Julian Tomchin, a multitalented designer and artist who created innovative textile designs before venturing into the home sector, died on Dec. 25 in his San Francisco apartment.
The 90-year-old designer was known for his exacting craftsmanship, advocating for handpainting, embroidery, art-inspired optics, needlepoint and beading. While establishing a successful career in fashion textiles, he also delved into home decor and later switched tracks to that sector. Through that second career he excelled through an executive role at Bloomingdale’s and later through his own company. Tomchin was the only textile designer to win a Coty award.
Tomchin’s talent was described by WWD as an “endless variety of colored forms, mirroring each other and giving off light.” Simultaneously creating fashion textiles and home decor customized for each client served him well, allowing Tomchin to sharpen his own sense of design. Simply put, he understood there was a direct relation between the two.
While his fashion design was “pure romance” based on body movement, that same ideology could be refined and amplified for decorating a chair or printing a bedsheet. His portfolio could include double-knits for Winston Mills and a wallpaper and drapery collection for Conaissance. The way he saw it, “Why not design on dishes?”
Stan Herman on Thursday described Tomchin as “a pioneer. He was the first designer that I knew who knew there was a political quotient to being part of our designer universe. He knew the city, he knew every designer, he knew what their strengths were. Also, he was extremely creative.”
Beyond the rise and fall of hemlines, Tomchin routinely discussed where fashion was headed, as well as when and why that was happening, according to Herman. “Julian could weigh where we were going and intellectualize it in a way that was always shocking to me,” Herman said. “He was a tough cookie, but I liked that part about him.”
In a Facebook post revealing his death, Tomchin’s husband Bob Ryan indicated that the designer had dealt with a series of health challenges over the past year.
Information regarding services was not immediately known, according to fashion designer Jeffrey Banks, who as a Parsons student first encountered Tomchin as “a dynamic and demanding teacher.” Banks remained in touch with Tomchin after he relocated to the West Coast after decades of living in New York.
For nearly the past 20 years, Tomchin ran his own design company from San Francisco working with Macy’s West, Natori Home and the Crane & Canopy site. Prior to that, he worked at Macy’s West for nine years, and further back Fieldcrest Cannon for more than four years. But the New York crowd remembers Tomchin for his decade-long run as the senior vice president and design director for the home division at Bloomingdale’s. He also taught at Shenkar College in Israel after 12-plus years of running his signature division at American Silk Mills.
Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1932, his interest in textiles started while a student at Manhattan’s High School of Music and Art. His designs were staples for such notable well-dressed women as Elizabeth Taylor and Jean Shrimpton. Tomchin’s artistic silks and other textiles can be found in leading museums such as The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The “quintessential scarf for an airline” that Tomchin helped Herman create for TWA female employees in the ’70s is housed in the Smithsonian Institution, Herman said.
After a tour of duty in the U.S. Army during the Korean War, he earned a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from Syracuse University. His career started with a vice president role at Maxwell Industries, overseeing the Maxwell Textiles and Chardon-Marche divisions. What were described in the late ’60s as his “high-style, eye-arresting designs” were favorite resources for established American brands like the prints-loving Bill Blass, Adele Simpson, Chester Weinburg, Rudi Gernreich and others.
Tomchin believed that fantasy was the bridge between one reality and another. In a 1969 interview with WWD, he bemoaned the fact that fantasy was not running rampant in design schools. From his viewpoint, schools were too concerned with professionalism. He also pined away for the time when “it was a great gag what kids did at Parsons,” recalling how Weinberg once crafted a very elaborate coat and “gored the hell out of it.”
Tomchin believed that fantasy was good for his company and his customers, although he also created (based on his own account) some complete bombs, like printed silver mesh. His company was one of the first to work with silk-like Qiana for printing.
Along with being forward thinking with his designs, Tomchin recognized the underpinnings of fame, once describing the then red-hot fashion model Twiggy “as a product of the European press” in a 1967 interview. After years of being entrenched in home design, he also looked at the ultraluxe with a skeptic’s eye, telling The New York Times in 2009, “Once you get beyond 400 threads per square inch, be suspicious.”
Tomchin understood that fashion called for a certain verve in the more conservative decades, when his creations were an anchor for multiple American designers. He also recognized that many of his well-heeled shoppers were seeking more than the latest and greatest. “The woman, who reads that ‘black is back’ and then worries about it is never going to be elegant,” he said in a 1967 interview. “Elegance is security.”
Banks on Thursday described Tomchin as an innovative textile designer who worked with the “crème de la crème of Seventh Avenue for many years.”
Tomchin’s accolades also included receiving the Hometex Paradigm Design award, the Syracuse University Distinguish Alumnus award and the Vogue American Fabric Design award.