Former dean of Parsons School of Fashion Frank Rizzo died Wednesday at the age of 85.
Under his tutelage, Rizzo influenced such students as Isaac Mizrahi, Donna Karan, Louis Dell’Olio, Willi Smith, Marc Jacobs, Constance Saunders, Jeffrey Banks and Michael Vollbracht before they shaped their own careers. Never content with the status quo, Rizzo once recruited Donald Brooks to help him hold the interest of jaded attendees at a Parsons student fashion show in the mid-Eighties. Brooks helped students envision fictional costumes for a Thirties movie musical in varying degrees of red for the 1983 “And Let There Be Red Show” at the New York Hilton.
Rizzo told The New York Times in an interview at that time, “Everyone who comes here sees every show in Europe and on Seventh Avenue and they see this as just another fall show. They say it’s very nice and the clothes are well made, and that’s that. So I said, let’s give them something to shake them up, something that says, ‘Look at us. We’ve got lots of talent.’ And I wanted to give the kids some fun in the classroom.”
Rizzo died at his home in Crossville, Tenn., while under hospice care, Banks said.
Rizzo spent the better part of his life at Parsons, graduating from the school in 1957 and winning its Silver Thimble award. While maintaining his full-time job as a bridal designer on Seventh Avenue, he returned to Parsons to teach in 1966. Rizzo learned the ropes at the head of the class with another newbie faculty member, Theresa Chiappetta.
Sixteen years later, Rizzo succeeded Ann Keagy as the school’s dean of fashion. Rizzo had such a loyal following of former students-made-good that Mizrahi hosted a dinner party in his honor last summer during his annual pilgrimage to Manhattan. Every June, Rizzo returned to New York to see the Costume Institute’s latest exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, go to the theater and catch up with friends, Banks said. Rizzo once described the spirited Mizrahi as “the kind of argumentative person whom you enjoy” and like many of his former students, Mizrahi became a lifelong friend.
Mizrahi said Thursday he got to know to know Rizzo during his undergraduate days in the early Eighties. “The great thing was how Frank was able to treat every student differently. He was a great administrator, no doubt, but his gift was in teaching. He spoke to each person individually without inflicting any kind of boring lesson plan on a student. He used to look at my book and say, ‘Well, you have a lot of different ideas here and don’t stop.’ While other teachers would say, ‘Oh, you have to hone it in and hone it in. Bring it in for a landing,’ Frank would encourage the crazy way that I thought. I was so thankful for that.”
Rizzo’s mentoring extended beyond fashion design. “Frank was a great example of not just a wonderful citizen and a great teacher, but he was a great role model as a gay man. He was perfectly integrated into society, he was incredibly liked, nice and wonderful. Without him, I don’t know exactly what I would have done because at the time there weren’t that many great role models,” Mizrahi said. “For instance, at that time one did not turn to their families for these things. And there was a great need for it. He felt it very deeply and he rose to that occasion. He didn’t need to and that’s why I will always love him.”
Having gotten to know Rizzo as an 18-year-old student, Vollbracht said Wednesday, “’Nice’ is one of my least favorite words, but Frank was absolutely nice. I think you would not find anyone who wouldn’t say that about him. He was really dedicated to the students. He listened and cared about them and not just about Parsons and fashion. Frank cared about the good students and the bad students. And that’s a real trait.”
Describing Rizzo as Parsons’ most influential teacher of the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties, Stan Herman, who worked under him as a critic at Parsons, said Wednesday, “Parsons at that time was the school. Frank worked on the avenue as a designer and that made him extremely special in teaching students. It was also a smaller industry then. It was like a great little campus where everyone knew each other.”
Herman added, “As a critic, I depended on him to help me lead students to bring them out in the best way.”
Services have not yet been finalized, according to Banks. Rizzo is survived by his partner Richard Hatler, an established florist in Crossville, and a sister Marietta.