A memorial service was held Jan. 26 for Piero Dimitri, an Italian-born designer who made America his home.
Dimitri, 85, died Jan. 14 at a hospital in Milazzo, Italy, according to Karan Rushmore, who handled public relations for the company in the Nineties.
The cause of death has not yet been determined, she said, adding that Dimitri suffered from an assortment of illnesses after a fall six weeks ago.
Dimitri, who relocated to New York in 1963 and became a U.S. citizen in the Seventies, was living in Panarea, one of the Aeolian Islands. He was born in Monreale, a province of Palermo, Italy, and grew up there, the eldest of six siblings — all of whom survive him. Known as “The Maestro” by his peers, Dimitri earned three consecutive Coty awards in 1973, 1974 and 1975. He was the first men’s wear designer to be elected into the Coty Hall of Fame in 1975. Dimitri handled designing, tailoring, pattern making and styling and later in life continued to design bespoke clothing. “His dream was to become a successful designer in America,” said Rushmore.
In Palermo, he opened the first men’s and women’s boutique and later in America, he was the first to showcase men’s and women’s collections together on the runway at the Plaza Hotel in the Seventies. He started out as a tailor’s assistant in Palermo at the age of 13 and went on to train with masters Caraceni and Baratta in Milan. He opened his first shop at the age of 19 in Italy. Dimitri relocated to the U.S. in the late Sixties and opened his own business Stateside in 1970. He first opened a cleaner’s with an area for tailoring in Brooklyn. Later he opened an East 57th Street salon for his bespoke clothing in 1971.
Dimitri said, “Few are willing to sacrifice, to put in any time. I find most of the young designers just out of school think they are going to be successful and make a lot of money right away. You can see in the windows: Too many designs have no expression, no sense of proportion. Many don’t know how to complement the body at all.”
“They called him ‘the maestro’ because he was the tailor of the tailors, the designer of designers,” Rushmore said. “From Ralph Lauren to Bill Blass – everybody respected him. All the designers admired Piero because he was the designer’s designer. He really did design and create. He was the ‘modelista’ — in other words, he made all the patterns — he did everything.”
Dimitri’s men’s wear could be found in Wilkes Bashford in San Francisco, Ultimo in Chicago, Mr. Guy in Beverly Hills, Louis Boston and Bloomingdale’s. His women’s wear was sold at Saks Fifth Avenue, Mr. Guy in Beverly Hills, Lou Lattimore in Dallas and Amen Wardy in Beverly Hills and Newport Beach. As his sales strengthened, the designer developed a worldwide licensing business that included 25 Dimitri Casa di Moda boutiques for men and Dimitri Donna boutiques for women through a leading department store in Japan. Accessories for women and men followed, as did exclusive fragrances.
Former model Jean-Claude Samuel said, “He was a bit tough and quite a demanding guy. After that, we became quite friendly so I didn’t have anything to become concerned about. I knew exactly what the man was. But he was demanding, he wanted things to be just so. That was an issue for anybody who knew him or who worked with him in any association.”
Before forging into SoHo, Dimitri’s East 57th Street location was changed into a boutique in 1977. Around that time, Jay Spectre designed new quarters for the designer in a Renaissance building at 142 Fifth Avenue. A glass wall was set up between the factory and salon so visitors could see how the collections were made by hand in the European tradition.
Samuel, an interior designer, later designed Dimitri’s 14,000-square-foot showroom-store-salon-café-factory at 110 Greene Street — a two-year, $1 million project in a landmark building. “The Emporio Dimitri had everything — from a boutique, a showroom, a fashion show space, a café with waiters to serve people. There was a private apartment for very special out-of–town guests if they needed a place to stay. There was a Iimousine to service people from Hollywood, and very wealthy clients. They expected top service and he gave it to them. It was quite special,” Samuel said.
For the September 1983 opening of Emporio dell’Alta Moda in SoHo, bolts of fabric and white chiffon curtains transformed the cool pewter and ivory decor into a dining room. Dimitri’s wife made the tomato sauce for the penne pasta that was served to the 110 guests. The black tie evening was capped off with Sylvia DiGiorgio belting out tunes from Francis Ford Coppola’s film “The Cotton Club” with the help of bongo and bass players. Another SoHo pioneer, Agnes b., moved into the neighborhood the following year to open her first store.
“He was the first there. Everybody was saying, ‘This is crazy. What are you doing down there?’ He said, ‘Mark my word. This is going to be the place,’” Samuel said. “He was that kind of a guy. He took chances but he had a certain confidence that it would be right. And he was absolutely with SoHo. That’s what it became. When he moved there, it was really just artists. There weren’t any businesses.”
His wife Pia catered to the downtown store’s ultra luxe private clients. Some paid a $3,000 annual fee to be part of an exclusive club that provided use of the limousine, and access to the on-site jacuzzi, sauna and gourmet chef. (The couple later divorced.)
Loyalists like “Dallas” actress Linda Evans, George Hamilton’s ex-wife Alana, Ann Turkel and Dani Janssen modeled Dimitri’s designs at Saks Fifth Avenue’s Beverly Hills store in the summer of 1977. Richard Harris, David Janssen, Suzanne Pleshette and Marisa Berenson also turned up to cheer them on. “Can you believe this lady?” Dimitri said of Berenson. “She is seven months pregnant and wearing a silk dress that I never knew was a maternity look?”
Dimitri’s accolades included designing wardrobes for TV and feature films like Michael Cimino’s “Year of the Dragon” with Mickey Rourke and “Bloodhounds of Broadway” with Matt Dillon, Madonna, Jennifer Grey and Randy Quaid. He later developed the annual Dimitri Executive Image award, presenting the first one to Wynton Marsalis. Dividing his time in the Nineties between New York and Los Angeles, he opened a West Hollywood store in 1990, and four years later the opening of a one-stop-shop — with manufacturing, design offices, a showroom, penthouse and boutique — at Fifth Avenue and 54th Street.
The designer created more daring looks on occasion, such as the champagne-colored jacket with a corset vest that former “Octopussy” Bond girl Maud Adams wore to the 1995 “Goldeneye” premiere in New York. He also created a vampire-inspired look — a detachable black velvet cape — in time for the 1992 release of “Bram Stoker’s Dracula.”
Dimitri was among the 10 designers who flew to the West Coast for the unprecedented five-hour fashion show orchestrated by Wilkes Bashford at San Francisco’s Japan Center Theater. Dimitri once said, “Besides the clothing, I try to build confidence in the person in the way they wear the clothes. A woman knows when she looks good. When she walks into the room and knows that she is the attention of the people in the room.”
In addition to his sisters Benedetta, Lori and Liliana and his brothers Franco, Guido and Giovanni, Dimitri is survived by three sons: Ralph, Robert and Peter. Another memorial is being planned for Palermo and the U.S., according to Rushmore, who said she was the designer’s romantic partner for 35 years.