“What do you mean by he’s particular?”
“Well, he doesn’t like red. The color red. So if the bouncy ball at his gym was red, he wouldn’t use it.”
I didn’t know what to think when my colleague tried to sum up my elusive, jet-setting boss on my first week of work. I had only met him for 30 seconds on my first day, when he was just stopping in to pick up his Bottega Veneta duffle before flying off to either D.C., San Francisco, or Chicago—it’s hard to keep track. But he’s flying back to New York today, and the office is in a scramble.
“Make sure you file everything you see on the conference table, then Windex it,” Jill, the office manager, instructed as she lit the Diptyque candle—the first time I’ve seen her do so all week. “And make sure the blinds are open to the same height.”
At this point I’m convinced the man is an obsessive compulsive crazyperson, and I would be completely terrified if it wasn’t for the smiles I see on my coworkers’ faces while they sweep up their respective desks. I conclude they are just too afraid to not smile.
“Helloooo!” Jesse’s singsong greeting rings through the hallway. He looks immaculate in a black T-shirt and dark jeans, hair perfectly coiffed, smile perfectly white and biceps perfectly toned. He resembles a wax figure—almost a tad too perfect. Then he stops mid-stride in front of the wilting orchid perched in the reception area. “I don’t want to go all Miranda Priestly on you guys but is there a fresh one coming this week?” Jill smiles and nods “yes” then Jesse smiles back and says, “Cool.”
My mind does a double-take. Wait, that’s it? No scowling, no further questions, no berating? Just…cool?
He then moves towards Ksenia, our Social Media Director slash Jesse’s Personal Assistant. On top of managing the company’s blog and social media strategy, she’s also on Jesse’s speed dial for when he needs a stray hair edited out for his Instagram, or when he needs a prescription refill.
After some cordial exchange in “How are you’s,” and a brainstorm session on new post ideas for the blog (with Jesse firing thought after excited thought and Ksenia typing furiously to keep up while trying to maintain a cool exterior), he asks if she was able to rent out his apartment through Airbnb while he is away for his next trip. I had to drop off something at his apartment that week and let’s just say from the Hermés throw blanket to the ornamental horns, this $4500 a month one-bedroom immediately adjacent to the Empire State Building with 360 views of Manhattan from the rooftop is not a place I’d want to rent out to strangers. When I expressed my curiosity to Ksenia later on, she simply shrugged and said, “Jesse always says things are just things. They can be bought again.”
I started the day thinking I more or less had the man figured out and I was quite ready to take all subsequent evidence as confirmation, but by the end of the day, I was more thoroughly confused than before: Who is Jesse Garza?
Over the course of the next several months, I would see him fewer than 10 times. Sometimes, like before, he’d just stop in for half a day. Sometimes though, I got to assist him as he shopped or saw a client.
The Jesse Garza when shopping is a force to be reckoned with. It isn't uncommon for him to shop at least 10 boutiques as well as all five floors of Barney’s and Bergdorf’s before he considers the day finished. I remember one of the things that uniquely stood out to me was the speed with which he walked. You would never guess it because he neither shuffles nor jogs. Instead, his upper body remains poised and static while he takes long, sweeping strides across the floor. As a general rule, if you let him turn the corner out of your sight, he has most likely already ascended to the next floor by the time you bolt over. That’s the thing, Jesse Garza always needs to be going, going, going and can never be at ease when he has a random day off in New York to kick back at home (hence the popping into the office even if he only has 2 hours before his next flight). I once asked him if he ever gets tired of it all, the constant flying, the repetitive, never-ending seasons, and after a thoughtful, tired pause, he says, “No, I do love it, and I’m very lucky to be doing what I love.” But at 50, his tiredness peers through the determined smile as it strains to reach his eyes. Then again, at 23, even I had to stealthily shake my feet throughout the day.
The Jesse Garza in front of the client is energetic and encouraging, regardless of the cold he’s fighting or the client’s moodiness. He often says his job is part cheerleading part therapy, to tell the client she’s not fat or to lend a sympathetic ear when she’s going through a high profile divorce. As he stoops to tie a client’s shoelaces, he chuckles as she tells him of an encounter she had with her friends, “…Well of course I’m not a size 2, unlike those girls I don’t just drink tea for lunch.” He stands to smooth out the back of her dress, tucking up the hem and cinching the waist here and there to mimic the alterations. His gaze is fixed on the reflection of the garment in the mirror, but he responds lightheartedly to her comment, “Who wants to be a size 2 if you can only drink tea??”
