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"Shhhhh!" Rachel Zoe hissed dramatically, semi-joking, at her husband and business partner, Rodger Berman. "They'll think you're a snob."
Rodger had just quipped that he couldn't recall the last time he did laundry. That would have been fine, it was fine, mostly, except we were sitting in a conference room at Procter & Gamble headquarters in Cincinnati attending an event that was billed as Laundry School with Rachel Zoe. Technically, that was true — it was laundry school, and Rachel Zoe was there. But Rachel wasn't exactly providing the instruction. Rachel was there more to lend her vocal fry in response to the demonstrations at hand, in which P&G fabric care technicians guided us through coursework on everything from fabric construction, to washing machine design, to the science of scents.
But what's more important to this story is why I was there. You see, I'm a laundry enthusiast, the kind of woman who loves doing laundry so much that even though I live in a 6th floor walk-up apartment in Manhattan with no on-premises laundry facilities, I do 3-4 loads of laundry a week. For a two-person household.
I love laundry in an unnatural way, is what I'm trying to tell you here.
I'm also a laundry expert in my own right; in my capacity as a cleaning advice columnist, I've taught my own version of Laundry School for several years now (consider it the correspondence course version). So Downy, recognizing my true and deep adoration for the washing of clothes, invited me to Cincinnati to go deep on the subject (and, full disclosure, paid to fly me out). Even experts can learn new things, so off I went to Laundry School with Rachel Zoe.
If the connection between Zoe and Downy seems tenuous, well, it is. Zoe partnered with Procter & Gamble to promote their line of fabric conditioners, the gussied up term they're using to push what the rest of us know as fabric softener. There's nothing especially new about Downy Fabric Conditioner, other than the name, but the change represents a shift in how they're marketing the product — as is the union with Zoe.
Fabric conditioner is the gussied up term for what the rest of us know as fabric softener.
The shift is an admirable one, especially from the perspective of this laundry enthusiast. It's designed to encourage consumers to think more about laundry as a fabric care proposition and less about laundry as a chore. By massaging the name of the product to evoke hair care routines, and by partnering with a designer like Zoe, who's associated with high-end clothing, both from her own collection and the collections of designers she works with as part of her role as celebrity stylist, Downy is upscaling their product. To put it another way, fabric softener is the stuff you use to keep your bathrobe from feeling scratchy against your skin, but fabric conditioner is a product you'd employ to protect and enhance the look of those skinny jeans you spend half a month's salary on. Even the language used by the P&G fabric care experts communicates this; they talked about helping "consumers honor their clothes" and about how "you're in charge of the destiny of your clothes" and also despaired because "the life cycle of clothes is cut short because they're not cared for properly."
I was among my people.
There's also an education component at work, as evidenced by the development of their Laundry School curriculum, with Zoe as their glamorous mascot. Downy's representatives describe the partnership with Zoe thusly, "more and more designers are starting to realize that many of the fabrics they once thought were "dry clean only" are actually washable and can be easily cared for at home. Among these is designer and celebrity stylist Rachel Zoe, who partnered with Downy starting in Fall 2015 to help educate fellow designers and consumers on how to care for their clothes at home."
Only one item in [Zoe's] 42-garment collection is launderable.
The timing of the partnership, however, is a tiny bit awkward. No less a source than WWD, the fashion-industry trade journal/bible, noted that Zoe's Spring 2016 collection "repositioned her collection at a much more elevated level than its original contemporary iteration." That bears out in the lookbook: Only one item in the 42-garment collection is launderable — the Lettie Tee, which retails for $195 and must be hand washed. More specifically, "Hand wash cold with like colors, do not bleach or tumble dry, dry flat, cool iron on reverse side only."
At Zoe's Fall/Winter 2016 collection, which was shown at New York Fashion Week on February 14th, no washable items were presented. They do exist, we're told, and "Rachel is very excited about the washable pieces she created and is looking forward to showcasing them soon," according to a spokesperson.
But, like, what even makes clothes washable?
Most of us have a baseline understanding of which fabrics can be laundered and which ones can't — you wouldn't chuck a pair of leather pants or a silk blouse in the wash. (Zoe's Spring 2016 collection features both. They're labeled 'dry clean only,' naturally.) P&G's fabric care specialists explained that there are four factors that go into determining if a fabric is washable; fiber content, dye, finish and construction. The latter refers to elements like a garment's lining or embellishments such as fringe, sequins and tassels. (Zoe's Spring 2016 collection is heavy on all three.)
