IT'S midmorning in the 1920s building where Liz Goldwyn lives with her Hollywood ghosts, and you can hear the palm trees rustling outside as soon as the elevator opens. The foyer is guarded by two mannequins that once belonged to Vogue editor Diana Vreeland, and there's a photo of her grandfather Samuel Goldwyn in his glory days as studio head. Goldwyn, 29, stands up from her desk in a short plum jersey Azzedine Alaia dress and matching Christian Louboutin booties. Her face is creamy white and her hair shiny and tinged with red. She looks perfect but in a disarming, nerdy schoolgirl way. Maybe it's those studious-looking Chanel eyeglass frames. You'd never guess that she has a vintage clothing collection that numbers in the thousands or that she is closely watched, imitated and befriended by top fashion designers from L.A. to Paris. She text-messages Yves Saint Laurent designer Stefano Pilati, has spent a year collaborating with Nicolas Ghesquiere on her wedding dress and gets love presents, like a resin bangle that reads "He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not," from Dior Homme's Hedi Slimane. She even appeared in a Bottega Veneta advertising campaign.
And you have no idea the kind of thought she puts into getting dressed.
To give a lecture to students at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising on Wednesday night, she played the "sexy academic" in a James Galanos houndstooth dress with a bubble skirt and fishnet stockings.
For the "Gen Art Fresh Faces in Fashion" show last week, she was in designer patron mode, wearing a braided metallic knit shift by Rudi Gernreich, "someone who was truly avant-garde," she says.
For business meetings, she always wears tomato red, which also happens to be the color of her signature lipstick. "Orange and red are power colors," she says. "But it has to be a red that's not too pink, otherwise you might tip into being too sexy. Certain Courreges, old Anne Klein and Claire McCardell pieces work well."
"She has everything from Mr. Blackwell to Balenciaga, and having known her for 10 years, I haven't seen her wear half of it," says Cameron Silver, owner of the vintage boutique Decades, who counts Goldwyn among his closest friends. "She has a keen sense of what's next without being a slave to it. She was enthusiastic about vintage YSL before the YSL momentum started happening. She wore early Versace to her movie premiere before anyone was into it."
For Goldwyn, fashion isn't just about looking good. It's armor. And she has an acute awareness of how to use clothing to convey a visual message, whether it's at a gallery opening in London or a luncheon with Nancy Reagan in L.A. "I'm always going to be playing dress-up. It's such an important part of getting your game on," she says. And she has a genuine respect for the craft that goes into making a 1940s burlesque costume or a present-day trench coat by L.A.-based Rodarte.
The latest iteration of her passion is a new book, "Pretty Things," which looks at the last generation of burlesque queens in the 1930s to 1950s through their clothes. "For me, clothing has always been connected to history," she says. "That's what draws me in."
As you might expect, Goldwyn's life is filled with Hollywood lore. Her father, Samuel Goldwyn Jr., who produced "Master and Commander," "Tortilla Soup," "Mystic Pizza" and other films, met her mother, screenwriter Peggy Elliott ("That Girl"), at a party at Ed Wood's house. She has five brothers and sisters, many of whom also work in the film industry.
Her interest in fashion was cultivated, at least in part, during summers spent working in the Edith Head building on the Paramount lot. Goldwyn remembers wandering the archives, meticulously organized in categories such as "black shoes, size 7, 1910."
"I had dreams that I would be there at night with a shopping cart and I would go to the aisle with my size and the color and style that I wanted."
She started buying vintage clothing at thrift stores as a teenager, using her allowance and money made from recycling Coke cans. First it was 1940s housedresses. "Even in boarding school, I was buying Courreges at the dollar-a-pound place in Boston for 25 cents," says Goldwyn, who lives with her husband, Frank, an art director, and their cat Patou (after Jean Patou).
Goldwyn's fervor for collecting prompted friends and relatives to hand things down to her, along with their stories. One such treasure is a horsehair ball gown by the Fontana Sisters of Rome that was worn by Ava Gardner to the Oscars.
She studied photography at School of Visual Arts in New York, working for fashion photographer Fabien Baron and later for Magnum photographer Gilles Peress. In 1997, she met vintage maven Tiffany Dubin through a family friend. Dubin, who had just started the fashion department at Sotheby's, hired her right away. "She brought a fresh point of view and references to talent that hadn't hit my radar," Dubin says.