Mistresses of Style

Mimi Avins is a Times staff writer. Her last feature for the magazine was on vintage clothing

Spring’s nearly here, and Molly Isaksen knows what she wants to wear: a streamlined ankle-length skirt, a narrow, long-sleeved T-shirt and flat slides on her feet. Once she’s combined those pieces, she’ll look stylish and cool. Women who’ve spent much more time and money on their outfits will see her, feel overdressed and mutter, “Perfect. Why didn’t I think of that?”

Such is the power of Isaksen’s potent minimalism. At 27, she’s developed an unusually self-assured personal style. The ‘80s were the decade of fashion excess. The ‘90s began with a rebound that bounced all the way back into the dull zone. What survives as the hallmark of this era is an aesthetic that made trying too hard the unforgivable fashion sin. Isaksen has the knack of looking chic and unaffected.

She credits her evolution to her mother’s influence, to Catholic school uniforms and to being exposed to quality clothing while managing one of L.A.'s best boutiques. “My mother’s very classic and she has a great look. She’s just really crisp and together. Wearing uniforms to school made me start to think in a uniform way. I still like the ease of it. I want to put something on in the morning and then not think about it, and I like to work with the same basic pieces.”

Her current uniform, dictated by days that routinely include construction site visits, is A.P.C. dark denim jeans, a cashmere turtleneck and camel and black Chanel ballet flats. After working for nine years at the Ron Herman boutique in Brentwood, she began doing personal shopping and styling for customers she’d helped at the store. Editing their wardrobes and finding clothes for private clients evolved into buying accessories for their homes. It was a small leap from choosing china and candles to taking on complete interior design projects.

Isaksen doesn’t preach one philosophy to clients as she cleans out their closets, then practice another. “Buy less, buy better” and “less is more” are her mottos. “I can’t get dressed when I have a closet stuffed with clothing. I see too many things, and nothing works. I stay true to what I know and like, without feeling that I need to be trendy. I like to find two or three pieces a season to bring in with what I already have. It’ll be like a couple of shoes, maybe one bag. Two months ago, I suddenly felt I needed a red bag. I found a leather one by Go Fish at Fred Segal Baggage, and I wear it all the time. I like to wear something unusual with my basics. So it could be a high heel in a color, or if I’m wearing all black, my purse might be leopard. I never buy outfits. I’m definitely a separates girl.”


Rampant clothes lust was an occupational hazard when Isaksen first began working at Ron Herman at 17. Even now, her job brings her into stores three or four days a week (Barneys, Saks, Neiman Marcus, Ron Herman, Fred Segal and Laura Urbinati form her circuit). “It took years of disciplining myself to not spend a lot of my paycheck on clothes. Now the best thing for me to do is if I see something I want, I need to wait a couple of days. It really saves me from making mistakes and being compulsive. If it’s something that I really want to go back for, then I do, and I’m happy with it and I don’t feel guilty.”

Her last big blunder was buying a pair of Prada Mary Janes on the way to the airport in New York. “I wanted it to be a shoe I could run around in and really get a lot of use out of, but didn’t realize how high the heel was. I can’t wear them.”

She has a survivor’s instinct for dodging trends, treating them as if they were unfriendly fire hailing down on a combat zone. This spring, she plans to skip ponchos. She’s already passed on cargo pants (“everyone was wearing them, and they’re really not flattering”). Tight or oversized clothes and anything in peach or a jewel tone complete her list of untouchables.

High on Isaksen’s hit list are pashmina shawls (she cherishes three, in black, pink and camel), anything red, short pants, her Helmut Lang jean jacket and white jeans. “When I can’t get dressed or I’m just not feeling great, I grab for white jeans,” she says. “In summer I wear them with a pink button-down shirt and a slide. In fall I’ll wear the same short jeans with a black cashmere turtleneck and a loafer. My other staple is black pants by Joseph. They just fit the best. I’m so pleased when I can stick with something great for three or four seasons, and just change stuff around it.”

With all those basic pieces and classic, quality items, Isaksen keeps boredom at bay by filling in with inexpensive separates in a variety of colors. “It’s that uniform thing again. Last summer I wore a Juicy boat neck T-shirt every day. I had it in four colors. And I have a few shoe styles in several colors. When I hit on something that I think is flattering, that I know I can reach for and feel really good and confident in, then I want to own at least two of it.”

When Isaksen and her partner, Claudia Gersh, lucked into a stash of brilliantly colored vintage silk and decided to manufacture a line of clothing under the label Belle de Jour, the collection was based, of course, on classic pieces. “The fabrics were so striking that we decided we would let them star, and keep the designs totally simple,” she says. The line, produced for two years, is on hiatus for a season. The Belle de Jour section of Isaksen’s closet is well stocked.

Her minimalist approach extends to accessories, hair and makeup as well. She wears the same jewelry every day--a cross, rings and a watch--her shiny brown hair is natural, and she recently added mascara to her existing makeup routine of powder and nude lip gloss.

She dresses for herself. If someone else gets it, that’s OK. If they don’t, that’s fine, too. “I like to feel that I look good, but I don’t necessarily feel that I like to be noticed,” she says. “I don’t think of I’m a very aggressive person. I don’t dress to stand out.” So, naturally, she does. Far more effectively than many who strive to.