built by women: arlene gibbs, interior decorator, screenwriter/producer

arlene gibbs

When I first visited Rome in 2008, Arlene took me to the most incredible Italian restaurant–one I would never have found on a map. We were introduced by a woman who was interested in adapting my memoir for film. Although the project fell through, I’m thankful for having met Arlene and for our long-distance friendship since, punctuated by my occasional visits to Italy.

I admire Arlene deeply, embarrassingly so. She left a job, country, and life in pursuit of something other. She wasn’t tethered to age as a means of trapping one in one’s vocation, rather she set out to find her place in the world. Up until a few months ago she was a successful writer/producer and now tell stories in another form: interiors. I love women with verve, women who take risks, break ranks, and live without apology. Arlene is all of these things, but in the end she’s a truth-teller. I only hope to be as successful as I move through my acts. Let her story inspire you. –FS

When I first met you, you’d recently emigrated to Rome from the U.S. Truth be told, I admired you, how brave you were to leave a successful career behind for something other. This was a time before we’d read articles about expats and second acts. Your career has spanned politics, film and entertainment—but tell us how you returned to your first love: decorating. Why did you leave producing behind?

Arlene Gibbs: What timing. Until two months ago, I had two careers going on, screenwriter/producer, and decorator.

When we first met, I was writing full-time and developing a few projects as a producer. Everyone told me it would be impossible to be a screenwriter/producer based in Rome (especially without a trust fund). Even after our movie Jumping The Broom was released, and importantly was a hit, I heard the same thing. Nothing changed. Nobody cared. It was a “niche” film. When I pointed out to a producer friend that there were plenty of successful British screenwriters who worked in Hollywood but lived in London, I was told, “Yes, but they are British, white, and male.”

To your last question, it took me forever to see the light. Earlier this summer, one of my dear friends, who lives in Rome, said that the universe was screaming at me and I was ignoring the signs. This friend is usually not that crunchy. I needed to heed her advice.

Then I read this quote from JJ Martin, an American fashion and design journalist who lives in Milan, and everything clicked.

The best advice I’ve ever received was to look at everything that comes your way as an opportunity. Do not underestimate the power of chance and fate. Do what you love, what opens you up, not what closes you down, and makes you act like an asshole. Be responsible, be loving, be caring. That’s what I advise to anyone starting out. If you truly love fashion, it will come to you.

She’s talking about fashion but it could be applied to any creative endeavor. I wasn’t an asshole when I worked in Hollywood, my former assistants still speak to me, but I was not myself. I became a very bitter person.

I was recently hired for a decorating project in Los Angeles. It was my first trip back since making my big decision. It was a great experience. I returned to Rome feeling positive instead of depressed.

I’ve met a lot of people our age who feel regret. Regret that they didn’t pursue this or that life sooner, hadn’t met their partner earlier in life, but I tend to believe that we find ourselves at a certain place because of all the choices we’ve made, not in spite of them. Would you agree? Do you have any regrets about the paths you’ve taken?

AG: I agree with you but I had so many regrets when I lived in Los Angeles. I wish I had started working in Hollywood at a younger age. That a woman in her EARLY 30s was told to lie about her age was ridiculous.

I wish I had worked on Wall Street, saved a lot of money, and then moved to L.A. to work in the Biz. I wish I had trusted my gut more, instead of trying to be something I wasn’t. My parents are from the Caribbean and couldn’t understand why I would choose to work in a field where migraines and panic attacks were normal.

Now, I don’t have regrets. It took me a while to get to the thing I’m supposed to do. I do believe all the experiences I’ve had, good and bad, were invaluable opportunities to learn. I think it’s just as important to know what you don’t do well, not just the areas/jobs where you excel.

Image Credit: Gina Gomez.

You’ve endured and prospered (IMO) amidst the one-two punch of being an expat and building a business for yourself in Italy. The challenges you faced (and perhaps struggle with still?) –would you say they’re mutually exclusive, or are they more like a ven diagram, one challenge eclipsing or being born out of another?

AG: Hmmm. I worked in Hollywood, which is not a meritocracy, so many of the things that infuriate American and British expats/immigrants about Italy, don’t faze me.

Is it easy to be an entrepreneur in Italy? No, it’s not. True, I do work internationally but my business is based here and Italy ranks as one of the most difficult countries for businesses. The newish Renzi government is trying to make things easier. We’ll see.

The red tape here is bonkers but it’s still easier than being a black woman working in Hollywood. Did you see the first episode of Project Greenlight this week? No words (FS: I did, and I agree, no words. I thought Damon was one of the good ones).

