Monday, August 18, 2008

Cool and "Schooled": A Style Interview with Anisha Lakhani

Anisha Lakhani has just published her first novel, Schooled, about the intersection of fashion, teaching, and New York money, to a great deal of buzz.

A graduate of Columbia University, Anisha taught English literature until 2006 at the elite Dalton School in New York, where students spared no expense in dressing for class (think Gossip Girl). She took on after-hours tutoring jobs in order to bolster her teacher’s salary and wardrobe: she wanted to dress like her privileged students. Just check out the Bendel-inspired shopping bag cover!

Anisha’s wickedly incisive and funny roman à clef follows ingénue teacher Anna Taggert into the homes of New York’s wealthiest families, where she tutors their children (for over two hundred dollars an hour) in order to be perfectly turned out in the classrooms at Langdon Hall.

I was delighted to have the following email conversation with the lovely and gracious Anisha about Schooled style. There’s even a scoop!

Miss Cavendish: What is the role of fashion/style in the prep school classroom? That is, does it give you authority? Distract your students from the lesson at hand?

Anisha Lakhani: I think the role of fashion in the classroom varies—certainly different age groups and zip codes place varying premiums on labels. For example, as a teacher and a tutor at a Manhattan private school—and I may be attacked for saying this but I'm being brutally honest—yes, wearing fancy labels did garner the attention and respect of many of my students. Not all—it is important to note there are always exceptions! Fashion does create a statement—I am guilty of having been too fashion conscious in the classroom—that is for sure—and I roll my eyeballs now and chalk it up to youth and a healthy dose of superficiality—but I do think it is important for teachers to look professional. Speaking from experience, I don't think my seventh graders particularly cared what I wore two minutes into my lesson plan, but certainly walking into a classroom and looking like I put some thought and effort into my appearance set a tone.

MC: At one point Anna, your protagonist, covets a student's Cartier watch. Anna was originally an idealistic teacher who loved her subject, who knowingly took a modestly paying job. What kind of significance do designer labels have in our culture that they can alter Anna's focus from academics to the acquisition of things?

AL: I think designer labels are becoming a gigantic monster—look at shows like My Super Sweet Sixteen, Gossip Girl, and The Hills. Product placement is rampant—I emulated that in my book not to bow down to it, but rather to create a tongue and cheek lens through which I could show how it is distracting the educational landscape of American youth. That sounds a bit lofty, I know, but I'm serious about it.

MC: In Schooled, some of the texts the students read are iconic in terms of the function clothing plays in them: The Great Gatsby, an Edith Wharton novel, Romeo and Juliet (I think of the Zeffirelli and Luhrmann films), and even Lord of the Flies (for its anti-fashion). What, for you, are some other significant works of literature that engage fashion?

AL: This is an odd choice and perhaps not one people will think of immediately, but my most memorable fashion moment in fiction comes from Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. Henry Rearden makes a bracelet out of the first pouring of Rearden Steel. His wife shuns it, but my all-time heroine Dagny Taggert (note Anna's last name in Schooled!) considers it a thing of beauty. (No other blog has asked me about why I named my protagonist Anna Taggert so you would be the first!) The bracelet represents creation and work ethic and the potential of man—it is, in my mind, the most iconic fashion statement in modern literature.

MC: What fashion extremes would you wear/have you worn in class? What would you avoid?

AL: I did carry a couple Chanel schoolbags, which now in retrospect seem pretty extreme. . . but I have to give props to Chanel, because that same darn handbag I bought in 1999 still looks pretty good today! I avoided bargain shopping and opted for fancy boutiques, which is completely different from how I shop today! And believe me, the joy of finding a little black dress from Zara that looks like a million bucks but costs less than sixty dollars is quite thrilling indeed!

MC: You’re quoted in a Page Six Magazine profile as saying, "I don't even care what next season's Chanel flats look like. It's a peaceful feeling." But certainly in your publicity talks on television and at your readings you are beautifully dressed and groomed. How is fashion now different for you?

AL: This is quite funny, because while it's true I'm no longer as obsessed with next season's Chanel flats, that doesn't mean I'm not quite obsessed with my old ones! Tutoring afforded me quite a wardrobe, and even though I stopped tutoring, I still have some items that may cause people to raise their eyebrows! But they're old! I swear! As for my recent reading, I wore an Ann Taylor dress, and all my jewelry has been from Banana Republic. Has anyone gone to Banana Republic recently and seen their jewelry? Two words: rock star. It's funny—having less "splurge money" makes you dress better, I think—because it's no longer "Wow, this is Prada, so it must be cool" but rather, "I love the cut of this dress and it's a bargain!" It makes you more creative—it causes you to EDIT yourself when shopping—and that, I think, is true style.

MC: Finally, as I’ve just posted about what to wear while working at home, could you tell me what you like to wear while you write?

