is gastronomy. There are a fair few chain restaurants (Bills being the latest to land in town – good for breakfast though) and a couple of small independent gems that I will reluctantly share with you (Same Same But Different, good for coffee in the day and tapas in the evening) but not the roll-call of vibrant eateries you’d perhaps expect in a city as, well, smug, as Bath.

The most recent Bath restaurant I’ve been to was however, a great evening out. Amazing food, fab location and based on a fun idea. Sam’s Kitchen is known to well-placed locals as the fantastic deli on Walcot Street, good for daily joints of meat, fresh salads and an ever-changing menu. From May – August the small deli super-sized itself, as a pop-up restaurant in The Octagon – a one-time chapel with great acoustics and an expanse of floor space. The pop-up kept to the true idea of term – it did look as if they had literally found a few mismatched tables and chairs and arranged them in the space, punctuated with a piano and band area on one side, a makeshift bar and waiting area, and the open kitchen.

The staff were all lovely, typical of the Sam’s Kitchen deli crowd – a bit of banter, chatty, friendly, ready to top up my Prosecco at a moment’s notice (big tick). We were told that the menu sometimes changed twice a day, depending on the fresh ingredients in the kitchen, and you could believe it. Musical Dad enjoyed veal brisket, Fashionable Mother had plaice, and Little Sis and I had a simple pasta dish with in-season asparagus topped with gorgeous ricotta and pine nuts.

Live music was a nice touch in such a large space, especially one that could be a bit echo-y and reminiscent of a school canteen in between songs. The singer on our visiting night was also the pianist – lovely voice.

Our waitress told us they were hoping the pop-up could stay in the Octogon for a few more months, and I hope they get the permission – Bath food needs a bit of buzz, and Sam’s Kitchen delivered exactly the right tonic.

Sam’s Kitchen

Sam's Kitchen

The Art of Relaxation

Underneath one of the busiest transport hubs in London doesn’t seem like the most obvious place to seek relaxation. But the spa at the beautiful St Pancras Hotel is an oasis surrounded by metropolitan madness. On a recommendation, Fashionable Mother and I headed there on a rainy Friday morning, welcomed into the heart of the hotel under the fashionable Gilbert Scott restaurant.

The spa is small, a niche gem rather than an all-singing all-dancing retreat, which is sensibly to expect in the middle of a city – they don’t have access to the sprawling estates of say, Grayshott, or Lucknam Park. But what St Pancras has is presented impeccably; a small hydro-therapy pool in a warm tiled basement room, with an adjoining steam room and lovely loungers. It honestly felt a world away from the trains passing just a thick wall away, and with no phone signal to be had, I felt protected by the spa’s secluded, luxury embrace.

My chosen treatment was an hour’s massage, with my very knowledgable therapist asking plenty of questions in advance to ascertain my lifestyle, stress levels and even sleep patterns. While I tend to think I carry stress in my shoulders, she immediately honed in on my pelvis and lower-back, and relaxed me so much I was near to a blissful trance, if not total spa coma.

A pleasing bonus point of the St Pancras spa was the relaxation room – the place you tend to be taken following a treatment. Too many I’ve been hustled into have been too cold, too cramped, devoid of atmosphere or just lacking from the establishment entirely. Although very small (I can’t imagine the spa ever being super busy, with the hotel’s clientele seemingly business and weekend flying visit-oriented) it was perfectly formed – loungers with throws if you feel the chill, candles, light music, plenty of magazines, fresh tea, iced water and even nuts and fruit if your treatment has left you peckish. I could have stayed there all day, but was reluctantly ejected on the promise of afternoon tea.

Afternoon tea! Exciting! Who doesn’t want afternoon tea following a relaxing morning’s spa? Luckily (it was still raining) we needed only to pop upstairs to the hotel’s Hansom Lounge for the St Pancras Afternoon Tea. The ambience was slightly dented by a mass check-out of a business contingent, piling suitcases through the lounge and saying plentiful goodbyes. Luckily the food soon arrived to distract us. Frequent takers of afternoon tea will know the pleasing ritual that is a three-tier stand of cakes and sandwiches, loose-leaf tea and an old-fashionable strainer. Our waitress was lovely and very attentive, offering more sandwiches (fresh walnut bread with honey-roast ham, yes please) and topping up tea as FM and I valiantly ploughed through the mini patisseries. Victoria Sponge, Mille Feuille and chocolate mousse pots (oh my) got the better of us, but really only because we made the rookie mistake of binging on warm scones and clotted cream, the central staple of a good tea.