Regarding your previous work in film and politics– I imagine both careers required navigating verbal landmines and dealing with strong personalities. Do you feel your time spent in both careers helped you in your freelance one?

AG: Absolutely. Also, all three are about story telling, a narrative. Interior design does it in a visual way, like film, but instead of moving images it’s more tactile, fabric, form/function, etc.

A practical question—how did you build a client base and portfolio? Are there any challenges distinct to Italy?

Credits: Arlene Gibbs, Interior Designer. Architect: Domenico Minchilli. Photography: Mario Flores

AG: It doesn’t matter if you’re self taught or graduated from Parsons with straight A’s, when you’re first starting out, your clients will be friends and family (or people who are friends with your friends or family), especially for residential projects. It’s very intimate to work with someone in/on your home.

In time, if your work is published, clients who are not your friends/family will find you. However, even then, there is a courtship of sorts. Word of mouth is very important, of course. Clients will refer you to their family/friends.

Regarding my challenges that are unique to Italy, there are a few.

Before my internship, I never worked in an Italian office. I wrote all day, in English, at home by myself. My Italian did not improve when I first moved to Rome, as I wasn’t in school studying anymore. There are a lot of expats in Rome and my Italian friends speak English well. Now that I’m working with artisans, contractors, and some vendors who don’t speak English, I cannot just switch to English when I get frustrated trying to communicate. During most of my workday I’m using technical vocabulary that is not used in everyday conversation. It’s not surprising that sometimes my brain hurts. Learning a new language as an adult is tough but I’m determined to become truly fluent.

In Italy architects do the majority of interior design work. There are more architects in Rome than in the entire country of France. It’s very competitive.

In the States, technically, there’s a huge difference between an interior designer and a decorator. The former is able to do structural work and could be seen as an interior architect. Many American architects disagree. Here, there isn’t a difference as both decorators and interiors designers are not architects. End of story. If there is structural work to be done, you call an architect and/or an engineer and collaborate. I don’t know if it’s a plus or a minus that there aren’t many interior designers/decorators in Italy. Perhaps it’s not relevant.

I do know that networking in Italy is not like the States. It’s less aggressive, even in Milan. It’s a big learning curve.

Have you endured any challenges building an interior decorating business specific to being a woman or woman of color? How did you manage them?

AG: No, I haven’t. After working in a male-dominated industry for years, it was odd at first to attend design industry conferences/events and see so many women! And there are women over the age of forty. What is happening?

What has surprised you most about launching your business? What didn’t you expect? More importantly, what were you (or not) prepared for?

AG: I’m surprised by how welcoming and helpful my colleagues were/are. It unnerves me. Seriously.

As my friends know, I’m very organized. My Italian friends find all my lists and my discomfort with last minutes plans hilarious but my anal retentive ways have served me well.

Working for myself, I still struggle with setting clear work/life boundaries. They bleed into each other. It’s not healthy and counter-productive especially when you work in a creative field. It’s important to step on the brakes and disconnect once in a while. If you’re going, going, going all the time how can you really take things in? What’s inspiring you?

Do I need to return text messages and emails on Sundays and/or at 9:00 p.m. at night? My business is young and I do feel a lot of pressure to be available to my clients 24/7.

As a friend said, I’m not an ER doctor. Of course it’s okay for clients to email me when things are on their minds but unless it’s an emergency (which in decorating what could that be on a day when there are no deliveries) I can return the emails on Monday.

Who has inspired you along the way and why?

AG: Man, this would be such a long list. There have been many people who have inspired me directly or indirectly. What they all have in common is passion. They have worked in different fields and many have had non-traditional career paths. I have been that person who was sleepwalking through life and now I appreciate how lucky I am to do what I love.

What are the three things that people who are interested in launching their own business or going freelance? Are there specific lessons you can share regarding interior-related ventures?

If you’re going to freelance in a creative field learn and respect the craft.
I know people complain about the Millennials but I don’t think this is a generation issue but an instant gratification issue.

There’s nothing wrong with exploring different fields. If you want to do something creative, do it but realize it’s going to take some time and hard work. Take it seriously, or don’t bother.

I was the oldest interior design intern ever but that experience was priceless. I’ve been fortunate to have people trust me and believe in my skills. I don’t know everything and I’m grateful to have more established peers in my life who mentor me. I’ve made mistakes and will continue to do so as I’m not a robot. But I learn from them and try not to make the same mistake twice. I’m floored by the number of people I meet here who think they can just, poof, wake up one day and be a success at something they know nothing about and takes people years to learn.

