At the age of fifteen, I embarked upon a get-rich-quick scheme that I incidentally felt was a really valuable public service. I planned to make audio recordings of the various midcentury career romances I’d collected, and then to somehow duplicate them, sell them to a clamoring public, and make my fortune. Of legal issues, recording technology, and demand, I knew nothing. But I was armed with my dad’s tape recorder, a dream, and a copy of Designed by Stacey.
I’ve written about Marcia Miller’s 1967 masterpiece before, for Jezebel, and I stand by my endorsement of it:
What it lacks in accurate depiction of the fashion industry, it more than makes up for with wild plot twists, vague anti-Semitism, and amazing sixties clothes. Indeed, I would go so far as to call DbS the gateway drug of career romances: lite on career, heavy on bizarre, and one hell of a page-turner.
My fifteen-year-old self knew it would be catnip to the buying public. Our story and my tape begin with Stacey Harrison’s triumphant return to San Francisco—and her newly married, successful architect father, Con—after studying design in Paris. We are immediately treated to a description of our heroine’s “slim height, the smooth and shining chestnut hair, swept high on her head above large, dark-lashed gray eyes … the tawny skin with pale gold freckles across the bridge of the tipped nose, and the well-shaped mouth parting over even white teeth.”
Although dismayed by the chilliness of her feline new stepmother, Kay, Stacey happily settles into a brand-new apartment complex, The Towers, “a great spire of concrete, steel and glass” with “an arcade with excellent shops, maid service and transportation to any point in the city.”
She immediately lands a coveted position in the exquisite atelier of the couturier Madame Ninon, sketching designs for customers. Madame Ninon has a sullen, intriguing nephew called David Maclean who stalks around being furious and snubbing Stacey; later we learn this is because he was abandoned by his mother and is afraid to love. This is how we know he is softening towards Stacey: when he runs into her at a seafood restaurant on Fisherman’s Wharf (she is sporting a camel coat), he says smolderingly, “May I suggest the Captain’s Favorite?”
As to Madame, she is the closest thing we see to an actual professional. “Line is everything,” she says. “A good couturiere can visually translate a woman into many different women, and this is done by line, not ornamentation. A couturiere must be like a writer and say what must be said in as few words as possible.”
In due course, Stacey’s natural talent is discovered. She designs a gown that Madame Ninon adores; that gown is given its own launch party, but Stacey shows up to find a competitor has stolen the design; then she finds out her father has unexpectedly died. There are a couple of other characters, too—this decoy beau called Kirk and an enigmatic actress, but they don’t have much to do.
It took me quite some time to make my recording, although I did it in a single take. I was determined to bring to life Stacey’s cool elegance, Madame Ninon’s fire, David Maclean’s inexplicable fury. I tried to make Kay’s accent confusing, so as to forecast the reveal of her hidden background. I didn’t actually plan to market the product with my own vocal talents—I had vague plans of hiring actors—but I figured this prototype would net me what seed money I needed for recording studios, cover art, and other vague essentials. And secretly, I thought my version was pretty good.
I invited my friend Ajana over and sat her down to listen to my tape. For maximum awkwardness, I sat next to her while it played. After the first few chapters, I turned it off. “What do you think?” I demanded.
“Well,” she said carefully. “All the voices sound … kind of the same.”
I was totally deflated, and stuck the tape in my desk. I found it this week. I sound like a disgruntled member of the Lollipop Guild in a wind tunnel, albeit sometimes with an unintelligible French accent. “Designed by Stacey: DEMO” I wrote on the cassette’s adhesive label. I’m not sure it would survive a copyright lawsuit.