Michael Katz, a Seventies and Eighties era designer whose artwork was translated for apparel, died Saturday after suffering a heart attack in Miami.
Katz, 66, died at Brigham and Women’s Hospital there, according to his former painting assistant Michael Shyka.
The New York City-born Katz spent much of his life in Manhattan and studied silk-screening and printmaking at the New York School of Visual Arts where he was part of the first graduating class in matriculation. Painting was the artistic medium that he first took to as a child and was committed to as time progressed. Energetic and vivacious, Katz got into fashion by teaming with a SVA classmate, Cynthia Knott, to start Theacat Co. in the late Seventies. They sold handpainted fabrics to Halston, Stephen Burrows and other designers. The pair also had a fashion line at Henri Bendel before Katz continued under his own label.
Designer Jeffrey Banks said, “He really was an artist who used clothing as his vehicle.”
After 10 years of producing one-of-a-kind hand-painted custom silk items, Katz introduced a ready-to-wear collection in 1988. The domestic-made label featured prints that were reproductions of his hand-painted designs. His hand-painted customized kimonos, pajama pants and biased-cut designs appealed to women who knew how to take center stage like Sophia Loren, Nastassja Kinski, Joan Collins, Polly Bergen and Cybill Shepherd. Broadway standouts like Ann Reinking, Liliane Montevecchi and Karen Akers also turned to Katz for customized designs. After Oprah Winfrey featured a Katz-designed Santa Claus dress in a holiday round-up fashion show on her talk show, Ivana Trump rang up the designer for a similar style. Shyka said, “It was kind of kitschy and really fun. It was a big red Santa Claus with a green background on a heavy silk satin. Ivana Trump saw it on ‘Oprah’ and ordered two others — a dress for Easter with the Easter bunny on it and one for Thanksgiving with a turkey on it.”
After closing his own business in the mid-Nineties, Katz pursued his interest as a horticulturist, doing landscaping at the family’s camp, building “beautiful everlasting gardens at the Long Lake Camp for the Arts,” his brother Marc said. “Certainly, he was a tremendous influence and leader in our fine arts camps, bringing tremendous professionalism to our 20 art studios there.”
The eldest of four children, Katz’s upbringing truly was unimaginable to most native New Yorkers. His parents bought the 100-acre Long Lake Camp in the Adirondacks, which is now known as Long Lake Camp for the Arts. The designer once described it as “a paradise of gardens, Japanese bridges and impressive stone building.” His artistic tendencies may have stemmed from his parents. His mother started the Queens Council for the Arts and his father conducted the Queens Symphony Orchestra and he also conducted the American Symphony at Carnegie Hall for 11 years. (His sister Melinda is the current Queens borough president.)
Describing Katz as “the most spontaneous person in the world,” Shyka recalled how Katz liked to set the stage in his East 17th Street loft. “He was just rolling out fun-ness all the time. Once Vogue was scheduled to come and they were buzzing at the door. He lit up a joint, gave it to me and said, ‘Take this up on the ladder and clean up that shelf while they’re here.’ I think he was painting a set for the Vogue editors. There was a way he liked to present things to everybody. He was just a rare card [laughs].”
Katz’ artwork was also featured in ads for Estée Lauder, Virginia Slims and Revlon, and he was nominated for DuPont’s “An American Original” award. The designer Kenneth Bonavitacola met Katz in the Seventies, when they were Studio 54 regulars. Each designer dressed Kevin Boyce, who was one of the first club kids to favor androgynous looks. By chance, the two men ran into each other recently, and Katz invited Bonavitacola to stop by to see the trove of video footage and photographs of Boyce. “He knew that I’ve been working on a musical where Kevin is the central character. He said, ‘I’m going to Miami, but as soon as I come back…’” Bonavitacola said. “That was a week ago and there you go. You never know.”
In addition to his sister and his brother, Katz is survived by another brother Matthew.