Do your homework.
Some people freelance because they have been downsized. Others choose to freelance. Either way, it’s important to find out as much as you can about the nuts and bolts of your new endeavor, not just the fun and sexy part.

Write a business plan. One could be the most talented creative person on the planet but if they cannot run a business, they will not succeed. Attend design conferences in your city or the big national ones in New York or Los Angeles. In Europe there are large international conferences in Milan, Paris, and London.

Many designers have workshops or bootcamps. A note of caution, choose wisely. There are bloggers who decorate/design and decorator/designers who blog (occasionally). Huge difference. Be clear about what you want to gain from the experience. I attended Kathryn M. Ireland’s workshop in Los Angeles (she also has one in France) early in my career and still use the tools I learned everyday. It was informative and also a blast.

For design creatives I highly recommend the book, The Business of Design by Keith Granet.

Have a POV.
This doesn’t a mean a minimalist designer cannot work with a maximalist client. If you look at the work of the most respected and successful designers, they all have a distinct POV. There are elements of their DNA in each project but the home fits the client’s tastes and needs.

Anyone can take a pretty photo during Fashion Week and post it on Instagram. The street style photographers who have broken through did so because they had a POV. Once this social media bubble burst or shifts (again) the creatives who have something to say and an interesting way to say it will continue to work.

What are the three essential tools (or resources) you rely upon to get through your day?

Working out.
I’m a morning person and one of my favorite things to do is jog or walk through the streets of Rome to Villa Borghese or Doria Pamphili Park. That early in the morning, the streets are quiet and the light is incredible. Living in Rome is a pain sometimes with all the bureaucracy, the tour buses, drunk American exchange students, the noise, people who refuse to clean up after their dogs, etc. Then you jog past the building where Bernini lived and buildings like the Pantheon and remember why you put up with Rome’s craziness. She’s inspiring, beautiful, and humbling.

Moleskine daily calendar.
I do have a calendar on my Mac and each project has a punch sheet or action items list but there’s something about literally crossing things off on a to-do-list that makes me happy and feel very accomplished.

I resisted getting one, as I was tired of everyone going on about their iPhones as if they just had a baby or something.

Now I don’t know how I lived without it for so long. I have a ton of information in one tiny device. It holds my contacts, my calendar, a camera, apps I use all the time like Instagram, Pinterest, WhatApp, Shazam, Goggle, a translation app, a compass, my music, pictures of my projects and moodboards, etc. etc.

All images courtesy of Arlene Gibbs, except where noted.

cooking ragout + time with friends

Nothing pleases me more than spending time with friends. I bury the cell phone and make a point to listen to my friends, really listen, instead of waiting for my turn to speak. Over the years I’ve learned that time is perhaps our most precious commodity, and the moments I spend with my friends are sometimes infrequent, but always, always, important. These are the times when can be our most naked selves, when we can say all the things that we’re frightened to say out loud.

This past weekend, I had a couple over for a roast chicken dinner, brunch and yoga with an old friend, and spent Sunday hanging upside down in aerial yoga {more on that to come} and making delicious Italian food with my friend, Hitha. Having just returned from a very dee-luxxxeee holiday in Italy, replete with wine tours and cooking classes, she recreated a vegetable ragout that had me lapping up my dish in a way that was too shameful for type. I’m also tickled that she plans to document her family experience for my burgeoning magazine, Kindred Spirits.

Already excited for 2014…


luxe firenze find: roberta leather factory

It’s rare that you’ll find my talking about fashion or clothing on this space, as it’s not a huge part of my life anymore, however, I do believe in making smart investments on beautiful, quality items that will go the distance. Truth be told, I actually loathe shopping. From the crowds to the nauseating dressing room lights to brands who change their sizing annually, I experience nothing short of vertigo whilst trying to purchase a shirt. To that end, I’ve spent this year editing my wardrobe to have only the things I love, only the things I need, only the things that fit.

Then I went to Florence. Initially, I was set against buying anything beyond truffle oil and some antique cups, but then I met a very chic, elderly French woman who had the most sumptuous leather bag. She whispered that it was from Roberta and it was only $110 EU.

How fast plans change.

