The Unlikely Lavender Queen author Jeannie Ralston: FW’s Friday:5ive

She’ll say she isn’t that “into” fashion, but don’t believe her.

Travel writer and author Jeannie Ralston, one of my many talented bff’s (a friendship cemented our very first day of college where we met as next “doorm” neighbors), has a knack for style that precedes her move from the sleepy university town of Columbia, SC to New York City to work in the women’s magazine industry. After the publication of her book The Unlikely Lavender Queen, which shares her ultimate acceptance of life in Texas Hill Country, Jeannie’s fashion sensibilities refined with her travel writing, the art of packing — and dressing — becoming just about second nature. Actively involved with the global education of their two sons, she and her photographer husband, Robb Kendrick, a frequent contributor to National Geographic, travel the world, homeschooling them by showing while doing, and then blogging about it all on Kendrick World Class.

Jeannie has an amazing sense of humor, keen intelligence, a fabulous career and life, as well as great style. Just look at the saucy way she wears a scarf and wields a sunbrella!  We’ve had the pleasure of multiple crazy New York, Texan, even Peruvian adventurous (yes, I have lived to rue the day I admonished her for not being adventurous enough — the irony bites me in the butt every time I hear of another one of her fantastic world trips!), more than a mere few involving fashion, from our Ralph Lauren cross-over connection to her great advice on a new blog that I will be undertaking soon. Don’t worry, you’ll be reading about it here very soon! But first, read Jeannie’s take on style and fashion as she tackles FashionWhirled’s Friday:5ive this week. (P.S. I also have the pleasure of hosting her at our home right now; JR, love you, doll!!!)

FashionWhirled:  What role does fashion or style play in your everyday life, personally as a traveling writer, wife (I’m thinking specifically of your cowboy blouson for Robb’s book tour!) and mom? How does your personal style inspire the way you pack for a world-travel trip? How you look at and write about other cultures?

Jeannie wearing her Anthropologie shirt at Robb Kendrick’s event at Ralph Lauren RRL

Jeannie Ralston:  Everything has to be easy. I would say my personal style for everyday is jeans with a crisp top. Flip flops if I can get away with it. Silver earrings, little or no makeup because who has time for that?

For dressing up I like shortish skirts. I feel at my age my legs are the best asset I have left. I have some Ann Klein suede boots that I really like because they have a low heel but still look very feminine.

I travel a lot with my family and there are a few pieces that have been invaluable. I have some flirty, brushed cotton skirts from Athleta. They go everywhere. I can dress them up or down. For instance, we went on a trip to Africa and then France. It was a six-week trip and I had to get everything in on bag. It seemed like the impossible task, because the weather and culture in each place was so different. My black Athleta skirt was one of the things that worked perfectly in both places. I wore it with sandals in Africa–hanging around the hotel after a day spotting wildlife–and with tights and boots in colder, more glam Paris.

