NEW YORK — Trends are inherently transient, but Maggie Norris has found a way to immortalize a red corset she has designed. In what is no doubt one of the more unlikely collaborations in recent months, Norris is loaning her design to artist Nelson Shanks, who will paint a portrait of Charlie Chaplin's granddaughter Keira Chaplin wearing it.
Adding another dimension to the project is the fact that Shanks, who is best known for his portraits of Princess Diana, Bill Clinton and Pope John Paul II, will be the subject of a documentary being produced by Smithsonian TV, a new network made possible by the Smithsonian and Showtime.
Norris, meanwhile, has her own tale to tell about the Ekaterina corset. For starters, it is named after Empress Ekaterina, who in 1763 took over the role of governing Russia and went on to enjoy a 34-year reign. In Norris' eyes, the corset symbolizes what noblesse used to mean and what couture still is — "an expression of enduring quality and the use of the best materials."
Handmade in Paris, Norris' corset has covered some ground. It debuted at a presentation of her Russian-inspired pieces at the Russian consulate in the U.S. in fall 2003, was later shown in Bergdorf Goodman's Fifth Avenue windows, was once worn by Reese Witherspoon for an In Style photo shoot and has been used in a benefit fashion show for Darfur. Bette Midler bought a version of the corset a few years back, Norris said.
Reached at Shanks' Andalusia, Pa., estate Monday, where the documentary taping was under way, the artistically minded Norris said she initially envisioned having an artist do John Singer Sargent-type portraits of her society clients in her designs. When she found out about Shanks, she looked into his work and loved his highly detailed paintings. He felt the same way about her $18,000 corset and they agreed to team up.
Shanks plans to name the painting "Maggie's Red Corset," and it will be displayed at the Smithsonian, the National Portrait Gallery in Washington or the one in London. The painting will also be featured in a forthcoming book about Shanks' work to be published next year by Rizzoli.The documentary featuring Shanks will air sometime next year, but an exact date has not yet been set.
The designer doesn't think the item's journey is quite done.
"It is interesting to imagine where the corset will be in five, 10 or even 100 years, and to wonder if people looking at the painting by Shanks will speculate about its past," she said.
Chaplin said she will have to sit for the artist for seven eight-hour days, but Shanks expects to spend two weeks painting the corset.
"It's a lot easier than I thought it would be. We chat the whole time. We're having a good laugh," she said.
The pair has plenty to talk about. Chaplin is busy with the final rewrite for "Vega," a dark comedy-mystery about the fashion world. Chaplin, who has walked the runway for Roberto Cavalli, posed for the Pirelli calendar, modeled for top photographers and seen her share of fashion shows from the front row, said the fiction is based on her own experiences.
She is also getting ready to go on location in Rome for "The Chamber Piece," a film written by Tommaso Rossellini, who will also direct and star in it.
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