Americans in Paris – fashion designers Marc Jacobs, Michael Kors, Peter Speliopoulos and Narciso Rodriguez

Americans in Paris – fashion designers Marc Jacobs, Michael Kors, Peter Speliopoulos and Narciso Rodriguez – Interview

Karl Plewka

In what proved to be a milestone year for American fashion, a group of New York designers – three of whom also produce collections in their own names – took control at the creative helms of four prestigious European houses of luxury goods. Here Interview talks to the fabulous four who have been making their much talked-about touchdowns on the Paris runways

Marc Jacobs

KARL PLEWKA: What kind of designer are you?

MARC JACOBS: I like clothes but not fashion so much. I think of design as a series of choices. To make something that’s completely nothing and white is a design choice. I love to demystify the whole situation. I am not alone in my position as a designer: I have a partner [Robert Duffy] and stylists, models, and friends who all contribute to the process. I do not live in an ivory tower. And I am not some queen saying, “It will be long skirts and sleeveless tops!” Whether people like me or not is out of my control. Taste is subjective; quality is not. I like simple things right now, but I haven’t always: I’ve been prone to gimmicks and themes and stupid things that didn’t seem stupid at all at the time. My favorite things I’ve done in my career came naturally and were genuine. I make clothes that I hope a woman I respect and admire will wear. It’s not for me. I don’t wear women’s clothes – regardless of what you may have heard.

KP: You recently became ready-to-wear designer for Louis Vuitton, a name synonymous with luxury. How do you define deluxe?

MJ: Deluxe, luxury, it’s all relative. If I were homeless on the street, a new cardboard box would be luxurious to me. I think luxury is the freedom to choose. The ultimate luxe is a white cotton T-shirt and a pair of Levi’s – that’s the luxury of not having to care about status or how people view you.

KP: Your Job at Louis Vuitton goes beyond making clothes – it’s about designing accessories, also, but you are not known for this.

MJ: A designer is a designer. You think about design, you think about what things look like and what aesthetically pleases you. I’ve always designed shoes for my own collection. I don’t design luggage at Louis Vuitton but I propose ideas, some of which have been accepted, some of which have not. What I hope to do there is contribute to designing other products. They’ve made luggage for over one hundred years; my challenge is to make other things that fit into their realm.

KP: Is there a lot of pressure?

MJ: Yes, but also, no matter what I say or do, everyone is saying it will be the Vuitton version of Gucci or Prada. I have more respect for Prada as a company than for any other in the world, but I am not trying to follow in anyone’s footsteps. Louis Vuitton has made a beautiful product that endures and has quality and a certain status appeal. I’ve got to figure out in my way, as a responsible designer, what that means.

KP: Does being in New York one day then Paris the next affect how you view your work?

MJ: I am the same person in New York as in Paris – it doesn’t change my mind. If I love gray and navy blue, it doesn’t matter what country I’m in or what collection I’m doing. Fashion for me is a whim. I never use the word minimal – or glam, grunge, or mod. They’re all labels the fashion press has put on me. I just do what I like. If it’s my label and it’s something I’ve worked on with my partner, we have the right to do whatever we please. At Louis Vuitton it’s different. We have a responsibility to create a style. Whether I’m there for the next three years, seven years, or three months, it doesn’t matter. All I have to do is go with my heart.

KP: Once into have an idea, how do you develop it?

MJ: It’s kind of methodical. You look at fabrics and think about color – it’s not a one-day process. There’re a lot of other people involved. I love working with people. I really want to be a part of a group that creates something, and the beginning of that process is me and my assistants looking at fabrics. Then we try to figure out what colors they would look really good in. I don’t think up a concept or theory for the season.

KP: But there must be some fantasy.

MJ: This is one of those subjects that drive me insane. Fantasy to some people requires beads, sequins, horses, and feathers on runways, but my fantasy is quality and simplicity. Pleasure and heart and soul. It’s just as much of a fantasy to walk into a restaurant and see a girl dressed in a cashmere skirt to the floor with a pair of trainers and a white T-shirt as it is to see a woman in a restaurant in a feathered headdress with a pearl choker and platform shoes. Some men’s fantasy of a woman is Claudia Schiffer. It’s not mine.

KP: Why not?

MJ: You want to turn this tape off? Then I can tell you.

Narciso Rodriguez

KARL PLEWKA: What was the first piece of clothing you made?

NARCISO RODRIGUEZ: I was about fourteen and I wanted a black vest, so I took a piece of black felt and cut holes in it.

KP: Did you surprise yourself?

NR: I surprised my mother, poor thing. She was like, “What are you doing?”

KP: Did you ever make clothes for her?

