NEW YORK — Martin Saar is sliding around his hardwood floors in his socks just as he’s about to have his picture taken. “Do you have any shoes you can put on?” the photographer asks. “Or just take the socks off.”
“Okay. What about my pants?” Saar says before he catches himself. “I mean, are they okay? Not take them off.”
His paint-splattered khakis stay on, but Saar, a former Abercrombie & Fitch model, can’t be blamed for the reflex. Nevertheless, he’s moved on from his days as a hunky poster boy to become New York society’s latest portrait artist darling.
Three years ago, the handsome 25-year-old moved from Estonia to New York to pursue his dream as a painter. He studied at the Estonian Academy of Arts and achieved moderate success as a graphic designer, even creating a national stamp for Valentine’s Day. But reality hit when he arrived here. “It sucked for about two months,” Saar says. “I thought, ‘How come nothing happened?'” Modeling helped pay the rent on the Upper East Side pad he shares with a roommate and eventually allowed him the introductions to land portrait commissions from Muriel Brandolini, Bob Colacello and Cornelia Guest.
“Samantha Boardman gave me a CD of 200 photos and she said she wanted to do something for Aby [Rosen, her husband],” he recalls. “I said, ‘Okay, I’ll do it,’ and I went home and said, ‘Oh no, what did I do?'” What he came up with was a mosaic of the couple’s candid shots, arranged to form a larger picture of them in the center. Since then, Tory Burch, Alex Kramer and Bettina Zilkha have hired him to do the same, for around $2,500 a pop.
“Originally, I didn’t have that much faith,” laughs Boardman, who first met Saar when Colacello brought him to a dinner party at her home. “He reminded me of Bambi; he was really sweet. But he ended up to be so responsible and professional. You kind of have to give your life over to him.”
Saar’s latest endeavor involved painting the likenesses of Jessica Simpson and Donald Trump onto denim jackets for Bergdorf Goodman’s “So New: An Evening Where Art Meets Design” project last month. He and Adam Lippes, founder of adam+eve, with whom he collaborated on the project, hope to segue that into a line of T-shirts and jackets on which Saar can paint portraits commissioned by clients.
This story first appeared in the April 10, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
In the meantime, his work for the city’s elite keeps him in the black. He’s found it to be both a crash course in the Who’s Who of Manhattan and a working education, as when he created a 2005 calendar for Diane von Furstenberg. “I learned so many things; she’s so professional,” he says. “You work until the work is perfect, nothing else.”