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Designers Unplugged at Cooper-Hewitt

Free from the posturing that often arises whenever more than one designer takes the same stage, last week's "Fashion Life Now" discussion was one with no holds barred, thanks to the candor of Narciso Rodriguez, Maria Cornejo and Ralph Rucci.

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NEW YORK — Free from the posturing that often arises whenever more than one designer takes the same stage, last week’s “Fashion Life Now” discussion was one with no holds barred, thanks to the candor of Narciso Rodriguez, Maria Cornejo and Ralph Rucci.

Moderator Cathy Horyn of The New York Times kept the conversation jumping with her own insights, including the occasional offhanded ones. Dream jobs, design tricks, logomania overkill, irrepressible “It” bags, red-carpet dressing’s downsides and the fallout from fashion’s lackluster advertising were among the many topics tackled by the designers before an attentive audience at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum.

Despite their varying design styles and work habits, Cornejo, Rodriguez and Rucci share an indie spirit that no doubt stems from having the luxury of calling the shots. Of course, that freedom is not without a price — namely the amount of time they find themselves dealing with business issues. Rodriguez is the only one who is not entirely independent, although it has been widely reported his relationship with Aeffe, which owns half of the operating company controlling his business, is strained.

In her introduction of Rodriguez, Horyn noted the slipdress he designed for his friend Carolyn Bessette Kennedy’s wedding triggered 80,000 copies by one knockoff artist alone. More recently, he has been inspired by such diverse subjects as car paint and Thomas Ruff’s book of nude photography.

Cornejo takes a more abstract approach, routinely starting a collection with an idea that was not realized the previous season. Getting things made in one piece is an obsession, and she is a stickler about eliminating seams and minimizing construction.

Cornejo, who tends to design dresses she would wear, said, “I’m not interested in trends. I don’t look for inspiration. Yeah, sometimes things pop into my head, but for me, designing is like a whole mathematical problem.”

Horyn, whose first article as a cub reporter at the Detroit Free Press was about Rucci, referenced his early days. She described his 1981 debut runway show at the old Westbury Hotel as an homage to Madame Grès, with Rucci using the same guest list Grès had used for an annual New York benefit. “He invited Jackie O and Diana Vreeland. Well, why not? You’re only as good as your ideals in this business,” Horyn joked.

Still devoted to the craftsmanship his creations call for even after 25 years in business, Rucci said he is intent on using quarter-inch insets that camouflage darts and seams. “I intend to use that a great deal,” he said.

The three designers, whose respective work is featured in “Design Life Now,” the Cooper-Hewitt’s National Design Triennial, also touched upon the challenges of running on their own. They estimated they spend 75 percent of their time dealing with business issues, but that is the price they pay to call their own shots. Working downtown post 9/11 — something Rucci did not do until October 2005 — proved to be a real struggle for Rodriguez and Cornejo. There were many weeks when Cornejo ran her credit card through the machine to cover her payroll and overhead expenses for her company, Zero Maria Cornejo, she said.

Now all three designers are committed to being more innovative instead of referential. “I really think fashion should be a reflection of our times,” Cornejo said.

One sign of the times — the omnipresence of oversized designer handbags — was lambasted by the threesome. Horyn helped egg them on with a question that was ultimately about how innovative fashion can be.

“Fashion seems to be all about bags — the bigger and noisier the better — or about throwaway clothes. For stores like H&M and Scoop, that’s their business,” she said.

Cornejo mentioned how she pursued developing environmentally friendly cotton when buyers weren’t interested. “They’re interested in the handbag, ultimately. It’s quite sad, really. I have a social conscience that I can’t exercise,” she said. “I remember once having an argument with a client about the price of a dress. She wanted to know why it was so expensive. I told her because it’s made by hand in the back of this store by someone who gets paid fair wages.

“With all this mass consumption, everything has to be faster and cheaper. It’s killing the craft,” she said.

Rodriguez described recently flipping through a fashion magazine laden with images of handbags. “That’s the state fashion is in. Bigger powers whose evil names we won’t mention are promoting that and they aren’t interested in making clothing,” he said. “Then there are people like Isabel Toledo — who I think we are all great fans of — who are craftsmen.”

A few years back, something similar happened with the onset of logomania, another marketing ploy by “the evil powers,” he said.

Rucci also chimed in on the bag issue. “We’re in this moment where there are these most distasteful and horrifying things and they all have these names for these bags. It mirrors what’s going on in fashion — neo-Modernism and vintage are replicating things without thought.”

