Stephanie Coo, a history professor at Ateneo de Manila University, embodies traveling with style. Alongside her passion in the stories of the past is her gusto for dressing up for the occasion, or in this case, for the destination. We sat down with the uber-stylish professor to talk about her travels and how she marries her knowledge in world history with fashion.
First, define your personal style.
My style varies depending on the climate, occasion and mood. When teaching, sometimes I wear graphic tees with Dr. Martens, other days preppy, retro, avant-garde or colonial. Overall, eclectic, I suppose. I also put aside clothing intended for airports, provincial weekends, beach, etc.
I also have sketches of some fool-proof outfit ensembles for different occasions for the following reasons: (1) I don’t have to think everytime; (2) so I can keep track of what I already have in my closet for easy mix and match; (3) since I have a city and a provincial residence, I need to be able to keep track of what I have where. If my budget permits, I buy double of my favorite pieces.
Your style changes from every country you visit. Do you consciously plan every outfit you wear abroad?
I let my destinations inspire me. For example, an ornate fountain called for something that evokes la dolce vita, St. Tropez called for Brigitte Bardot’s French girl femme fatale style, and Russia in hard winter called for a spy-in-fur. Some ensembles were acquired years apart and were put together serendipitously, like the dark brown fur hat historian Dr. Ambeth Ocampo gave me, which perfectly matched the knee-length fur coat of the same color I found in my grandma’s closet.
A place historically linked to excess like the Versailles called for a frou-frou short chiffon tinkerbell skirt in lime, sent to me by Kate Torralba. I also went around St. Petersburg dressed like a futuristic rave partygoer, walked the highline in New York dressed in steampunk, traveled around salt flats in bomber jackets and aviator sunglasses like Tom Cruise in Top Gun. After months of learning how to paint in Tunisia, I noticed my attires began to reflect Arabic influences, replete with ornate, dangling jewelries, beaded accessories, and lots of Kohl around my eyes.
In Tataouine in southern Tunisia, my friends and I were in wool Jedi robes like Obi-Wan Kenobi from Star Wars and other tourists thought we were exotic, oriental mascots. Finding ourselves running out of “costumes” after two weeks in the desert, we downgraded to wearing Star Wars t-shirts like hardcore George Lucas fans. In Salzburg, I found myself unconsciously dressing like little Mozart. Then in a recent Palawan trip, I dressed and framed my photos to look like something from Wes Anderson’s Darjeeling Limited. In a kitty cat headband a la Ariana Grande, another image came out so dark and surreal, it looked like a scene from David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive.
Other than the historical relevance of the places you visit, what else excites you during your travels?
Another great thing about traveling is access to artisan products I cannot easily find anywhere else, like my favorite roll-on lavender travel oil from Le château du bois from Provence; the Melissinos thigh-high gladiator sandals I saw Kate Moss wear in Vogue, which took 3 days to make in Athens; the Rondini sandals I waited half a day to customize in St. Tropez; the green flat sandals and the skull ceramic ring I ordered from aging artisans in Nice’s Old Town.
Then, there’s the luxurious teal wool cape with matching hat I got from a small, traditional shop in the small commune of Poppi in Tuscany, the classic brogues in a beautiful shade of orange-brown I got during the winter sale of a shoemaker in Milan and of course, the crude, hand-carved cameo pendants I went crazy for in Naples. There were also crazy times when I shipped almost all the travel clothes I brought so I could bring home the two berber carpets I haggled for hours in Morocco.
You have a lot of nice pieces in your personal collection. Where do you usually get them?
Many clothes I wear I either inherited, designed myself using vintage cloth, or were made by local designers. Many pieces are original, bespoke, and/or customized. I am involved from picking the cloth to the addition of embroideries. But when I spent 4 years in France for my PhD, I bought local, so if I’m in Spain, it’s my chance to buy Zara and Mango; in France, Louboutin, Balenciaga, Margiela, Chanel, Lanvin, Isabel Marant, Comptoir des cotonniers; in Italy, Prada, Burberry, Marni, both from their men’s and women’s collections. In England, I love buying Agent Provocateur, a lingerie label founded by Vivienne Westwood’s son. In Europe, the sensibility is also quite different; it’s cool to buy vintage or brands with limited production.
What is your fashion philosophy?
In truth, what I do and what I wear are my own ideas of fashion, rather than the current state of fashion. I do not spend foolishly and aimlessly for the sake of fashion. The rule of thumb is I can indulge myself with one luxury bag and/or 1 pair of luxury shoes per year. Now I have enough, so I’m good with one for each category every two or so years. The older I get, I like having fewer, better things. There are times I go for iconic street style staples like Isabel Marant’s bekett trainer wedges which I wore everywhere because well, I think they look cool and they do make the legs look good. You know it’s French because of the pillow detail, which reminds me of the aesthetics at the time of Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette.
I like the subtlety, anonymity, and detail of many European labels but more than anything, I like the message that vintage fashion sends across – that one can be fashionable without being a consumerist. Heirloom clothing, in particular, is for me, both personal and historical. I am also mindful of what professors can impart through their clothing choices; I choose subtle brands or even brand-less things of good workmanship so as not to send the wrong message that life is a celebration of excess.
The funny thing is [students] know their brands and many of the evaluations [on me] are neither about the pedagogy nor the teaching style but were often replete with short commentaries on fashion. I would usually walk around campus in some orthopedic sandals and change into high heels before I reach the classrooms. One afternoon, I was too lazy to change footwear and one student really approached me and asked “ma’am, how come you did not wear your Louboutins? Student X from your morning class said you were wearing the nude ones.” I did not think they would even notice since the shoes look like ordinary pumps; the red soles are hardly visible.
It is also always possible to find like-minded colleagues or students to carry out intelligent, silly, even fashion conversations with. Even the legendary Jesuit Fr. Adolfo N. Dacanay tends to ask me what my shoes are for the day.