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Fashion and Art Intersect at NYU

<STRONG>KANER’S CANON</STRONG><BR><BR>Neiman’s Joan Kaner, who got her start working under Geraldine Stutz at Henri Bendel back in the days when the legendary store introduced the concept of in-store boutiques and helped put Stephen...

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KANER’S CANON

Neiman’s Joan Kaner, who got her start working under Geraldine Stutz at Henri Bendel back in the days when the legendary store introduced the concept of in-store boutiques and helped put Stephen Burrows and Sonia Rykiel on the map, narrated a slide show of spring 2005 fashions, the point of which was the resurgence of individuality.

“We’ve come through a rough period when there was not enough individuality in fashion,” Kaner said. “We’ve finally reached the point where designers are stepping out and doing their own things. Yes, there are trends, but people are thinking now about what they want to say.”

Her presentation touched on highlights from a wide variety of collections, including Chanel, Valentino, Derek Lam, Carolina Herrera and others. “One thing we didn’t see was a bare midriff, and I for one was ready to stand up and cheer and say hooray for that,” she said.

Her carefully modulated commentary reflected her experience as a retailer and her knowledge of what wealthy women age 40 and up want from fashion. The store ordered items from Stefano Pilati’s first solo collection for Yves Saint Laurent without the bustles or mid-thigh hemlines shown on the runway “because most of us don’t need a bustle,” as Kaner put it.

She called Alexander McQueen the most “interesting” of all the young designers, and noted that John Galliano is “back on track” with “recognizable” clothes and a collection centered on the jacket. She singled out Chado Ralph Rucci and John Anthony as having the most integrity and style of any designers working today and, in response to a question from the audience, said that St. John and Escada are the store’s best-selling collections.

She identified several key trends that appeared in many of the spring collections: bold and brightly colored abstract prints such as at Helmut Lang and Prada, the color white, anything metallic, voluminous shapes such as relaxed pants and pouf skirts, ethnic prints, crochet and cropped trousers.

“Our customers have embraced them, and if you’re short, you don’t need to shorten them,” she said. — Cate T. Corcoran

This story first appeared in the December 20, 2004 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS

Linda Fargo’s windows for Bergdorf Goodman challenge the idea that windows should just be pretty. Although she does create the occasional formally abstract window, Fargo is best known for voluptuous fantasies that pile on objects and textures as diverse and rich as chocolate, antique books and fur.

After years directing visuals for Macy’s and blue-blood retailer I.Magnin, a short stint at Gap specifying heights for stacks of folded clothes caused her to realize her true love was “visual theater.” So she jumped to Bergdorf’s, where her mandate was to revitalize the image of what at the time was a slightly tired institution.

She began by mixing different designers in one window, and took a risk with a carnival theme that featured a mannequin on a bed of nails and “showgirls” changing costumes backstage. Fargo and her team taped pictures of shady-looking boyfriends to the mirrors, ground down the lipsticks and sprinkled about some one-way bus tickets. “It was a chancy thing to do, taking beautiful dresses and putting them on these poor girls,” she said.

Surrealism, fairy tales and fiction are sources of inspiration. A hand spliced and glued outside a window — so the mannequin appeared to be reaching through the glass — enchanted New York’s premier window designer at the time, the late Gene Moore of Tiffany, who called it “wonderful” in The New York Times. A “Millennium Last Supper” window featured half-eaten cake, paintings eating with forks and mannequins falling asleep.

Every visual team is known for certain special effects, such as Bergdorf’s sleeting rain on the glass; the techniques behind them are closely guarded secrets, she said.

Fargo was once trapped in a window with a Heaven theme that included a smoke machine and diaphanous gowns. “I was almost asphyxiated,” she said. “I actually had to write ‘help’ on the glass to get out.” But smoke kept seeping onto the selling floor and customers thought the store was one fire, so Fargo’s team had to dismantle the windows ahead of schedule.

“For Bergdorf, it’s important to create a fantasy, these dreamworlds that people can get lost in,” she said. “They’re spectacular at times, but we don’t kid ourselves. We know this is a commercial medium, although at times it might even reach for something we might call art.” — C.T.C.

PORTRAITS OF THE ARTISTS

Ralph Rucci evoked a Sunday-like reverence for past and present designers as he spoke at his session, titled “What Makes Fashion Art: A Designer’s Perspective.” Rucci’s theory? It’s not the couture, it’s the couturier. “It’s the person that makes it art,” he said. “It has to do with the couturier’s grasp of historical references and fine art and his understanding of proportion.”

And according to him, in the hands of the right couturier, even a basic T-shirt can be elevated to artistic status. Theoretically, of course. In reality, Rucci, dressed in a crisp open-necked white shirt and gray suit, showed slides of the day and evening work of a handful of designers he adoringly referred to as “touchstones in our profession of a level of perfection.”

