On a Sunday afternoon, Tziporah Salamon has gathered a handful of students at Golyester Vintage Clothing on La Brea and set them loose among the racks of coats, capes and dresses. "Just take it all in," she instructs the group of mostly middle-aged women. "Really zero in. That's how we start; we start one item at a time."
Sprightly in a 1982 Comme des Garçons jumper, a late-1800s obi and a flouncy, printed turban hat à la Carmen Miranda, Salamon today inhabits a dual role: a fairy godmother to sartorially starved women, and a nightmare for thrifty spouses. She flits energetically among her students, doling out compliments and encouragement as they try on once-intimidating fashions: a cloche hat, a velvet cloak.
One woman reluctantly puts back a sumptuous, blue velvet cape. She'd never wear it, she laments; she has nothing to go with it. Salamon is used to excuses like this. She has her answer prepared: "Well, then it's time to buy one piece, and then the next piece, and then the next piece."
Salamon, 63, describes her work as "turning women on to the joys of dressing." After job-hopping for much of her life, she believes her calling is to wear clothes well and to teach others to do the same.
Often photographed by New York Times fashion editors and dazzled passers-by on the street, she has been teaching an intimate seminar, "Art of Dressing," since 2000, in which she explains the principles of a knockout outfit for women looking to shake up their wardrobes.
Now visiting the West Coast, Salamon is holding her class in L.A. periodically through May, introducing laid-back Angelenos to the thrill of high fashion.
"It's truly my gift, what I was put on the planet to do," she says. "From day one, I was the best-dressed girl in town. This was in the cards for me."
Growing up in Israel, Salamon was surrounded by clothes: Her mother was a dressmaker and her father a well-regarded tailor. ("He survived the camps by sewing Nazi uniforms," she says. "You know how exact those uniforms were.") She often served as a model for her parents' designs, and grew used to wearing beautiful, custom-made apparel.
Even after her family relocated to New York, Salamon thought her dressing habits were normal - until she got to college. It was 1970, the Kent State shootings had just made headlines, and her fellow students at SUNY Buffalo were in an uproar.
"They took over the administration building; there were no classes," she recalls. "Everyone else is in their T-shirts, and burn the bras, and put holes in your jeans, and I'm showing up in the tweed capes and culottes that my mother sent me away with. They're, like, 'Where are you going?'?"
Suddenly, Salamon's fashion fixation became a source of shame. "I really thought there was something wrong with me because all I thought about was clothes," she says.
Salamon moved to Berkeley to pursue a Ph.D. in psychology, but she quit the program - too empathetic to tell her clients their time was up - and went back to New York to be closer to the fashion world.
Over the years, she held a string of jobs to fund her vintage-clothing fetish: saleswoman, receptionist, waitress, hostess.
None of them stuck. "I'm a rebel; I'm a free spirit," she says. "Ultimately, it's really hard for me to conform."
Salamon was 49 when she realized she didn't have to. On a retreat at a Jewish spiritual center, the rabbi one Sabbath invited her to dress the Torah in its embroidered cover. "She said, 'I noticed you're a good dresser,'?" Salamon recalls. "I swear to you, it was like the parting of the Red Sea. ... From that day on, I no longer was ashamed."
These days, it's hard to imagine Salamon ever constraining her ebullient style. At a sunny Los Feliz home for a recent "Art of Dressing" class, a dozen women and a few men watch while Salamon, clad in a black T-shirt and leggings, shows off a series of her favorite vintage and designer garments while animatedly demonstrating her fashion do's and don'ts.
For her, every outfit is like a painting and can take years to build. Her ensembles, which often combine men's and women's pieces, have a strong sense of time, place and culture. She calls one "Renaissance Man." Another is "Picasso's Girlfriend."
Camera shutters click as she models Japanese robes and Victorian jackets, many of them museum-quality antiques snatched from thrift shops or vintage shows at bargain prices. Some of her best outfits, she explains, are built around a fabulous hat. She owns more than 200.
Despite her extensive wardrobe, Salamon is not wealthy - just dedicated. "There have been times when I didn't eat, didn't pay the rent, but I would see something that I had to have," she says.
It's easy to fall under her spell. Nearly all of the guests have come because they met Salamon at a fashion event, at a party or on the street and couldn't look away; they found her on Facebook and trailed her here because they wanted to see how she weaves her magic, to bask in her magnetic presence for a bit.
Joanne Peterson, a media archivist, says she first learned about Salamon on Pinterest. Later, she was shocked to see the fashionista in person, strolling the aisles of a textile trade show at Pickwick Gardens in Burbank. "I saw her and I nearly lost my mind," Peterson recalls. "She was just wandering around, looking fabulous. I love how bold she is - she teaches women to be bold and be unapologetic about it."
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Yet Salamon urges students to develop their own personal style. "I'm not asking people to stand out like me," she tells her audience. "But come on, raise the bar - just for yourself. Get out of the jeans, or the jogging clothes, or the Banana Republic or the Gap."
She abhors popular streetwear and magazine styling. And don't get her started on awards-show dresses. "I can't stand the tits and ass," she says. "That's why I came - to take on those Hollywood actresses." She hates that red-carpet attire is so often "strapless, strapless, strapless."
"I'm taking this mission on. Somebody had to do it. I got my marching orders from God: 'You're needed now in L.A., sweetheart, so I will make it easy for you to get there,'?" she says. "And God really has." She's here on a house-sitting gig, with a car and a teaching space at her disposal.
But dressing well isn't only about cultural standards - it also brings joy. Looking sharp "opens up doors for you," Salamon says. "People smile at you, because they appreciate it. Everyone comes up to me and goes, 'You look like a painting.' And I do - I know."