Sharon Socol’s husband, Howard, spent 28 years working for Florida’s Burdines department stores, rising through the ranks to serve as chairman and CEO from 1984 to 1997. Then he did a stint as CEO of J. Crew. But none of this prepared Sharon for what happened when he took the helm of the decidedly more glam, more high-stakes Barneys New York in 2001.
All of a sudden, Sharon — who never had much use for haute couture — was hanging with Anna Wintour, Vogue’s legendary editor-in-chief. She was sitting at dinner parties across from Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell. She was scoring VIP access to the top fashion shows in New York, Paris, Milan. She was watching Marc Jacobs, Tommy Hilfiger, Diane Von Furstenberg, Alexander McQueen, Narciso Rodriguez and the rest getting their work on behind the scenes.
And she was photographing it all. Saturday night at Books & Books in Coral Gables, she celebrates the launch of a book with more than 100 black and white images culled from the thousands she snapped while the fashion machine raged on around her. Plus One: An Outsider’s Photographic Journey Into the World of Fashion (B&B Press, $60) is testament to Socol’s gift for seeing beyond the glitz to the people, the human moments that unfolded in a setting that can blind with its glamorous veneer.
Another person in her position might have worked the moment, might have demanded front-row seats, might have air-kissed her way into the inner circle of New York’s fashion world. Then again, perhaps another person wouldn’t have considered herself simply her husband’s “plus one” at all the glittering events to which he was invited.
But Socol, who is grounded by her Midwestern upbringing, who prefers asking about you to talking about herself, who insists on getting up from the table at Crumb on Parchment in the Design District to get you a glass of tea, just never had it in her to front like she was fabulous.
“I wasn’t particularly comfortable in that setting. I didn’t know the players. I didn’t speak the industry’s language,” she says.
She had picked up a camera as a 7-year-old growing up in Terra Haute, Ind. Her father was a barrel maker, her mother, who died when Socol was 18, worked as a buyer for a department store.
“From very early, I always took my camera everywhere as my shield. It gave me courage,” she says. (Socol never formally studied photography, though she did take courses at Miami-Dade College when she could spare the time from raising two daughters in Coral Gables, which is still home base.)
“In a way the camera was still my shield when I went to the big parties and the fashion shows with my husband. I didn’t believe in announcing who I was. If I had to go into Barneys to buy something, I never said, ‘I’m Mrs. Socol.’ But then I would hand someone a credit card and they would go, ‘Oh.’ ”
For the eight years her now-retired husband served as president and CEO of Barneys, she pretty much hid backstage at the big shows, an anonymous shooter with a fancy Leica. She gave up coveted front-row seats next to her husband, and next to the A-list celebs who turn out for these things, to snap candids of the models, the designers, the seamstresses, the makeup and hair people, the reporters, the doormen, the waiters — anyone who was part of the frenzy.
She clicked away with no motive besides recording the moment and keeping herself entertained. She had no plans to publish a book until her husband insisted a couple of years ago that she see if there was anything she might do with her mountain of images.
Don’t ask her for dirt. She can’t really tell you if the models were starving themselves, if they took drugs, if they threw diva tantrums.
“I just wasn’t looking for any of that. I have always just had a passion for making photographs of people, all kinds of people. My father used to say that you should look at everyone with equal eyes. I didn’t go backstage with any judgment.’’
The truth is, she didn’t know who most of the people around her were.
“I never recognize famous people. I was sitting once across from Kate Moss at a dinner. She was talking to this beautiful woman next to her and I turned to [fashion editor] Candy Pratts Price and asked who the beautiful woman was. Turned out it was Naomi Campbell. I had no idea.’’
Despite her lack of interest in becoming a fashion world insider, she made a fair share of friends — folks like designer Narciso Rodriguez, model Christy Turlington and Alber Elvaz, creative director for Lanvin. Her New York book launch on Feb. 19 at Barneys is being hosted by Rodriguez, Diane von Furstenberg and fashion writer Simon Doonan, all portrayed in Plus One.
How did Socol end up connecting with folks she never exactly fawned over?
“I can give you an example of how I got to know Alber Elvaz, who is such a genuine, smart, kind, dear man. I remember one day being backstage at one of his shows and in the middle of everything, he paused and walked over to a mirror. I didn’t know him that well then. But here he was taking a personal moment, looking at himself in the mirror. For a photojournalist, that would have been am amazing photo.
“But I didn’t take it. I didn’t need to. I didn’t have an editor demanding anything from me. And I didn’t want to steal the moment from him. But I knew that he knew that I saw that shot and that I chose to respect him.’’