NEW YORK — Koos Van Den Akker’s company will go forward following the Dutch-born fashion designer’s death.
Known for his colorful, collage-like work that influenced designers such as Geoffrey Beene, Nicolas Ghesquière and Marc Jacobs, Van Den Akker, 75, died of colon cancer at Mt. Sinai Beth Israel Hospital here on Tuesday.
Koos owner Puck Meunier said a party in the late designer’s honor will be held in the company’s Madison Avenue workroom next month, after his ashes are scattered in what was his favorite place, Fire Island. “He would have liked to have a party, not a funeral,” she said.
Van Den Akker’s two longtime assistants, who worked with the designer as a team, will keep the collection going. “His designs will go on. His inspiration is still around,” Meunier said.
With his signature calico mixes of fabrics, textures and shades, the designer was pretty much the Edward Scissorhands of fashion, thanks to his slashed and patched creations. He needed only three words to describe his work to those who mistakenly thought they had never seen it — “Bill Cosby sweaters.” The comedian made Koos sweaters his unofficial uniform when he headlined “The Cosby Show” from 1984 to 1992. In 1998, Van Den Akker helped lead the charge of designers venturing into at-home shopping by starting what would be an extended career on QVC. In a 1992 interview with WWD, Van Den Akker said that his Koos of Course! line was among the cable shopping channel’s top sellers, bringing in about $1 million in sales during his one-hour monthly appearances.
His designs were featured in last year’s “Folk Couture: Folk Art and Fashion” exhibition at the American Folk Art Museum. In addition to the aforementioned designers who gleaned inspiration from his work, Christian Francis Roth started out as an apprentice for the Dutchman.
Born in The Hague, Van Den Akker apprenticed at Christian Dior for three years after graduating from the Royal Academy of Art, an institution he first attended at the age of 15, three years younger than the norm, thanks to his well-stocked portfolio. After first giving his signature business a go in the Netherlands, Van Den Akker moved to New York, opening a smattering of stores there as well as one in Beverly Hills. By the Seventies, Van Den Akker edged into wholesale through accounts like Bonwit Teller, Saks Fifth Avenue and Marshall Fields. In 2000, he was among the first to forge onto Madison Avenue with a location between East 90th and 91st Streets that remains there today.
Over the years, he courted celebrity clients like Barbara Walters, Glenn Close, Chita Rivera and Magic Johnson. His owl-like eyeglasses, cheek-to-cheek smile, brutal candidness and sizeable presence made him unmistakable. But he saw himself in much simpler terms. Describing himself simply as “a crafts person,” Van Den Akker once said. “I am nothing more than a worker sitting behind a sewing machine. That’s where I feel most comfortable, that’s where I’m the best.”
The Amsterdam-based artist Christopher Holloran saw his creativity up close during annual in-studio sojourns. Van Den Akker first contacted Holloran in 2009, after seeing a portrait of himself that Holloran had posted online. “I drew his portrait before I knew him because I liked his work. Koos contacted me and asked, ‘May I use it for myself?’” After Holloran obliged, Van Den Akker asked how much he should pay him for it and the artist told him. “Absolutely nothing,” Holloran said. With that, Van Den Akker said, “Why don’t you come to New York? I have a spare apartment and you can visit my studio,” Holloran said. “I was 21 and he was 70, so I was a little apprehensive. But I had never been to America so I threw caution to the wind. We just got on really well. We had something in common, some sort of shared inspiration. I’m not sure how to describe it.”
In the six years that followed, Holloran visited New York for annual two- to six-week studio visits with the designer. Last fall, collages that Holloran and his girlfriend had made were used by Van Den Akker for his own designs. Although funding for a nearly completed documentary about the designer fell through last year, Holloran said Wednesday that he still hopes to put all that archival footage to use.
Van Den Akker’s high-end wearable art was having a bit of renaissance in recent weeks, according to Decades’ Cameron Silver, who first showcased the designer in a sale and exhibition around the time that Ghesquière created a Van Den Akker-inspired spring 2002 collection for Balenciaga. Silver said Wednesday, “Koos’ work was incredibly democratic in the sense that someone like Diahann Carroll could wear it and that he had his QVC business. He could be super high fashion but at the same time, glamorous and accessible.”