An American living in Milan, JJ Martin launched La DoubleJ as an online magazine selling vintage clothing and then developed a line of simple dresses in vintage prints in 2016. It’s quickly grown into a full ready-to-wear and home-wear brand with a lively list of collaborators. These days she balances her burgeoning label with a healthy side dish of spirituality—including yoga, meditation, energy healing, and qigong that she both practices and teaches.
I’m going to be perfectly honest with you. On the first weekend of the coronavirus outbreak in Milan, no one took any of this very seriously. After presenting collaborations with Acqua di Parma, Valextra, and our new fall La DoubleJ collection, I was feeling like a champagne bubble over lunch on February 23 with Sciascia Gambacini and Wayne Maser at Torre di Pisa. As the virus took root north of the city, we rolled our eyes over plates of mozzarella and carciofi with our nearby seat-mates Matteo Thun and the editors from the Financial Times. Armani cancelling his show was a little over the top, we all laughed.
Then, every buyer from Bergdorf Goodman to Matches and Liberty to Moda, high-tailed it out of the city, sucking the air right out of DoubleJ’s buoyant sales room. The next day, my two upcoming events during Paris fashion week—a shoe launch party with Fabrizio Viti and Galeries Lafayette, and a lovely lunch hosted by Mathilde Favier—both got canceled. The French could be quarantined if they had any contact with anyone from Milan. And what about the thousands of non-Italian editors who had yesterday floated into Paris directly from Milan? Well, no one had considered that yet.
I stayed put in Milan during Paris Fashion Week, overseeing my canal-based office that was fully operational. It was disappointing and unfortunate to cancel these beautiful events, but also strangely relieving. I had just moved to a new apartment in Milan two days prior and could now actually sit in it and unpack boxes. How human and not fashion-robot of me! There was a brand new resort collection to work on that I could actually brief the design team on in person. Wow… what a luxury. I felt the burden of fashion week’s rock-hard pressure—the appearances, the pushing, the pulling, the stuffing of activity, and the needing—suddenly unbuckle off my back. Perhaps this was actually the universe granting me her sweet gift of space and a slow-down that I would otherwise not grant myself?
In the two weeks that followed, Milan ran, at first, as it always did. The buyers may have sprinted out, but the Milanese were still clinking Prosecco glasses at 7pm in their local bars. I had an Italian energy balancer come into our office to do a sweep to clear the shelves, desks, and dresses and to protect our space. (Let me know if you want the contact info!) Etro sent everyone optimistic t-shirts that declared: Milan Never Stops! Some precautionary measures were taken by the government: large social gatherings were banned, gyms and nightclubs were closed. DoubleJ had to cancel our women’s yoni workshop that I was hosting with my spirit sister Giselle Bridger. Beppe Severgnini, an Italian journalist I love, penned a piece for the New York Times saying Milan was as dead as a cemetery, but he obviously didn’t check out my chic new neighborhood. Here, people were still out and about in restaurants, parks, cafes, and on streets. I visited Il Valore Aggiunto, a vintage store to buy some furniture for my empty home and I attended an outdoor yoga class in the park with 50 people (spaced far apart) organized by Mondo yoga. Instead of worry, I felt proud of the resourceful Italians who 19 years ago (when I first moved here from New York) would not have been caught dead in their exercise clothes in the park.
Then, over the third weekend, I noticed that I had a headache. My sinuses felt blocked and my nose was running. Man, I’m really tired. I must have the virus! I called the national health help line and after three tries, finally spoke to a male voice who sounded like he was sitting on a pile of 40 day old pizza. Sorry Signora, he droned after hearing my concerns, we can’t swipe you. It turns out if you don’t have the key virus symptoms—the cough, the fever, and the sore throat—you can’t actually get tested for the virus in Italy. But what if I have the virus and it’s slowly waking up: Isn’t it better to figure it out ASAP so I block all contact with everyone including the nice little doorwoman in my new building? She’s over 65…. What if I infect her?
Like all things in this wonderful country, Italy moved leisurely in the wake of this health crisis. No one responded quickly, no sweeping testing was conducted, no information was shared. Out of the blue, without any coordination between regions and city mayors, the Italian government in the wee hours of March 8 suddenly blurted out that the city was shutting down. The lockdown headlines exploded internationally and still it wasn’t really clear to anyone what any of it meant because everyone was still sipping espressos at their local cafés.
By this time, most of my girlfriends with families had sped out of the city and sought refuge wherever they had a second home; Kelly was staying holed up in a cabin in Courmayeur with her five kids, Margit was staying put in St. Moritz, Karin was at Lago Maggiore, and Marie Louise yanked her son out of Swiss boarding school and headed to La Posta Vecchia by the empty Roman seaside. DoubleJ was now fully a smart working enterprise with every employee at home, connected online by Microsoft Teams. (American technology, we love you!) I bumped into a friend from Fendi on the street in my neighborhood who told me it’s difficult for all of their older employees who are not tech savvy. It’s not easy. Luckily, my company is packed with young, resourceful, bright-eyed wonders who are making magic happen from their living room sofa.
