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In the 23 years since he shuttered his tony East 57th Street salon, Adolfo has quietly gone about his days, reading heartily, watching HBO, Cinemax and “Downton Abbey,” pitching in at his Upper East Side parish and occasionally catching up with friends at Swifty’s. All the while, his namesake business has developed into an international one with new jeans and furs deals in the works and further expansion in Asia planned.

This story first appeared in the December 29, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

However adverse Adolfo is to publicity (longtime clients still can bank on his discretion), the designer recently agreed, with some persuading, to an interview. Unfailingly modest, he told WWD, “I can’t imagine you would be interested in anything I have to say.”

Adolfo, of course, has a good deal to say not only about his storied career but also the current state of fashion. Casually dressed in jeans, a navy polo shirt and cashmere sweater from Ralph Lauren and black clogs, the designer described decades-old snapshots from his career with what seemed to be automatic recall. A gold watch on one wrist and a black rubber magnetic sports band on the other seem to symbolize his dichotomous life. Decades after he dressed style icons like Babe Paley, C.Z. Guest, Nan Kempner, Pat Buckley and First Lady Nancy Reagan, the designer still guards their privacy, explaining simply, “I don’t like to gossip. I don’t think that’s necessary.”

Not about to talk numbers, his business currently is a $55 million one with men’s accounting for about 80 percent of that figure, according to Adolfo License Group chairman Paul Wattenberg. At its peak in the Eighties, sales were closer to $87 million, due partially to a robust couture business and Saks Fifth Avenue concept shops. Needless to say, much has changed since Julia Koch, who was then new to New York, ran his East 57th Street boutique. Through a new licensing deal with Dream Jeans, men’s and boys’ jeans launch next month with women’s jeans to follow. Shearling, fur and fur-trimmed coats are in the works, thanks to a new deal with Grecophilia Furs. And with distribution in about seven countries and the Caribbean, a major distribution deal for China, Japan and Korea is close to fruition that would include wholesaling and opening freestanding stores.

Nimble, not exactly an everyday description for someone at 81, Adolfo occasionally sprang around his Old Masters-adorned living room. After a photographer admired a Van Wyck, Adolfo said it was a favorite but blanched when asked to pose beside it. (Adhering to misguided advice from an attorney who insisted Roman Abramovich would soon buy the Fifth Avenue building where he lives, the designer began to downsize and agreed to let Doyle New York auction some of his collection. The October sale tallied $537,000 for 150 lots — but the real estate deal had fallen through months before. “Can you imagine?” Adolfo said shaking his head.

Anchored as he once was in New York’s fashion scene, Adolfo preferred to sit far away from all the bold-faced names at his friend Oscar de la Renta’s funeral last month. But Adolfo was not the least bit removed during the interview, assessing designers’ talent, speaking of his native Cuba, mentioning his own requiem plans and impersonating the Duchess of Windsor — of course fondly. Asked what he hopes people associate with his name, Adolfo said, “If they remember me, they probably think I’m crazy because I never really followed the rules. I was very independent, not really independent, I mean free — free to do what you want to do.”

WWD: What is the secret to living such a gratifying life?
If I know someone and like someone, I am very open and easy. If I don’t like the person, I walk away. I don’t mean to be cold or distant. I just don’t like to be insincere. Why should I tell you how marvelous you are or how much I like you? It’s best not to say anything.
WWD: You were born outside of Havana. Have you ever returned after leaving as a teenager?
I have never gone back to Cuba but our house’s property is still insured. But I don’t like how the system is with Mr. Castro. I was 17 when I left Cuba. My mother died in childbirth so I was raised by my aunt, Maria Lopez. My godfather died in 1958 and my aunt died in 1961. I could not go back to Cuba then because Castro had closed off the country. It was very upsetting really.

WWD: What do you make of the recent changes?
I hope everything works out, but at the moment I think we have to sit and wait and see what happens. I know this will take time. It’s not going to be one, two, three.

WWD: Are you interested in politics?

WWD: Not even with Mrs. Reagan?
No, Mrs. Reagan is the nicest person and I love her. We talk on the phone every once in a while. She’s always up, always in a good mood.

WWD: Is it true that you and Luis Estevez went to the same Jesuit school in Havana?
I was in the second grade, he was in the sixth grade and I used to see him in the schoolyard at midday. We knew each other very well, but when I came to New York, it was a different kind of atmosphere. He was very pleasant and very successful…He was the beginning of a new era of designers — like Bill Blass, Oscar [de la Renta], Geoffrey Beene, [Arnold] Scaasi, myself — which actually is beginning to disappear. Unfortunately, Oscar passed away — he was just the best friend. He was truly very nice.

WWD: Were you at Oscar’s funeral?
Oh yes, but I sat in the back off to the side, away from all the people. It was a beautiful funeral…I told my secretary, my lawyer and everybody, “Look, when I die, there is little chapel on the side of St. Vincent [Ferrer]. I would like to have a little mass there, no music and no conversation, just a regular mass.”

WWD: But you don’t think about that, do you?
No, but you know eventually something could happen. But not quite yet.

WWD: Is it strange to be known by one name? Now there is Madonna, Rihanna, Prince — you were so far ahead of that trend.
My name is Adolfo Faustino Sardinia. I think Adolfo is easier….I would rather see Adolfo and that’s all.

WWD: What is the secret to good design?
I think good taste. Good taste is necessary. Then you can do anything you want to. Now, everything is sort of splash and change. I used to dress Jennifer Jones, Claudette Colbert was a great, great friend.

