To its founder, Los Angeles' first fashion library is less a closet than a medicine cabinet. Shaye McKenney started the Fashion Athenaeum last year in a small square of donated gallery space on Fairfax Avenue in West Hollywood. In her view, the Jimmy Choo heels and Dolce & Gabbana military jackets and Alberta Ferretti chiffon dresses hanging in the library are just as effective as Prozac or penicillin. Fashion, she believes, is a revivifying art form. “It's so healing,” she says.
McKenney has cause to feel this way. She is a sick woman. She suffers from third-stage Lyme disease, which she picked up 18 years ago on a trip, one of any number she has taken. She has gone on countless adventures.
But these days, she is in a lot of pain a lot of the time. “I've been sick all week,” she says, pulling her sweater closer.
McKenney is 34, tall, pale and slender, with gawky limbs and a sleepy, languid voice. She used to be a fourth-grade teacher. But now, lacking the health to work full-time, she is content simply to “plant the seed” of the fashion library with the hopes that someone eventually will take it over.
The Fashion Athenaeum works like a private book library. You become a member by paying a small monthly fee or by bringing in your own clothes to share. The $25 monthly membership, for instance, lets you take out $180 worth of clothing. Rates go up from there.
People check clothes out for two weeks at a time. There are late fees and cleaning fees, and if you damage something or don't return it, you have to pay for it. At the moment, the library's members consist mainly of stylists and photographers and models who need nice things to wear to go-sees. But McKenney hopes “regular people” will use the library, too.
“The overall idea is an alternative to consumerism and capitalism,” she says. She likes to think that people are getting warmed up to the idea of borrowing instead of buying. So far, though, the only other fashion libraries she's heard of — in Sweden, Mexico and San Francisco — are ones she's helped start.
If her ideas seem unconventional, well, she has an unconventional past. McKenney dropped out of Berkeley High School at 14 because she “didn't want to be part of the system.” In lieu of school, she'd attend lectures. Often she'd be the only kid there. One speaker, a shaman, took notice of her and invited her to visit his tribe. So she went to the Amazon as a teenager and lived there for a while.
“I saw people's illnesses get cured by objects and clothing there. Oh yeah,” she says. “They hold some really serious medicine, these different accessories. A drum. A hat. They hold sacred value. The whole community has put their love and attention on these items.”
McKenney remembers a hat with beads dangling over the front of a medicine man's face. “He'll go into a trance,” she says. “The hat helped him get into character. But that's very Hollywood of me to say.”
She once asked the Dalai Lama to tie a bracelet around her wrist as a blessing. Healing power, however, is not the exclusive provenance of ceremonial garments and talismans. Contemporary clothes, McKenney believes, contain medicine as well. “If you feel depressed, or if you feel sad and sick and you go out and go shopping, and you feel better? The beauty of those pieces is lifting. It's medicinal.”
The library represents 20 people's closets and is the repository for several thousand donated pieces, not including jewelry. Current season, vintage, ready-to-wear, designer — it's all mixed in. “Let's see,” McKenney says, sifting through the clothes. “This is angora Gaultier. This is Chanel. Prada. Issey Miyake. Alexander Wang. Comme des Garçons. Missoni. Halston.” Her hand pauses on a delicate Burberry dress. “This is such a comfortable, delicious dress to wear. It's jersey with silk chiffon.” More dresses. More coats. “These are really fabulous Mason leggings. They're like a second skin.”
Carefully, she fishes out a silky, black wrap gown, on loan from one of the library's members. It's more of a robe, really. “Putting on something beautiful where I feel powerful and I feel stronger, it's one of the ways I've dealt with my illness for so long,” McKenney says, pressing the gown against her body. She borrowed it recently for a party at designer Sue Wong's house. She wore it with high heels, red lips and nothing underneath. Her long, cottony blond hair was up in a bun at the beginning of the evening, “but it came down in the end.”
She returns the dress to the rack, then sits on a stool in the center of the room, a tiny girl surrounded by beautiful clothes. The black silk dress, she believes, contains powerful medicine. She shakes her head, remembering the joy of wearing it. “I felt really strong in a soft, feminine way,” she concludes. “You never know how something will affect your life.”
Where clothing is concerned, however, you can definitely have too much of a good thing. Over time, garments can go from being curatives to the cause of illness. Clothes can take over closets, bedrooms, garages, attics and offices. The fashion library functions as a halfway house for these items.
“When they start to lose medicine, you need to change them. In this situation, you don't have to give them away. You can just share them,” McKenney says.
All of her closet is here right now. Each morning she comes to the library to get dressed. “I've worn a lot of other people's clothing,” she says with a small laugh. Only her pajamas and underwear remain at the rented studio apartment that has been her home for the past few months. Ordinarily, McKenney lives in Oakland. She moved to L.A. to start the library but plans to stay only through March. At that point, unless someone else takes over, the library will close.
Now the black silk gown is reminding her of other magical pieces she's worn: a beaded top, a pair of gray canvas Isabel Marant boots with black fringe and silver chain around the ankle.
Then there was a pair of silk, embroidered Ferragamo heels from the 1940s. “I felt such magic when I wore them,” she recalls. “I felt so beautiful. I wore them with everything.” She wore them at the beach with her bathing suit. She wore them while backpacking, with khakis and a T-shirt. They are not as pristine as they used to be.
Scanning the shelves, McKenney notes that someone has checked the shoes out. “They were gorgeous,” she says. “I wish I had them right now.”