I also am a big fan of those travel pants that can zip off to make shorts. On our recent trip to China, I wore my pants (by Columbia) long and also rolled up as capris. (There’s a little tab to hold the rolled up pants leg.) Though I generally don’t wear shorts in a foreign culture (I’ve found that in many places shorts just aren’t worn for whatever reason), I wore the pants as shorts to go bike riding.
Dressing for big events tends to make me nervous and I have to seek out lots of advice. I kind of crowd source outfits. I take photos with my iPhone of various options and then send them out to my stylish friends. For instance, my husband just had an event to celebrate his photo book on cowboys at the RRL store in Soho. I was a bit freaked out about what to wear. Fortunately, a couple of years ago I bought this silk top at Anthropologie that has a vintage cowboy image on the front and back. I’ve worn it to other events for my husband’s book, but I knew I had to dress it up more for this event. It was, after all, Ralph Lauren we were talking about, and it was New York City to boot.
With this outfit, I wanted to straddle the line between sleek and western–if there even is such a line. I got the idea for a suede skirt, very straight, a little short. I couldn’t find one anywhere at online or regular retail stores and was getting frustrated with the hunt. Then I went to eBay and typed in suede skirt and I found a perfect one. Rich brown suede and exactly my size. Bingo! I got some brown tights and found some short suede boots that felt a little “cowboy” but not over the top. I finished it off with a gorgeous belt I bought while we lived in San Miguel de Allende. It’s made by Virgins and Angels, which is based in San Miguel. The buckle has three large jeweled medallions (based on the seal of the Benedictine monks). It’s one of my favorite pieces. I felt very comfortable in the outfit at the party; I felt the over all look was a nod to the west without being kitschy.
FW:  You have been very driven and achieved much success in your illustrious career as a journalist, an author and most recently a teacher. What was your aha moment that led you to writing and what is your creative process? What has been your favorite piece that you’ve had published? What’s been your favorite piece of clothing over the years and has it played a part in any of your articles or books?
JR:  I can’t remember an “aha” moment, probably because I’ve always written or played with words. When I was very young I wrote little couplets and was so proud of them. Lines like, “Grasshopper, grasshopper on the lawn, you’re as frisky as a fawn.” Of course stuff like that seems silly now, but I think it was the beginning of my love of words.
My creative process has changed since becoming a mom. I don’t have the luxury to wait for a muse to land. I have to pull the dang muse out of the sky. I sit down to write and will something on to the page. The pressure of knowing that I need to pick up kids or make dinner seems to bring it out of me.
My favorite thing I’ve written is my book, The Unlikely Lavender Queen: A Memoir of Unexpected Blossoming. I am proud that I actually wrote a book that someone deemed worthy of publishing, but more importantly I like the story line–leaving New York and feeling lost in rural Texas, but finding purpose and happiness running a lavender farm. I also like that I was able to maintain a consistent tone throughout.
My favorite piece of clothing is brilliantly colored rhinestone-laden jacket made by a legend named Nudie, who made clothes for Elvis and Liberace. Someone gave it to my husband while we were working on a story for Life magazine (actually we first met working on the story, he as a photographer, me as a writer). Eventually he gave the jacket to me. It’s so special to me for so many reasons and it’s played a significant role in some milestone events in my life (starting with my meeting my husband) and I wrote about it in my book.
I wore it for my 40th birthday party with jeans and cowboy boots and then for my 50th party, I had special royal blue mariachi pants made to go with it. I’ve always loved the look of mariachi pants–high waisted and very fitted on the top and flaring out at the knee. I put a ruflle-y white shirt under the jacket. The effect was Vegas mariachi. Very cool. Basically, I’ve decided that jacket will come out on all my special birthdays and I’ll try to give it a different look each time. With any luck I’ll be wearing it on my 90th in some iteration or another.

Jeannie in her Nudie jacket on her 50th

FW:  Who is your style muse and why? How does he or she inspire you?
JR:  Nora Ephron because I also feel bad about my neck lately. She hid hers with black turtlenecks but I like to wrap scarves around my neck. I’m a sucker for scarves now.
FW:  If you could have any notable individual — dead or alive — be a subject for one of your articles or be a student in your writing classroom, who would it be and why? If you could whip them into “fashion shape,” how would you do so? Would you change their style and why?
JR:  Hmmmm. I really don’t like to write about celebrities. I feel writers of celebrity pieces more often than not play into a damaging myth that there are people who are better than everyone else. However, I would give anything to meet and write about the Obamas. They are so classy and not just because they ‘re so good-looking. They have grace and poise and so much intelligence.

Michelle Obama wearing J. Crew

I would never presume that I could tell Michelle Obama–or anyone really–anything about fashion or style. She’s really figured out her look and I take inspiration from seeing what affordable elements she can pull together. If she can look fabulous in J.Crew for a big event then there’s hope for the rest of us, I think. I believe the wonderful thing about fashion these days is that there is no edict from the fashion gods at Vogue or Harper’s Bazaar on what defines style. It’s much more democratic. I think there’s more acceptance and to me, the height of fashion is knowing what looks good on you. Period.
FW:  What words of wisdom or inspiration, or daily affirmation do you live by, or at least strive to live by? And what legacy, fashion or otherwise, do you hope to leave to the future and why?
JR:  I love the phrase “bloom where you’re planted.” That was the essence of my message in my book. Basically I try to work with what I have in life rather than wish for something else. I think that would sum up my fashion philosophy. I’ve got decent legs and a bad neck, which explains the current obsession with skirts and scarves. [ed. note: Jeannie does not have a bad neck!]

Camouflaged, Jeannie and her gang

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