Video: Vanessa’s Heart-to-Heart

Saturday, March 12, 2016

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Vanessa Noel has true social and aristocratic credentials that can be traced all the way to the family estate in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. She was presented at the Philadelphia Charity Ball as well as the International Debutante Ball in New York, and yes, her mother and Grace Kelly were BFFs. A trained architect, Noel has made her name not by designing houses — although she did oversee the design details of her two boutique hotels and her well-appointed New York townhouse — but by designing shoes that have found favour with many, including Mariah Carey and Patti LaBelle. Background out of the way, here’s the fabulous Vanessa Noel at home in Jamaica, at Round Hill Hotel & Villas of course, chatting exclusively once more to SO about her line of scented candles, pashminas, shoes, Jamaican friends, Donald Trump, and her near-death experience...




Vanessa Noel (VN): I had a heart attack on the morning of February 28, 2014. I had no family history of heart disease or high cholesterol; I had no high blood pressure. There were no normal red flags. I was at the doctor’s office, she wasn’t sure what to do with me so did another sonogram, and under the sonogram I had a full-blown heart attack. I actually have a film of it. I’m like ‘isn’t that cool’… I mean, who has footage of their own heart attack?




Style Observer (SO): So this happened while you were at the doctor’s office?



VN: Yes. I was at the doctor’s office. Had I left the office or had it happened on the sidewalk I would have died. When it happened during the sonogram, the doctor saw it and she cleared the catheterization lab at the nearest hospital. She called the head of the cath lab and they whizzed me over in an ambulance within minutes because it was so close. My arteries were 99 per cent blocked. What’s not well known is that since 1984 women have surpassed men in deaths due to heart disease. Twenty-nine per cent of women die in the first year. With men it’s 24 per cent if they don’t get the right medication. Afro-American women suffer more from heart attacks than any other group, which I found really interesting.




SO: Would you care to elaborate?


VN: I definitely think that doctors are ignoring the symptoms. I also think that women are finally being accepted into the work area and are possibly more stressed than men, or experience more of the types of stresses that men, have always faced, and this is all part of it. I also believe in my case, because I didn’t have any red flags or history, it’s the food we eat, and I’m not just talking about food that’s high in cholesterol. I think it’s all the chemicals in our food. We talk so much about it, but now I think they’re beginning to prove that many diseases and illnesses are connected to the food we eat. We are digging our graves with our teeth.




SO: You have become a spokesperson…


VN: Yes! Because women don’t talk about it! They have pulled me aside at parties to speak about heart issues and the fact that they’ve had a heart attack. When I ask why are we in a corner whispering, their response is: ‘We don’t want anyone to know’. Part of that problem, I believe, is that heart disease or heart attacks are viewed as something only older men get. In our minds it’s not a youthful thing. Ironic really, as women are actually having heart attacks in their twenties and thirties. It is something that is happening to the youth and we have to speak out… we have to teach people. Women don’t usually have a pain shooting down their arm like men do. We have radiation to our bottom jaws - severe pain can go to the upper jaw as well. There are flashes of nausea, sometimes pain in our shoulders or back, and that’s very different from what men experience. These are major signs, and when you’re having one you know it. It’s not like some sort of pulled ligament in your shoulder; your chest gets tight, you can’t breathe but you can get oxygen. You’re sort of panting and basically it’s your blood pressure pushing up, trying to get the blockage through.




SO: How has your life changed since your heart attack two years ago?


VN: Well, I’ve been lecturing with Barbra Streisand for heart disease and trying to bring awareness to women. The worst part about having a heart attack is the medication they put you on - some very high levels of Beta blockers which just turn you into a zombie for a while. For a period I felt very dizzy because I was on the medication for over a year and a half. When you come off, it’s like ‘wow’, you’re awake again. So I’m excited as there are many things I want to do. I am trying to de-stress my life, life is precious and more beautiful than ever. I’m trying to make other people aware so they can realise how wonderful life is as well. You look at life quite differently when you have that type of situation. I’m trying to spend more time in Jamaica.




SO: An affair to remember...


VN: I was about four years old when I first visited Jamaica. This particular property (Cottage 12) we bought about three days into the millennium. We left Jamaica in the ‘80s when it became very dangerous for us. But I kept coming back to Round Hill. So when the millennium came about, my mother and I discussed it and she said, "What are you doing to celebrate?" I said to her, "The most important people in my world are you and dad." She said, "Where would you want to be?" and I said "Round Hill, to me that’s my heart." She said, "How do we get your father there?" I told her, "Let’s wait till the last moment and spring it on him." So we did and we thought there’d be some resistance but he said "OK". We were both a little surprised but very excited. We came for the New Year’s Eve ball for the millennium and in three days he’d seen his driver, he’d seen this person and that person. This house was available and we purchased it. He never even walked up here. He got as far as the pool, turned around and said, "OK Josef, let’s go back. So how much are they asking for it?" "Done." He signed the papers and went, and told my mother he bought a house. She was so mad because he didn’t confide in her, but I was so excited.




