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When You Invite Friends...
by Cynthia Leung

Photography by Dan McMahon

When I invite people into my home, they get to know a few things: first, to wear good socks, because I have a gently-posed, consistently-enforced, shoes-off policy, as many Asians do.

Secondly, to wear elastic-waist trousers, because I don’t own a sofa and so eventually, everyone just sits on the floor. There might still be some hairballs on the ground that I overlooked, but most people are game to ignore them, stretch out their legs, and eventually dance a bit at night end. Never liked overstuffed American sofas; never got around to figuring out a good seating solution, so there’s the floor. Books are on the floor, bed’s on the floor, plants are on the floor, you’re on the floor.

Third, there are consistent snacks on offer, same snacks as the last time, carefully taste-tested from Chinatown: some Sichuan-peppercorn-peanuts, leaves of seaweed, bits of candied ginger or small tangerines. Sometimes that’s it — just snacks. Sometimes there’s takeout (disguised as my cooking), plopped into interesting-but-cheap bowls dragged back from distant places. Occasionally there’s a big pot of homemade chicken soup, maybe.

To make up for the lack of fancy food, there is a vast picture window facing north from which you can take in a postcard view of New York City, its grand buildings and shifting light. You don’t even need binoculars, although I have those on hand for the more nosy friends.

The vibe is messy and my ideal situation is to hear what you’re saying, after years of yelling “What?! WHAT?! I CAN’T HEAR YOU, SORRY, CAN YOU SAY IT AGAIN?” at noisy NYC restaurants. At home I can take lots of mental notes and truly hear your surprising ideas and eventually I’ll pull my “Asian photo dad trick” and force you to pose for a portrait at the end of the night, shoeless. That way, I can better reminisce about our time together, and the gossipy-newsy bits that you’ve shared, until we meet again - or at least as I’m handwashing the dishes.

When I was invited to be photographed for Rachel Comey in my home, alongside some other spirited women, I thought, why not? Her kind invitation came through a group of women I trust and led me to say yes ok, why not? Why not Invite Friends (or potential friends) to Invade Your Home? At my age, especially, why not?

I broke my shoes-off policy that day. Only because I knew the shoes were all samples, and yes, sometimes I break my own shoes-off policy especially when I’m in a mild panic of not knowing which shoes to wear before sprinting out the door, already late. The snacks were the same; the women were not. They were fascinating, and I took my mental notes.

This incredibly chic Italian woman Stephanie Cavalli came over, and she was not only a REAL MODEL, but thankfully, very real. We spoke at length regarding our mutual vintage clothing hoarding radar deployed in flea markets, and a shared fascination between having straight hair vs. curly silver hair, like Stephanie’s. We tried on clothes in my bedroom like teenagers and laughed out loud at each others’ “model faces” and “model moves” and I learned Stephanie met her partner when they were youths in Rome, but that it didn’t get serious until later adulthood. And anything Stephanie put on looked great, ANYTHING! UGH! So chic.

My longtime friend Haidee Findlay-Levin came over to style things. She’s one of the most chicly snobby women I’ve had the pleasure of mind-melding with in my fashion life. Our sartorial mind-meld is so close that she even showed up to my wedding years ago wearing the same Jil Sander by Raf Simons white-and-navy-striped-floor-length-gown-with-pockets as I wore, AT MY OWN WEDDING. Long story — you’ll have to come over for tea to hear the rest.

Some women who had a hand in planning the shoot were there, like the creative wellspring Nicole Kurily, who’s always low-key cool and who’s also in my dance class, and some were there in spirit, like the formidable Clare Rhodes, who did casting for the day. Many moons ago, Clare was my former boss at my first fashion internship as a teenager, at a style magazine in San Francisco. I’d help Clare fax in requests to PR houses in NYC, and PR people would magically send massive floral arrangements to land on her desk with hand written thank you notes. Clare was intimidating then as now, and still a boss.

Rachel Comey showed up and sat on the floor, as per house custom, and quietly paged through a few books from my library, wearing a splashy postcard-print camp shirt that I was really into. She came outside to the balcony and we smoked a single cigarette, and shared notes about the importance of female best friends and the whole kids/no kids question for women. I asked Rachel some former-journalist questions, one of which was OK where do you travel when you need to get away? In my head I’d imagined her on an obscure island in Greece or climbing a newly-discovered ruin in Guatemala. And she thought about it and said “Home. I like to stay home and see friends, for real.” We both laughed and then talked about that, too. Everything was very down to earth.

Cynthia Leung is founder of Native Agents, a creative communications agency. Behind that, she writes and dances. She’s not a spring chicken any more, thankfully so.

Photographer: Dan McMahon
Featuring: Stephanie Cavalli & Cynthia Leung
Stylist: Haidee Findlay-Levin
Creative Producer: Nicole Kurily
Hair & MU: Kuma
Casting: Clare Rhodes
Stylist Assistant: Rei Rivera Nunez