When we left the hotel the rain was still coming down hard, in fact, the only thing I’d add to the experience is a hotel-based blow dry bar, but hey, my hair may have been past saving but my muscles, mind and stomach were satiated indeed.

St Pancras Hotel and Spa.

St Pancras Spa

How To Be Awesome

Sadly this isn’t a guide from me to you on ‘how to be awesome’. But if you’re looking for one, look no further than Hadley Freeman’s latest book.

A piece of trivia for you: the reason I am a writer is because of Hadley. In fact, it was because I wrote to her in the style of her ‘Ask Hadley’ column in my last year of university that I managed to get work experience at The Guardian, which led to a conviction that I could a) could write for a living and b) could talk about fashion for a living, which in turn led to months of unpaid internships and feelings of self-pity, before landing my writing job at a luxury fashion brand where I still work today. Hadley was the first person in a long list of journalists I contacted to actually write back, so clearly she’s pretty awesome herself. You won’t remember me Hadley, but thank you!

Aside from my personal gratitude, I feel women can more generally thank Hadley for her smart, witty advice in How To Be Awesome, which manages to tread the dangerous waters of sex, body image, work and the media without appearing preachy or pessimistic. As someone that has often felt a sense of unease that ‘feminism’ has become such an uncomfortable word to women of my generation, I think Hadley is spot on with her ‘if you have a vagina, you’re a feminist, and if not you’re not deserving of said vagina.’ The book also helps my own argument and positioning against the so-called ‘true feminist’ point of view, which says the fact that I write about handbags for a living perpetuates the myth that women are silly and shallow and therefore it’s ‘no wonder they’re taken seriously.’ Yes I like handbags. And straightening my hair. And watching Bridget Jones in my pyjamas while eating my bodyweight in Minstrels, but I’m also in position of a pretty good brain, some sense of humour and life successes that I don’t for one moment judge ill-favourably against men, or other women for that matter, and don’t expect to be judged in return.

How To Be Awesome teaches us that standing up for what you believe in (and not letting the Daily Mail suck your soul, optimism or general wellbeing), believing in yourself in a way that doesn’t mean you need to change yourself to be better, and admitting to a love of Jane Austen without worrying it might undermine your feminist credentials, can all contribute to a women’s general awesomeness – and that sometimes if you need to shout from your own soap box to make yourself heard, then damn well do it, and leave the anxiety about sounding like a ‘feminist’ behind – because you are one, and that’s just awesome.

[disclaimer: if you’re reading the section on Hadley’s sex seminar visit on a train, be prepared to both snigger, and if you’re on a particularly busy (and pervy) section of the Circle Line, ready to share the book with the man reading it wide-eyed over your shoulder.]

How To Be Awesome, by Hadley Freeman.

Hadley Freeman How To Be Awesome

A Load Of Hot Stones And Fat Chips

Think spa, and giant pebbles probably don’t immediately spring to mind. But one of the best treatments I’ve ever had at a spa is the traditional hot stone massage. If you’re already a fan of the classic massage, or don’t really respond to the usual finger prodding, try stones – the therapist coats you in oil before using a hot smooth stone in each hand to firmly stroke and massage your body. The heat is an added bonus to removing any knots, my shoulder blades had never felt so free.

I had my latest hot stones treatment at the Macdonald Bath Spa hotel, with my friend Miss Spa Girl. The general spa environment was average, and I’m never a fan of children allowed in spa swimming pools, but there you go. What was really nice was the service, we were met throughout the day by a succession of pleasant people, which isn’t always a given in a chain hotel environment. I would have sold my soul to keep my therapist on tap, but that might have been my post-treatment euphoria (although she was fantastic).

It was therefore nice to continue a sensory-filled day with dinner at Cowshed, a Bristol hotspot on the Whiteladies Road. Miss Spa Girl and I reminisced about old times by parking on the street we lived on at Bristol University, and shaking our heads at all the changes to our old haunts (honestly, five years away isn’t that long, is it?). As a red meat girl, I love steak, but only a *good* steak, and Cowshed definitely delivered. We all commented that the described ‘fat chips’ were more ‘obese chips’ which can only ever be a good thing where chips are concerned.

