Laura Ferrara

Since she was a girl, Italian-born and Brooklyn-raised Laura Ferrara has regarded life as how you make it — often literally. Raised in a household where “everything was homemade,” from hand-sewn clothing to vegetables grown in her brownstone backyard, Ferrara today spends her days working as a sought-after fashion stylist…but her weekends as a renegade farmer. When she’s not on set in the city, Laura retreats to her farm upstate in Accord, NY, where she operates a small organic apple farm Westwind Orchard with her husband Fabio, a fashion photographer, and cooks family dinners with her teenage son in a stone farmhouse built in the 1770s. And amid the two seemingly disparate lives, she’s found a unique form of balance in her two worlds, both bound by passion, creativity, dedication, and a willingness to follow your gut.

Laura's mother-in-law wears TEWA SQUARE NECK DRESS in black
Can you share more about your background and upbringing?
I was born in a small town in the South of Italy, but grew up in Brooklyn. My mother was a seamstress, crocheted, knit, embroidered, and hand tailored. Everything was homemade; she grew all of our vegetables, yeast, olives, and vinegar. She made all of our clothes and taught us how to sew (on the pedal sewing machine). I would do it, but I didn’t appreciate the value of those skills as a kid and certainly had no interest in pursuing a career in her field. I studied business and marketing in college, and my first job was working for the Italian Government at the Trade Commission promoting products in the marble department. As you can imagine, it wasn’t very interesting. I was switched to the wine department, which was equally boring. Then someone had the bright idea to transfer me to the fashion department, and finally something clicked.
Can you share more about how you came to own a farm in Upstate New York? How do you split time?
My husband [Fabio Chizzola] is very outdoorsy and loves nature, so we spent a lot of time upstate rock climbing with our infant son at the time. This lead us to search for a weekend getaway, and we came across an overgrown apple orchard that our real estate agent was reluctant to show us. The terra spoke to our Italian roots, and it just felt right…we had no idea what we had gotten ourselves into. 
It’s really a juggling act for Fabio and I. Fabio is up there during the week, when he is not shooting in the city. I go up mostly on weekends because our teenage son goes to school in the city and is very active with sports; I also have my own work commitments. We try to be there as much as we can for holidays and mini vacations. It is important for us to maintain the balance of these two aspects of our lives, along with all of our personal commitments and our family. It’s definitely challenging, but very compelling to do so.
Food, cooking, and the role of the kitchen in bringing people together has been a big part of your past (and present). What are some of your favorite things to cook this time of year?
We just finished celebrating the holidays and this year was very special because we had my husband’s entire family from Rome and all of my family from the New York City area at our home. I am so lucky to have my family very close by, including my aunts who are in their 80s and my uncle who, at 92 years old, still makes wine in Astoria, Queens. It brings me joy that my son was able to have these role models to instill the importance of non-materialistic aspects of life like passion, keeping traditions alive, making and giving together…inspiration has no age limit.
It was a heartwarming sight to see the two nonnas keeping traditions alive and preparing an incredible feast for everyone to share. For Christmas we made a traditional feast of seven fishes, and on New Years’ Eve we made cotechino con lenticchie (sausage and lentils), a traditional Italian New Year’s dish that symbolizes abundance and good luck for the New Year. Fabio and I were both raised in families where food and meals were what brought the family together every night. Food, for us, represents life, culture, and sustainability. I like to cook whatever is available seasonally on the farm, so right now we are making things like butternut squash soup, beans, escarole, and polenta with pancetta; or polenta with our preserved tomatoes, ragu, and sausage. I also like to freeze, dry, and can seasonal ingredients so we are able to use them all year round. 

One of my favorite recipes for this time of year is a butternut squash risotto.
1 shallot, diced
2 cloves of garlic, diced
1 1/2 cups Arborio rice
1/2 cup white wine
1 butternut squash, halved, peeled, seeded, and cut into 1-inch chunks
4cups vegetable broth
Olive oil
Salt, Pepper
Parmesan cheese as a garnish
Preheat the oven to 400° F. In a fairly large, oven-safe pot, drizzle olive oil and add the shallots and garlic.
When the shallot has softened, add the rice, cooking for 3 to 5 minutes and stirring constantly.
When the rice is toasted, add in about 1/2 cup of white wine. Season the rice with salt and pepper and let cook until the wine is reduced.
Meanwhile, peel and dice your butternut squash. Then dump the squash and the vegetable stock into the pot and give it a good stir.
Bake, covered, for about 30 to 40 minutes, until all of the liquid is absorbed.
Dish out in big bowls, topped with a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese
* Recipe from Food 52
How does your time upstate influence or inspire your work as a stylist? Do you see your time at the orchard and your work as a stylist as two separate things, or do they overlap in your mind?
Although the fashion industry and farming are incredibly different, that is what we love most and what makes each project so exciting. The approach is different, but the final result is uniquely gratifying. I call on inspiration I find through the farm, travel, art, and everyday experiences to construct fresh images and ideas that reflect my viewpoint of beauty. For me the creative process is a passionate outlet and personal labor of love. It is an extension of your inner self, deep within your soul. Whether it’s a fashion story or a project on my farm, being creative means organically transforming and bringing something new into being – something that moves me, and others will hopefully enjoy or find inspiration in as well. 
My work upstate and my work as a stylist constantly overlap on a daily basis… one moment I am looking at runway looks and the next moment I am trying to fulfill wholesale orders and working on new designs for our packaging or my husband getting on a red eye from an on location shoot in order to get back to the farm in time to plant garlic. Although there are important deadlines for my work in fashion, farming involves dealing with live products that are perishable so it is slightly more intense and time is truly of the essence. 
 'For me the creative process is a passionate outlet and personal labor of love. It is an extension of your inner self, deep within your soul. Whether it’s a fashion story or a project on my farm, being creative means organically transforming and bringing something new into being – something that moves me'
Do you have a hard time turning off your work? Have you set any rules for separating your work life from your personal/family life? 
As a family we have always made it a point to take adventures. It is important for us to be able to experience other cultures together through cuisines, traditions, and environments so that we are able to absorb and get a glimpse into diverse ways of living. It has been important for us to teach our son about all of beautiful ways there are to live your life and to have a strong sense of empathy and compassion for people’s differences.  

