Leanne Shapton on vintage swimsuits, David Hockney and learning to love a 40-watt lightbulb
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My personal style signifier is probably my hair. I cut it myself. Other people seem to like it more than I do but it does have a DIY, wake-up-and-go thing going on. I also have a friend who sent me a picture of the little boy in the 1956 film The Red Balloon, saying: “This is you.” He’s wearing track pants and a suit jacket and I had to agree, that’s pretty much my look.
The last thing I bought and loved was a pair of Viper Fins. I had wanted a pair for a long time, ever since seeing some in a surf shop in 2012. I love how they look kind of brutalist, like hardware. When I competed [Shapton trained for the Canadian Olympic swimming trials], I trained with short-blade flippers, but I started using them again recently because it’s rocky where I swim, on the north fork of Long Island. $79.95, 662bodyboardshop.com
And on my wishlist is a car. I live in New York and I want to get out of the city – I haven’t gone anywhere in so very long. I have two car dreams: one of them is a 1963 Raymond Loewy Avanti. The other is a 1980s Toyota Cressida, which has this boxy shape, with round headlights. Right now every car looks like a sneaker when I want it to look like a good old boxy loafer.
The place I can’t wait to go back to is the Canadian Arctic. I went there to do a story for The New York Times Magazine in 2016 and I camped with the Inuit. It was just so beautiful; we caught Arctic char and mixed it with Lipton soup and there were a lot of stories and laughing around propane stoves inside canvas tents. It changed my sense of time and my sense of geography, and it got in my bloodstream. I want to go back.
This year, I’ve really come to appreciate being alone. I think previously I overscheduled socially, and I’m recently divorced so I was afraid of getting quite low. But being alone, you have all this time to not be self-conscious; to really think and to really not think about yourself in relation to other people, to not think about what you look like, what you sound like, whether you measure up. Also, I’ve come to appreciate the 40-watt lightbulb, which is bright enough to read by but not so bright that you’re too aware of your surroundings. I always thought, dim lightbulbs – why bother? But you need a sense of shadow, a sense of darkness.
The best book I’ve read in the past year is Moms, a graphic novel by Yeong-shin Ma, which is based on the author’s mother and her friends. It was a subculture I knew nothing about: middle-aged Korean women. He writes about these women with love and sympathy and a little brutality. It reminded me of how Alice Munro writes women and how Haruki Murakami writes cities. drawnandquarterly.com
A recent find is jelly sandals, specifically French hemp-plastic Sandana jelly sandals by Plasticana. Small thrills, but I’m enjoying wearing jelly sandals now the weather is warmer in New York. $64, salter.house
The podcasts I’m listening to are The World As You’ll Know It, about the world post-Covid. It’s very optimistic, which I love. Then because I worked at The New York Times and I feel it’s my alma mater to some degree, I’ll listen to The Daily. And there’s Someone Knows Something, put out by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, about true-crime mysteries. That was great because who doesn’t love a true-crime story? And also it is a bit hokey in a Canadian way, and all the accents were familiar to me. I listen to that for a sense of home.
My style icon is German choreographer Pina Bausch and her dancers. It was almost as if her own style icon was a real person on the street, because she used her sense of space and dance and body to emulate the style of strangers. My other icon is probably David Hockney. He doesn’t stop at his paintings, in terms of the colours and the joy, if you look at his jackets and the rugby sweaters and the stripes.
The best gift I’ve given recently is art supplies – Boku-Undo E-Sumi Watercolor paints. I buy these little kits, in black and neon, in quantity and give them as gifts to friends. Paints from $3, jetpens.com
And the best gift I’ve received recently is a baby Ficus tree. It was a little get-well-soon present that a friend sent and it felt really special.
The last music I downloaded was the “One night in…” playlist by my friend, the writer and prolific playlist-maker Teju Cole. I love when people make me playlists – it’s like someone cooking for you. tejucole.com/playlists
I have a collection of vintage bathing suits. I’ve collected them for the past 30 years. I love one-pieces, nylon Speedos for laps and patterned, smocked numbers that I wear as dresses in the summer. I’m partial to ones from the 1950 to 1970s: nothing too high on the hips.
