If you grew up in Toronto, you’ve probably already encountered Sandra Pittana. She is that curly-headed clothing genius on Cityline that can make a cheap and cheerful ensemble sophisticated with her accessorizing magic. She is also full of the kinds of fashion stories you wish were your own (stylist in Mod-era Britain please, with two lumps of sugar). But perhaps what makes her the most crush-worthy is her open-minded approach to fashion that encourages personal style for the masses, pulling off gems like a YSL Russian collection coat 20 years later…
WORN was welcomed into Sandra’s home for hours of fashion musing about her mom the stylesetter, jumping into rivers for British Vogue, and curly hair angst.
God save the Queen.
When did you know that you wanted to work in fashion?
Like so many of us in this business, I had a fashion icon in my mom. She had an innate sense of style that was remarkable to me, topped off by the fact that she was also a business woman, at a time when women weren’t in business. She taught me to sew from a young age; I remember she’d make me clothes for school and would sometimes let me sew a seam. She’d stay up until four in the morning to finish the item, so the next day I could wear it to school and say “I made this.”
I went to school in England and became inspired, especially in London where being an individual has always been really celebrated. There’s something about London that’s quirky, that’s a little more adventurous. I like breaking the rules; I’ve always liked breaking the rules for fashion.
The funny thing about fashion is that it sort of comes and goes in all its incarnations, but the reality is it’s a simplified form of the arts world. You’re basically talking about a torso and two arms and two legs in most instances, there’s only so much you can do with that format, you know?
I think uniqueness will be the new luxury.
North America is such a land of excess and most of us don’t need more stuff. It’s lovely to have fewer, more select, individual pieces, that embody you. I often find that the pieces I buy that are in season are unintentionally worn less then. I tend to wear them more a season or two later, just because it isn’t so expected. You get to morph it into something slightly different because of what you put it with. You’re not so influenced by all the visual tags you see in every magazine, or on every blog.
Turns into a semiotic game to me. You just read the clothes as symbols of what’s trendy when you see the same thing over and over again.
I have a coat I still wear today, that I bought from Saint Laurent when he was doing this whole Russian thing, and it’s probably 28 or 30 years old. And I love it. And is it a bit odd? Yeah, but it’s terrific and I feel great in it and that to me is something that’s withstood the test of time because it’s surpassed being in or out, and I love that.
You worked at British Vogue as an Assistant Fashion Editor in the beginning of your career. Did you find that there was less of an emphasis on trends, and more of an emphasis on personal style there?
As you can imagine, it was a really exciting time in London. We’re talking late ’60s, early ’70s, and there was an awful lot happening. We were dying our poodles to match our suits and parading ourselves on the weekends—not just the women, but the men too. It was a very creative period in fashion and was a great time for me to learn. I worked for a wonderful woman, Melanie Miller, who started by making tea for Diana Vreeland. Our market was exquisite, expensive, one-of-a-kind, high end jewelry—McGraph and Cartier, and Van Cleef and Arpel jewels. I used to cart them around for photo shoots inside my coat! It drew less attention if I walked around disheveled with all of the stuff on me, than in a jewelry store with all of the security one would need…
Melanie would sometimes come up with a story idea that didn’t exist on the market. She would decide that red was the story line and that she was feeling great about embroidery, so they would create one-of-a-kind pieces for her. She taught me that if you have a dress, a model, and a photographer, you never know what’s going to happen in front of the camera. She wanted to make sure that for every dress there were ten necklaces, ten pairs of shoes, ten handbags, and ten hats so that there was always a plethora of accessories.
You can study the history of fashion all you want, but it was often a lot more about hands on, on the job learning, so it was a pretty privileged start. I look back on it and realize how lucky I was to get that knowledge first hand.
Yes, lucky, but you have to be able to handle an opportunity like that too. Do you have any favourite memories at Vogue?
SP: We were photographing with Sir Norman Parkinson (Parks), and we went out to a country estate to photograph ballgowns. We found this meandering river with a lovely stone bridge and low wall, and Parks decided it would be absolutely wonderful if the model laid down across the arc of the bridge, with her gown trailing over the front and blowing underneath. So, we had this beautiful vision but Parks had to stand in the middle of the river to shoot it. He was a very tall man, so willowy and elegant that you felt like he was 6’8″, and he just told me to drag a bench into the middle of the river for him to stand on. Of course, I fell as I went to take the bench into the river, and had to take my pants off and work the rest of the day in a little short jacket with only my underwear on. But we got beautiful photographs and I went home, carrying my pants in hand, soaking wet in the cold English countryside. Some silly memories.
