Gentlewoman style: At home with Phyllis Wang

Phyllis Wang by Elise Toide from The New Garconne - How to be a Modern Gentlewoman

I can’t remember if I told you, but I’m working on my next book!

It’s going to be beauty-focused and as part of my research, I’ve been re-reading my last book, The New Garconne: How to be a Modern Gentlewoman. Weirdly – or perhaps not – I haven’t had much need to revisit it since it was published in 2016. But like most books, when I do re-read it, it’s interesting to notice the parts that have a new or different relevance.

I loved interviewing comedienne Phyllis Wang. She was one of the last people I approached and was recommended by my then commissioning editor, Camilla. I was looking for women who embodied the ‘gentlewoman’ aesthetic and values of shopping consciously yet with their own ‘garconne style’ twist. Phyllis certainly veered to the eccentric end of the scale, which was totally fine!

I did the interview by phone and we didn’t get to meet IRL until a year later when, on a whim, film director Emma Miranda Moore and I Eurostar-ed to Paris to make a short film about her. Reader, she was a dream interviewee; funny, smart and insightful and I still revisit her wisdom on writing discipline years later.

Here’s the ‘director’s cut’ of the interview featured in the book, plus the short film we made…

Phyllis Wang by Elise Toide from The New Garconne - How to be a Modern Gentlewoman

I was born in New York but raised mainly in Los Angeles, California. I had a normal, upper middle class Taiwanese-American upbringing where my father was a businessman and my mother was a homemaker. I went to very good private schools and when I graduated from Berkeley I focused on art history and also theatre. I went to drama school in London and during that time I was also doing quite a few things in fashion.

My fashion relationship has always been instinctual. I met a designer named Huishan; he liked the way I looked and he asked me to kind of help out. When a young designer starts everybody does a bit of everything and so I would wear his clothes but at the same time we travelled to China together and I helped with the design process and the production.

When you meet people in different situations there’s an energy and there’s an interest. I don’t know how to separate them. The energy is also reflected in how you dress and that attracts like-minded people. It’s really from those experiences that I ended up doing different things.

When I started comedy, it was actually by talking to some guy at a party. We were having a tit for tat about something and a friend of mine was like, you know Phyllis, you have a very wry, dry sense of humour, you should think about stand-up. At that moment I was going to a lot of castings and auditions for a feature film. I missed doing stage work so that’s when I started writing my own material and performing it, developing it that way.

Phyllis Wang by Elise Toide

My taste came from my family; my father was quite stylish and so is my mum. She used to buy a lot of Donna Karan. She never worked in an office, it was just an aesthetic she really liked and appreciated. It was through both of them that I found a sense of my own taste.

My father was always really interested in Chinese art. He collected a lot of bronzes and painting s and ceramics and I think I was influenced by his love of the Asian culture and also art. And then I decided I wanted to study what he loved, because it became what I loved. When you’re studying art history in the States, they have a very European focus. For them it’s Western art history that is considered “art”. But with my background, it’s only one of the arts. Different cultures have their own evolution of art and aesthetics and so I did both.

I do love my clothes! When I shop, whether it’s a vintage shop or a grandma shop or a high street label or a luxury brand, it’s really the details and the workmanship and the form that I’m totally into.

I love Thomas Tait leather jackets. I used to think Junya Watanabe did the best leather jackets but then when Thomas came about I was like, wow this guy does the best leathers. His take on the Perfecto is super-unique.

I remember a friend of mine saying, “you really need to stop wearing this intellectual, architectural bullshit. No guy’s going to want to fuck you if you dress like that”. And I said, but I’m not dressing for a guy to fuck me. In fact, I’m kind of trying to avoid that. Maybe it was my prudish Asian side but it never dawned on me to dress for a man. I always just dressed how I felt.

Phyllis Wang

When I’m living with something, I have to like it. Most of the things I have are based on both function and aesthetics. I wouldn’t say it’s only aesthetics, I think I’m more on the path of whatever works, works. I have a lot of furniture that my mother gave me or things like that, that’s not my taste but it’s become a part of my life. It’s emotional and practical.

My stand up comedy started on the stage. At a lot of the open mikes you discovered material on stage in front of an audience and from those seeds that were planted or spoken when I was on stage, there might be something very interesting that could be developed and pushed further. Then I would come home and try to remember it. Or if I’d recorded the five minutes that I did, I’d listen to it again and develop it more from there. A lot of the writing for me was almost speaking it.

A big part of what stand up comedians do, we’ll constantly have a notebook and we’re jotting down different ideas. It’s a constant process. Always observing the world around you and also the world inside of you in relation to the world around you. There’s a certain sense of understanding yourself.

I do make an effort to make some time to write every day. And I’m not even saying OK you have to be funny. I’m just saying, OK Phyllis, write what is inside of you and if you have to, make it funny after. Or if it’s just letting it out, then that’s OK as well.