That's all a little vague, of course, but the P&G team follows with a litany of information about eight of the most common fabrics and the laundering challenges, or lack thereof, each presents. Cotton is prone to both color fading and shrinkage. Polyester is almost always 100% machine washable. Nylon, much like polyester, is 100% machine washable but is apt to become quite staticky. Spandex is sensitive to chlorine bleach, include trace chlorine found in the water supply. Linen is disposed to wrinkling and shrinkage. Wool can felt, which means that the fibers lock themselves to one another and become matted, and shrink. Silk is highly delicate and color running or loss is common. Rayon/viscose can be damaged by exposure to water.
Once you know that, figuring out how best to wash a garment becomes much less of a mystery and you'll be far less dependent on deciphering those inscrutable fabric care runes. And when you know how best to wash an item of clothing, you can minimize the effect the four factors that can make it look less-than-flattering. The look of a garment is based on its texture, its color, its fit and its feel. In a series of demonstrations, the Downy team showed how fabric softener, erm, conditioner, can protect against pilling and fraying (texture), fading (color), shape retention and flow (fit) and softness (feel).
With each demonstration, Zoe became more and more distressed.
With each demonstration, Zoe became more and more distressed. "That should never happen," she moaned while petting a blue sweater that had become faded and pilled after several washes using a competitor's detergent and no fabric softener. It was endearing — she was endearing — how genuinely sad she was to see clothes, even the ones from mass-market brands like Cherokee or Talbots that were used for testing, being maltreated.
But enough about laundry. You want to know more about Rachel, right? Right.
Let's start with the matter of her ring. Well, there are many rings but I specifically want to talk about The Ring. It is enormous, and while we were meant to be fondling a pair of washcloths, one washed with Downy and one washed without, to feel the difference in softness, I surreptitiously Instagrammed a photo of it. (Hashtag I die.)
I feel pretty sure that Rachel would be cool with this minor act of reconnaissance. Given the lore surrounding her — the coterie of starlets who were clients and friends in equal measure, the Mexican diet pills — she was surprisingly relatable. I mean, I totally loved her. During a video presentation on the science of scents, she whispered, "I want another one," in response to footage of a newborn baby. When lunchtime rolled around, she and Rodge sat with everyone rather than sequestering themselves away as many celebrities do. And yes, she ate! She sure did. Now then, she didn't ingest a carb, but she certainly ate more than three pieces of asparagus.
During that lunch, she also talked about the guests who joined her on her Lifetime talk show, "Fashionably Late with Rachel Zoe," which debuted on September 24, 2015. Of Kelly Osbourne she said, "What you see is what you get with her, she's totally transparent," before adding, "I wouldn't want to dress her though." It wasn't said meanly, if that's what you're thinking. It was funny and so endearing, and conveyed that Rachel was perhaps a bit in awe of Osbourne's toughness.
When lunchtime rolled around, she and Rodge sat with everyone... And yes, she ate!
Rodge was similarly endearing, what with his too-honest interjections and questions like, "Can the products be combined?" By that he meant detergent and fabric softener, like those two-in-one shampoo and conditioner dealies. (Hair care was a comparison that everyone came back to over and over again. It may have had something to do with the fact that one of the demonstrations involved two disembodied braids of actual human hair, one of which had been washed in Downy and one of which had not. The hair washed with Downy was much more attractive, but the folks at P&G made sure to note that washing your own hair with fabric softener isn't exactly recommended.) The answer to that was yes, they can be combined but that, just like those shampoo-plus-conditioners, a two-fer product just wouldn't work as well as when detergent and fabric softener are used separately.
Oh! I almost forgot to tell you this thing that I learned about top-loading washing machine design that, like, totally blew my mind. Front-loading machines have compartments or drawers that are designated for detergent, bleach (or other laundry boosters) and fabric softener, but top loading machines — you know, the ones with the lid that flips up and that have an agitator in the center — generally don't have those compartments. Detergent goes right in the drum, and there's a little triangle labeled 'bleach' into which one can pour bleach to have it dispensed at the right time in the machine's cycle. But where does the fabric softener go?
It goes in the center agitator. Which then flings the fabric softener out during the rinse cycle. Isn't that so cool and weird?!? It is entirely fine if you don't find it cool and weird, maybe you'll like this one better: According to the fabric care experts, 70% of laundry soil is invisible. In human terms what that means is this — most of what's making your clothes dirty is you. Your skin, your body oils, the products you use, like lotions and deodorants, all that stuff.
But maybe neither of those bits of color commentary thrill you. Tough crowd, but I've got one last tale to tell.
When Rachel arrived in Cincinnati the night before the presentations at P&G headquarters, she checked into her hotel overlooking the Bengals’ stadium. They were playing at home during an undefeated streak, and the noise from the stadium was deafening, even through the hotel's thick glass windows. She asked about the source of the noise and was told, "oh, it's the Bengals." Seeking clarification, she asked, "is that, like, a musical?"
Rachel was confused. She had mistaken the Bengals for The Bangles.