Norisol Ferrari is seizing her Melania moment, yet not without some inner conflict. She wants to focus on the clothes and the ideas behind them rather than on the Trump connection. Ferrari, who has designed a collection under her namesake label since 2008, has seen her name recognition grow exponentially since Melania Trump wore her military-inspired coat to the pre-Inauguration ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery.
Ferrari has been fielding media requests ever since. Last week, she called to invite WWD to review her fall collection in the showroom. It impressed. My colleague Mayte Allende, who reviewed the line, noted the appeal of its strong silhouettes, often in deceptively comfortable fabrics — for example, a seemingly structured suit and coat, cut for ease in camel double-faced crepe.
The idea of a studio review appealed to Ferrari, who has twice shown within the New York Fashion Week calendar, for fall 2012 and spring 2013, and is disinclined to return. “I’ve never really believed in the runway show for a small brand, especially when it comes to luxury and commercialism,” said Ferrari, in a phone conversation as she readied her 50-piece fall collection for this week’s market. “I believe that the luxury client wants more exclusivity, and [that can be telegraphed] through being more careful with who it’s presented to. I show it privately and in intimate settings to my [private] clients and my stores.” The former make up “a vast majority” of her business. The latter include a tight list of stores anchored by Maxfield, “most importantly and thankfully my first store and continued store,” as well as Mitchells in Westport, Conn., and Richards in Greenwich, Conn. The collection also “has been in and out of Saks Fifth Avenue.”
Ferrari sees the greatest opportunity for growth in building her network of small specialty retailers. “I believe strongly in smaller, independent boutiques that have trained salespeople [who] are knowledgeable when it comes to fabrics, alterations, understanding of construction,” she said. “And that relationship where your salesperson knows how many black suits you have, and you walk in and they say, ‘You can’t have another black suit, Jane. You’ve got too many black suits.’ It’s invaluable to women. That honest salesperson you can trust is where I like to see my customer meet my product for the first time.”
No doubt, many potential clients will “meet” Ferrari’s product as a result of its major historical moment on her most famous client. They were introduced by New York event planner Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, who planned much of the Inauguration and is now a senior adviser to Trump. Asked about the reaction surrounding Trump’s appearance in her coat, Ferrari punctuated a long sigh with a longer pause. “I wish I could tell you something very exciting, but I don’t have any exciting things to report,” she said. “I haven’t had anything negative occur. I honestly didn’t know [what to expect]. There’s no way of guessing how things are going to turn out. And I’ve said [before], it’s really important to me to support women and to not discriminate against anyone for any reason.”
Nor was she willing to classify the newfound attention as a positive. Pausing again, Ferrari offered, “I can’t think of a positive or a negative, other than to say that it is always intriguing for me to work directly with new customers. It always makes me have more perspective on women, and my aim is to please women, to invigorate them, to empower them. I want them to feel beautiful; I want them to feel confident.”
Part of said confidence comes from knowing that Ferrari won’t sew and tell. Of Trump, she said, “I would love to discuss every single thing that occurred with our First Lady, but my good conscience tells me that’s not appropriate.”
When pushed, Ferrari acknowledged that people are now more interested in talking about her collection, perhaps intrigued by “the fact that I was an immigrant dressing an immigrant.” In fact, Ferrari was born in the South Bronx to Latin American parents, and said that as a young child she traveled between Long Island and Venezuela, where she spent time with her mother’s family. She avoided specifics until asked for clarification in a follow-up text. She then offered a sketch of what sounds like a harrowing childhood, placed in New York State child protective services at the age of five, after which she moved through numerous state facilities and foster homes. “I essentially raised myself and took responsibility for my own life at a very young age,” Ferrari wrote.
“Constant dreaming,” she said, helped her through, as she could lose herself in drawing the kind of clothes she thought she would one day want to make as a designer. “I never stopped dreaming of a better future. Fashion was literally my salvation.”
Empowerment through fashion remains a major theme of Ferrari’s conversation and of her work. “I really feel it is grossly unfair that women are judged as human beings and as professionals based on how they dress, where men are not,” she said. “So wardrobe really takes on a new meaning for women — it’s what we arm ourselves with out there in the world. So from the inception of this brand, it was about empowering women to make them feel bulletproof in a world that is not trying to be kind to them.”
Ferrari favors precision tailoring because of its ability to empower psychologically, which goes hand-in-hand with a more concrete sartorial advantage. “What’s most interesting about tailoring is its ability to deceive,” she said. “Tailoring allows me to construct whatever shape I deem, not the shape of the wearer. This is what men have always had. They can have any shape — they can have beer bellies and they look refined in a suit. Whereas women, we haven’t been armed with those tools. So I really want to give a woman that ability to command respect and to stop a room when she enters with a finely tailored suit. I just believe its power is unlimited.”
The designer didn’t come to her particular brand of fashion-aided feminism easily; rather when was younger, fashion got in the way. “When I was first inching into the women’s movement, I found it very confusing because I do enjoy fabrics and notions and sequins and leather and lipstick and eyeliner and doing my hair,” Ferrari said.
“All of this made me question, as a young woman, my ability to align myself with the feminist movement. And as I’ve grown up, as I have walked the path of being a professional woman, believing in the movement, I find myself spending a lot of time explaining the history of the movement to young women. And it is an ache inside me to want to help young women see the glory and the history of how we got to be standing here right now.”
In such conversations, Ferrari sounded a good generation older than her 44 years — when she talked about appropriate officewear, for instance. “Young women take for granted that you can wear pants every day. It wasn’t so long ago that it was not professional or even appropriate for a woman to wear pants in a work environment, in a courtroom.”
When pressed, she noted broader cultural factors that impacted her early perspective. “How I wanted to define myself as a woman was coming from a place of — a Latin background, where my value was placed on how I looked, on whether I was attractive, on whether I was wearing a tight skirt,” she said. “This is the way, unspoken, I was trained to value myself, and I really questioned that. So for me it was part of the topic of defining femininity.”
Coming from that perspective, Ferrari said that her entire career motivation is female empowerment, “putting [women] on an even playing field when it comes to wardrobe and how she presents herself in a man’s world.”
She doesn’t rely on silhouette alone to deliver the message, but uses symbols and signage as well. For an emblem on the back of a thick cabled sweater, she altered the classic Venus symbol for women, inserting a fist inside the circle-over-cross. An otherwise unfettered coat bears two patches, a hawk on the back and a blue mountain on the sleeve. The hawk, she explained, “has always been a spirit animal of mine. [Its] symbolism is the way I wanted to empower a woman right now, in the way that a hawk is revered and feared. It is silent. It is calculating. It finds its target and it is usually very successful.” So should women be calculating? “I think humans should be calculating and responsible in all their actions whenever possible,” she said.
The mountain patch features the slogan, “Intention is everything,” words that reflect “the romantic girl in me who is in love with poetry and Rumi and Gandhi and the idea of walking the conscious path of how important our intentions are.”
A long-sleeve gown draped is cut from a text print with white phrases on a black ground; the words are not Gandhi’s or Rumi’s, but Ferrari’s own, a poem she wrote in September as as she started work on her collection. “I can read it right now,” she offered. She did so, with dramatic elocution (the ellipses indicate my edits for length):
“Loving souls of the world: Wake up…Stand up. Rise. This is our world, but your life…Be loving to everyone and everything whenever you can…Invite change into your perspective…Accept that the truth is not a linear or stable concept…Let love in. Be part of the solution. And not the problem. Love, Norisol.”