NEW YORK — Brazilian accessories designer Carlos Falchi died Friday night at Duke University Hospital in Durham, N.C., following a short illness. He was 70 years old.
Falchi began his career in the late Sixties as an artist living in Greenwich Village, making his own clothes from patchwork leather that he bleached and dyed in his bathtub. His DIY aesthetic quickly attracted the likes of Patti Smith, Miles Davis, Tina Turner and Mick Jagger, later landing him a meeting with Henri Bendel. Upon meeting with the store’s president at the time, Geraldine Stutz, it was the bag in which Falchi carried his ready-to-wear that attracted her attention, prompting the designer to move into accessories. He would stick to the category for the remainder of his career, finding shelf space at department stores including Saks Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdale’s and Henri Bendel.
Neiman Marcus played an important role in both Falchi’s professional and personal lives — the designer met his wife Missy while she was working in the store’s special events office.
“I have known Carlos my entire career,” said Karen Katz, president and chief executive officer of the Neiman Marcus Group. “He was a talented designer whose designs spanned generations, and, most importantly, he was one of the nicest men in the business and a dear friend. I am so saddened by this news. His wife, Missy, was a native Dallas-ite and, as a result, she and Carlos had a very special place in their hearts for our city and for Neiman Marcus.”
Falchi was heralded for his patchwork designs that incorporated exotic skins, such as python, alligator and ostrich. In 1980, WWD declared his signature buffalo satchel “the most copied bag in the industry.” “I’ve developed a unique method of cutting the skins to emphasize their beauty and maximize their usability,” Falchi said of his technique in 2012.
During his career, he received awards including the Coty Award for American Accessories Design in 1986 and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Accessories Council of America in 2004. He also received two CFDA nominations, in 2004 and 2006. Over the years, his pieces were carried by the likes of First Ladies such as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Nancy Reagan, and contemporary celebrities including Cate Blanchett, Rihanna and Heidi Klum. Several designers, including Donna Karan, Catherine Malandrino, Vera Wang, Billy Reid and Ralph Rucci, have used his designs to accessorize their collections on the runway. Additionally, several of his designs have been placed within the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s permanent collection.
“Carlos’ passion for his work and this industry was truly special,” said Karan. “A true designer, he created and defined bags of ease and style long before anyone else. As a friend and a colleague, he was always there in every way possible. He will be greatly missed.”
Beyond the luxury market, Falchi found several ways to bring his designs to the masses. In 2009, Target tapped the designer to create a limited-edition capsule collection of lower-priced bags. That same year, Falchi also launched “Chi by Falchi,” a line of accessories and women’s wear sold exclusively by the Home Shopping Network; the collection is still sold on HSN. Falchi briefly teamed with Avon’s junior collection line, Mark, in 2010 to create a limited-edition line of accessories for the brand, all retailing for less than $50. In 2013, the brand partnered with L & Leung Design Group to launch a full line of contemporary handbags that replicated his signature exotic look in treated leather.
It wasn’t always smooth sailing for Falchi, however.
Despite a booming business in the late Eighties, during which Falchi employed some 300 people in his New York studio, the company ran into trouble in the following years, eventually shuttering. “The business grew too much, and it ran away from me,” Falchi told WWD in 2004 of that time. During that temporary shutdown, Falchi continued to design and made the move to resurrect the brand in 1997. In May of that year, Falchi filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in Manhattan, losing control of his name in the process. In May 2009, Westport, Conn.-based private equity firm Windsong Brands LLC teamed with Marvin Traub Associates to form Falchi Holdings LLC, acquiring the Carlos Falchi brand worldwide and associated assets; Falchi was brought on as chief designer and creative director.
“I’ve been waiting to have this kind of backing of people that understand branding and international business,” Falchi said. “It’s been a long career for me, and this gives me the ability to focus on brand-building and design, as opposed to day-to-day operations.”
A longtime member of the CFDA, Falchi was a staunch supporter of Made in New York initiatives, he himself producing his collection entirely in the city. Falchi was also a supporter of many young designers, participating as a mentor for winners of the Independent Handbag Designer Awards for a number of seasons.
Steven Kolb, chief executive officer of the CFDA, spoke of Falchi’s long history with the organization, which predated his own.
“When I started as executive director of the CFDA in 2006, Carlos was a member of the board,” Kolb said. “His warm embrace and welcome of me into an industry I did not know is something I will always remember. He was a staunch advocate of local production and continued to manufacture in New York, which influences much of CFDA’s work today. As a designer he achieved a level of iconic status that few designers ever reach, with his patchwork style and buffalo satchel.”
Added CFDA president Diane von Furstenberg: “We loved Carlos and will miss his talent and Brazilian joie de vivre.”
Lisa Perry, who knew Falchi both within and outside of the industry, having mutual family friends, recalled her first CFDA meeting. “I walked in and really didn’t know what to expect,” she said. “I didn’t know that many people, but there was Carlos ready to greet me, and we sat together through the meeting. He made it so comfortable to me, and afterwards he said, ‘Lisa, welcome to this crazy world of fashion.’”
Karen Giberson, president of the Accessories Council, first met Falchi in 1991 when she was working as a merchant at QVC. Many years later, the pair would work together on the council, culminating in Falchi’s ACE award in 2004, which was presented to him by Susan Sarandon. “He was a staunch supporter of the industry, generous with donations, always stepping up to support the council,” said Giberson. “He always glowed when he talked about his family. He adored Missy and his girls Katie and Juliet. I am delighted that his legacy will go on with Katie running the company. We have gotten the chance to work with her recently and greatly admire her charisma.”
In addition to his wife Missy and daughter Kate, the chief designer and president of Carlos Falchi Couture, Falchi is survived by another daughter, Juliet, a manager of Global Product Innovation at Estée Lauder.