The Elements of Style

What makes Marilyn Riseman Boston’s ultimate fashion maven? Piece by fabulous piece, we dissect a sartorial life story.

Photo: MICHAEL DISKIN

A work of art. The local icon’s Beacon Hill home is full of paintings by her late husband, William Riseman. An acclaimed architect and artist, he designed the interiors for his wife’s Apogee boutiques, which flourished in the 1960s and ’70s.

The makeup. Boston’s “kabuki socialite” isn’t seen publicly without her trademark maquillage. Created more than 30 years ago, the dramatic look is the work of star makeup artist and friend David Nicholas.

A colorful character. She wears almost exclusively black and white, but red is the one color Riseman will don from head to toe. This jacket and skirt are by Sonia Rykiel, a favorite designer and one of many she’s met over the years.

A powerful network. This fuzzy phone never stops ringing. Riseman enjoyed huge success as an event planner, creating some of the city’s most glamorous galas and fundraising fetes. Today, she remains the most coveted guest in town.

Boston accents. A leather scarf with fishnet tights? Why not? At age 85, Riseman has a fiercer fashion sense than most a fraction of her age.

Feet on the ground. “I don’t do anything for shock value,” says Riseman of her style. “I imagine everything as it will look as a full picture, from head to toe” — here covered by crimson Arche boots.

 

She swears like a sailor, flits like a very social butterfly, and boasts a head-turning style befitting the aristocratic lovechild of Marcel Marceau and Louise Brooks. In a city of few high-style or high-society deities, Marilyn Riseman rules from a lofty perch — respected by blue-blooded Brahmins, revered by the young acolytes who line up at parties to snap a photo and kiss the proverbial (or possibly literal) ring.

But Riseman is more than Boston’s fashion folk hero, a one-woman brand, or the face that launched a thousand Facebook updates. (“Marilyn, please — a picture?!”) She’s an accomplished woman with fascinating stories to share. So we visited the glamorous grande dame at her Beacon Hill home, rifled through her closet, and fashioned a profile — one wardrobe detail at a time.

 

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Singular style. Riseman’s preferred color palette is black and white, so it may seem surprising that she was drawn to this colorful Jean Paul Gaultier skirt. But the intricate pattern of haunting faces was compelling to a woman who has always used fashion to stand out. “I never wanted to look like everyone else,” says Riseman, recoiling from the very thought. “I always wanted to be different. Fashion gives you — I wouldn’t say power — but the ability to not be like the crowd.” She began honing that ability in girlhood, growing up among the well-dressed and well-heeled. Her father, Harry “Doc” Sagansky, was a major philanthropist, infamous bookie, and bigwig Boston businessman who invested in swanky Hub nightclubs (like the Latin Quarter, where Riseman recalls rubbing elbows with Frank Sinatra). But Riseman’s mother, who passed when the future socialite was still a teen, was the true “instigator” of her lifelong love of fashion. “I had three brothers. I was the only girl, and she loved to take me shopping in all the finest stores,” says Riseman. Her mother’s style advice came in handy during Riseman’s first real foray into the fashion business, when she worked as a buyer for high-end retailers. The job required plenty of European trips; Riseman always traveled light. “My mother taught me to buy one good thing and accessorize it differently. So I would pack one fabulous black dress and pray that nothing happened to it — that no waiter would spill a drink on me,” she says with a laugh. “I’d change it up: wear it one night with a hat and pearls, another night with a scarf.”

 

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Business savvy. This shimmering blue jacket was a special gift from friend Daniela Corte, a local fashion designer whose topnotch tailoring earns high praise from Riseman. Today, Corte runs a successful boutique on fashion-focused Newbury Street — close to where Riseman opened her own edgy retail store, Apogee, in 1966, after getting plenty of buying experience under her belt. (Funny enough, Corte’s address is 211; Apogee was at 112 Newbury.) Apogee was designed with as much style as any garment sold inside: the interiors were the work of Marilyn’s husband, William Riseman, an artist and acclaimed architect who specialized in movie theaters. He also designed the Apogee logo with help from his friend Norman Ives, a masterful mid-century artist. And shoppers were often sent home with posters by Jerry Pinkney, a famed illustrator whose daughter once worked at Apogee. Riseman now considers her stores to be her greatest professional success. But the seemingly unflappable fashion maven admits to being “frightened to death” at first: “I remember telling my husband the night before we opened, ‘Please, sell the store. I don’t want you to lose your money.’ It was overwhelming to me.” But when the doors opened, Riseman’s characteristic confidence returned: “Once I was in it, I knew it would be a success.” And Apogee was, spawning five more locations across the country and marking a high point in Boston’s style scene before closing in 1982.

 

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Boundless hospitality. Pop into a high-profile event, and you’ll probably find Riseman seated somewhere plush, holding one of her many bauble-topped canes — like these favorites from Alan Bilzerian — like a queen clasping her scepter. She’s a coveted guest on the Boston social circuit, guaranteed to be good company and essentially ensure a gala’s shout-out in society columns. But the doyenne also enjoyed a storied career as an event planner, masterminding soirees of extraordinary elegance. She tapped top culinary talents: Jean-Georges Vongerichten once fed guests at her “Springtime in Europe” event at the Lafayette Swissôtel (now Boston’s Hyatt Regency), where the internationally renowned chef opened his first stateside restaurant in 1985. And her guests would often go home laden with luxuries, like bottles of Jean Patou’s Joy, a famously expensive perfume that Riseman gifted to attendees at an “Evening in Paris” fundraiser for the American Cancer Society, of which she’s a longtime supporter. But Riseman’s most creative (and challenging) event might have been the fundraising scavenger hunt she once organized at Neiman Marcus. Boasting three floors of music, food, and luxury prizes, it was staged in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Gloria — which forced the catering staff to do all its prep work by candlelight. Eek. But as always, a powerful event producer ensured the show would go on.

