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Question: How did you find the Artwear artists, did they come to you?
This story first appeared in the May 7, 2012 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Six-hundred-fifty uninterrupted words later, Robert Lee Morris has discussed judging talent; artistic patronage; rule-breaking; fearlessness; CFDA awards; the “artist mentality, breaking the rules, changing the way things are”; agents of change; Virginia Wolfe; “the Occupy Wall Street people, the Marc Jacobses, the Pamela Loves”; wayseers.org founder Garret John LoPorto; Bob Dylan; Albert Einstein, and “things [that] can happen in your relationship with the universe that says, ‘You can rest now, if you want to rest [or] take another stab at it from a different angle. Hey, how about we try making a real brand out of you, like a brand that would be a world brand?’”
The gift certain creative types have for articulating large truths as they perceive them and bringing them back to the merch is just one more thing to love about fashion, particularly when you buy into the genuineness of message, if not necessarily the message itself, in full.
Morris is genuine, and, some might say, out-there. The founder at the age of 23 of an artistic commune in Wisconsin, where he began developing the sculptural, sensual metalwork that would become his signature and make him a fashion-world sensation, speaks softly as he delivers heady thoughts. Spirituality, ancient influences, the natural world and futuristic musings shape both the person and his work, while dominating his conversation — even as he embarks on a new and critical phase of his brilliant, if up-and-down career, now in its fifth decade.
Before Alexis Bittar, before Eddie Borgo, Lisa Jenks, Pamela Love and even Tom Binns, Morris forged a major fashion path for jewelry while insisting on its core artistry; those who followed are indebted. Before the CFDA Incubator — for that matter, before the CFDA cared enough about young designers to incubate — Morris conceived, assembled and nurtured the artisinal jewelry gallery Artwear.
He is a true trailblazer whose renown and influence far exceed the scale of his business. Though never technically out of business, turnover has been tiny for years, including through the transition between owners; last July, Haskell Jewels bought the company from Clover II.
Today, market officially opens on a major relaunch, and Morris couldn’t be happier. He discussed his new situation recently at his new base, a compact three rooms situated in the Haskell headquarters at the end of a long corridor, past the showrooms for the company’s other jewelry brands — Miriam Haskell, M. Haskell, Betsey Johnson, Kenneth Cole and Simply Vera for Kohl’s. Though he moved in only last month, it looks and feels like a space long-occupied, filled with the treasures, results, books, tools and some of what some of us might call junk, of a lifetime of acquiring, scavaging and creating. When Morris packed up his longtime studio downtown, he originally wanted to take only the essentials and send the rest home, but the process proved overwhelming. Except for a serious edit of the books, it all came uptown, where it makes for daily rediscoveries.
Artifacts range from the childhood treasures of an Air Force brat to a small statue that was his father’s — Hercules wrestling an unidentified king, the latter, Morris points out, “yanking his…” Ancient-looking metalwork — a primary inspiration — is everywhere. Morris found the piece of a cow’s skeleton on his property in Sante Fe, N.M., and a sculpture of a boat was crafted years ago by a beloved professor-mentor. One room seems too visually overloaded to lend itself to the stated purpose of meditation room; a seating area was, he says, “made into this Zen garden place for me.” The most visually calm part of Morris’ fiefdom, the showroom, couldn’t belong to anyone else. On view: multiple CFDA and other awards sharing counter space with demonstrative display pieces including vertical metal tubing and signature female torso sculptures (“How can you get tired of the human body?” Morris muses), all foils for the kind of bold metal collars, cuffs and rings on which he built his reputation. These include versions of archival pieces as well as new designs. It all looks impressive and of the moment.
Morris’ assessment: “Perfect. My experience with contractors is that it takes a lot of back and forth before they get it, and the work [first] comes in lighter or crappy. This came in better than I could ever imagine. Look at this cuff! To me, it was like the universe [took me to] the right spot. Finally.”
That right spot is total ownership by Haskell, which bought all the company’s assets, including trademarks; SoHo store; department store and QVC businesses; archives, and any future new categories into which Morris might forge. That’s fine by Morris, who has not been the master of his own business destiny since 1998, when he sold his company to M. Fabrikant & Sons, which partnered with Clover Corp. but subsequently sold that firm in 2006. The purchaser of Clover Corp. then formed Clover II. The situation never panned out at the high end, though the QVC business has fared well. “We were not growing, we were shrinking, and my potential and my vision was bigger than that, and I stood really strong,” Morris says. “When I got here, I had a fire under my butt.”
Haskell principal Frank Fialkoff views Morris as a shining presence within his stable. “We feel we acquired a real, true American icon designer,” he says. The two go way back. In the mid-Seventies, Morris consulted on the Pierre Cardin collection at Swank and, later, on Karl Lagerfeld at Victoria Creations. In both situations, Fialkoff was president. He became interested in buying Robert Lee Morris after learning of its availability from his accountant. “It came to me, it was the opportunity I’d really been waiting for,” Fialkoff says. “To have a vehicle with a true designer, something I owned top to bottom so I could control it — distribution, licensing, everything, and really build a business.”