A trip to an old uni-favourite bar made us feel, if not old, then definitely ‘grown up’, perching on hard seats and attempting a serious conversation about customer service values over the loud music. Honestly, with those types of conversations, and a penchant for massage and a good quality spa robe, I really am turning into my mother.

Bath Spa Hotel.
Cowshed Bristol.

Hot Stones

THE SITUATION ROOM

On Sunday night, after a lazy day on Wandsworth Common, I found myself underneath Shoreditch Town Hall for an ‘immersive underground adventure’. It’s not often I find myself adventuring on a Sunday, even less often that it’s under East London. As usual with any hip theatre-going occasions, I was the plus one for Elisa, my talented director flatmate. The play was created by a fellow director friend of hers, so we were there for industry support, without a clue as to what we would find.

The premise to the play was:

‘It’s 1961 and the Cold War is reaching boiling point. East and West are on a collision course as revolution erupts in the small nation of Al-Khadra. Will this jewel of the Middle East become a lucrative ally or a dangerous enemy? As a world leader in this moment of crisis, your choices will determine the course of history.’

I went in thinking of a mash-up of the West Wing and Homeland, and slightly concerned about the gambling chip and blindfold we were presented with. The chip turned out to help determine which ‘side’ we were on, US or USSR. Elisa and I were split up, and we were led to different sides of the same room, me glaring at her across the aisle (I’m not usually a fan of audience participation).

It turned out to be one of the most diverting hours I’ve had, and definitely one of the most interesting plays to be a part of. Essentially both sides made choices (whether they were perceived or real is another matter) as to how to deal with the Cold War crisis in the ficitious Al-Khadra region. Should the US nuke the small village to save the big city? Should we assassinate a key player in the local rebellion? Should the USSR cooperate or fight back when summoned? Various tools of choice were used; a clicker, blindfolds so we couldn’t see the other side’s choices, standing up, raising hands. All very democratic and how I imagine days are spent in political chambers around the world, between copious cups of tea and surreptitiously reading a Kindle.

I found myself gripped throughout. The two actors, Simon Carroll-Jones and Robert Macpherson, were fantastic as their respective Russian and US political figures, working well together and with the audience, and being kind to those who were plucked for further interaction. Although we all know how the Cold War ends, it was surprising to feel so interested and invested in ‘making the right choice’.

Unfortunately the play ends next weekend, so you haven’t got long if you want to get to see it.

Find out more about The Situation Room.

The Situation Room

The Situation Room

The Situation Room

SHRIMPY’S

So I’m back from my Wiltshire retreat and straight back into the swing of London things. Which firstly means finding somewhere to eat on a Friday night. Cue an hour or so trawling the Time Out pages, taking in the obligatory ‘you’ve GOT to go here’ recommendations and looking at the latest Grace Dent column in the ES magazine. And a common theme is Shrimpy’s, the not-so-new hotspot in the King’s Cross Filling Station behind St Pancras. So, with an office recommendation of ‘trying the crab burger’ off to Shrimpy’s we go.

After an afternoon of team-bonding at the Light Show at the Hayward Gallery (worth a look, incidentally) and a tad too much wine at Skylon afterwards (also good) I was starving, hoping to arrive at the restaurant and start mainlining shoestring fries. The menu certainly wasn’t disappointing, I honed in on the aforementioned soft shell crab burger, with a side of macaroni cheese. Although no description is given, the menu is at least loosely Latin American, with a strong ‘classic American’ bent, and the cocktail list looked good, even if I didn’t succumb (I stuck to Hibiscus Lemonade after the earlier excesses).

The space isn’t huge, and laid out with seats around a counter/bar, and more smaller tables dotted around the edges of the room. A sticking point was the service, although seated at the counter and in clear view of the chefs, bar staff and waitresses, we waited a while to have plates cleared, and had to all but trip up a passing and unwitting waiter to get a pudding menu. It was a good thing we got hold of one though, as my choice of peanut butter and banana ‘sandwich’ was a bowl of sticky, calorific delight.

It’s a shame the KXFS isn’t a wider mix of bars and restaurants. It’s in a bit of no-man’s-land and it would have been nice to have a neighbouring bar with the same vibe in which to carry on the evening. When the bill came, it wasn’t cheap, and to be honest I would have probably been just as happy in a Wahaca. Although the soft shell crab was to die for. And for some that’s definitely enough to get them there.

Shrimpy’s information

Shrimpy's