But still, this is challenging for everyone. A colleague from work called and told me she was suffering all alone in her apartment in Milan. Her family was in Veneto. She was feeling lonely, disconnected, anxious. Another friend called in the middle of a panic attack. Am I dying she cried? Is this a heart attack? Is it the coronavirus?
No, no, my sweet, I told her. This is just fear. Let’s just breathe into it a little bit, give it a warm hug and see what we can soften. That fear is there for a reason and we’re going to let her have her dance party without killing her. That fear is a friend. Now let’s be friendly to our fear. We did a little meditation together and the situation calmed down.
As the days passed, I saw the people in the park taking their distance from me; Italy is no longer the friendly place it has always been. In the supermarket, the masked cashier looked like she needed a ventilator. How are you doing, I asked her, feeling she needed a lifeline. Oh I’m fine, she brightened, straightening up a minute while taking my card. Then she slumped down again.
Yesterday, March 12, all cafes and restaurants finally closed. Damn. Where am I going to get a cappuccino? You know, I’m addicted to them. As I passed by a bar, I saw their lights on. Oh, maybe they have a special decree from the Italian government? No, it turns out they’re still allowed to keep the Tabaccheria open, but not the bar. So cigarettes are for sale in the lockdown, but not cappuccinos.
I am deluged with social media messages, emails from relatives, friends around the globe. Everyone wants to know—what the heck is going on and is it as bad as the New York Times says it is? Well, yes and no. My days are spent indoors. I take my dog Pepper out to the park to pee three times daily. Yesterday when I was there, I met Francesco Risso, the creative director of Marni, and his dog. As I sat on the grass under a huge virus-free tree, Franci sat on a park bench. We kept the legal one meter distance, while we discussed this crazy situation and how to handle it. How, exactly, are we supposed to manage resort fittings when no one can touch anyone?
This is an enforced staycation, Franci and I decided. Didn’t we all need to take a vacation anyway? Yes, we laughed, we did! It’s funny how when it’s enforced, it doesn’t feel nearly as liberating. And yet, I feel pretty good to be honest. I’m enjoying my nesting time and the hours I have to just gaze at my empty living room and feel into what it needs, rather than action something. I am busy on conference calls. But I am actually noticing a huge shift inside of myself where I’m sitting alone and breathing in extreme gratitude for the beauty of this new home. I am suddenly able to reach and tap into a well of wisdom and spirituality that was formerly clogged by my day to day blazing activity. In the first two weeks of the virus, I found myself unexpectedly guiding friends in my newly christened meditation room on vision quests and life coaching. Suddenly, I have found a channel for this information buried within me. I began sharing some of the tools I’m using on Instagram in videos I never imagined doing previously. The virus pushed me on this journey.
And yet, like everyone, I am worried. But the fear I have around this virus is not for my personal safety. I am not concerned about getting sick or dying. The numbers suggest that nearly all deaths involve those over 70 or with some sort of preexisting health condition. If this were to prove false, I’m… still ok. I know my soul is timeless and this body is just one package of many that it’s been and will be housed in. So that takes away that anxiety. So what am I fearful of? I am worried about losing my 76 year old mother who sits in front of her palm trees in Los Angeles. I was supposed to fly to her on March 13, but I canceled my trip with Milan’s shutdown and with Trump’s order to block all European flights. I am also worried about my company. La DoubleJ is still a baby girl standing on skinny little legs. She can get blown over easily in a strong storm as we do not (yet!) have the luxury of financial backers and a deep, vibrant cash flow. Sales will for sure be chopped down this year, projections will have to be scaled back, how will we pay employees that by law we cannot fire?
So, fear is in the air. Of course it is. But what are we going to do in the face of fear? Get hysterical and tense up and start yelling at people and stop sleeping at night? Or are we going to take a gentler approach? Now more than ever is the time to adopt all of the Buddhist lessons you’ve heard but never put into practice. Now is the time for us to say: You know what? I’ll be fine. I welcome this fear to my table and will even invite it to sit down and have a little chat. Then we can begin to relax with our fear and realize, we will all be fine. Even if my business fries up to a dried crisp, I’m ok. I can always rebuild. I can always rethink. I can always transform. I might not like it. It will feel very painful. Sad. Maddening. But I can get through this with grace, with acceptance, and with the knowledge there just might be a high purpose at work here. Who knows, all this time at home on my bed with Pepper just might be the moment I fertilize a new garden in my head and allow new flowers to grow.
I hear a lot of people in America right now screaming for someone’s head to chop off for not acting faster about the virus’s spread. We could of course do the same in Italy. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from the marvelous Italians, it’s how to detach myself from my American ingrained pay-and-punish-for-misconduct ways. Sometimes in a crisis no one knows what the heck to do. People mess up. And it’s not really the time or place to scream in someone’s face how bad they’ve acted and what a disappointment they are. That, in my personal experience, doesn’t get the good vibrations flowing. I’m now practicing the values that Italy taught me over the last 19 years: giving jerks a break, not being such a hard ass, more patience, not blaming anyone and embracing the Italian motto of piano piano (slowly, slowly). Trust me, my friends, all will be well.