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A Possession Obsession: Vena Cava (Part I)

You have probably heard the phrase "vena cava" at some point in your life, most likely in high school biology class. You might not have been able to define it then, but if asked now, these words might come to mind: vintage, hand-drawn patterns, and wearable elegance. Though scientifically speaking you would be wrong (it's the main vein that pumps blood into the heart), from a fashion standpoint, you would be fabulously correct.

The New York label of the same name is the brainchild of designers Sophie Buhai and Lisa Mayock. After graduating from New York's Parsons School of Design in 2003, the two California transplants teamed up to create something that was near and dear to their heart, combining their mutual love of vintage clothes and their moms' hand-me-downs.

In the past six years, Vena Cava's operations have moved from a living room floor to a studio in an old American can factory in Brooklyn. Their designs have been featured in New York's Fashion Week as well as top fashion magazines, such as Vogue, Elle and WWD, and on the racks of high-end stores, like Barneys. They most recently collaborated with retailing powerhouses Gap and Converse and have built up an impressive celeb clientele that spans across all ages from Blake Lively to Maggie Gyllenhaal to Rita Wilson.

Here, Sophie Buhai tells us why her favorite pair of shoes are ones she's never worn. And be sure to check back tomorrow to read about Vena Cava's other half, Lisa Mayock's, prized heirloom and inspirations.

Tell us how you came to own this precious object.

"After cleaning her house a few years ago, my great aunt gave me my great grandfather, John L. Brown's, custom-made alligator shoes. She told me to 'never let any of my boyfriends wear them' for fear I would never get them back. There is something very personal about someone's shoes, especially a custom-made pair that have been worn for years and years.

John L. Brown was the kind of man who wore a three-piece-suit every day, smoked a pipe, and, in his later years, used a cane. He had emigrated from Poland at the turn of the century and worked his way up as a stock broker in Detroit during the 1920's.

When the stock market crashed, a client who owed him money gave him a bowling alley to pay off his debt. He spent the rest of his life, until the very end, running bowling alleys throughout Michigan. He was a wonderful great grandfather and took me to work with him whenever I would visit."

How do you live with your heirloom?

"The shoes sit in my bedroom on a wood bench with a few other pretty objects. They remind me of some sort of Joseph Beuys sculpture. Also, I like that they are well-worn and were stitched by hand to repair the seams."

Who in your life has most influenced your personal style and taste?

"I used to watch my mother get dressed to go out in the 1980's and it totally influenced my aesthetic. During the day, she would wear khaki pleated front, high-waist shorts, and black off-the-shoulder leotards, a French twist, navy bandannas, and Betty Davis clip-on sunglasses. It was sort of a 1940's glamorous camp counselor look. At night, she would always wear red lipstick, a French twist, a black cocktail dress from Loehmann's back room, opium perfume, and Mexican silver jewelry from the 1930's.

My grandmother and her sisters were also big influences. They were early pioneers of minimalist fashion in the 1960's. Everything was oversized and in brown and black. They were big on modern jewelry and the fiber art movement of the 1970's. I loved their dark, eccentric style. I always try to copy their outfits and taste in jewelry. That kind of style looks really amazing on younger women."

[Fill in the blank]
Whenever I look at __"really old people" I can't help but smile.

"They always have the most intense personal style that has been refined after years and years of getting dressed. Even if it's bad, they are confident in what they like. I like people that have seven pairs of the same shoe. I enjoy the way the old women on the Upper West Side in Manhattan dress. They wear the same clothes they've owned for the past 30 years mixed in with orthopedic shoes and jewelry from exotic trips."

What's the best part of your day?

"I like meeting a friend for lunch. I don't do this every day, but I enjoy sharing a Bánh Mi Vietnamese sandwich on a stoop, with someone I know well, talking about T.V. shows and Netflix queues."

What was the most memorable gift you've ever given or received?

"My dad took me to an RV show for my birthday in the early 1980's. It was a completely random outing and ended up being utterly fascinating."

What was your last purchase that you believe (or hope) will mean something to you 10 years from now?

"I bought my first piece of art a week ago. It's a black and white watercolor that looks like some sort of mystical totem pole. I got it from artist Denise Kupferschmidt's studio in Brooklyn. The painting makes me feel like an ex-pat living in Paris who has just discovered a young artist on the verge of fame. I'm trying to stop buying clothes and start buying inexpensive art that friends of mine are making."

Tell us whose heirloom you'd like to read about next: