“When was the last time you shopped for clothes?”
We are in the guest bedroom of Virginia La Torre Jeker’s Greens Community villa, where two racks of clothing – call it second hand or by its kinder ‘pre-loved’ label – await a conscious sustainable shopper.
“Possibly five years ago, as I still own clothes from 25 years ago,” says the US tax adviser from New York. On the guest bed, paws tucked in, is Max, Virginia’s cat rescued in 2015 after it was abandoned and viciously attacked by a dog.
Think style, spunk, elegance, charm and courage, and lots of heart and you begin to get a sense of Virginia’s character. Now add the bubbles and fizz of an effervescent tablet dunked in water and you might get a sense of the energy that this 65-year-old brings to everything she does.
Virginia has been a member of the New York Bar for almost 40 years, is admitted to the US Tax Court and specialises in US international tax. She has authored three children’s books, has served as adjunct professor at the American University in Dubai, the American University of Sharjah and the University of Sharjah Men’s and Women’s colleges, is knee deep in charity work, and when she isn’t doing all this, she is tending to her spine. To manage the severe scoliosis she was born with, and for which she has already had two surgeries, she swims “a mile every day”, does Yoga, rides her bike and walks. “There aren’t many 65-year-old women, that I know of, who do what I do,” she says, a touch smugly!
Sustainable fashion is a cause close to Virginia, as it funds a cause that’s even closer – the animal rescue and welfare work that she has been doing in some shape or form since 1986, the year she relocated to Hong Kong from New York, as a bride to her Swiss husband. Here their son Marc was born.
“I’ve been involved with animal rescue work for years, since my days in Brooklyn [Virginia’s hometown in New York], although not quite to this extent. In Hong Kong, I would help the RSPCA (Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals); my son would go every few weeks to see the animals and he would say: ‘Mom, they only have a certain amount of time to be adopted before they’re put to sleep. This one only has two days left… can we adopt him?’ When we moved to the UAE, we came with five cats, all rescue cases.”
That was 2001. Very quickly, Virginia found herself working with volunteers to take care of abandoned animals, mostly cats, but also stray dogs.
The work consists primarily of T.N.R. which stands for Trap, Neuter and Release. When an abandoned animal is spotted, traps are placed to capture them, following which they are taken to the vet primarily to be neutered or spayed “so at least they are no longer reproducing”. The animals’ ears are slightly clipped to indicate they have undergone the procedure, and volunteers usually foster the animals until they recover enough to be released. In the first nine months of 2019, for instance, 335 cats went through the TNR initiative.
“Sadly, too many people abandon their pets when they go on vacation or when they have decided the pet is too inconvenient to care for any longer. And there has been an increase in dumped animals since the pandemic eased up,” Virginia says. “People are no longer home, and they no longer need the animal to keep them company. It’s terrible that people view pets as disposable items. Some of the cats I have rescued are pedigrees… Persian cats, Siamese cats.”
Most recently Virginia found a rabbit. “Cleo has had a litter of babies, which means there are other rabbits running around. I’ve had her spayed, and I’m trying to find her a home,” she says, showing off the shy bunny.
Many a time, the animals need medical care too. “Some need limbs amputated due to severe infections that were never taken care of.”
Despite receiving special charity rates at the vets’ clinics, the bills can run into quite an amount. It spurred Virginia into looking at ways to raise money, and one of them was by collecting and selling clothes that people give away either when clearing out their cupboards or when leaving the country. “I started this work at the tail end of 2017,” Virginia says. “And so far, I have earned Dh37,000 for the rescue work.”
Modelling for charity
Granted, selling pre-loved clothing isn’t particularly unique. Thrift shops are dime a dozen in most parts of the world, with Dubai having its own flea markets and thrift shops and Facebook websites selling second-hand wares.
However, it’s the way Virginia has been pushing her message of sustainable fashion that’s rather different. If you think charity work is boring, then do glance at Virginia’s Insta page @taxlady_w_style to see how her turn as fashionista, stylist and model all rolled into one has earned her praise so far.
“I found that when you just have it on the hanger, no one is interested. But if you model it, make it look good, you can’t believe the number of people who will come and want to see it. If they don’t buy what I’m modelling, they’re buying something else,” says Virginia, who typically markets the clothing on local community Facebook pages.
Customers can buy dresses and tops from mid-market and high-end brands for prices that start at Dh40. Branded shoes, handbags, watches, jewellery and fake fur are also available.
“Everything I’m wearing today, except the hat and the jewellery, are from the second-hand collection,” says Virginia referring to her Massimo Dutti trousers and jacket, two sizes larger than her and held together with pins. (That would cost Dh200 by the way.)
In fact, along with her house-help Dissanayaka Pushpa – who clicks all her photographs – pins, belts and scarves are Virginia’s sidekicks when it comes to styling and modelling the donated clothes for her social media pages. “Most of the clothes are way too big, so I pin them in. I’ll provide the correct sizes with the photo.”
Virginia has always loved fashion.
“My grandma was an amazing fashion icon. I didn’t appreciate it back then. She would be walking down the street in a turban, and I would walk 10 paces behind her, in the hope that perhaps no one will know that I am with her. And now I’m rockin’ my turban,” says Virginia with a chuckle.
Today Virginia is almost vehement about dressing impeccably, channelling an Audrey Hepburn elegance with her instinctual sense of style. “I have always loved going to second-hand stores, looking for something unique and different, old vintage items. I would be in heaven when I found something like that.”
For those squeamish about wearing hand-me-downs, Virginia suggests they start by swapping clothes with friends.
“Don’t be afraid to have fun with your clothes,” she says, aiming her comments particularly at women 60 and above. “Let them express your personality in your own unique way. The only thing you should not be wearing after you are 60 is anyone else’s opinion. I’m 65 and owning it! You should too.”
Above all, she would like everyone to enjoy the process of styling themselves. “I think the pandemic had a big impact on us getting lazy; right now, it’s work from home and remote, looking like a scruffy bunny, except for the combed hair and just the shirt for the Zoom meeting. But that will change,” Virginia says. “People will get tired of that and will want to look great again.”
Hopefully it will be by embracing pre-loved clothing. “Landfills are full. Charity shops don’t know what to do with all this stock they get. They ship it to Third World countries. You’ll see mountains of clothing discarded in Ghana. Cattle graze on these clothes. It’s pathetic.”
It’s Virginia’s hope that as the word about her work gets out, people begin to think differently. She says: “Some people may become more interested, some more mindful about what they’re buying; some people may say: ‘hey we could use Virginia in a modelling gig’. That would be great, as I can earn so much more for the animals. And some people will be clearing out their cupboards and thinking of me. Wouldn’t that be wonderful!”
Virginia’s style tips
Virginia shares simple styling tips to help you to spice up your everyday wardrobe...
• Don’t be afraid to be creative. Try something different like wearing a necktie scarf with a choker necklace. It gives a lovely innovative effect.
• Scarves can work miracles, used as a sash around a dress that may be a bit large and unflattering.
• Use fake fur to accessorize and dress up an otherwise bland and boring jacket. I draped fake fur on top of a blazer jacket that was too big on me, creating a collar effect, making the larger jacket work perfectly.
• Large sleeveless tops can be used as overlays on skirts or shorts with a figure-hugging top underneath.
• Tie a scarf around the neck to make a bow. It gives a Parisian artistic effect to this otherwise very big top.
• Don’t be afraid of bold colours. I never wore bold colours and stayed with black, greys, solids, never prints, but pre-loved fashion work opened a whole new world for me!
• If you see something in leopard print, get it! It’s classic and you can do so much with it. It literally lets your outfit roar!