With clients who own entire buildings on Manhattan, who frequent the White House, who make headlines, there’s a level of sensitivity needed to navigate these expensive, rocky waters. On top of cheerleader and therapist, sometimes he tacks on the occupation of ninja, when he’s secretly ducking from one suite to another if two clients are staying at the same hotel but would be offended to know they’re sharing the service with someone else. Or the role of cultural ambassador when the client invites him to style her on a trip to India, and it is his job to figure out what is culturally appropriate. But sometimes, he takes on the role of a mute when the client and her husband are having a screaming match in the bathroom.
Even when he recalls these high, low, and downright strange moments in his career, Jesse always speaks with a tone of resignation, like he’s well aware of the wide eyes and dropped jaws he elicited but he himself seems to sweep these stories into a bin of “people are only human” and never speaks of them with any bitterness or regret. “Do you have some really crazy clients that are incredibly difficult to work with?” I asked. “Yeah some can get really crazy, but you know, everyone has their own problems they’re struggling with.”
Not one for the grime of buses or trains, we would often take a cab to see the clients (his glossy hair and general fresh-out-of-the-spa radiance would stand out too much on the subway anyway). But one of the first times we stood on the corner of 5th Avenue, hands flapping to flag down taxi, a young couple stepped out from behind the bus and reached out for the same cab. Jesse immediately retracted his outstretched hand, smiled, and motioned graciously for them to take it. Did you catch that?? He let them take the cab. In New York City. On 5th Avenue. I looked at him, stunned by this rare act of courtesy, and he simply said, “There’s no reason we can’t be nice to other people. It’s just a cab.”
Once we settle into the swerving cab, Jesse is a figure of solitude. He thumbs at his phone, checking his emails and texts. At first, I’m surprised at this sudden change in demeanor, and I fear it’s because he doesn’t like me (as is my conclusion in all awkward social encounters), but after relaying my worries to Kellye, who often works with Jesse, I’m relieved to hear that it apparently is “just the way he is.” An introvert, he uses the travel as time to recharge before he gets all talked out at the client’s, much like the way singers would save their voices before a performance. He does, after all, always say, “Show time!” right before he enters a client’s manor. Over several cab rides, though, I am able to piece together a brief biography.
Jesse was born in a small town in Indiana to Christian missionary parents.
I remember once picking up the office phone to an old man with a deep, gravely voice who claimed to be Jesse Garza. I almost blurted out, “No you’re not, liar!” before he clarified that he was Jesse Garza Senior. Thrilled to get a peek behind the curtain at Jesse’s personal life, I asked him how he was doing, to which he replied, “By the grace of God, quite well today, thank you.” He was looking for his son to ask what time he should pick him up at the airport but when I told him Jesse’s not in, he thanked me and said, “You have a blessed day.”
One question immediately took over my mind as I hung up the receiver: “How on earth did they take Jesse coming out?”
“I don’t think they’ve fully accepted it, even now, but it’s never stopped them from loving me.”
“…I knew that I would be working in fashion at an early age: in pre-kindergarten, instead of playing with the trucks, I marched to the corner where the girls were dressing their Barbie dolls. Instantly, I felt the urge to make them over. My mom realized back then that I had a gift: an eye for fashion and style. Every now and then she used to slip me a doll, and say, ‘Don’t tell your father,’” Jesse wrote in a piece that appeared on Maria Shriver. “Instead of trying to push me in another direction, my mother always told me that I was special, and could do anything I wanted to do. She encouraged me to go into her closet to help her put looks together for church, and thus, empowered my gift.”
Perhaps this is how the anomaly that is Jesse Garza Junior began, when he witnessed his parents’ ability to fundamentally disagree with something and yet never allow it to detract from their love.
Sure there may be moments where he could resemble the notorious chief in The Devil Wears Prada, but what makes him distinctly not Miranda Priestly is the fact that he references himself as such. It’s in the way he apologizes for the inconvenience it causes others, but he doesn’t apologize for having high standards.
It is how he could be very much immersed in the industry, have his nose up against the painting yet retain perspective, and fully comprehend the absurdity of it all. How he can love the game but not be bitter if he loses.
Once you can accept that this man can be a part of the multi-billion dollar machine that constantly tells you that you’re too fat, need more clothes, or simply aren’t enough, but decides to tell his clients and employees that they are beautiful, to accept that humans are flawed, and to choose to see people as who they are and who they can be, then Jesse Garza is not that hard to figure out after all.
As I packed up my Starbucks tumbler and retired my notebook on my last day of work, I watched as the new girl Windexed the table with the same quizzical and anxious look on her face. But as I took my last few steps to the door, I smiled encouragingly at her knowing she’s about to work with the best in the industry, and I’m not just referring to fashion.