SO: Vanessa’s passion...


VN: … I love the people, the vibe, the culture. I’m vice-chairman on the board of Round Hill Hotel & Villas and I’m also on the board of Hanover Charities, so it means a lot to me to be here this weekend for the Sugar Cane Ball. I love coming here in July, and times when many of the shareholders are not here. I don’t have the obligations because I have the most wonderful gardener and we take trips across the island and visit friends like Chris Blackwell.




SO: Your favourite foods are…


VN: I get fresh coconut water every morning, also fresh callaloo which I also grow in New York. I grew a really bushy bunch last year, that was almost 10 feet tall. It was so beautiful I almost didn’t want to eat it. Pig’s tail, cow foot and turkey neck. But my favourite would definitely have to be cow foot. I also love Jamaican curry chicken, which I eat a lot of in New York. I have a fabulous woman who I call my ‘nanny’; she’s my full-time staff in my house. She cooks one of the fiercest curry chickens I’ve ever had. She’s Jamaican; she’s the daughter of the woman who was the cook here for many years until she retired, so we’re like family. She also does a great oxtail, so I get organic oxtail at home and she does that unbelievably well. We had a big party once, we brought cow foot, pig’s tail, oxtail, all of it up to Nantucket and cooked up a huge storm and put it out on the buffet. But we didn’t tell people what it was because they wouldn’t have tried it. Then to my chagrin, everything disappeared – there was nothing to eat after the party.




SO: Jamaica travel essentials…


VN: I try to travel light. I always have a cashmere scarf and it goes on the plane with me; my flip-flops, of course; good sunblock, fabulous sunglasses, caftans and very cool baskets that were made for me here.




SO: Vanessa the Republican…


VN: I am a registered Republican but I think like an Independent. Today I think it’s very difficult to be one or the other because politicians keep switching, like Bloomberg. For that matter, what is a Democrat or a Republican today? The definitions can be quite cloudy, but I definitely am not a Socialist. I lean completely in the other direction from that. So I think in this race I’m more Republican for sure. Bernie Sanders frightens me to death.




SO: On Donald Trump…


VN: I think it’s a definite possibility that he could become the next president of the United States. I’m horrified at the thought. The only good thing about Trump is that he would, hopefully, hire the right people to do the job, to fill in anything he doesn’t know – which is everything. So we’ll see what happens – but it’s a long time till November.




SO: We recently saw photos of your beautiful New York home in the New York Daily Post.


VN: Thank you, it was an open house on television; it was also in the New York Daily Post in the Alexa section. I was the cover story for Alexa, which was lovely.




SO: What’s new at Vanessa Noel?


VN: A lot is going on! I launched a handbag collection full force this past summer. It was a beautiful little bag with a bamboo handle that I donated for the Hanover Charities auction. Somehow I was able to do that under this medication and it’s something we’ve been planning and working on for several years. Finally last summer we pulled it together and launched it. So we’re coming out in lots of editorials. I was also in
Real Housewives of New York since I last saw you. Sonya Morgan wears my shoes, so she asked me if I would throw her a big party launching her on the cover of her magazine. I said absolutely, and it was so much fun. She also asked me to do a collection of shoes for her clothing line, which we launched; so we’ve been working closely with that and it’s really busy and really fun.




SO: We’ve also noticed pashminas and candles.


VN
: Yes, and they are completely hand-loomed. I donated one to the Hanover Charities... I was on Nantucket Island sitting outside of my hotel when a puppy comes up. I was petting him and behind his ears felt so soft. An elderly gentleman came and sat next to me and we started talking about the puppy. I was looking at his hair and realised how coarse and straw-like it was and I thought, "Hmm, from a baby it gets coarser to an old man." So after lots of exploration I arranged for mountain men in the Himalayas to gather hair from their baby cashmere goats, and we have a man who meets them halfway, in the mountain and collects these bundles of cashmere hair, comes down to Kashmir and they clean it. They then hand-weave and dye it to my colour specifications. They’re just light and beautiful – absolutely fantastic. Soon after, I launched a candle called Stiletto. It’s a mixture of tuberose rose and gardenia. It’s a first for us as well as scented tubes which you put in your shoes, closet or suitcase. I personally put mine in my handbag. Carolina Herrera uses them in her closets at home. The tubes release this wonderful scent and it’s just marvellous.