Under Haskell, the brand features an “iconic core” and three fashion collections per year. Much of the former is comprised of Morris’ highly recognizable classics; the latter, of themed groups. Prices have been adjusted downward, now $150 to $1,000 for most pieces, though there will be some more expensive one-offs. Morris attributes this adjustment to the fact that he will no longer work in through-the-roof silver but in plated brass finished with various patinas. “I’m giving away a secret,” he says, anticipating others to pick up on the color idea. “You can plate in green and in copper and in all these colors — warm bronze, tobacco, shades of black and steel — so you have a symphony of colors. They have weight and they’re flexible.” Of the launch fashion groups, French Cuff, based on overlapping points, was designed for Donna Karan when Morris rejoined her for a runway season a few years back and the collection was never produced. Galactic is an exploration of spheres and “the whole idea of futuristic mechanisms — futuristic armor,” he says.
Morris’ story is well-known, though one chapter gets the lion’s share of the attention. Most people think first of his now-legendary collaboration with Karan; his arresting, powerful metal jewelry and other hardware were as integral to her early aesthetic as the jersey “easy pieces.” Their relationship started at Anne Klein. When Karan went out on her own, she asked Morris to work with her. “So many people have said to me, ‘I was the first one to ever discover you when you and Donna did that collection [in 1985],” he recalls. “I always want to say, ‘I guess you missed the first 10 years or so.’” By the time he started with Karan, he’d won the Coty Award and worked with Calvin Klein, Geoffrey Beene and Kansai Yamamoto.
Morris calls his time with Donna Karan and other collaborations “euphoria.” (Calvin, he muses, was “a party.”) “Whenever you’re working with a group in a harmonious way, creating something all together is euphoric. So being with Donna for all those years was euphoric. Being with Lagerfeld for a brief period of time was euphoric. When it all works together in the end and you have to skin yourself alive to get there, it’s worth it.”
In the nine years with Karan, he recalls, “we made a very strong impact and statement in fashion and jewelry.” The mood changed in the early Nineties, as the company grew and the pressures of doing two collections increased. Morris was about to move to New Mexico and become a shaman — by that point, he’d studied shamanism for 13 years — but then met his wife, who had no interest in the Southwest, and they stayed put in New York. But more had changed than the pressure to produce; fashion jewelry became virtually nonexistent on the runways as heroin chic ruled. It was, Morris says, a dismal time. He credits Tom Ford with forcing its comeback during his Gucci heyday: “He showed Halston-esque, Perreti-esque, Donna Karan-esque, Robert Lee Morris-esque stuff, and suddenly there was this huge explosion. FIT came calling for a retrospective.”
A decade-plus later, in 2007, came the CFDA’s first Geoffrey Beene Lifetime Achievement Award and, the following year, Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen asked him to do a collaboration for their Elizabeth and James line. The Olsen connection, he says, “exploded my name to a whole new group of people who didn’t have a clue who I was. I found myself getting reinvented over and over again.”
Morris clearly appreciates being appreciated. He points out that the Olsens credited him as a mentor in their 2007 book; similarly, Kris Ruhs, a former Artwear artist, cited Morris in his tome.
Through Artwear, Morris was in on the transformation of SoHo from its pre-gentrification condition of edgy-industrial grit to, first, a thriving artistic community and, then, a tourist-centric retail mecca. He opened the store on Madison in 1977 but moved it to lower Broadway, “a magical space,” the following year. There he spent Sunday mornings from 9 to 12 looking at the work of jewelry makers — even today, he insists he’s not a jewelry designer but an artist who makes jewelry — giving thumbs up or down as he saw fit, and supporting the best of the former, even when the jewelry didn’t sell. He notes that point of departure between traditional retail and genuine patronage, and the thought triggers his long commentary on what it means to be an agent of change. “It’s dawned on me in a very simple sense, what I’m doing all this time is that I’ve been an agent of change, and I’m attracted to other people who are agents of change, and they are the ones who are leading the country right now.”
That said, his most immediate anticipated change concerns serious growth of the business. Industry sources say volume could grow from next to nothing to $10 million within two years, after which, assuming strong design and proper nurturing, growth could skyrocket. “We’re reintroducing Robert,” Fialkoff says. “We’re giving him all the resources he needs: the manufacturing, the sourcing, the advertising, any help he might need in design, and to relaunch the jewelry in the finer stores globally. And then we’ll follow up with other products that make sense.” He mentions watches, possibly next year. Morris says there could eventually be handbags, eyewear, a fragrance. The firm enlisted Robert Burke as a consultant for the launch and beyond, and is close to signing with a major advertising agency.
Morris feels confident the universe had taken him to the right place. “I’m a very big part of the fashion world,” he says. “But on the other side of me, I’m wild, free, antiestablishment. I have the passion of a kid still. I don’t want to spend time in another board meeting, because I’ve got work to do and I’ve got things in my head that want to come out in material form. I don’t want to waste my time going to too many trunk shows, because I’d rather be back here making.
“I know,” Morris continues, “this launch is going to be huge.”