The Queen of Lincoln Road – a.k.a. Irene Williams, was a unique, one-of-a-kind, no-nonsense, intensely creative individual who lived in South Beach, Florida. This autonomous free spirit refused to live by society’s expectations of her and lived alone as an independent woman who operated her own small business as a Notary Public and stenographer/secretary into her old age. An (un)intentional early feminist.
It wasn’t just her typing skills that she was known for – when Irene left her apartment at one end of Lincoln Road and walked to the other end to get to her office, she was the centre of attention and the visual highlight of some people’s days. This tiny woman created fantastic, original, brightly-coloured clothing in outlandish fabrics and materials, and wowed everyone who saw her. Always coordinated and neat as a pin, Irene donned incredible outfits – most with matching hats – and caught the attention of Gianni Versace and Annie Leibovitz, who shot her in the late ‘90s (in exchange for her daily stenographer’s fee).
Were it not for Eric Smith, this little gem of a human being may have been forgotten forever, but fortunately for us, the New York designer and filmmaker discovered Irene in the 1990s and carried on a nine-year friendship with her. He captured Irene on video and created a short “bio pic” which gives us some insight to this interesting woman. Click to watch.
Eric, a self-proclaimed Hag Fag, now living in San Francisco, gave some insight when I interviewed him recently and told me more about who Irene was and what she stood for.
Irene could create entire outfits for almost nothing and prided herself on being able to do so. She had no training in sewing or pattern-cutting but trusted her instincts. Out of necessity and with very small or no budgets, Irene’s creations were made of scraps and left-overs and other surprising materials like towels and toilet seat covers. Everything was coordinated from her hand-made hats down to her shoes. Her apartment overflowed with her creations – she made over 100 hats and almost as many coordinated outfits.
In a charming scene in the film, Eric takes Irene on two shopping trips to show her two extremes of fashion to open her eyes and show her some new things. Versace and Chanel did brightly-coloured clothing that season and Eric thought she’d enjoy seeing the collections. Not surprisingly, the high-end designer clothing was not to Irene’s taste nor her budget (she scoffed at the prices and couldn’t believe anyone would pay that much for something she could make for almost nothing!). Next, they went to Marshall’s, where she went straight to the clearance rack (“I’m drawn to it, like gravity!”) but she didn’t buy anything.
With all of these fearless sartorial achievements, there is irony at the end of this stylish little firecracker’s life: Irene, creator of dozens and dozens of coordinated outfits and hats, insisted on not wearing clothes at all.
“If I ever lose my memory,” she says in a recording with Eric, “nudist colony, here I come.” He believes she predicted the dementia that took her life at the age of 87 in 2004.
Irene would have celebrated her 100th birthday this year. To Eric’s delight, Florida’s Jewish Museum displayed 33 of Irene’s hand-made hats (now in the museum’s permanent collection), historical photos, and some (well-typed) letters in an exhibition this summer. Have a look at some of the highlights here.
The response at the opening was overwhelming. Eric said that some people at the event knew her or worked with her, other people attended the exhibition from a historical fashion point of view, and still others saw her and recognized her, but never got the chance to get to know her.
“I was mesmerized to see what kind of unique individual she was inside the clothes,” Eric is quoted as saying in the Miami Herald article that covered the event. “Not a lot of people stopped to get to know her—mostly people knew her visually and superficially.”
Eric told the Herald that Irene would have been humbled and proud to have other see what she stood for.
“I think Irene’s message was trust your own instincts, find your own inner passion; everyone has a passion so we should try it. Don’t be afraid. Listen to yourself. Don’t give a lot of concern to what other people may think.
“Irene wanted to bring happiness to people.”
By Leah Morrigan, GGN Editor