How did you get to do Fashion Fridays on City TV Toronto?
I left Vogue and worked at Eaton’s doing market research and writing trend reports, but staying with the European market. I came back to Toronto and John McKay, the fashion expert on the Dini Petty show (today’s Cityline), was asked to find someone to give a female perspective. He originally recommended Jane Musset, who in turn suggested me. I took the position, and went on for what was really going to be a one-time thing—I’d have to say, after 23 years I’m the longest standing guest host! But the reality is that now I am the demographic of most people who watch TV. For a lot of younger people, TV moves way too slowly for them although we still do have our fair number of younger viewers.
A lot of people are on blogs, etc. but I think having something like Fashion Fridays with an expert stylist who will analyze a look and play around with it in real time still occupies a niche.
Often the stuff you see printed in magazines and elsewhere is not actually available. Buyers buy what will sell, editors buy couture. The one thing about Cityline is everything you see you can find in a store. Hopefully we are [instructive], because as we’ve talked about, you need to find your own comfort zone. Some people want to stretch a little while others want to play it safe.
One of our mottoes at WORN is “My style icon is anyone who makes a bloody effort.” – Isabella Blow
I love when someone makes an effort and makes a mistake, because at least they tried something outside of their comfort zone. But that’s just not the way it generally happens. Everybody just gets comfortable.
Issue 15 is all about hair. How do you feel about your curly hair?
I feel good about it. I straighten it occasionally, and I never feel good about it being straight, but I do love being able to put a comb or brush through. It’s a trade-off. I believe we should all embrace what we were given, because generally it tends to work the best for us. I look at a lot of people with curly hair who try to straighten it, and think, “Why don’t you just let it go?” But that’s me. I also think curly hair suits my personality while I’m not sure straight hair necessarily does. My daughter Daphne definitely agrees with that! She has curly hair too, and uses lavender oil and sea salt to take care of it.
Why do you think there is curl angst and this general movement to straighten it all out?
I think there is less curl angst now than before. But the strange thing about curly hair is that while I’m shopping when my hair is straight, I’ll gravitate to clothes that are quite different from what I’d try on when my hair is curly. You can’t exactly do a ruffle neck [with curly hair]. Whereas, if your hair is quite straight you can have some softness. So I like it better when your hair is almost the exact opposite of your clothing style. I think people aren’t as aware of that as they could be. The jewelry you choose with straight hair is different with curly hair. You have to look at it as part of the whole package.
Rumour has it you had little champagne pink highlights…
I had pale pink, but everyone thought I did it for breast cancer. I started experimenting with hair dyes when I was working at Vogue. I used to blow dry my hair out and would take water-based markers and put my hair on an ironing board and colour [my streaks] to match my outfits. I would do a lot of green and purple or red and pink. They looked a bit like feathers because of it being blown out soft. I had extensions for a while, but I never liked the feeling of the clip part. Today I don’t even think you hide the clip thing. Celebrities have made extensions the norm. It’s like you have a whole head of purple hair. That’s not punk; to me it’s just celebrating something being false. I don’t think it would be frowned upon today though. I was so conscious back then to make sure everyone thought it was natural.
That reminds me of the Hunger Games. The richest district is full of people with surreal hair celebrating the power of having no limits. Imagine Stanley Tucci with a blue bouffont! When your daughter was growing up, what did you want her to know about curly hair?
Celebrate whatever you have. It’s okay to embrace it. It’s fine. At first you braid it, to keep it under control, because the hair gets in your way. I watch Daphne now and she’s still always tying it up. And then she straightened it for a really long time. I celebrate the changes, but I also think you shouldn’t run away from what you already have. Experiment, have some fun, but don’t do it because of discomfort. Do it because you’re exploring the changes. I think that’s what I feel about fashion too. Just go with it, let it be, and see where it runs its gamut. Hate to think of what I’ll look like when I’m old. Curly hair and all the jewelry…
photography //Brianne Burnell