If not a household name, Abbijane Schifrin was on a first-name basis — she was known simply as Abbijane — with fashion’s inner circle for 30 years. She was also one of the few New York designers who could get away with showing well after the season had wrapped and still count on top editors and retailers to attend. On Friday night Abbijane, who suffered an aneurysm and died in March at age 51, did it again, packing the National Arts Club in Gramercy Park with friends, family and fashion folk for a final show: the memorial presentation of her fall 2009 collection, which was completed, the invitations printed, when she passed away.
As a designer, Abbijane always operated outside fashion’s mainstream, and not just because she showed off-calendar. Growing up in Atlantic Beach, Long Island, she was interested in fashion from the start. “She wanted to make people look like movie stars,” said her sister Mindi, who remembers Abbijane making her own outfits from an early age. Instead of fashion school, Abbijane headed to New York for a real-life eduction. She was a fixture on the downtown scene — the Mudd Club and Max’s Kansas City — and made clothes for the New York Dolls. She befriended Perry Ellis after meeting him when he was giving a lecture at NYU, and put herself on the rest of the industry’s radar when she attended the 1979 CFDA Awards in Ellis’ absence (he was boycotting in protest of CFDA voting procedure), jumped up on stage, unannounced, and accepted the Coty award for women’s wear on his behalf. “She was a force, a real street-smart, in-your-face package,” said longtime friend Julie Glantz, who is working with shoe designer Steve Madden, a former classmate of Abbijane’s, to find a permanent home for her archives and organize a scholarship in her name.
Soon Abbijane had her own collection, typically a tightly edited lineup of classic dresses and coats with sailor collars and flounced hems. In lieu of the traditional runway format, she would stage intimate shows at offbeat venues, such as new restaurants, furniture stores or the Horn & Hardart Automat. Often a single model would act out a story and change into the entire collection while the audience watched. Sara Kapp, one of the big runway models of the Seventies and Eighties, who regularly starred in Abbijane’s shows, remembered her as “a real phenomenon. She always worked on a really tight budget and found really interesting ways to show the clothes. It was like a piece of theater. I acted it out, but the vision was Abbi’s.”
Even after she had the support of industry stalwarts, such as the New York Times’ Bernadine Morris; Annie Flanders, founder of the original Details; and loyal retailers — Bloomingdale’s and Henri Bendel among them — Abbijane stayed small and independent. She catered largely to a private client base, a precursor to the way so many small designers operate today. But this was not for lack of big business offers, according to her friends. “She was interested [in expanding],” said Glantz. “But all the times she was approached, there were always conditions. Abbi wanted to control everything down to the postage stamp on the invitations.”
The audience got a peek at Abbijane’s signature vision Friday night, as two models took turns dressing up in her final 10-piece collection — a riding coat, a ruffled-cuff jacket, all in black and gray — as if they were in their bedroom. Afterwards, home-video clips of Abbijane’s presentations, which were later moved to her Gramercy Park townhouse, were screened. Then it was time for a few toasts. Friends, many of whom looked plucked from Max’s Kansas City, spoke of her way of connecting people and her love of rock ’n’ roll, two qualities that were obvious given the eclectic audience. “She was the only girl who you could take to any rock show, and she would out-do you, dancing and wiggling her buttons,” said Lenny Kaye, who finished with a song. Next up was Penn Badgley, one of the stars of the television hit “Gossip Girl,” who lived upstairs from Abbijane for two years. “She was a very different energy in my life,” he said. “The fact that I’m even here is sort of a testament to who she was. I don’t really fit in with this crowd, because….”
“Because you’re too young!” someone interjected from the crowd.
“Right,” said Badgley with a laugh. “I had never even heard of the New York Dolls before I met Abbijane.”
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