In this first entry about some of the women who loaned pieces for Shock Wave: Japanese Fashion Design, 1980s–90s, we talked to local lender, Susan Damour, who is the regional administrator for the U.S. General Service Administration (GSA) for the Rocky Mountain Region, which oversees all of the GSA’s activities in Colorado, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming. In her current role, she serves on the President’s National Prevention Council, an organization made up of 20 federal agencies to promote wellness nationwide. Over the past seven years, Sue has also actively worked to elevate the artwork found in the interiors of local federal buildings from posters and photographs to original artwork by regional artists.
In her previous appointment as regional administrator from 1998-2001, she helped spearhead the then-largest wind energy purchase by federal agencies in honor of the 30th anniversary of Earth Day. She remains devoted to the development of sustainable practices through her undying support of regional organizations. All the while, she remains “one of the most stylish women working in the federal government.” I asked Sue a few questions on the “politics” of fashion.
Jane Burke: How would you describe your personal style?
Susan Damour: I think minimalist and edgy, and what I try to do is to figure out what is age-appropriate because I am over 70 and yet I want to be different. I don’t want to look like a teenager, but I also want to look fashionable.
JB: How has your career impacted your fashion choices?
SD: The real way it has is… as I made more money I had the chance to be able to buy better clothing; also buying from Lawrence Covell (an independent clothing boutique in Cherry Creek founded in 1967 by Lawrence and Cathy Covell); also my background, being from New York and because my mother was a costume designer. The Covells helped me dress really well regardless of my income. Cathy said, “You can be fashionable and we will help you do that.” I was in positions where I needed to dress distinctively but not outrageously, and I needed help to reflect that.
JB: Can you tell us about how your style was influenced by Japanese designers working in the ’80s and ’90s?
SD: I first encountered the Japanese fashion designers through Cathy Covell who taught me about Yohji Yamamoto and that I could wear his clothing. I knew about Issey Miyake but couldn’t afford to buy it. I went to Washington, DC and would buy one piece at a time …over time.
My mother laid the foundation for me to understand beautiful fabric and the construction of clothes and really you can do so much if you understand how something is made and how it fits and how it drapes and how it works at its core. Many people who I work with don’t spend a lot on clothing… so they always come by my office to see what I am wearing and say, “What is she in today?” A lot of the younger women, when I first arrived on the job, said, “We are so excited you are here because you are so classy and you make us look better.”
JB: I think that is so important to empower women in positions of power to give them permission to care about fashion and to care about style. And not be seen as superficial or frivolous. But to own that and say this is part of my job to look great.
SD: I go to the President’s National Prevention Convention on Wellness representing my agency across the country. A woman doctor, who is my colleague, from the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) says, “I come to the meeting just to see what Sue is wearing.” She says I have more style than anyone working in the federal government.
JB: During what occasions do you wear these pieces? Do you feel different when you wear these pieces?
SD: I wore the Yohji Yamamoto dress in Shock Wave (above, far right) to a Collectors' Choice [a DAM fundraising event]—years ago… maybe 20 years ago. And then I wore it to the opening of the Clyfford Still Museum. And I turned it around so that it was open in the front and I wore a black camisole under it—but it didn’t work as well. It was all about the dress.
I wore another Yohji Yamamoto piece (above) to the Shock Wave opening. I also wore it to someone’s wedding reception. And I thought, oh no, am I competing with the bride? because it looked sort of bridal…with a bustle. This is a 25-year-old dress and still a great dress.
JB: And do people react to it?
SD: Unbelievably. I have one Issey Miyake piece with the big collar (pictured at top). I bought that piece 17 years ago at Barneys in New York and a man stopped me on the street and said, “This dress is amazing.” Also, I wore it to my husband’s reunion…and two men came up and said it was a spectacular outfit. It’s rare for men to compliment women’s clothing.
– Susan Damour
You wear an Issey piece… you wear a Yohji piece and people come across the room.
JB: Has Shock Wave changed the perception of your previous wardrobe choices during the ’80s and ’90s? If so, how?
SD: I felt so honored to be asked to contribute. I just see myself as an ordinary housewife from East Denver; and that I can be a part of this and that I can have fun. And the lenders you had—I was so honored to be a part of the group. That they were all willing to be risky and have fun and we have stayed in touch because of Shock Wave, as we love the same designers.
JB: Do you consider yourself a trendsetter?
SD: I wasn’t a fashion trendsetter, but I was a part of the social trendsetting that was going on; I was on the cusp of that. My generation was on the forefront of that social change in the ’60s and often one generation pivots social change for a century. That was my generation. We changed the course of America and helped liberate women. Clothing became liberated. Jobs became liberated. And opportunity opened up for American women.
First was the civil rights in the late ’50s/early ’60s and then the anti-war movement, and we began questioning government for the first time since the end of the Second World War. Then the environmental movement happens in the late ’60s/early ’70s, spurred by Rachel Carson’s landmark book, The Silent Spring, which focuses on the dangers of pesticides.
JB: And how did it lead to the liberation of women in the ’80s?
In the ’80s women began to move into more equal societal roles and to support one another at the same time. In business, women were dressing in a very masculine way and the real trendsetters were the women who became more avant-garde and willing to wear the clothes in Shock Wave. Often, they were in the world of arts and culture.
FM: You mentioned both sets of your grandparents traveled in Asia. Can you tell us more?
SD: Both traveled for business. My paternal grandfather was the head of Republic Steel’s International Division and he was selling steel throughout Asia, South America, and Europe for more than 30 years.
My maternal grandfather worked for Lea & Perrins and traveled throughout the world for the company. He began going to Asia in the ’20s and continued to do so for 50 years.
FM: What are your personal connections to Japanese culture?
SD: Since both my grandparents traveled extensively in Asia—there were many Asian artifacts in their homes. My parents loved these Asian objects and shared Japanese culture and cuisine with us each time we traveled. My mother, as a designer, showed me a world bigger than others got to see.
Reflecting on the Japanese designers, if you think about art and the great American artist, Winslow Homer, who painted lovely pastoral pictures, but he was not Picasso. Picasso changed the direction of art and that’s what made him famous. Fortuny may have pleated Italian silk in the ’20s but Issey Miyake changed the direction of pleated clothing with his bold designs.