If you’re in Florence, you must stop at Roberta. A small shop just over the Ponte Vecchio, you’ll find excellent leather at extraordinary prices. I picked up a black leather tote, lined in suede, for $100 EU. Scored lambskin gloves for $25 EU. Not once have I used my Celine, opting for this simple, label-less tote that holds EVERYTHING.


cinque terre + a voyage out {a story in photos}

Full fathom five thy father lies; Of his bones are coral made; Those are pearls that were his eyes: Nothing of him that doth fade, But doth suffer a sea-change Into something rich and strange. Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell: Ding-dong. Hark! now I hear them—Ding-dong, bell. — Ariel’s Song from The Tempest

where we are headed {firenze outdoor markets + a meditation on self}

Quite often during the past several years I have felt myself a sleepwalker, moving through the world unconscious of the moment’s high issues, oblivious to its data, alert only to the stuff of bad dreams, the children burning in the locked car in the supermarket parking lot, the bike boys stripping down stolen cars on the captive cripple’s ranch, the freeway sniper who feels “real bad” about picking off the family of five…Acquaintances read The New York Times, and try to tell me the news of the world. I listen to call-in shows. — Joan Didion, The White Album

Today I sit next to a pregnant woman who smells of blood. It mattes her hair, sullies her packet of tissues and brings her to shuddering tears. For some reason this puts me to thinking of my father and the horses he cared for, and how he told me years ago that they could smell the blood right off you. You don’t want that kind of trouble, he said. Rummaging through my bag I procure a tissue and the woman shakes her head no, and says, I’m fine. Behind her, a man that appears to be her husband whispers, be quiet, don’t make a scene, and I wonder if this is the equivalent of equine trouble.

On a television screen, a man says that it’s humane to dole out fresh works to heroine addicts. He talks about providing a controlled environment, a community of compassion, while a three-decade heroin user shoots not to get high, but to not get sick. He’s deep in the nod when he shakes his head and says he doesn’t remember what a life without junk was like.

A great woman falls to blight in her East Village apartment, is dead for days before anyone discovers her. It’s not the smell that gets you discovered, it’s the unpaid rent. This is a woman who shone too bright despite herself; she invited us to question not only our confining gender roles, but posited that nature itself should be questioned. Put on a jury trial and convicted for crimes against humanity. Children and women were shackled from birth. Before she died, friends found her wandering the streets, swathed in wigs and costumery, and speaking in tongues. Her plumage was her mask because all she wanted was a love that would not alter.

Last night I woke drenched, stirred out of slumber by a dream that unnerved me. Surrounded by the people I once loved, they speak only to a former version of me, a lesser one. A woman who was determined to ruin. A woman who would boomerang out into crowded thoroughfares just to get a rise out of you, who pushed you out into the street and pulled you back and yelled, Suicide! A woman who had her first nosebleed in front of her boss, but said she was fine, just fine, and could you give her a minute? No one wants that kind of trouble.

It occurs to me that randomness does not exist. Signs are deliberate, appearing only when you’re ready to see them. Didion notes that, Maybe that is one true way to see Bogota, to have it float in the mind until the need for it is visceral. It’s as if I’ve slept the sleep of children and have now only just woke, groggy and confused. Lately, I feel the need to protect, mother and be in a way I hadn’t before. Friends email me and say that they haven’t seen me this alive (Had I been dead this whole time? Had no one thought to dig me up from the earth? Or was it easier to continue planting your harvest over my cold body?) in years. I don’t know how to respond to this. Acquaintances talk about my chrysalis. I don’t know how to respond to this. Strangers cheer on my blooming. I don’t know how to respond to this.

All I know is this. This moment is mine. And the more I share it or allow you to navigate it, it becomes less mine. It becomes explained, defined, and put in a box. I’ve been figured out, understood, and suddenly resolved. But all this time I still haven’t figured out where I’m headed. Know what I mean?

I also know this: I’m following the signs. I’m playing out this hand and seeing where it takes me. And oddly enough it took me to two places I never thought I’d go.



Normally, I’d run screaming from a vintage fair or a crafts booth, simply for the fact that I’m probably the least creative person when it comes to reinventing the old or creating the DIY new. I don’t know what to do with a gramophone or how one would don a tutu without evoking Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? commentary. However, I found myself wandering two on Sunday and feeling inspired by the books, linens and the patina of another era. First I visited a small market for local artists located on Piazza SS. Annunziata, adjacent to the Museum of the Innocents, and the second was the monthly antiques market on San Spirito.

Granted, I didn’t think about how I would incorporate these items into my home or life, rather, I felt inspired by the items in and of themselves. A slew of Italian medical books from the 1920s made me want to return to books I own at home on psychiatry. Trays and baskets of silver inspired characters that are confined by their masks of money, whose dolorous existence is only brought to bear by the accumulation of finery. A barking dog made me long for my cat. English china had me thinking of brunch parties in the spring.