NR: Yes, later on, when my parents were a bit more comfortable with the fact that this is what I do.

KP: You’ve worked for Calvin Klein, Donna Karen at Anne Klein, and more recently, Carruti in Paris.

NR: I was so inspired by Paris. Everything from the culture to the architecture. Actually, I started out with the idea of being an architect and then moved on to fashion illustration because I loved Antonio Lopez’s work; it was so full of energy. That was a huge influence on my career. I really wanted to study fashion illustration, so in high school I did half a day of regular classes and half a day of commercial-art classes.

KP: Many designers begin with architecture and move on to fashion.

NR: I think it’s all about structure and form. Certainly by the time I was fifteen or sixteen, I knew about shape and form, and how to create shape and form around a woman’s body. I did my art classes, I did my schooling, and then I practiced as a tailor in the evenings and took classes at Parsons on Saturdays. When I was nineteen I went directly from high school to Parsons. I did freelance work for a while, then joined the design studio at Anne Klein for about six years; I worked under Donna Karan, who was the designer at the time. Donna taught us to design always with a look down from the hair to the shoe. She threw it on, wrapped it and draped it and cut it and moved it. She’s brilliant like that. I remember being at Parsons and watching Donna come in with thousands of yards of suede and cashmere all over the place, then grab some fabric, put in on the model, and make it sit perfectly.

KP: And after that . . .

NR: After that I went directly to Calvin Klein. That was an interesting experience because I got to work with brilliant people. I always think of my years at Calvin as finishing school.

KP: Your life must have changed greatly, particularly in the last year. Aeffe agreed to produce your own label – which is shown in Milan – and the collection has been very well received. How have you been dealing with designing that and now a collection for Loewe also, which you show in Paris?

NR: I’d be lying if I said it was just fabulous. I am a sentimentalist, and I feel blessed because of all this, but there have been tough periods. The travel is physically draining sometimes. The amount of time you get to spend with your family and friends is limited. Relationships change because of distance. You feel like you are constantly pushed. The upshot of that, though, is you are the president of your own company. That’s brilliant. I also get to work in Madrid for Loewe and learn about a new culture.

KP: In Madrid, does it feel like you’re going back to your roots?

NR: A little bit. Spanish people are so refined. They’re very sophisticated but in a very natural way. They have an incredible sense of etiquette and manners, then they see some bulldozer like me from New York and they are like, “Huh?” But they respect what I do. It’s been an incredible experience – just as Paris has opened up a very creative, feminine part of my work, Madrid has inspired something happy, something bold, something brave – what do you call that?

KP: Nobility?

NR: Yes.

Michael Kors

KARL PLEWKA: Describe an early memory you have about fashion.

MICHAEL KORS: In a fitting room on Long Island, my mother was trying on something in a floral, and I said, “No, go beige.”

KP: Do you come from a fashion background?

MK: My mother modeled and then I modeled as a kid, too. My uncle was a manufacturer. I was probably the only six-year-old who thought a showroom on Seventh Avenue was glamorous.

KP: How did your fascination with fashion develop?

MK: When I was a teenager I met a friend whose father was in the fashion business. I showed him some sketches and started doing freelance work. Afterward I went to FIT [Fashion Institute of Technology] in New York City.

KP: What was your time at FIT like?

MK: It was the height of disco madness in the late ’70s, so I think perhaps Studio 54 was more important to me than college. In fact, back in high school, I went to Studio 54 instead of going to the prom. At FIT, I was impatient because it wasn’t like I was trying to find my way; I already had very definite tastes and ideas. I wanted to get to work, so I took a part-time job in a shop called Lothar’s on 57th Street, where everyone from Cher to Goldie Hawn shopped. It was certainly more exciting than going to a draping class. When I left school, the store’s owners set me up with an atelier. I had no experience; I didn’t know how to do anything. But by the following season, I was creating so much they stopped importing anything from Paris.

KP: And whet was your next move?

MK: I put together some samples of my work and showed them to Dawn Mello at Bergdorf’s. She looked at the clothes and said, “Can you excuse me for a minute?” She came back and said, “They’re great. We love them, we want them.” I didn’t have a showroom. I had people selling in my apartment, clothes all over my bed. This was in 1981; I didn’t even know what a trunk show was.

KP: Would you say there Is a common denominator that defines the Michael Kors customer of today?

MK: She could be twenty; she could be seventy-five. When she puts on the perfect black sweater, she knows why it’s the right black sweater. I think she’s smart and has her own opinion; she won’t jump through any hoop. People say to me, “You’re really casual and approachable and yet your clothes are deadly chic. We’re surprised the clothes aren’t funnier.”

