NEW YORK--A note to LVMH: This is not a job application. Given Monday's developments at the House of Givenchy, it's hardly a shocker that such a gossipy industry would speculate on who could replace the defecting Alexander McQueen. Take a poll of fashion pundits and you'll find that odds are on Narciso Rodriguez, whose artfully tailored sportswear and incomparable ability with leather have put him at the top of every headhunter's wish list for years. But there's one factor that might stand in the way of such a simple transition--the timing of this job opening. It happens to come at a moment when Rodriguez is quite happy where he is, having just made the decision to spend more time in New York by moving his signature collection presentations here from Milan, beginning with a show in February. He's actually happier than he's ever been in his life, and that's a recent development that he may not be willing to jeopardize by taking on another high-profile, travel-intensive assignment. Then again, anything is possible. Rodriguez is critical of his own work for the Spanish leather goods company Loewe, which is also owned by LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton, and is vague about what his commitment to the company will be at the expiration of his contract there next year. Professionally, he's at the top of his game and a perennial favorite for his designs and his affable personality among editors and retailers alike. "It's a great moment for me professionally, but also personally," Rodriguez said in an in-depth interview on Friday, not referring to the potential of Givenchy, but rather what is a watershed moment in his life and career--moving back to New York. He never officially left, but since he started his own line in 1997 in a partnership with Aeffe SpA, at the same time he signed on as women's ready-to-wear designer for Loewe, Rodriguez has lived in transit, rarely able to drift outside a circuit of Paris, Milan and Madrid. He made the decision to come back only recently, feeling the time is right to put his collection in the context of the New York shows for the first time, since he is an American designer and a major proponent of the concept of American sportswear. For the past tumultuous few years that have taken him from Tse New York to Cerruti to Loewe and to his own line, Rodriguez has also craved a sense of calm in his personal life that would more sensibly align with the way his designs quietly speak volumes about his craft. Now, he's sleeping on a regular schedule. He's bought a new apartment in Chelsea, which he's renovating with designer Joe D'Urso. He can see movies, start reading a book and take a vacation, such as he now does frequently to Brazil, where he recently found a new boyfriend. These are all things, Rodriguez said, that have made life seem sweet again, just as he approaches his 40th birthday next month. "I feel I can breathe a little bit again, and it's not airplane air," he said. "I've sacrificed a lot of my personal life to set up this company. That meant endless amounts of jet lag and never being on any type of consistent schedule. Mentally and healthwise, it has been draining, but I didn't mind it because, ultimately, it's allowed me to come back to showcase my work here." For anyone else, this development would hardly seem newsworthy. But for Rodriguez, it marks a monumental transition from the despair he has felt since the tragic night last July that claimed the life of his muse and best friend, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, as well as her sister, Lauren Bessette, and husband, John F. Kennedy, Jr. "It's no secret that the last year was the most devastating year of my life," Rodriguez said. "You search your whole life to find that person who is your soulmate. I was blessed that my muse was my soulmate. I was hardly myself over the past year, but time changes everything. She'll always be my muse. "She's always the person I've loved the most in my life. She's always here," he said, pointing to a picture of Carolyn with Kennedy, whom she married in 1996 in a gown designed by Rodriguez that became an inspiration to brides across the nation, who walked down the aisles in pale bias-cut silk slipdresses. Rodriguez's despair was reflected in his work, and ultimately in the sales of his collection, he said, but coming to terms with her loss was made easier when he came back to New York. It was something she always asked him: "When are you coming home?" "My life has seen its ups and its downs," Rodriguez said. "I've sort of conquered so many things in my life that I've really been 40 in my head for so many years. Right now, the feeling of being settled here in New York and the prospect of having my show here is amazing. I think somewhere she's very pleased that I've done what I had to do." It's been a lot. Rodriguez started his career at Anne Klein, working with Louis Dell'Olio and Donna Karan during her last season there, prior to starting her own company. He designed for Calvin Klein, where he became friends with Bessette Kennedy, and then for Tse New York, before really coming to the industry's attention at Nino Cerruti and stunning it by walking away from that job early in 1997. That type of hop-scotch resume has become typical in this industry, so Rodriguez's next step was closely watched, with speculation that he might take on Hermes or Ferragamo. Bernard Arnault offered to set him up with his own couture shop at the time, Rodriguez said, but he chose the partnership with Aeffe and to work with LVMH's Loewe division, a decision he has stuck with for nearly four years and which, he said, was the right move for him. "When I started the collection, I didn't want to miss a season, so logistically it was right to show in Milan," he said. "I needed to be clever, and to do that I used the facilities there as my sample room. There was a very short period of time to research