Chandeliers have served as odd guideposts in Italy, reminding me that in my reflection there is always light. That there are always signs.



dispatches from florence: food in firenze {2}

First off, we need to talk about La Carraria, the most exquisite gelato known to mankind. We need to talk about the silk texture, the creaminess of the whipped cream and the litany of exotic flavors. Then we need to talk about how a 20-minute line wait is worth the first taste of this magnificent dessert.

To say that I’m deep in the gelato game would be a grand understatement. My feeding is problematic, and I’m actually thrilled to leave Italy because I need to fit into my clothes for the duration of my holiday. It’s become such that I need to take alternate streets to avoid this fine gelateria, because it’s truly stellar. Many of my friends have recommended this spot, and it’s worth a visit should your travels take you to Florence.


While the service may be lacking (the insouciance reminds me of the French stereotype, where customers are treated with a certain brusqueness), Trattoria 4Leoni redeems itself in flavor. To be candid, I don’t really need my waiters to engage me in dialogue — I very much prefer my own company — so as long as they take my order, bring me my dishes and said dishes are fine, a woman is GTG (good to go). I dined here twice during my time in Firenze, and on both occasions the dishes were quite good. I ordered the very verdant arugula pesto and devoured the pear ravioli. Within the same piazza — away from the bustle of the main squares — I also sampled the gelato (simply ok) and the cappuccino (quite good) from the other Leoni establishments.


Finally, I believe I may have found the finest pizza in Firenze, and it is at Gusto Pizza. You will marvel at the in-house brick-oven and the charred, bubbling hot creations that are unearthed in minutes. While the joint is understated, reminiscent of mediocre New York pizzerias, the creations are ANYTHING BUT. For $7, you’ll savor buffalo mozzarella, homemade sauce, fresh basil — all draped on a chewy, tender crust with bits of burnt edges. I LOVED THIS PLACE SO MUCH I WENT BACK FOR DINNER.

If it’s pizza you crave, look no further than Gusto. Snaps to Daniel for the tip-off.


tuscany in a day: pisa, san gimignano + siena {a story in photos}





Pisa: Images (1-15), including the Leaning Tower, the Baptistry, and the Cathedral. | San Gimignano: Images (17-23 – Tenuta Torciano Wine Vineyard, of which the truffle oil is highly recommended!; Medieval town centre, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (24-45), and home to 17 towers. | Siena: Images (46-end), including Piazza del Campo, Piazza del Duomo, and the magnificent Cathedral and its interior.

dispatches from firenzi: il mercarto dei sapori {the market for flavors}

Right now you should know that I’m distracted. Today I spent the day traveling through the Tuscan countryside, and I started jotting down notes on an essay on masks. So far I’m calling it: “A Disturbance on One Face.” The essay is a fusion of personal narrative and cultural madness. From Joan Didion’s “White Album” essay to the Susan Faludi profile of Shulie Firestone to the Clark Rockefeller trial, from Picasso to Dostoyevsky, the The Red Shoes fairytale and an episode of The Twilight Zone, I’ve become fixated on the mask that is one’s face. The internal fissure, the external cracking. So it’s hard, as you can imagine, to turn back the clock and talk about what happened yesterday when all I want to do is get on with the work.

Hemingway once said that one should never write until the well is bone dry. You still need to tread to the deep, so lay down the pen and walk away, and come back when the well swells and threatens to drown again. Or something to that effect.

But I digress.

On the way to find the Mercato Centrale, a place that has been known to send foodies into ecstasies, I discovered a “pop-up” market of sorts, Il Mercarto Dei Sapori. A highly-curated affair, the traveling market features tastes and traditions from all over Italy, including Liguria, Piedmont, Lombardy, Tuscany and Emilia. You’ll find fine leather goods, hand-carved soaps, local wines, oils, honeys, truffles and vinegars, and more importantly the abundance of cured and smoked meats, cheeses, handmade pastas, sweets and breads. I spent two hours sampling chocolate covered dried fruits, focaccia, cantucci and so many flavors of Italy and fell madly in love.

One extraordinary stand-out: Antico Forno Santi. Their cookies were arranged in grand baskets veiled in cloth, and they were tender, crumbly, sweet and baked to perfection. I secured a mixed bag of typical biscotti, bruto bruno (!!!) and hoards of other treats. As I type, I keep slipping my hand in this forbidden bag, itching to get on with my essay.