KP: Alongside your womens-wear collections for Michael Kern and Kern Michael Kern, you’re also doing Interesting things with menswear.

MK: I always think, Why can’t guys have something comfortable but luxurious? For men, in the past, what was comfortable looked like hell and what was luxurious felt like a torture chamber.

KP: What do you think about the tag sportswear, which Is so often applied to American designers?

MK: I like it. Five years ago in Paris, if you said sportswear people thought you meant a running suit, but now everyone is acknowledging it. Ultimately, sportswear is not the fight word because it’s just the idea of singular pieces that are not designed to be worn strictly one way. It exists because of American women who were the first to really live life in the fast lane: “Oh, my God, I have to get out of the office, I have to go straight to dinner, I have to pick up my kids.”

KP: Last November you became the designer for Celine. What was arriving in Paris like?

MK: Like Funny Face. Suddenly I was Kay Thompson running down the Champs Elysees.

KP: The work ethic in France must be extremely different from the one in America.

MK: Fashion is like a national sport to the Parisians: People sit in front of the TV at night, crack open a bottle of wine, and watch runway shows. Ultimately the difference when I design in New York is that it’s all about speed and practicality. In Paris, I will walk into the workrooms and take the time to look out the window over the rooftops of Paris.

KP: Do you work on Celine only in Paris?

MK: Yes, absolutely. I have to because even though I am American, it is a Parisian house, so it’s like, Let’s put on our Parisian head. Likewise, Michael Kors is a New York house, so it’s all about New York.

KP: And who is the Celine customer?

MK: She is global. She wants that sense of opulence and glamour – and of course, luxury.

Peter Speliopoulos

KARL PLEWKA: Was it a culture shock coming from Springfield, Massachusetts, to New York in 1978?

PETER SPELIOPOULOS: I’ll never forget when my parents dropped me off at my dorm room at Parsons School of Design. Sitting on the side of the bed was one of my future roommates – this young guy, with a shaved head, wearing a white shirt buttoned up-to-here and black pants. He was sitting really stiff with polished black brogues on and he was very cordial. Later, at lunch, my mother said, “Oh, he seems so nice, this is going to be so wonderful. He seems like someone from Amish country.” Then I find out he’s a punk rocker who played electric guitar in a band.

KP: On to another type of rock: Some people have noticed a sense of geology in your designs for Cerruti.

PS: The fall collection was about nature, which to me is really modern. As we approach the millennium, I think we are all seeking a balance and equilibrium that exists intuitively in nature. I wanted very natural colors and textures, to take the most beautiful fabrics – pure cashmere, for example – and put them in new forms that still had a sense of familiarity. That’s one of the things I share with Mr. Cerruti – that love of fabrics.

KP: What were your inspirations during the design process?

PS: I was inspired by a conceptual artist named Andy Goldsworthy, an English sculptor who takes natural elements – branches, rocks, snow – and creates something totally modern in terms of shape and how it’s put together. I really feel at home with very elemental things; being a Capricorn, it’s in my nature.

KP: Do you believe in astrology?

PS: Yes, definitely. I love it. I visit an astrologer from time to time and use it as a guideline. I think it can be incredibly exciting.

KP: Before starting at Cerruti you worked for a lot of different women designers. How has that shaped your sensibility?

PS: Through working so closely with them I’ve learned a lot about what women want, and how they feel in clothes. Of course, they have the advantage of putting the clothes on, something that male designers don’t usually have the privilege of doing. I’m really in touch with my feminine side. I worked with Carolyne Roehm for six years at the height of the ’80s and she was a great inspiration to me. She has an amazing appreciation for beauty, and a very refined, couture sensibility. Donna Karan is much more earthy – she’s very grounded, urban, no pretension, no preciousness. That exposure was invaluable to me in getting to where I am now at Cerruti.

KP: And the women in your family?

PS: I remember one of my aunts would take me out on Saturday shopping excursions. Even at a really early age – I must have been around eight or ten – I just loved that. I also distinctly remember my grandmother putting on white gloves and taking me downtown to the tearoom there before setting off for an afternoon of shopping. It was always such an adventure. That’s where my awareness of fashion began.

KP: So, what’s next?

PS: I think we’re in a time of tremendous change. I’m really excited that we’re nearing the millennium because I think the big questions are, What is modern? What is new? What is the future? In terms of fashion, the buzzwords for me are nature and NASA.

KP: Is that a clue about the next collection?

PS: I’m feeling very interested in spatial relationships-whatever that means – you’ll have to wait and see because I don’t even know. Honestly, the way I feel about fashion is always on a gut level – I don’t know what it’s based on.

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