Dressing celebrities for the red carpet was another eye-rolling moment, especially after Horyn noted how a Valentino executive once told her that Julia Roberts’ 2001 Oscar win in a vintage Valentino gown and the designer dressing a few other actresses that same year was comparable with $25 million in free advertising. The Cooper-Hewitt panel seemed to agree dressing celebrities has made the clothes incidental, a concept that only amplifies Prada chief Patrizio Bertelli’s well-worn who-needs-the-designer comment. The Hollywood factor is also an offshoot of fashion advertising’s failure to impress, they said.

“You need a bag, you need a celebrity and you need a celebrity pushing the bag,” Rodriguez said.

“Isn’t it that advertising is not effective any more? It’s all about product placement,” Cornejo added.

Rucci continued, “Can someone tell me why, if a young lady is making $12 million for a picture, she can accept the garment for free? And with presumption,” he said. “Was I out to lunch? When did this happen? I think it’s more disgusting…”

“When they come for fittings?” Horyn interjected.

Rodriguez said he only suits up celebrities with whom he is friendly or those who like his work. Either way, they must be willing to collaborate with him. “I’m not about to churn out 20 different dresses” with the hope that one might actually be worn on the big night, he said.

Actresses’ nonchalance about essentially taking over a small design house’s operations before a big-league black-tie event surprised Rucci. “It happens a lot?” he asked.

“Never to me — I would kill them,” Rodriguez said. “But a lot of cheese balls show up….One Oscar winner called up the office and told one of the girls to throw a few dresses in a FedEx box. She said, ‘Sorry, we don’t throw dresses in boxes here,’ and hung up on her. I was so proud of the office.”

Horyn inquired about plum guest-designer gigs. Rodriguez and Cornejo went with Chanel as their sole prospects, but Rucci was more creative.

“I would love to do Chanel — with no disrespect to Karl,” said Rodriguez. “I think that would be a lot of fun. He has made a brilliant career out of a brilliant woman’s archives. He gets to celebrate a great brand and he’s got such a stretch….I would be happy to work alongside him. It would be exciting to work at a house that was founded by a true designer.

“It’s not based on how many bags you can sell or how many free dresses you can put on people. It’s one of the few houses that has survived by the way it was founded,” added Rodriguez.

Cornejo was drawn to Chanel for different reasons, namely that she liked the idea of forcing herself to work within certain perimeters. Also, “no one from that family [the owners, the Wertheimers] is saying, ‘Design suits,’ or ‘Make more bags.’ You can also do something very modern with…” Cornejo said.

“Be careful, be careful. You don’t want to piss Karl off,” Rodriguez jumped in.

Once the laughter died down, she finished her thought explaining how the label lends itself to building on the Modernism and practicality Coco Chanel embraced in her own lifestyle.

While Rucci said he had to agree with his fellow panelists’ pick, he hinted at another side to his own design talents. “I do have a fantasy of doing something very extreme, like Baby Phat or something.”

Dream jobs aside, all three designers are unquestionably consumed by the construction of their garments. Rucci, who in 2002 became the first American designer since Mainbocher to be invited by Paris’ Chambre Syndicale to show as part of the haute couture, noted how so many of the apparel-related shops that used to line the Garment District’s side streets have been forced to close. He also mentioned “how all the great artisans are gone and to acquire or find people who understand the craft is very important.”

That level of attention to detail is sometimes lost on buyers, the panelists said.

“They want it to be new, but not too new. But they want it to sell like the one last season,” Rodriguez said.

“It’s really unhealthy,” Cornejo added. When she was advised that customers still want the bubble dress, she said: “OK, but I don’t have to look at it. We’ll just put it at the end of the rack. For me, I am absolutely evolving every season. We are always moving forward.”

The designers also were nonplussed about unqualified fashion journalists. Rodriguez noted how some fashion writers have risen to the top just as designers of a similar lackluster caliber have.

“Sometimes really bad designers get to be the number-one designer. That’s not necessarily right, but they have a job,” he said. “There is one journalist who loves to give tips in whatever shows she reviews. And it’s retarded.”

Cornejo sounded off about reviews that fail to focus on the clothes. “I find it quite insulting when all they care about is who is sitting in your front row or what the skirt lengths are.”

Horyn recalled answering an ad in Editor & Publisher for the fashion writer job she eventually got at the Detroit Free Press that did not require any fashion experience. “I remember thinking, ‘That makes sense. Why bring your baggage to this sad craft?’ That is still the challenge today. As you get to know people at different levels and it goes deeper and deeper, you just have to look at things very directly. Be very simple and be very direct.”

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