Artist Julian Schnabel, his considerable bulk encased in a cuddly white Terry-cloth bathrobe - is strutting his stuff and twirling his ginger moustache. "How’s the collar sitting?" he asks his wife, anxiously. The orchidaceous Olatz Lopez Garmendia Schnabel - who looks like a sultry cross between Audrey Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor in a Marc Jacobs mini and skyscraper heels - tells him she’ll need to examine the garment more closely later.
Schnabel flounces off, his modelling duties done for the day. We are sitting in a new downtown New York store, named after the dusky Spanish beauty who has been married to the American artist and film director for more than a decade. With various family members, including her sister-in-law, Edinburgh-born-and-bred Gill Connon, Olatz has just opened what is arguably the most heavenly linen store in the world.
The light-drenched West Village store, with its vast ebony-coloured shelves and counter, is based on Cuba’s historic La Farmacia en la Calle Obispo, in Havana. Massive sculpted iron beds - created by Schnabel, copies of the one on which they slumber in their West 11th Street home - are used to display Olatz’s gorgeous linens. The walls are decorated with ten French pastoral landscapes and hunting scenes that Schnabel painted on site, and across which he has thrown signature streaks of purple, pink and green blobs.
Connon, a vivacious thirtysomething who is married to Olatz’s brother, the artist and sculptor Alejandro Garmendia, is not around this afternoon. She’s out sourcing silken threads to be used in the range of luxurious bed linen which she and Olatz have been making for the last seven years in a small space off Schnabel’s enormous Greenwich Village studio.
Given the artist’s movie and art world contacts - he designs album covers for Lou Reed and Sean Penn took a bit part in his critically acclaimed 2001 movie, Before Night Falls - there’s a starry clientele for the bedding, although both women are discreet about exactly which glamorous members of Hollywood’s A-list shop with them. The first customer when the new store opened was the French actress Isabelle Huppert and Dennis Hopper, one of Schnabel’s closest friends, sleeps between their sheets, as does Elton John. Iman, David Bowie’s wife, is a fan of Olatz’s crib sets.
The Schnabels have ten-year-old twin sons, Cy and Olmo, and after they were born Olatz could not find the sort of exquisite linens, laces and batiste cottons in New York that babies are accustomed to wearing in her native Spain, so with Connon - who has a nine-year-old son, Nicholas, with Alejandro - she decided to make her own.
Soon, everyone cottoned on to the crisp linens with vivid borders, or the classic snowy-white sets encrusted with appliqu embroidery, as well as the bathrobes and pyjamas. According to Olatz, her designs are inspired by memories, beginning with the first purple-bordered sheets and pillowcases she made for one of their homes - the Schnabels also have a house in Montauk, on Long Island, and another in the Basque country. Other designs have been inspired by a studio apartment they once occupied in Paris that had been used by Picasso and, of course, her sunny childhood in San Sebastian. "I make only things that I would want to use myself," she drawls in charmingly fractured English.
"Olatz designs everything and chooses all the colours," says Connon, whose father works for the Church of Scotland in Edinburgh, while her mother was a district nurse. "As a child I never stopped sewing. I’ve always wanted to make things and, because I have a dressmaking background, I did a lot of sewing for Olatz, which I thoroughly enjoy. I also relish running around, tracking down linens and laces. Attention to detail is important - I’ve learned a lot, working with such fabulous fabrics."
I meet Connon over tea and biscuits in the top-floor apartment of the eccentric Chelsea Hotel, on West 23rd Street, where she, her husband and son have lived for several years.
The delightfully shabby hotel, filled with a fabulous clutter of period furniture and paintings signed by famous artists, often in lieu of their rent, has been home to generations of bohemians who have lived and loved here. Lillie Langtry, Jack Kerouac, Arthur Miller, Sam Shepard, Tennessee Williams, Edith Piaf, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Leonard Cohen, Jane Fonda, Janis Joplin, Milos Forman, Jimi Hendrix, Dennis Hopper, Jasper Johns, Robert Mapplethorpe, Patti Smith and Vladimir Nabokov - all stayed here.
Dylan Thomas drank 18 neat whiskies here: his last. Arthur C Clarke wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey here. Sid Vicious stabbed his girlfriend in room 100 and Bob Dylan produced a record and a son here. "I love living at the Chelsea, it’s so friendly," says Connon, gazing across the dizzying skyline and pointing out that only recently the family, as long-term residents, featured in a new Spanish book about this legendary hotel.
You reach Connon’s two-room studio apartment via the elevator and then up a narrow staircase that has become an art gallery for Nicholas’s paintings.
"He’s a favourite with all the residents - he knows everybody and they’re wonderful with him," she says, smiling. "The Chelsea’s such a comforting place to stay - we have our apartment, thanks to Julian. Sure, crazy stuff goes on here but then I don’t know where there isn’t crazy stuff going on at some point in this city. You find artists wrapping their paintings in the hallways. There’s often an art show in the Chelsea and people are forever filming here - wall-to-wall crews making movies and videos about the hotel, which is very historic. It’s exciting, a fun place to live. I grew up in a lovely part of Edinburgh - Great King Street, where my parents still stay - but this is a world away."
In Connon’s comfy, lived-in sitting room, an antique Singer sewing machine occupies pride of place and there are examples of her husband’s intriguing paintings of the baroque installations he builds, using collage and Photoshop techniques. The couple met after Connon went to work with a friend on her Madrid market stall. "I just got on a plane with my sewing machine," she says. She intended to stay for a couple of months but the bags and hats that she designed and made proved hugely popular.
She met her husband while working in the market - a friend of his had the next stall, selling jewellery. They married in 1992 and moved to San Sebastian for a while. Later, in New York, Connon began working with small theatre companies, making costumes. "I did the pressing for Vera Wang’s wedding dresses, little jobs like that, before all my paperwork was sorted out," she recalls.
They returned to Spain for Nicholas’s birth and Connon taught English - she speaks fluent Spanish - and exhibited her hat designs, which had somehow metamorphosed into scuptures. About seven years ago they returned to New York - they have another home in France - and she became involved with Olatz’s business. "It’s great, because I’ve watched it build and build," she says.
Olatz’s store, in Clarkson Street, is on the fringes of one of the city’s coolest areas - the Meatpacking District, where Stella McCartney and John Galliano have recently opened salons.
"This is such a hip neighbourhood," says Connon, who is still busy sewing - "We’ve just discovered how to make pillowcases without overstitching, which we’re very pleased about" - but now that the store has opened, manufacture has moved to Italy.
"The business is getting really big, which is down to Julian," says Connon. "Olatz didn’t really want a store, although she loves it now. But Julian’s a big man who thinks big - as you can see from his wonderful work - so it was all his idea."
So how about thinking even bigger and opening in Edinburgh? "We’ll have to sleep on it," Olatz replies, a dreamy look in her eyes.
• James Barron and Stephen McGinty visit New York in Travel, page 16
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Saturday 25 May 2013
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