WWD: Do you follow fashion?
I look at Women’s Wear every single day. I like Vogue, Architectural Digest and Vanity Fair. Frankly, I am a good person to admire other people’s work, but I don’t understand it. Fashion now is very different from the way it used to be. The ladies that I used to see like Mrs. Paley and Mrs. Reagan used to inspire you to do things. Today, I find that if I were to be in fashion it would be very difficult to be in that surrounding… I was always inspired by the people I knew. Maybe something they had might be something I would make a combination of. I would start to do something and they might say what they are interested in. It may work as a combination of things. It’s a strange way of doing things.

WWD: Now there is more marketing about what a designer likes — what type of architecture, hotels, food…
Yes, that’s exactly it. I understand it’s a totally different philosophy, which I approve of and morally understand, but I don’t like to be part of that. I am not like that…It’s very interesting but I don’t understand it. It’s a new life, a new system. It’s not in relation to the things I used to have in my mind. I was focused on the design, ambience or way of living. The way people live is so different now. Every six months life changes.

WWD: How was it that you started as a milliner, worked in Paris at Balenciaga, moved to New York and launched your ready-to-wear business in 1961?
Bill Blass really was the one who helped me. He said, “Why don’t you go into business on your own and I will give you some money?” Then I paid him back in six months. Bill was really the best. He had a very sophisticated, glamorous life but he knew how to have two sides of his personality. He had a beautiful house in Connecticut and he loved to read. When he would go to London or I would go to London, we would get books. We would say, “Oh, how did you get that?” I like to read anything — biographies, novels. In London, I stay at the Ritz in Picadilly so I can go to Hatchards in the daytime and then if I’m walking around at night, I go to Waterstones.

WWD: Will you write a book about your life?
I have always been very lax about doing things about myself. I am always very interested in what you’re doing more than what I’m doing.

WWD: The chair you watch television in faces Fifth Avenue. Do you ever watch women as they pass by?
Sometimes. I always watch women in churches. There are some people who look very well and some people look not as well. Today there are not really any trends that I like. I respect all the things that designers do but I am not in their league. They are better than I am.

WWD: Who are some of your favorite designers?
I think Diane von Furstenberg is a magician. She knows exactly what a woman wants, and isn’t that enough? And she has good taste. Mr. Lauren makes the most beautiful clothes for men and women. Season after season he makes the most elegant evening dresses. They are just to die for. And Carolina Herrera of course. She has a great style because she knows exactly what to do to herself and then she presents that to the public. She’s marvelous. I don’t know how she can do it because she is always going here and there traveling back and forth, and she always looks perfect. I like everything about her. I think she is sensational.

WWD: Do you follow any of the younger designers?
Who is the one that went to Balenciaga? Alexander Wang? I think he is very clever. There is another one who has a shop here on Madison Avenue — Derek Lam.

WWD: Why did you retire?
It was a very difficult time. A friend of mine, Edward Perry, was very sick. I could not cope with being at work and coming home. I knew that sooner or later I was going to retire so why not do it then? Six months later my friend died. He used to have his own apartment here on the other side because he liked to have his own space. He had a nurse but it was throat cancer which is very difficult.

WWD: How did you meet?
A friend of his asked me to lunch and Edward was there. At the time, I was very young and making hats. Edward asked, “What do you do?” and I said, “Well, I’m a milliner, which sounds like ‘a millionaire.’” And he said, “Oh how nice, I am too.” Of course he thought that I was a millionaire and he was a millionaire.

WWD: What was the Duchess of Windsor like?
She was a great friend of my aunt’s. She was a great help in my career. I liked her immensely. Like everyone else that you meet, you have your own opinion about how you feel about them. I loved her. She was really the best. I had met her in Havana and when I came to New York and first had a little shop at 22 East 56th Street, she asked if I wanted to make some dresses for her. I said yes, of course. They were of course successful. Then she introduced me to Mrs. Paley who became one of my friends. And Mrs. Paley introduced me to Mrs. Bloomingdale…She used to always say to me, “Now look here Adolfo…”

WWD: And Mrs. Reagan and C.Z. Guest?
I used to go to her office on the second floor. Sometimes she would ask me for lunch and sometimes Jerry Zipkin. We never discussed anything astrological. I read in the newspapers but I didn’t know anything about that. C.Z. really was such a great lady and a wonderful friend, so is her daughter Cornelia. My aunt knew C.Z. from Paris. After she was married in Cuba [at Ernest Hemingway’s Havana home in 1947], my aunt and uncle had a luncheon party for them in Varadero.

WWD: Why do you think you got along so well with so many strong-minded women?
I just enjoyed them. I never felt in my whole career that I was an important person. I have always felt you are more important, I am not important. I never had a competition with the person I was with because sincerely I wasn’t.

WWD: In hindsight, would you have done anything differently?
No, I don’t think so. It’s difficult enough to do what you do. To do it differently, would be exhausting.

WWD: You used to make the rounds at La Grenouille with the well-heeled women Truman Capote described as his swans. When you were with him, did you get the feeling he would somehow use what he observed?
Oh yes. He was something else, he was really very special. He wrote so well. I read Answered Prayers and some of his other books. Once in a while I will go to the library downstairs to get one because he is such a good writer. I didn’t go to his Black and White Ball but I did a lot of the masks for Mrs. Paley and for so many people.

WWD: What have you enjoyed most about what you do?
To go from day to day, you never know what’s going to happen tomorrow.

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