Michael Vollbracht couldn’t help but speak his mind and that attribute was celebrated again and again by speakers at Tuesday night’s tribute to the late designer and fashion illustrator.
Nearly three months after his death at the age of 70, friends and colleagues gathered in New York to honor Vollbracht at The New School’s Parsons School of Design. Artistic, unstoppable, irreverent and at times painfully direct, Vollbracht was remembered as an individual who delighted in his frankness. About a dozen speakers shared memories of his dealings with larger-than-life personalities like Joan Crawford, Brooke Hayward, Janet Jackson and Elizabeth Taylor, but more often than not Vollbracht’s presence was the takeaway. And even though he was a dyed-in-the-wool Republican, he was known to hear out the other side and could leave an evening of debate on the best of terms.
Reed Evins, who designed shoes for Norman Norell, James Galanos, Oscar de la Renta and Bill Blass, described how Vollbracht showed up at his little factory in Long Island City one day looking for “spatula-toed, gold square-backed heeled pirate boots like Gene Kelly in ‘The Pirate.’ I had no idea who Gene Kelly was. I had no idea what a spatula toe was. I didn’t even know what de soie bataille was.’” Evins recalled that Vollbracht requested, as he held a small piece of silk in hand, “At the top, I want leather cuffs and I want them to turn down. I want you to take the extra fabric and make an ascot that we’ll tie around the thighs.’”
Evins tried to wave him off, explaining for starters he didn’t know what a spatula toe was. “Haven’t you ever made a pancake?” Vollbracht asked? After much badgering, he agreed and handmade 24 pairs, holding up one pair as proof. “He sent out 20 girls and won the Coty award for that collection,” Evins said.
Next-door neighbors in the late Sixties, Evins said Vollbracht liked to say Evins “was wearing six berets and looked like a caterpillar,” when they first met. “I once wanted to wear one of his really colorful shirts. He said, ‘I don’t even wear my shirts. With a face like yours, just wear white shirts,’” Evins (in a white shirt) added. “Once he told me if I can’t draw and express myself with a pencil, then don’t even bother. Loosen up and be confident with each gesture.’ Decades and thousands of sketches later, I came to understand what he was trying to teach me. It was all about ownership, discipline, focus and respect for my craft. Now every time I pick up a pencil, I think of him.”
Two days before Vollbracht’s death, Evins said, ‘Michael, I just want you to know that 40 years ago before I could afford to buy anything nice, I used to go through your garbage and take all the drawings you threw out.’ He laughed and said, ‘God bless you, Reed. I saved all your shoe sketches, too.’”
The memorial was organized by Jeffrey Banks and Kay Unger, a classmate of Vollbracht’s at Parsons where she now serves on the board of governors. She recalled postgrad days at Geoffrey Beene, working with Vollbracht and Issey Miyake. “Michael actually pushed Jeffrey away from the gray flannel dress with the little white collar and the black bow to using many more colors in interesting shapes. And Issey Miyake found his passion for his Japanese roots and modernity,” Unger said. “Believe it or not, one of our favorite things to do together was to go the Barnum & Bailey Circus — the colors, the vulgarity, the circus drew us in and inspired our work. His clown robe was a perfect example of that.”
Neiman Marcus’ Ken Downing recalled how at a 2004 Bill Blass runway show, Vollbracht brought back “models of yesteryear” — Karen Bjornson, Sara Kapp, Pat Cleveland and others. They were “swirling and spinning and walking in unison amongst the anatomic models of the moment, who were just walking in a straight line. I had never seen anything like it in my life. I thought, ‘What is he doing?’” Downing said. “Here was Pat Cleveland swirling and blowing kisses. I almost got a migraine.”
Afterward, a mutual friend, who works in media, advised Downing, “You need to take him to lunch and have a conversation,” he said. “So we went to lunch at Pastis and he was full of ideas and full of opinions about reviews. He liked to be a little loud, probably a little provoked by a sip of vodka or so. I told him, ‘Michael, there are people all around us.’ He said, ‘I don’t care what they think. I don’t care what they have to say. I’m doing this my way,’” Downing said. “He always did things his way.”
Downing explained, “He wasn’t about creating clothes to make an editor happy, or creating clothes to make a review sound glorious. He created clothes for the woman. That’s something that probably many forget today. Why do we do this? We do this for the women who buy the clothes to look for more beautiful and to be more glamorous.”
Stan Herman critiqued Vollbracht’s work in his Parsons days in 1967, at a time when rolling racks with knee-length dresses choked the side streets. Herman said Vollbracht’s sketches “were firmly rooted in reality. His women walked off the page. His first sketch was beige on beige cashmere wool, form-fitting, knee-length jewel neckline, long-sleeve all anchored by a shaped three-inch leather belt. Hands down he won the designer of the year award.”
After graduation, Vollbracht became the young designer of choice through jobs at Beene and Bill Blass, Herman said. “In fact, there was a time when he began to walk and talk like Bill Blass. I’m sure it was his Midwestern roots.”
Herman said, “His short strokes were a signature that very few people achieve. His major talent was a gift to our industry that will resonate long beyond his years. It was a privilege to have known him and to watch him with all his complexities challenge the establishment.”
The architect Philip Haight described how he and Vollbracht worked together in an East 58th Street town house once owned by Gore Vidal. “One of the gifts we received from Parsons was to constantly produce,” Haight said. He described arriving at 7:15 a.m. one day to finish floor plans for Beene and finding Vollbracht half asleep from working through most of the night on drawings for Bloomingdale’s.
Another time, when he answered the phone to hear a foggy voice asking to speak with Vollbracht about her movie that was on TV the previous night, the designer motioned to Haight to listen in on the other line. “It was obviously Joan Crawford. After a long, drawn-out conversation on sets, costumes and cast, Michael gives a wrong name. Silence — then Joan says, ‘Michael, you’d better get your actors straight,’ and hangs up the phone.”
Jeffrey Pollock, whose wife Nancy first befriended Vollbracht as children, spoke of how she collaborated with Vollbracht over the years and the many adventures that ensued. While helping Beth Levine with her retrospective at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, Vollbracht was held up at the airport and phoned the Pollocks. “He said he was being detained. Ignoring Sonja Bata’s instructions that if passport [control] asks if the visit was for work or pleasure, Michael answered work. He then protested that he didn’t actually work. He just told people what to do,” Pollock said. “The elderly Mr. Bata had to take his lawyer to the airport to liberate Michael.”
Another miscommunication occurred when Vollbracht was working on Bill Blass’ retrospective at Indiana University’s art museum. With a per diem in place for transportation, he was puzzled that they would not be reimbursed for a haircut and magazines that he bought one day. “He said, ‘That’s’ what I did that day. That’s what per diem means, doesn’t it?’”
Vollbracht’s former publicist Roberta Greene said, “Michael used to say to me, ‘When the end of the world comes, there will be you, me, Cher and a cockroach.’ He said that all the time.” Greene said. “But the truth is, he left an indelible mark that will outlive us all.”