By  on December 13, 2005

NEW YORK — Men are from Mars, women are from Venus, as the popular saying goes, but what about when it comes to dandy dressing, runway androgyny and a certain Helmut Newton photograph of an oh-so-sexy model tailored up to the nines? Where do the sexes stand then?

These were the questions behind the seventh annual New York University fashion conference, the first week in December, titled "Dressing the Part: The Masculine and Feminine in Fashion." Speakers at the two-day event included Grace Mirabella, Francine du Plessix Gray, accessories designers Richard Lambertson and John Truex and Dutchman Koos van den Akker, who showed slides of male models, friends and celebrities wearing his signature patchwork sweaters.

"What is men's is not very different from what is women's," he said, nodding to the kaleidoscopic designs on a large screen overhead. "It's just a feeling, you know. In the 1700s, men were beautifully dressed up, far more than women. They were peacocks, as they should be."

Designers Emanuel Ungaro, Michael Vollbracht and Zac Posen, as well as style maven Iris Barrel Apfel, weighed in on the conference's topic, as well as their vision of fashion today.

Iris Barrel Apfel
At first glance, Scheherazade and Apfel have little in common. After all, what does a woman currently being celebrated at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute for her kooky and eclectic style have to do with a Persian seductress of medieval Middle Eastern literature? To those who attended the Q&A session with Apfel and MET research associate Stéphane Houy-Towner, however, the similarities were clear — this is a woman with a knack for storytelling.

Apfel recounted the time in the late Fifties she stopped traffic in the City of Light. Eyeing a photographer who was "carrying equipment in one hand and a gray Mongolian lamb coat in the other," she jumped out of her car and followed him all the way to Lanvin's studio. "I thought [the coat] was just the most smashing thing I ever saw," the Queens native recalled. "It turns out he had just shot the press releases and was going to give it back to the couture department for their show that night. I told them, ‘I have to have that coat; you've got to sell it to me.'" And she got it.As slides of oversize chained necklaces appeared behind her, she matter-of-factly noted, "That was worn by a little white horse at a South Indian wedding. And this, this belonged to a cow. I don't care what it is," she explained. "If I like it, what difference does it make?"

If the 84-year-old had one complaint about the industry today, it was that "there's too much sameness. Everybody has the same thing. Not that it isn't beautiful, but after a while, it gets boring."

Michael Vollbracht and Kean Etro
Michael Vollbracht revealed at least two things about himself in his talk at the New York Academy of Medicine. One: Kismet has handed him a heavy dose of coincidences revolving around the letter B. Geoffrey Beene, Donald Brooks, Henri Bendel and Bloomingdale's were just a few of Vollbracht's employers leading up to his current gig as creative director of Bill Blass. Two: He's a designer with a lot to get off his chest.

"I will probably get myself into serious problems with the New York press," he began, "because I would like to take a little bit of issue with you. My kudos have only been outside New York City. The press [here] do not like what I do at Bill Blass."

But Vollbracht, there to discuss "Marketing Style," had a point. "Know thy customer," he said, passing along a word of advice to would-be designers in the audience. "I don't do fashionable clothes, but I do clothes that relate to the Bill Blass customer.

"Fashion is changing. I am in an industry that makes dress-up for young girls," he continued. "The New York press doesn't like me, but what I do have is that the consumer likes me, because we give her clothes that fit her lifestyle."

In stark contrast to Vollbracht and his austere vision for fashion was Etro men's collection designer Kean Etro, wearing a bright green coat that contrasted with Vollbracht's conservative gray suit. Speaking at the conference on "Wit, Whimsy and Tradition," the son of founder Gimmo Etro traced his own history at the 37-year-old house—from intern in 1982 to creative director for men's. "When you have these family companies, the question is how they really achieve success," he said, "because most of the time, it's just lip service. [The next generations] are just there to heat up the chair."We've been lucky," Kean said of his brothers and sister Veronica, who designs the women's collection. "We're talented and we keep a strong identity. What we're doing is new tradition."

Emanuel Ungaro and Zac Posen
On the age-old question of whether fashion is art, Emanuel Ungaro is a man who knows where he stands. "Fashion is not art," he said firmly. "It's just a craft, an appliqué. Even though we work with imagination, poetry, inspirations and so on — that is not enough."

Still, don't think Ungaro is a designer for whom fashion is all commerce, all the time. There's nothing the 72-year-old dislikes more in the industry than pushing for the bottom line, the sway of marketing and couture "just for the publicity, to sell lotions and handbags and shoes — not to dress a woman." The difference, then, between the two? "Couture is what we find beautiful today but will be old tomorrow," he said. "Art is beautiful today and fantastic tomorrow."

Dressed in head-to-toe black, save for a single pink handkerchief in his left breast pocket, Ungaro peppered his talk with anecdotes of the old guard, like Balenciaga, Chanel and Dior. Asked to comment on his opinion of his successors at the house of Emanuel Ungaro, he would only say, "I have no right to judge them, as I think they have no right to judge me."

Presenting a very different view of fashion was New York designer Zac Posen, who had a vision for a "luxury brand in the United States," and who, three years into his business, found a financial backer in Sean "Diddy" Combs. As for that talk of fashion and art, Posen mentioned the stint he did at the Costume Institute, working with former curator Richard Martin. "For the first time, I was really challenged into thinking that fashion is an art form," he said. "It challenged my understanding of what the purpose of fashion could be."

Speaking at the conference on "Strong Femininity," Posen discussed his early relationship with the art world (his father is painter Stephen Posen) and the influence of the many women in his life, from his mother and sister, partners at his design house today, to model Naomi Campbell, whom he met through Azzedine Alaïa when he was a student in Paris. "She taught me how to fit," he said. "Naomi came to my apartment and taught me the secrets of how she moved her body to make clothing fit better."His closing words of advice for students? "People are always hungry for the new, for things that are individual and have a rarity to them," he said, adding, "Rarity for me is what nowadays defines luxury in the worlds of H&Ms — which I like to call Hervé Michel, couture for interns."

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