SO: How imperative has it been for you to expand Vanessa Noel?


VN: Very important! I needed to expand – to stretch my creativity. Be it in creating new handbags or learning a new technique in how they’re manufactured. For instance, we bend real bamboo in the factory for handles. We wire them to maintain a shape. To me this is very important. We also have our clients asking for more, indeed sort of demanding it. I started making bags for just myself, and then Ralph Rucci was doing a show, he saw the bag and suddenly it was, "Whose are these? Where can I get them for my show? "They’re mine!" "What do you mean they’re yours, you don’t do bags." "Well, I do for me." "What do you mean for you? Why aren’t they out here for everyone?" "Okay, maybe we should." We were doing another trunk show for a handbag designer in Nantucket, Lana Marks. I had this big, soft alligator tote on the shelf (which was mine; I had it in the stockroom). When the door was opened and a customer grabbed it and said, "I want to buy this one". And I said, "No, no it’s mine. It’s not for sale." "Why? But it’s so wonderful." Then I realised it’s time, it’s time.




SO: How difficult is it to transition from designing a shoe to a handbag?


VN: It’s not difficult. What’s fascinating to me is that shoes are very complicated. There are over 250 steps to making a shoe. There are multiple factories. You go to the elastic factory, then you go to the heel factory where things are made. Then you get everything back to the shoe factory and they put all these things together like pieces of a puzzle. A handbag I equate more to making clothing. It’s not as complicated. It doesn’t have to fit. With shoes the heels are made of ABS plastic and we inject them with steel. They have to withstand a certain amount of pressure; they have to fit a multitude of different foot shapes. A handbag doesn’t have to fit. You like it, you pick your colour or your skin, whatever suits you, and you’re off. There’s nothing like the sexiness of developing the sculpture of a shoe to me, that is still my first love and passion and I love bags as well – but it’s different.


SO: What inspired your foray into shoes?


VN: We were just talking about this in the pool. My mother was telling a friend how on the eve of my eighth birthday there was a pair of purple suede boots that I just had to have! Finally, after much begging and pleading she bought me the boots. A couple of days later she said, "I haven’t seen you wear the boots" I said, "Well, they don’t fit." She said, "What do you mean they don’t fit? Why did you want them?" I said, "I’m so happy, I just love them." This continued into adulthood. There’s something about shoes - a quality about them, and they ’re sculptures. I’ve always been passionate about shoes. I went to Cornell University to study fine arts architecture. For my thesis I did lots of portraitures seeing myself as shoes or through shoes or as different parts of shoes and I went off to explore how shoes are made. I would take apart my old shoes to see the different parts. I graduated, moved to New York City with a single goal – to design shoes.



SO: To become the architect of shoes...


VN: I believe so. I was born with creativity and I’m so blessed for that and I’m blessed to have a passion. I love creative things and I love especially the sexiness and the soulfulness of a shoe. When you read in different religions, even the Bible, they talk about the foot, they talk about shoes. And what a shoe can do for someone’s personality, it’s for your mood. You put on a pair of high heels and you feel a certain way automatically — you’re taller. A good shoe designer, if they can make a stiletto comfortable, we do what doctors can’t, we make you taller. When you put on a sexy shoe, you feel sexy, you stand straight, pelvis out, shoulders back. You sit differently. I went to a Patti LaBelle concert about a month or so ago and there was a big piano on the stage with shoes displayed. As I looked closer and I gasped because I was like, "Those are my shoes displayed on the piano". She loves them; she displays them in her house like I do with my shoes. I was so happy to see them there on the piano; I was so excited.




SO: Vanessa the hotelier…


VN: I own two hotels and a sushi restaurant. One is called the Vanessa Noel Hotel and it’s all about luxury and no pretension. All the rooms are named after different shoes, so the doors say things like ‘The Stiletto Room’, and there are about eight rooms in that hotel. It’s a very boutique hotel and there’s a wonderful sushi restaurant that seats about 25. We recently copped the award - Best of Massachusetts. My second hotel, launched two years ago, is called Vanessa Noel, Hotel Green. Everything there is chemical-free: from the mattresses we got from Canada to the pillows to the linens we got from France, all aromatherapy, milk-based paints on the wall; it’s fantastic! This one is more SoHo chic while the other hotel is more Park Avenue.


 

    

                       

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