You’ve mentioned before that your work as a stylist has prompted you to be more minimal in your own life and style. Can you elaborate? 
Because I am always surrounded by clothing, accessories, and shoes, there is a saturation point, which is why I like to have a clean slate for myself. I keep it minimal but that also doesn’t mean I am completely minimalistic. I still appreciate intricate pieces of clothing and textiles, especially vintage, and the stories that go along with them. For example, a bohemian kaftan or batik dresses. Comfort is important to me as well, at this point in my life. So for me it isn’t about following trends. I am lucky enough to get the chance to experience the fantasy and ornateness of high fashion trends through the creation of the shoots that I style. Some of the greatest make up artists wear no make up, and some of the greatest hairdressers have unkempt hair. Styling is what I do, not who I am. That is the irony of this business.
What have been some of the biggest turning points in your career?
I landed my first job as a fashion assistant at Harper’s Bazaar when Liz Tilberis was the editor-in-chief. I essentially had to start my career from scratch. I didn’t know anyone in the industry at the time and worked really hard to educate myself on the job, absorbing everything. It was an incredibly exciting time to enter the industry because I was constantly surrounded by such talented, creative, and knowledgeable people. I was right at the center of all this, and I wasn’t aware of it…which was healthy since I probably would have felt very intimidated. 
You frequently travel across the country for work…can you share any suggestions for making travel easier?
Even as a stylist I am guilty of over packing, and have realized that I end up not needing most of it! I have learned to always leave extra space in my suitcase so that I am able to have room to shop where I travel…Through my travels I have bought 40 pairs of fisherman pants in Cambodia, baskets from Ischia, Greek kaftans, Moroccan rugs…
How do you define beauty?
Personally, I don’t wear make up. So my beauty philosophy has always been inside out: eat right, stay active, be honest, curious, adventurous, and like who you have around you. A beautiful person is someone with a life story, history, and realness. I find beauty in the rawness of people. When your body and mind are treated with care that is when you feel and look your best. 
I also believe less is more and smaller is better. I think it’s important to be conscious of and support small companies, whether their focus is beauty or its food. Small companies are unique to huge corporations because they have the ability to focus on and care for their products in a way that will benefit the consumer beyond utility. It gives you an opportunity to support people with a strong community inspired ethos. I use natural skin care products from smaller brands like Brooklyn Herborium, Captain Blankenship, and Know Your Roots.

As a stylist, what are some of your tried and true, foolproof/fallback clothing pieces ?
Everyone should have a classic go-to pair of jeans, T-shirt, button-down shirt, and cozy cashmere sweater, and a cool jean or vintage army jacket. Another one of my go-to pieces are black jumpsuits. I own about 15 variations—slouchy, wide-leg, skinny, and cropped. They’re incredibly comfortable and easy to wear. 
Are there any books you’ve recently discovered (or rediscovered) that have been inspiring?
Elena Farrante’s series of books about Naples. I am actually from a small town outside of Naples and am about to start her fourth book called The Story of The Lost Child. Farrante’s books are so beautifully written and tell incredible stories about relationships, marriage, motherhood, female identity, and the struggles of female artists, set against a backdrop of Naples, which is one of my favorite places in the world. I was lucky to have been there this summer, when I finished the third book, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay.
Rudolf Steiner’s Bees, which is an essential reading for anyone interested in understanding the true nature of the honeybee. My husband is also a beekeeper so I was very interested in learning about the colony collapse and how our food system could ultimately fail if we don’t save the bees, which Steiner predicted in 1923. It’s astounding that he was able to foresee this so long ago, and it has much relevance to the risks of climate change that we are experiencing today. 
Who are some of your favorite photographers and artists?

I appreciate magnum photographers who documented a moment in time, the lives they lived, and environmental artists that incorporate nature into their work. Some of my favorites are photographers like Bruce Davidson, Garry Winogrand, William Eggelston, Joseph Szabo, and Sally Mann; and artists like Georgia O’Keeffe, Ellsworth Kelly, Frank Stella, Jackson Pollock, Joseph Beys, and Andy Goldsworthy.

What most captivates your attention?
Nature in every form and people who are true, selfless advocates for the wellbeing of others.

Photography by TIM HOUT | Styling by ALEXA HOTZ | Interview by LEIGH PATTERSON