Phyllis Wang by Elise Toide
The New Garconne: How to be a Modern Gentlewoman

I’m a bit of a mess cat! So I’ll buy a beautiful notebook and I’ll start something in it but then I’ll still have the old notebook because I haven’t finished it. So all of a sudden I’ve accumulated several notebooks, all over the house and then I’ll have that one point bringing all those notebooks together with those audio recordings and syphon through all that information. It’s like a circle for me.

When I cut my hair, I had a picture of Louise Brooks. I’d been watching a lot of her silent films and I’d been reading her book and I like her as a woman. There’s something about her that’s very strong, very feminine but also quite boyish. She’s daring and it was that quality that I was feeling when I cut my hair.

If I like something I’ll probably buy it. I don’t know if it’s because I’m older but I find that I like things less and less. I’m being a bit choosier and in a way it’s a great thing. I like to think that because I choose everything, it is a conscious form of consumption.

Phyllis Wang

My mother taught me it’s really important to take care of your skin. I veer towards organic skincare products. I always go back to Dr Hauschka. I have a lot of essential oils; I have oils for the chakras. I’m not very knowledgeable about Ayurvedic medicine but I do find that the smell of the essential oils do different things to me. If I have to put make up on I use Shu Uemura pre makeup skincare. When I’m performing and I know we’re filming I’ll make sure my skin is as clean as possible. I’ll use foundation and a bit of powder. It’s mainly about the skin; it reflects how you feel. I find when my skin is horrible it’s because I’m not feeling so great, it’s not living, it’s not full of life.

I really like going across the street and having a coffee at the bar. In the morning it’s part of my routine, sometimes I do need to get out of the house because otherwise if I’m writing I won’t leave the house the whole day sometimes. If I’m working on editing material, then just being around other people is quite nice. Paris is great for that. I never got that feeling in London where you could just go, walk into a café, and stand at the counter and have a coffee. Paris has a café culture, which I really like.

The place where I produce stand up comedy shows is a hundred metres from my house. It’s called Chez Georges. It’s a wine bar that’s been around since the 1950s. People have been going there for sixty years and it used to be a place where young musicians would go and test out their new sounds and young comedians would test out their material. Sometimes even if I don’t perform there, I go there to have a glass of wine and chat with the locals and it’s a really good sense of community that I really like. It’s more and more rare to have that in a major city.

I’m the type of person who needs to move around a lot. There are moments I really enjoy being around people and I find the exchange and the conversation fantastic, and the engagement, even on social media very nourishing. But I cannot live just on that. I need moments when I can just be within myself, by myself. And so after travelling a lot, there’s a moment when I need to be in one place at one time and focus.

The New Garconne book

Sometimes we can spread ourselves too thin and it’s the nature of the modern world. I’m still trying to learn how to manage it. And how much of it is important in terms of my professional career and how much of it is just the way we communicate with people.

I still prefer holding a book and reading it, as opposed to reading on a tablet. It’s become sensual in a way. I like writing on a piece of paper, I like the way things come in contact with me or I come in contact with things and objects.

I actually have quite a large collection of DVDs and yeah I could watch them on Netflix but I also like that I have a library of DVDs like I have a library of books. I have some silly films I like and I have some great directors that I like as well, and they’re all there where I can see them, pull them out and put them back and rediscover. I haven’t found a way to catalogue or create a library online.

The New Garconne book
Elide Toide

I have a lot of novels, philosophical books and psychology books. And I have a lot of Freud books; he wrote a whole volume on comedy. Every time I’m really into something I’m like, I need a book about that. Maybe that’s my way of consuming it. I need to know about it by reading about it before I feel like I know anything really.

I don’t know if it’s because I’m Asian but I just feel like as Asians we work really hard in whatever we do. But as an Asian woman I always found myself effacing myself, never really saying what I wanted. So in a way my career organically developed on its own. In my 20s I didn’t think about anything, I didn’t think about what my future was going to look like, I just followed my gut. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it made me think, OK I really need to be more ambitious and more focused.

Not everything you do in life will be successful, but that’s how it is. And actually that’s part of why we continue. Sometimes I feel like for me, comedy is about changing the way people think, through laughter. It’s not just cracking one joke after the other. If I want to get to that place I’m going have to go through moments where I’m not going to crack the laugh. Not everything we do will be successful and it’s quite a good journey in order to do what we want.

I respect those people who are ambitious and see clearly the structure of how they need to go and where they need to go. I think good for you, kudos to you. It’s just I don’t believe I work that way. Sometimes I wish I did. But a lot of what I do and perhaps it’s my job, it’s like I have to let it be, I have to let it brew. And sometimes I feel my function is to create room for myself to do that. It can’t be driven my ambition, it just can’t.

For more interviews, buy my book, The New Garconne: How to be a Modern Gentlewoman here.

WORDS: Disneyrollergirl/Navaz Batliwalla
IMAGES: Elise Toide
NOTE: Most images are digitally enhanced. Some posts use affiliate links and PR samples. Please read my privacy and cookies policy here

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