Picture it: South Beach, year 2000. Photographer of the stars, royalty and other notable and notorious figures alike. Annie Leibovitz, pointed her lens at a different sort of individual–a four-foot-tall, 83-year-old Jewish woman wearing only a beach towel, in the middle of Lincoln Road.
This might not have been so unusual, perhaps – it is the Beach after all, and vibrant figures abound. Had the exclusive Pierre Cardin beach towels not been meticulously cut, stitched and hemmed by hand and intuitively transformed into a head-to-toe Chanel-esque outfit, purse included, the shoot may not have happened at all.
The tiny spitfire, Irene Williams, stood staunchly in front of an Art Deco-style building – the color of the building matching the blue in Williams’ outfit – and waited for Leibovitz to take her picture. The result is that of a quintessential Williams, as one would come to know her through close friend, designer and filmmaker, Eric Smith: stout, succinct and fiercely expressive.
“Irene called me up, and she said Eric, have you ever heard of an Annie Leibovitz,” Smith said. “I said, Yeah, why? She said, well, she stopped me on Lincoln Road and she’s doing something for a magazine and she wants to photograph me. I said, Irene, call her back and do it.”
According to Smith, who documented their blooming friendship in the ‘90s via handheld camcorder, the self-made fashionista was proud of herself: she negotiated a fee in exchange for the session – a day’s earnings as a professional stenographer and public notary, or as she once referred to herself, “a call girl with a typewriter.”
The photo, however, would never make it to mainstream publication that year.
South Beach, year 2017. Smith has a story to tell. His 12-time award-winning documentary on Irene – The Queen of Lincoln Road – and her custom creations are now on display at the Jewish Museum of Florida FIU. Tailored from the most unconventional materials, like bath mats, toilet seat covers, scarves and as mentioned above, towels, a small fraction of her hat collection (32 hats) have become part of the museum’s permanent collection. Also included are some of her personal letters and historic photographs.
“You know it’s like a fungus in my apartment,” Williams said in 1995, during a tea outing with Smith. “Pretty soon I’ll have to move out, take a hotel room, go back and visit my hats.”
The crowd on opening day responds with laughter, watching the fragile but “tough as an ox” – as Smith would describe her in that same conversation – on screen.
“There are hats all over the place,” she said. “Eric, you know how much time I put in making a hat? Sometimes 10, 12, 15 hours. There’s a lot of detailed work. This is so professional that I could sell it right off of my head if I wanted.”
Some of her hats were saved after a family member purged her belongings after Williams’ death in 2004. This year, she would have turned 100.
Smith, who considers Williams “a kindred spirit,” is here to ensure her legacy continues.
“There are other Irene’s all around us,” Smith said, speaking directly to students. “As young people, take out your cameras, and your phone, and find them, record them, preserve them, put them out there.”
Those in the crowd who overheard Smith, in an act reminiscent of the Grecian choruses of yesteryear, agree emphatically.
“When I first made this [documentary], there really wasn’t the Internet to even put this material out there, so you have great technology,” Smith said. “Use it to meet people. If it sparks one person to kind of say, hey, this makes a difference. This does something to me,” Smith said.
Susan Gladstone, who was recently inducted as director of the museum, agrees.
“I think one of the things that’s so extraordinary about this story is that Eric Smith stopped to speak to a woman on the street. Many people watched her walk by, but they didn’t stop to speak to her,” Gladstone said. “I think that may be true of many people who are perhaps a little different than those around them and he took the time to find out who is the person behind the look, and there he found a delightful woman with whom he developed an unbelievable friendship.”
Every weekday, Williams would come out of her apartment —sometimes dressed in pink if her mood was poor— and by the time she walked from one end of Lincoln Road to Madison Avenue where her office was located, her spirits were lifted. This stretch of road was her personal catwalk, and her fashion became a tourist attraction all its own
“They know I’m wonderful,” Williams said to Smith in a tongue-in-cheek manner in the documentary. That day, she wore a green and purple ensemble that as per usual, drew the attention of many.
Williams’ personal taste and fashion have echoed through the years. Isabel Bernfeld Anderson and George Neary, local hat designers whose work are also featured at the exhibition, sparkle on opening night.
Anderson, who dressed in American flag printed windbreaker, jacket and hat, knew and admired Williams from afar. Her hat designs share similar aesthetics to Williams’, and Neary’s as well.
Jacqueline Goldstein, curator of the exhibit, is fond of the vivacity of the designs, and of Williams herself. Goldstein decided on a pearly-white and black tuxedo suit over a ruffled white shirt – and a black top hat as a finishing touch.
“It’s so fun,” Goldstein said of the exhibit. “It’s high time we do something fun and colorful and light.”
Of Irene’s personal letters on display, Goldstein explained that she wrote letters to any company she felt she had suffered an injustice — from Betsey Johnson, the fashion designer, to RCA, to Atlantic cruise lines, to Woolworth, to Burdines.
Among its various goals, the Jewish Museum of Florida FIU’s desire is to highlight the Jewish immigrant experience, however, Gladstone encourages students to visit the Museum to learn more about how the “immigrant experience is common among many, many cultures.”
Apart from “The Queen of Lincoln Road” exhibit, the Museum is also showcasing the “Evil: A Matter of Intent” exhibit, in utterly (dark) contrast to the flair and verve of the former.
Vanessa Marie, actress and filmmaker who was invited by a friend to the exhibition and who had never heard of Williams, is stirred by this juxtaposition.
“It’s incredible to see not only the cherished lineage between all the generations that have been coming from different countries to Miami, and which have been documented here,” she said. “But also exposing the crimes of hatred around the world in the other exhibition in the other room. I was very touched by that.”
Williams had a passion and it was displayed through her work. She believed that everyone had the ability to apply themselves to whatever they wanted to accomplish in life.