fabrics and put together the collection." What he accomplished was clever, as well. For the first time, Rodriguez established a style that was clearly his and not subject to the influence of the established image of another house or anyone to whom he would report. It also helped to have the European collections as his backdrop, making his clean, unembellished presentations stand out against a backdrop where high fashion typically runs wild. In Milan, he seemed to become aligned with the classicist and minimalist movement of fashion, though Rodriguez shrugs off those terms. His focus has always been on construction and fit, working with dense, bias-cut, color-saturated fabrics that often belie the craftsmanship that goes into his design, particularly in the context of a runway show. "It's very easy to embellish something to make it a showpiece," Rodriguez said. "It's much harder to make a very clean, exquisitely cut garment look new. It's a big challenge to make that, and another to get that across on a runway to the woman." But Rodriguez has delivered on that aspect. Kathy Kalesti, vice president of sales at Aeffe, who has worked with Rodriguez since he started the signature line, said stores take his runway collection quite literally. "If he shows a jacket with a short, they want to represent that collection the way it was shown," Kalesti said. "They know their customer wants to buy it in the way Narciso presents it, because it is so understandable." The collection has grown in importance and volume, with sources estimating it totals around $15 million in worldwide sales at wholesale. His footwear, which is also designed in-house, has also grown a cult following, with sales more than doubling last year. "Keeping it small is fantastic," Rodriguez said. "The more I'm hands on, the more joy I take in the process, the more it reflects in the work and, ultimately, the sales." Back in New York, he remains dedicated to exploring design through construction. Offering a glimpse into the direction of his fall collection, Rodriguez pulled out a couple of works in progress, including one dress on which a seam wraps from shoulder to hip in the shape of an undone wire hanger hooked over the collar bone. His focus on the placement of each seam reaches the level of "high art," just as Rodriguez molds the shape of his shoe heels from clay, as if they were sculpture. It's craftsmanship like that of George Nakashima, to which Rodriguez looks for inspiration, pointing out pieces from a monogram on the furniture designer for effect. He's also reading "American Psycho" on the side. The theme of the collection, not very specific, is the "glamour of boys and girls," and there's something Japanese on his mind, as around the atelier they call his latest work origami. It's not ethnic, but there are folds in the fabrics so that they are weighted toward one side or another. "It's simply about the cut," Rodriguez said. "I'm here to celebrate a woman's beauty. People used to balk at how much time I took to place a seam, but if it's correctly placed across a woman's back, it makes all the difference. The idea that you could just make two side seams to fit two pieces of cloth together over a body that is all about curve and shape is just ludicrous." He aligns himself with Azzedine Alaia and Donna Karan, tailors who appreciate a woman's body. Karan is an idol, the only person for whom he ever considered working while in school. "Because of my training, because of working with very serious American sportswear houses, there is an innate sense of merchandising in my design," he said. "Design was always in the showroom with sales. It's so important to know your business--any designer today who wants to survive is foolish not to have that knowledge." Everything else that seems to go with being a fashion designer is there as well, certainly including a tendency toward temperamental behavior. Rodriguez has gone through several assistants, many of whom have disparaged his management style, although his office seems to have found a more mellow rhythm since the designer's return from Milan. Simon Holloway, Rodriguez's right-hand man, has been somewhat of a blessing to the designer, who calls him the "perfect English gentleman," a foil to his "fiery, Latino" self. "I'm Latino and I'm a designer. Yes, I'm temperamental," Rodriguez said. "From this chair to that mannequin is all that I see. Anything that keeps me away from it, well, it's shocking what happens. It's no wonder I've developed a reputation for being difficult." That reputation seems to be waning since his return to New York. Rodriguez has taken several trips to Brazil with Paul Rowland, a good friend who owns Women Model Management. He's even taken on some side projects, working on a film with sculptor Matthew Barney and designing dance costumes for a Spanish troupe, as well as for choreographer Andrea Lerner's team in New York. So the momentous news of McQueen's sale of 51 percent of his company to LVMH rival Gucci Group came as a total shock to Rodriguez. "I have no plans one way or the other," was his official response. "I always hear that I'm going somewhere else, but the only place I'm going is here." Rodriguez adores Yves Carcelle, chairman of LVMH's fashion and leather goods business group, and his wife, Rebecca. But he is critical of his own work at Loewe, with the complaint that it can take as long as 18 hours to get home from its Madrid headquarters. "I feel that I could do a much better job there if it were closer," he said. "I often wonder what would have happened if I had accepted Mr. Arnault's offer to start my own couture house in Paris. I was offered Givenchy long ago, but I made my decisions and I feel that ultimately they were the right ones." Then, being clever, he added: "But the great thing about fashion is that it really does reinvent itself."
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