Four-time Coty award-winning designer Bill Kaiserman died Monday at Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan. He was 77.
The cause of death was complications from a stroke and pneumonia, according to his wife Angelina. A private burial is planned and a memorial may be held in a month or so, she said.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., the self-taught designer started out designing hats, which he sold under the Rafael label. He later added men’s wear — specializing in leather and suede pieces — before venturing into women’s wear in December 1973. In dressing women, he focused on active sportswear looks and suits for city dressing. Kaiserman once said of his designs, “A woman has to be reasonably well-built to wear my clothes as they’re cut to fit the body.”
Kaiserman won two consecutive Coty awards for men’s wear in 1974 and 1975, was inducted into the Coty Hall of Fame in 1976 and received an unprecedented Coty Hall of Fame citation in 1978. Started in 1942, the Coty American Fashion Critics’ award celebrated American fashion and was meant to encourage post-World War II design.
Before Studio 54 opened, Ian Schrager allowed Kaiserman to use what was then a raw space to throw a fashion show. The designer’s former publicist Roberta Bendavid said Tuesday they built bleachers and had translucent pillows made, which they inserted with Michael Vollbracht-illustrated ads for guests to sit on. At another show there, they staged models in a still life on suspended scaffolding, with guests observing from below. Kaiserman also held a fashion show on Pier 55 and bused in guests to what was then a desolate area of the city.
Kaiserman came of age in the Seventies with Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein, working with his first wife Mildred Jo Lyons. (That marriage later ended in divorce.) Italian-made goods were essential for the designer. Men’s wear designer Jeffrey Banks said, “The thing that was so incredible about Bill was that he treated men’s wear like a real designer. It was never about a suit collection or a group of coats. He did it all. Of course, having everything made in Italy, it was beautifully made.”
Kaiserman, who studied acting with Uta Hagen before pursing fashion, dressed some actors too. Barbra Streisand wore a few of his Rafael designs in the 1979 feature film “The Main Event” and Michael Nader wore his suits in the Eighties TV series “Dynasty.” Andrea Jovine is among the designers who started her career working for Kaiserman in the late Seventies. Kaiserman’s designs, along with the work of his peers Bill Blass, Geoffrey Beene, Oscar de la Renta and Halston, were showcased at London’s Winfield House as part of a cultural exchange charitable event in the fall of 1979.
But Kaiserman’s business hit its share of speed bumps along the way. In the fall of 1980, his company Rafael Fashions was forced into involuntary bankruptcy. Kaiserman later started selling his designs via Bill Kaiserman Ltd., but by 1982, the company closed its 550 Seventh Avenue showroom and laid off its staff. After these financial struggles, the designer relocated to Milan in the Eighties, where he developed a signature designer men’s wear business in Europe and Asia. He also received the Cavaliere del Lavoro honor from the Italian government.
In the second-half of 1989, the Milan-based Kaiserman signed a partnership with Onward Kashiyama to expand his men’s and women’s collections via a venture called Bill Kaiserman SRL, but that alliance dissolved in less than two years. In the Nineties, Kaiserman returned to Manhattan after more than 10 years of living in Europe. Back in the States, he set up licensing deals with such companies as Hartz & Co. and Format. He also lent his talents to such companies as Avirex and Fila.
“Bill used to say to me, ‘It’s awful what’s happened with fashion today. Everyone wants to wear jeans, sneakers and backpacks. Fashion today should be more glamorous and not so casual.’ He liked very tailored looks for women and the same for men. He had that but with a Milanese flair,” Angelina Kaiserman said.
Brenda Welch, a former model who lived with Kaiserman before his second marriage, recalled Tuesday that he designed for Loewe and landed a New York magazine cover. “He was extremely meticulous. Everything had to be perfect. He could sketch beautifully and he developed,” she said.
In 1997, he introduced Skin Finish, a proprietary coating that was designed to look like leather. A few years later he launched streetwear for women and men under the same name. As recently as three years ago, Kaiserman was still trying to return to fashion, according to Banks.
Bendavid, who is now a floral designer, said, “People just felt sexy in his clothes. The men looked like they just walked off the runway.…He just had a knack for what was needed. It’s sad that he never made it back.”