 

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Fabulous friends. This gray stole — and its razzle-dazzle details — immediately caught our eye. Like many of the furs in Riseman’s vast collection, it’s by Zandra Rhodes, an English fashion designer who looks like Riseman’s inverse: while the Boston fashionista is known for monochromatic ensembles and a jet-black bob, Rhodes’s trademarks are Technicolor outfits and shocking-pink hair. Superficially, they couldn’t be more different — but Riseman says her “fabulous” designer friend has a sensibility much like her own. “We have the same personality; she’s not afraid to be crazy. She’s extreme.” And how’s this for a small-world coincidence: Rhodes was a Paris roommate to designer Paloma Picasso and Be Bilzerian, wife of Boston clothier Alan Bilzerian, Riseman’s dear friend. (His eponymous store supplies a good chunk of her wardrobe.) Rhodes is one of many major designers Riseman has met over the years, from young guns like Zac Posen (“Everyone says he’s hateful, but he couldn’t have been nicer to me!”) to esteemed vets like Yohji Yamamoto, one of her favorites (“I was in awe,” she says of their meeting). Who does she wish she could have met? Alexander McQueen. “He was gone too soon,” says Riseman. “I know everything there is to know about him. He was a genius.”

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A helping hand. Riseman has always been interested in helping local talent develop. Take Maya Luz, the designer who gave Riseman this round spiked bag. Now based in New York, Luz first gained wide recognition as a contestant on Project Runway. (Then just 22, the designer famously withdrew from the competition.) But by that time, Riseman had already met and mentored Luz. “She’s a spirited girl — smart, artistic, and professional,” she gushes. They first crossed paths at the Colonnade during one of Riseman’s Symphony Fashion Luncheons, a series she established to showcase emerging young designers. Luz, then a MassArt student, was a model in the show. But Riseman recognized her promising talent as a designer in her own right; they’ve been close ever since. “I like to help nice people. Not assholes,” says Riseman. Of course, whether they listen to her advice is up to them. She recalls one suggestion made to the team behind Boston Fashion Week, which consolidated citywide events into a single tented location last year. “I think that was a wise move. But I think an unwise move is that they don’t have celebrity fashion people coming from New York. That would excite people and reflect well on the designers here. They don’t want to do it.” Why not? Riseman offers a befuddled shrug. Hey, BFW — didn’t anyone tell you to listen to your elders?

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Respect for the classics. This vintage cassette-shaped Chanel clutch can elicit ’80s flashbacks. (Though not from everyone: Riseman says some of the handbag’s younger admirers don’t recognize its shape. Gag us with a spoon!) But even in the Age of Lagerfeld, whom Riseman credits for bringing bold innovations to the century-old house, it’s hard to forget Chanel’s namesake’s role in defining the fashions of the Roaring Twenties — an era that has always had a special place in Riseman’s heart. You can tell from her makeup (partly inspired by the period, says artist David Nicholas), her trademark Louise Brooks–style bob haircut, and, of course, her wardrobe. “When I saw Angelina Jolie in Changeling, I wanted to rip the clothes off her!” says Riseman. In fact, she admits that her clothing might sometimes give the impression that she’s stepped “right out of the 1920s.” She adds with a chuckle, “I was born in 1927. The only thing authentic [from that decade] is me!”

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Sage style advice. What does Riseman think about John Galliano? “That bastard!” she huffs. Fair enough, but before the designer was canned from Christian Dior for his outrageously anti-Semitic tirades, Riseman bought this gorgeous Galliano woolen coat on a whim. “I went into Neiman’s to pay a bill, saw it, and said, ‘I want that!’ ” Even if you’re working on a more modest budget, Riseman suggests spur-of-the-moment shopping is the way to go. “The best way to shop is when you don’t need it,” she says. “When I’m looking for something I need, like a dress for a wedding, it’s torture. But if you see something you instantly fancy, buy it!” That probably means it’s something you really love and will always want to keep.

 

Permission to impulse shop? We like it. So we asked Marilyn for a few more fashion pointers.

Secure your investments. Riseman’s walk-in closet is organized according to her own system: skirts here, jackets there, and so on, with each section further divided by designer. So when she’s creating an ensemble, she can instinctively pull pieces off the rack like flawlessly filed library books. And especially expensive items are each kept in a garment bag, its precious contents labeled with a handwritten note.

Think about the big picture. “A wonderful outfit is complete in every respect: right hair, right shoes, right bag, right proportions,” says Riseman. So even if your closet is full of fabulous pieces, carefully consider how to pull them together, lest the whole be less than the sum of its stylish parts.

Don’t fit in. But have the right fit. The most gorgeous garments will look horrid if they don’t fit properly. Find an expert tailor who understands your body type, and make sure every pant, shirt, and jacket fits like a glove.

Educate yourself. “Read as many magazines as you can,” says Riseman. The more background and context you possess, the better your ability to form strong opinions and cultivate your own style. “Be able to say, ‘I love this! I hate this! That’s not for me.’ ”