Few designers quote Balzac, much less readily retrieve a handwritten copy of said remark. For Maggie Norris, who did just that during a recent visit to her New York atelier, the literary reference was essential to the development of her first customized shirt collection.
The designer said she was inspired in part by Balzac’s character Lucien de Rubempre’s reaction to “exquisite studs on gleaming white shirts” during his first trip to Paris. That image, as well as her own initial impression of watching polished French waiters working in cafes, helped Norris shape the nine-piece shirt collection. She aims to draw from her heavily socialite base of personal clients who already buy her made-to-measure eveningwear and bridal pieces.
“Basically, I got enthralled with the idea of shirts and how much there is to be done with them,” she said.
These shirts, retailing around $900, are not the typical button-downs. Aiming for more sculpted looks, Norris focused on construction using boning in all of them. Corseting is featured in shirts that have drawstring backs and single, and in some cases, double, boning in the front. There are also some Napoleonic influences evident in epaulets and militaristic pockets.
Her version of the tuxedo shirt has a stand-up collar, pleated front and hand-picked details. Another shirt has a high collar with a piqué front bib, a corseted back and extended cuffs with four buttons instead of one.
Her research also led to images of paintings by Boldini and John Singer Sargent, as well as pictures of the ultimate dandy, Beau Brummel. Each shirt, manufactured in New York, takes one week to make and can be adorned with a variety of studs and intricate cuff links that Norris finds through estate jewelers. Antique jeweled bees and butterflies can be used to decorate the shirt plackets and French cuffs, adding contrast to the stark white shirts.
Clients can also choose from nine types of cuffs, including solid or striped interchangeable ones. Some can be doubled up. Borrowing from the poets of the 18th and 19th centuries who would jot down prose on their cuffs, Norris has silk-screened verses on the cuffs.
“Beauty and difference are one,” the main message in Norris’ 1995 children’s book, “Hanna Rose and Her Broken Angel Wing,” is one saying that can be placed on cuffs, although any other also can be, she said. The limited-edition book was illustrated with photographs of the then-child model Mischa Barton.
Until now, only select clients like Diane Keaton have ordered shirts, but Norris plans to show them to specialty stores next month. They will also get a glimpse of both her new men’s shirt line and women’s collection of “architecture-inspired” evening pieces” “It’s a new way to wear black tie for evening,” she said.
Of course, many of the pieces are designed to be worn with one of Norris’ new shirts.