Despite the painstaking efforts designers put into creating their collections, they rarely get to watch them come down the runway. They’re usually ensconced in the backstage pressure-cooker, fretting over details, dealing with dramas.
That’s why I so savoured the delectable opportunity of sitting next to American designer Narciso Rodriguez at the Arcadian Court this week, as his much lauded Spring 2013 offering was presented on the catwalk. It was all part of the Believe in Fashion fundraising luncheon for the Robert and Maggie Bras New Drug Development Program at Princess Margaret Hospital. It was a major coup for the Bay’s The Room to not only bring Rodriguez’s artful collection to Toronto, but entice the brilliant designer to come here. Although considered one of the foremost innovators on the American scene, the soft-spoken Rodriguez is shy — a reluctant celebrity, who prefers to let his strong and sensual sartorial statements speak for themselves. But his roster of celebrity clients, including Sarah Jessica Parker, Claire Danes, Julianna Margulies, and Rachel Weisz, make sure his striking work is always in the spotlight. Even Michelle Obama turned to Rodriguez for the dress she wore the night her husband was elected president.
Born and raised in New Jersey, Rodriguez spent the early years of his career working under Donna Karan at Anne Klein, and then at Calvin Klein, where he befriended the late Carolyn Bessette. He first came to international attention in 1996 when he designed the dress she wore for her marriage to John Kennedy Jr. Rodriguez went on to design for such international labels as TSE, Cerutti, and Loewe. He’s about to launch a capsule collection at the popular Kohl’s chain in the U.S., and has added shoes and bags to his main collection. I caught up with Rodriguez at The Room to talk about craftsmanship, celebrity style, and the state of fashion today.
Q: If you were starting out as a designer today would you have done anything differently than you’ve done this far?
A: I think it’s so different today. I mean for me it was so important to work with great people and learn from them. I loved the craft and I spent more time in the workrooms watching and learning from them than in any other part of the company. I wasn’t as interested in the business side or the sales side as much as I was to see people who can create with their hands. I think part of that came from my upbringing, where everyone did something with their hands. The celebrity part of my job is never one that I’m so keen on. There’s so much more fun in the glamour and not so much fun in the work. But the hard work, for me, is the most rewarding, inspiring thing. It takes me to the next season, and makes the next season better.
Q: I felt privileged sitting next to you as that show came out on the runway and you said “This is a first for me! I’m usually backstage with all the pressures of putting the show on. I never get to sit there and watch my own show.” What was that like?
A: It was interesting to watch people’s faces and see how people react to a colour or a cut or a dress — to see how they were so curious about looking at every single thing. I really enjoyed that part of it more than watching the work.
Q: Some of the most stylish dames in the business wear your clothes with such aplomb. They love you, and more importantly, they really get you. I think of Claire Danes, always sitting in the front row of your show talking about what a great friend you’ve been, and Julianna Margulies. How important is dressing celebrities to your business or maybe even to your sense of inspiration?
A: You know, it’s multi-faceted. Julianna and Claire are grace personified. And when you have women like that who support your work, it always makes you look better. That makes your brand, that makes you as a designer and says who you are is the women that you dress. I’m so proud of my relationships with them in that sense. Those two women are both so dear to me. We’ve been friends for so long.
Q: Certainly there are a lot of celebrities in this business that don’t have a great sense of style and they’re very much about having their stylist dress them up. Does it seem like the women who gravitate to you really do get fashion in an integral way?A: Well I hope so. That’s a great compliment. It’s a reality of Hollywood that you have to contend with some stylists here and there. But it’s always so much more inspiring when you dress women, when you meet women that have a sense of self and know what they feel good in. There are certainly those people who haven’t a clue, who you have to do the whole thing for, or someone else has to do it for them. I’ll probably get shot by many stylists after this interview! But you know, a lot of actresses are busy and have full lives and don’t want to deal with the fashion force.
A: I spoke to an editor who called it “product pollution.” And I said I was going to seal it. I call it landfill. I think it’s exciting to see new talent and new things but there’s something that differentiates the mass produced stuff from the things that have great integrity. I’ve always liked to collect really good things even when I couldn’t afford to collect them, from my first Armani blazer to my Versace leather jeans back in the day.
Q: Leather jeans are very hot this season. I hope you held on to them?
A: I think those things are still beautifully made. They really are unique. I have, as many designers do, an archive of things — my own things and work that I cherish by other designers. . These people created things that were unique and new and changed fashion in a fundamental way, made you think about fashion in a different way. They were leaders. Today, there are mostly just a lot of followers.