AL: When I am writing, I wear these old, beat-up pajamas from the Gap that I purchased a year ago. They have blue flowers on them, and for some reason I am like Pavlov's dogs – I mean, I don't salivate—ew, gross—but I do have an instinctual response—I put them on and immediately feel creative. They are my creative Jammy Jams.

MC: Thank you so much, Anisha. It’s been a real pleasure to chat with you.


Songy said...

I think I should get that book.
It's funny how I could really relate to the story. When I decided to apply for my high school in Seoul I knew that I was going to have a serious problem. I was coming from a relatively modest family but that school was full of rich kids wearing god knows what.. their mothers would wear ESCADA, Armani and they all had chauffeurs. Luckily tho the year when I enrolled the school introduced uniforms so I escaped the misery of not having enough to wear. :)

Looking back.. I know it's not a big deal but I could still feel the pain of a lonely teenager not quite matching up to her peers.

well I'm not that young kid any more so I can proudly say.. I'm over it. :)

miss cavendish said...

Songy, I understand completely. I attended a boarding school in Canada where we wore uniforms during the day, but we "dressed" for a formal dinner every evening. And the girls *really* dressed! There was always pressure--not to wear labels, because this was in the 1980s and we didn't know anything of labels then--but to look, well, *rich.*

pve design said...

Love this interview. I do have this book on my list to read and I am always amazed to see a teacher who can turn up looking fabulous and then teach really well to boot. I had a 3rd grade teacher who made a huge impression on me. One day she wore a Sari to school which she had bought in India. She spoke to me.
One can dress and teach and take students to far away spots, all while in the class room.

Thumbelina Fashionista said...

This post touches very close to home for me. I teach at an elite Manhattan private school (no names here!), and even when I taught at a public school, kids would stare at my clothes. As Anisha says, it gave me some clout with the kids who cared about fashion. I would be interested to hear what her colleagues wore to class. I find that many of my colleagues think that my clothing choices for the classroom are "ridiculous," to quote one woman. I suppose that comes with the assumption that teaching doesn't warrant the same kind of pride that other jobs do.

Anne in Oxfordshire said...

Hi just found you on Passementerie's is a link to the little Alice shop in Oxford. I know it well as I live about 8 miles from there, just been there today with my friend.

Savvy Mode SG said...

i want to read the book. sounds delightful. i adore henry bendal. too bad we don't have one here in california.

bronwyn said...

Great post, well done! I had uniforms at school with very strict rules so you couldn't customise them in any major way. You could be nerdy or hip according to the length of your skirt and how you rolled your socks but that was about it more or less. It made social life alot easier when kids are so competitive about brands etc

Sal said...

A friend out here in MN used to teach at a swanky private school in NYC, and had regular parent-teacher conferences with folks like Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins ... I never thought to ask her if she felt pressured to shop outside her comfort zone to impress students or parents. Will have to pass along this post, and tell her about the book - which sounds like a helluva read!

K.Line said...

Super interview MC. What great questions you asked. OK, here we are back to the BR jewels again. No joke, I have been pulling out that trick for at least 5 years and everyone thinks I'm wearing chichi, richy stuff. (And it's interesting.)

I'm kind of bummed that everyone's going to be in on my "little secret" :-) though who can begrudge a good scoop.

Anisha Lakhani said...

Thanks to all the readers of this blog and Schooled! And I'm one of those lame authors with no life that responds to emails, so feel free to drop me a line at

Happy reading!
Warm regards,
Anisha Lakhani

MR style said...

wow cool !! i love interviews

miss cavendish said...

What great comments! Dressing in private schools is a challenge for both both students and educators. I remember at age 16 having a closet full of really lovely, elegant dinner clothes, tall robin's-egg-blue slingbacks, for instance, that I really should not have owned at that age; a gauzy white Pierre Cardin dress.

And as a current professor, I utterly refuse to embody the "dowdy prof" stereotype--one can be fashionable and scholarly at the same time! How frustrating that colleagues would call one's (obviously good) style ridiculous. I wonder how they dress . . .

And thanks to Anisha for checking in; it was great fun to post my first interview on a subject many of us are particularly invested with such an engaging author! Do stop back and visit.

Ondo Lady said...

I went to a local comprehensive in the 80s where we started off wearing uniform but all the kids had flash Nike trainers. Then a few years later they got rid of the uniform and wow all the bling bling came out. I am talking about Burberry, Aquascutum, Fila, Diadora, Tacchini, Benetton etc. Of course my folks did not have the kind of money to buy designer clothes so we wore regular clothes needless to say we were looked down on and scoffed. It was horrible at the time and made me feel insecure but when I look back at it - I just laugh. The majority of those kids were so obsessed with their image that school came very low down the list and a lot of them left with few or very little qualifications. The last I heard most of them were doing menial jobs. I like my clothes but I also like being able to hold a conversation as well.

miss cavendish said...

Ondo Lady,

I think I'd be very sad if I saw schoolgirls wearing such grownup, expensive labels. As you say, conversational skills are far more important in the long run than wearing a fancy designer.