Ariel Leve: ‘Every coat I own is now a memory’


The author left New York for a new life in balmy Bali, but she can’t let go of her cold-weather clothing

There are times I lie awake in bed in Bali, unable to fall asleep in the 30C heat, wondering: what will happen to my coats?

Ten thousand miles away, in a literal closet inside a figurative closet — my tiny New York City apartment — there is a variety of winter coats. But at this point in my life, winter clothes are an indulgence. For the past three years, I have been living in the tropics.

Last December, as the blazing sun beckoned outside my air-conditioned bedroom, an image of Julie Christie in Dr Zhivago entered my overheated brain. A hat! What I wouldn’t give for a hat. The very thought of a garment not made out of tissue paper caused me to sweat. There are a lot of well-documented upsides to living in Bali, but the one devastating downside nobody speaks about is the havoc it wreaks on the balance of one’s wardrobe.

A jumper that could double as a potato sack is perfectly acceptable

In New York, dressing for winter goes in stages. Stage one is the months prior to January when it’s still possible to go out wearing a coat that has a gender-separating shape. After January, it’s impossible to tell man from woman, as everyone resembles the Michelin man in a parka. I would often wear my favourite bright purple parka, bought in Portobello Road when I was living in London in my thirties. It isn’t even that attractive — I look like an M&M when I wear it — but it’s original. And that’s the point.

Every coat I own is a memory. Even though they are not technically “vintage”, they feel that way. There is the navy blue velvet coat that I bought at Marc Jacobs when I was feeling flush from having sold my first big story. There is the Agnès B overcoat — at least 15 years old, bought back when she was in collaboration with Everlast — a hooded marvel of endurance. Many were purchased in the new year sales while I was living in London. I remember splurging on a Vanessa Bruno overcoat — 50% off — in the Matches sale, even though I suspected I wouldn’t wear it more than a few times, because it was a coat that fitted me, not my life.

These coats have remained an anchor to my other life in New York, a part of my identity. Cold-weather clothing was not just about the items themselves but something larger: a remembrance of things past.

As a small child, I was always overdressed in winter. After my parents divorced, my father would take me to visit his girlfriend, who lived a very short distance away. She recalls the first time he brought me over to her apartment; I was five years old. She opened the door to the most bundled-up child she’d ever seen. I wore winter-weight pants, a jacket with a hood, a hat and a scarf wrapped around my face, covering my neck and chin. Face barely visible. And of course, the ever-present mittens clipped to the sleeves of the coat and dangling by my side. We had walked a total of two blocks.

There is something emotionally comforting about winter dressing. For lazy groomers like me, the time out from compulsive maintenance is appealing. If you haven’t shaved your legs or had a pedicure since August, no one has to know. Thanks to wool tights — or in my case, black jeans — you’re still presentable. If you’re feeling sheepish about your body, a jumper that could double as a potato sack is perfectly acceptable. Then there are the fabrics: merino wool, cashmere, leather, fleece, flannel, itchy angora… When the temperature drops, getting dressed to go outside is a delightful act of layering anticipation, excitement and dread. The preparation is ritualistic and familiar.

There are, of course, things that I don’t miss. Eating out in a restaurant requires at least 10 minutes of disrobing before you can relax. And, if you’re seated next to someone on a banquette, there is the requisite hashing out of whose coats and scarves and hats and bags go where.

Then there’s the perpetual delusion that wearing clothing for fashion rather than warmth won’t have consequences. How many times have I gone out thinking: “I’ll be fine in this” — only to return home with frostbite and flu. The only thing worse than that was the moment I realised I’d lost one glove.

How to navigate a world in which coats are not necessary? I’m not sure I can. The variety of seasons is essential. I can’t let go of my winter clothing because having options is a part of who I am. And so the coats remain. And I take solace in knowing that winter clothing, like winter, will always be there.