Not surprisingly, the designer focused on technique over embellishment. “It’s what’s in the garment, not on the garment,” he explained. “Madame Gres cuts a taffeta dress [from a piece of cloth] the width of this room, and a woman can walk in it and still have a quietude; that for me is genius.” But before getting into the meat of his discourse, Rucci was careful to make the pointed disclaimer that his choices were only that — choices. “Please don’t misunderstand,” he asked of his audience. “This is a personal view.”

The disclaimer, which he revisited a few times within the course of the hour, served as the counterpoint to the impassioned tone with which Rucci detailed the technical artistry of designers such as Cristobal Balenciaga, Charles James, Geoffrey Beene, Madame Gres, Miuccia Prada and James Galanos. “I am from the school of the academy of this man,” he said of Balenciaga. The mantle of “greatest living fashion designer ever” was bestowed upon James. Of Prada, he proclaimed, “Just imagine if we didn’t have Miuccia Prada. It would be rather dull across the board in world fashion.” He even doled out an accolade to fellow speaker Koos van den Akker, sitting in the audience, for his collage work. But it was Madame Alix Gres he saved for last. “I’m ending with the oracle,” he said, embarking on a series of Gres slides. “To me, she is like a church. She is an institution.”

However, after Rucci’s detailed talk, the audience seemed ready to focus on a slightly new subject matter, asking questions about a topic he only briefly touched on: the importance of the women who wear the clothes and bring the art to life. “Madame, I cannot agree with you more,” said Rucci on the subject, citing the likes of Marella Agnelli and Elsa Peretti as some of the inspirational women. However, when asked about today’s muses, he refused to name names, saying only, “If I were to answer that question, I would compromise the privacy of clients that come to me.” — Meenal Mistry

KOOS COUP

There are many things one learned about Koos van den Akker during his lecture, titled “Couture Collage: Embracing Possibilities.” For instance, that the Dutch designer, known for his brightly colored patchwork garments, had his first job painting billboards for Youth for Christ. Or that he has a certain disdain for “women in general,” a sentiment that stems from growing up with “two bitches of sisters” and from female patrons early in his career who were difficult and overly demanding.

But most apparent of all was that van den Akker is a man who just plain knows how to tell a good story. The designer took to the stage like Billy Crystal at the Academy Awards, charming the audience with his stories, jokes and playful spirit, even channeling Harvey Fierstein-in-drag with voice-overs. He opened with: “This is a story. This is a story about me. This is a story about fashion.”

Van den Akker’s life as a garmento began as a child, making dresses for the girls in church out of old curtains and bedding from his room. At 18, he went off to the army with, as he tells it, nothing but suitcases full of bridalwear in tow. “I was doing brides and bridesmaids at the time,” he explained, joking that “instead of a gun, I had a sewing machine.”

The designer was then off to Paris, where he ended up in the workroom of Christian Dior for three years, before finding his way back to Holland to open a shop with some money his father had saved up. The women there, though, “never understood anything of what I did,” van den Akker said, so after his father died, he left for America, armed with just $200 and a sewing machine.

“I went straight to the Empire State Building,” he said. “I climbed up, looked around and I knew that I was home. I knew that this was it and that there was absolutely no other place for me.”

That was 35 years ago. Since then, van den Akker has built a name for himself based on his multifabric collage pieces. He likens himself to a one-man band, never having had a business partner, a decision he looks back on with a tinge of regret. But now, in what he calls “the shadow of my life,” the man from Holland is going through a renaissance he attributes to Nicolas Ghesquière’s Balenciaga spring 2002 collection. “[Ghesquière] probably didn’t know whether the guy was alive or dead — he probably didn’t even know he was a guy — but he told the press he was inspired by me,” van den Akker said, “and all of a sudden, everybody came out of the woodwork.”

Nowadays, you can find van den Akker hawking his wares on QVC, a celluloid life he often compares with vaudeville. “We’re vaudeville people, you know. I bump into Joan Rivers and she’s dragging this little wagon with all her jewelry,” he said. “And then I come with my little wagon.” Van den Akker enacts the parody onstage — with his signature black-rimmed Lennon spectacles — waddling and dragging an imaginary cart behind him.

“All this talk about highfalutin influence and all that crap,” van den Akker continues, “who cares?” It’s a stone thrown at some of his fellow speakers and the topics discussed throughout the conference. “It’s just about making beautiful clothes. It’s something nice, something special, something that is one-of-a-kind.”

To critics who wonder exactly how one-of-a-kind his current gig at QVC can be, with mass-produced sweaters going at $38 a pop, van den Akker responds: “If you have 85 million women and you have 10,000 sweaters, well, that’s one-of-a-kind in my book.” — Venessa Lau

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