You must “build right angles,” Kiki Markovits instructs in a heavy Austrian accent as she points at her perfectly positioned chin and neck. A petite woman dressed in a stylish cotton top, black leggings, and ballerina flats, her salt-and-pepper hair long and wavy, Markovits is demonstrating proper posture in the front room of her home off Geddes. Markovits believes anyone can be more elegant–and that good posture is the key.
For many Europeans, elegance “comes with mother’s milk,” says Markovits. But she admits it’s a challenge to sell gracious self-presentation in Ann Arbor, where “you can’t be against Birkenstocks!” Still, Markovits, sixty-two, is doing her best. Last year, she published a book and DVD titled NIMBLE: The Viennese Way to Elegance.
“There’s often this feeling that we can’t waste time on appearance,” says Markovits, who moved to Ann Arbor from Vienna fifteen years ago when she married U-M prof Andy Markovits. “But appearance matters–and I’m not talking about designer labels, I mean how we carry ourselves.” That’s where she says her system, which she calls “Nimble,” can help. It incorporates “small changes into everyday life”–how to sit, stand, walk, and move gracefully. The techniques, she says, can even reduce the appearance of wrinkles on the face (hint: it has to do with those right angles).
Markovits is certified in “Ismakogie,” a school of posture and body movement founded in 1950s Vienna. “Nimble” modifies that system for an American audience. After attending a wedding with a slouching bride and a gum-chewing bridesmaid, she decided that her first target would be brides. She describes a jeans-and-T-shirt-wearing client who dreaded the formality of her big day and asked for help to survive it. “I explained that she didn’t need to change her personality but to look at it almost like a theater performance,” she says. To demonstrate, Markovits steps gracefully across her wooden floor. When walking down the aisle, she says, “Pretend you are walking along a straight branch with leaves attached on either side and step into each leaf.”
She’s also taught senior citizens how to “put a spring back in their step” and consulted with groups of women who want to boost self-esteem without a pricey wardrobe–using elegance as an accessory.
Born Irena Feder–and nicknamed “Kiki” by her father–Markovits grew up in Vienna, where her Hungarian parents had emigrated after the war. Her Jewish mother survived Auschwitz, but “I never talked about it with her,” Markovits says. “I knew it was so painful.” Fluent in three languages, she received a degree in organizational psychology from the University of Vienna and worked for thirty years at Vienna’s largest bank as a management trainer, rising through the ranks. When the Iron Curtain fell, she trained employees at the bank’s new eastern European branches, working to bridge the cultures. She remembers a clumsy high-level IT officer she coached in voice and movement for media appearances–her first elegance makeover.
She met Andy Markovits (who grew up in Romania and Austria) when she was sixteen and he was eighteen. He’d come to visit his father in Vienna during a break from his studies at Columbia University. “It was puppy love,” she says, recalling that their families vacationed together in Venice. But the teens went their separate ways. She married briefly in her twenties, and Andy stayed a bachelor. Then, cleaning out her mother’s apartment after her death, she found an old letter from Andy. A “persistent” girlfriend convinced her to contact him.
He was teaching at Boston University and Harvard, and the two met in Cambridge for a long weekend. “I thought ‘What do I have to lose?’,” Andy says, “and it turned out she was even more attractive than in 1968.” Thus began a long courtship that saw each crisscross the Atlantic dozens of times. As a professor of comparative politics and German studies, Andy traveled to Europe frequently–but when a border agent questioned Kiki’s numerous visits to the United States, the two decided to tie the knot.
They are opposites in appearance–with his untamed longish white hair and too-short pants, Andy says he’s decidedly “not elegant.” “Being schlumpy” is part of his professorial code, he explains, “a legacy of the 1960s.” But he praises his wife’s “great combination of elegance and spunk.” Kiki says, smiling, that she initially tried to make over Andy but gave up. “It’s not for him,” she says.
She kept her Vienna apartment with a rooftop garden until a couple years ago and still visits Austria twice a year. Although she drove in Europe, she says she “lost confidence” and doesn’t have a license here, so she walks everywhere with their golden retriever, Cody. After studying ballet for fifteen years, she now practices archery–“an elegant sport”–setting up a target in her garage and shooting from the driveway. Although she and Andy don’t share many musical tastes–he’s a Deadhead who followed the band on both coasts–they attend University Musical Society and theater performances together.
The best place to observe elegance in Ann Arbor, she says, is at Dancing in the Streets, the annual Labor Day weekend celebration downtown. Asked about local fashion disasters, she comments, mildly, on “too-short skirts with too-high heels” and “clothing that’s not age appropriate.” But she emphasizes she’s not the fashion police and she’s not conservative about what people should wear: “You should express yourself and have fun with it.”