“I wouldn’t be so bold as to call myself a designer,” says Ali MacGraw. She’s right — we know her best as the actress who starred in “Love Story,” the ex-wife of volatile movie star Steve McQueen, an outspoken animal welfare activist. Yet, at 81, MacGraw is releasing her second collection of globally-sourced fashion for Ibu, a retailer of handmade goods from women-only artisan cooperatives, and has shown up everywhere from Town & Country to Man Repeller to Vogue as an enduring icon of style — and a voice for a practical brand of female empowerment.
Ibu, which aims to impact communities in the developing world by helping to create economic self-sufficiency for women, is a part of that mission. When women can earn money through their work, MacGraw says, “Suddenly the men are realizing that she is an asset, not just someone who’s expected to make children, and we know this is having an impact on improving family life and life in these villages.”
Though she never forgets “how lucky I am,” MacGraw, in a sense, had to establish her own value beyond Hollywood, in the face of a public persona that had little to do with how she saw herself. “I never, ever drank the Kool-Aid,” she says of her 1970s fame. “I never took the crazy movie star hoopla seriously. I knew a lot of it was madness.”
Raised by artist parents, she was an East Coast private school girl (“I got to go to a couple of really good schools, on scholarships,” she says.) and cut her teeth in the working world as an assistant to the legendary Vogue editor Diana Vreeland. She was never trained as an actress, but her eye for style was honed among the sharpest arbiters of the day.
In 1994, she moved to Santa Fe after a fire that burned her Malibu house to the ground (and took out her collection of designer clothes including beloved original Halstons) and found a new community that suited both her love of visual arts and culture and her bent for activism. “I’ve been there ever since,” she says.
From her Santa Fe home on the edge of a forest, she travels for work, volunteers for various causes, collects vintage tribal jewelry, takes care of animals, visits grandchildren. And keeps things remarkably streamlined — but still enviably stylish. She shared a bit of her wisdom on how:
Stick to what works for you. “The luckiest thing is that after awhile you have a very good sense of what works for you,” MacGraw says, “and you don’t make the dreadful mistake — it’s very human — of saying, ‘Oh, this year, lavender see-through slips are what we all should wear to look younger.’ Well, not on me. To be a fashion groupie is something very, very few people can pull off. For the most part I think it would be great if we women got a real sense of who we are and dress like that. Which means, dress any way, but be authentic.”
Wear your uniform with pride. “I’ve always liked really simple, well-cut stuff. And I know what I look hideous in. Insecurity makes a lot of women put themselves together in a way that doesn’t flatter. I like very simple stuff, and I love accessories, and that’s pretty much how I dress.” Because she likes to travel light (which means never having to check baggage) MacGraw has her base wardrobe down to a science: black, blue and white jeans; black and white T-shirts from Three Dots; ballet flats, boots and great sandals. “I think it’s great to find something that really fits,” she says, “that’s really flattering, and not get the other 40 versions. So that’s kind of a relief. I think it’s great to have kind of a base uniform.”
Don’t forget healthy habits. The complement to the uniform is basic good health. “I’ve done enough yoga and Pilates to be able to stand up straight, you know?” says MacGraw. “The healthier we live, the better we look, that’s just how it is.”
Make the most of accessories. “The fun is how a really simple white T-shirt, a pair of good jeans and a decent pair of boots can be made fabulous with a beautiful shawl from West Africa and some beads. That gets very personal. You just need one thing that becomes what you are.” MacGraw’s accessories are multipurpose: beads stay on display at home, shawls and collected textiles get thrown over the sofa or picnic table when she’s not wrapping them around her waist to cover up yoga tights or her neck to ward off the cold. The style is inherently practical and distinctively hers. “I think maybe the older some of us get,” she says, “the more specific we get. I don’t do massive shopping. I really know what I love, and if I don’t love it, I don’t want it. I don’t wait breathlessly every August to see what I’m supposed to look like this October.”
Don’t avoid your age. MacGraw joined the growing numbers of women choosing to skip hair color and embrace their natural gray a couple years ago — today she has luxuriously long hair that is white around her face. “I was dyeing my roots for years with that dark brown color I was born with,” she says. “But if you live in the sun that color is hard to maintain. And I was thinking I can’t spend the rest of my life with a mascara wand in my handbag.” In Santa Fe, she says, she saw tons of women who’d gone gray and decided to give it a try. “It was a brilliant thing to do. Do I look 30? Absolutely not. But you know what? I’m not 30.” A good haircut in the shape that best suits your face is key, she says, along with the advice of a close friend. “Find a few people you trust, who will say to you, given the shape of your face, this is a good cut for you.”
Find your comfort zone. Self-confidence underlies enduring personal style. And “it takes a lot of work,” MacGraw says. “I’ve done a lot of work, and I’m glad that I have. I think at one time I did a lot of things, like a lot of people did, from the ‘Do you like me?’ place. Or, ‘Now am I cool?’ Well, no, I’m not cool. I think being real is an amazingly important thing to strive for. Real, and kind. I’m sorry to sound so corny, but I do believe at the end of the day, if we treat people the way we’d like to be treated, things will be most comfortable. Whether globally, or in the line of the supermarket.”
By CINDY DAMPIE PROC.BY MOVIES