In my fridge and freezer you’ll always find bags of ice. I use so much ice. There’s also always Ortiz anchovies, smoked trout, Heinz ketchup and pickle: Branston pickle, pickled fiddlehead ferns, pickled Brussels sprouts and bread-and-butter pickle.
The gadget I couldn’t do without is an electric pencil sharpener. I’m not that gadget-driven but I hate sharpening pencils by hand. That’s the one thing I need all the time. And my scanner, because that’s how I work.
An indulgence I would never forgo is books. I will buy my daughter any book she wants. I just bought her the complete Ian Fleming James Bond collection. Any book anybody wants, they should have access to: it’s a mental-health issue and part of education. In terms of a more Dionysian indulgence: a shot of ice-cold vodka followed by a glass of champagne. I used to do this before I flew, every time.
The last item of clothing I added to my wardrobe was a vintage Givenchy cardigan – but it hasn’t arrived yet. It was bought in a small phase of having too much time on my hands. I also bought, for a friend, a vintage Margaret Howell overcoat that I really like. It might wind up in my wardrobe but I think I’ll probably give it to him.
An object I would never part with is my coffee table. It’s a Vico Magistretti coffee table, and it’s one of my favourite things in the whole world.
The one artist whose work I would collect if I could is Henri Fantin-Latour. You remember the New Order album cover with the flowers [Power, Corruption & Lies]? Fantin-Latour painted those flowers for the bourgeoisie, but they’re so dark and kind of sinister, I find them so stormy. There’s a ruminative, depressive darkness to them that I love.
My favourite room in my house is my living room, where I have my beloved coffee table. In the book David Hockney Photographs, there’s a photograph he took in Lucca in 1973, of a room with a coffee table and some yellow couches. The coffee table is my coffee table, and so everywhere I live, I just try to recreate it: my platonic ideal of a living room. I’ve never found out who designed the couches. I’ve sent the picture to the Italian consulate and the Museum of Modern Art, but nobody has been able to find out. It is the most stylish living room. It’s very simple.
The beauty staple I’m never without is giant tubs of Cetaphil moisturiser. I have to pile it on: I’ve got really troublesome skin. And Listerine, the original. I rotate three perfumes because I love them all equally. One is Tom Ford Neroli Portofino, the second is Eva, which is a perfume from Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella, and the third is called Vetiver Veritas by James Heeley. Eva, $135, smnovella.com. Neroli Portofino, $340, tomford.com. Vetiver Veritas, €135, jamesheeley.com
I’m planning my next book, very slowly. It’s about my mother’s side of the family, and my namesake, a general called Leandro Fullon who was in the Philippine-American war. I hadn’t really delved into researching his story – my mum’s family story. It will most closely resemble my book Swimming Studies in that it will be mostly prose, but with some chapters that will be image-driven.
If I weren’t doing what I do, I would be in the military. Both my parents’ sides of the family were military, and I remember, when I was little, thinking that I would go into the military and the government. What I did instead was swim, which is, strangely, also representing your country. It’s not quite public service but it’s the closest I came.
The best souvenir I’ve brought home is a parka for my daughter, from that Arctic trip. There was a little heritage centre in Gjoa Haven where the Inuit were selling stone carvings, and they had a rack of snow suits and parkas for kids. It was a giant, weird purple thing that was pretty amazing. I also found, on the beach, a shoulder-blade bone from a little seal.
Recently, I have relied on prescription reading glasses. I have a Tom Ford pair and also some vintage Ungaro ones. And I miss performance, I miss seeing plays and concerts, so I’ve relied on good TV writing. I got into The Assassination of Gianni Versace, which is quite dark, and I love anything Lady Di related, so the new season of The Crown was pretty fun. Also The Outsider, an adaptation of the Stephen King story.
If I didn’t live in New York, the city I would live in is Toronto. My family is there and I miss it. There’s a place called the Toronto-Dominion Centre, made up of six Mies van der Rohe towers, and at the top of one tower is a chic restaurant with a great bar called Canoe. There’s a wonderful Cuban restaurant called Julie’s Cuban and The Communist Daughter is a dive bar that I love. There are so many roti shops, so many doughnut places. My diet there is roti and doughnuts. And The University of Toronto Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library is fantastic. It looks like a spaceship. fisher.library.utoronto.ca, canoerestaurant.com