Category Archives: Designers

Denim Couture by Magda Makkay

There are times in your  life when a simple action has a very unexpected effect.  When I first called handbag designer Magda Makkay last November I had no idea that I was really gaining a new and treasured friend.  But since that day we talk and write, and when I least expect it, a box shows up at my house with her return address.

My latest design from Magda is probably my favorite.  This is the Bella bag from her Denim Couture line.  It is so incredibly well made, and I love the “snake” trim.

Inside are pockets and a zippered pouch with a key ring.  You can tell from the attention to detail that Magda knows the features that are practical and functional.

There are lots of different styles in the Denim Couture line, including clutches and totes.  I really like the Carrie model…

And the Roxie as well.

If any reader would be interested in purchasing a Magda Makkay original, I’ll be happy to pass along her phone number, as Magda does not use the computer.

Magda also sent along some photos.  Above you have her with Oscar de la Renta at a cocktail party.

This is Magda’s daughter, modeling a Magda Makkay handbag sometime in the 1960s.

I want to again thank everyone who sent cards to Magda on her birthday back in June.  From her letter:

I had the most wonderful birthday in June thanks to you!  Getting all the attention and cards from all over! I never had so many birthday cards in my life!

So thanks for helping me give my new friend such a nice surprise.

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Currently Reading: Halston & Warhol, Silver & Suede

When I visited the Mint Museum several weeks ago I picked up a card listing the upcoming exhibitions.  I was thrilled to see that Halston and Warhol: Silver and Suede was to be traveling there next spring.   To celebrate I rushed home and ordered the companion book which was complied by the Andy Warhol Museum, the co-organizer (along with Halston’s niece, Leslie Frowick) of the show.

Halston and Warhol were, of course, contemporaries, but they were also friends and collaborators.   Warhol did his first flowers screen prints in the early Sixties, but he returned to the theme in 1970.  Two years later Halston had silk printed with the motif which was made into dresses.

Starting in 1979 Halston created a line of shoes for Garolini.  Warhol photographed a grouping of them in 1980 and created screen prints sprinkled with diamond dust.

In 1982 Halston commissioned Warhol to create art for his men’s wear line’s ad campaign.

The book is arranged in chronological order according to decades.  For each there is a handy timeline for Warhol at the top, and Halston at the bottom of the page.  It helps one see clearly how their lives and work connected.

Though Warhol was an artist, he was also a fashion illustrator, and he continued to be interested in fashion throughout his life.   His work for fashion companies and for fashion magazines spilled over into his non-commercial art.  Shoes was a prominent theme.  In the late Fifties he made stamps, as seen on the right, that he printed on paper and then hand colored.

The exhibition also shows examples of Halston’s signature looks, including the sarong dress.  Inspired by a friend and model who wrapped a towel around herself as she emerged from a swimming pool, Halston began working with the form.  The dress looks simple, but it is meticulously constructed on the bias.

This photograph was taken in 1974 at the famous Studio 54.  Halston is on the left and Warhol is on the right, with various other celebrities mingled in.

If you are a fan of the work of either Warhol or Halston, the book is a great resource to have whether you get to bee the exhibition or not.  It is currently showing in Pittsburgh at The Warhol until August 24, and then it travels to Des Moines.  It ends up in Charlotte next spring.

Hopefully that gives me time to do a little re-reading.  I’m currently in the middle of Popism: The Warhol 60s.  Next up is Simply Halston: A Scandalous Life by Steven Gaines which is a bit soapy and a lot gossipy.  I’ll finish with a marathon reading of The Andy Warhol Diaries, which Warhol narrated over the telephone to his friend Pat Hackett from late in 1976 until his death in 1987.

Talk about gossipy!  After the Diaries were published in 1989, Halston was reportedly so upset at the way he was portrayed that he sold his valuable collection of Warhol works.  But as my sister used to say, “If you don’t want to be portrayed in a bad light, then don’t do and say bad things.”  Unfortunately Halston didn’t have the benefit of my sister’s advice.

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Currently Reading: Charles James by Harold Koda and Jan Glier Reeder

Without a doubt the book that accompanies the Metropolitan’s current costume exhibition, Charles James: Beyond Fashion, is the most beautiful book in my library.  Reproduced on the front and back is the famous Cecil Beaton photo of eight models wearing James ballgowns.  It’s a stunning introduction to a book that is full of beautiful clothes, beautifully photographed.

Rather than showing James’s work in a chronological manner, the authors place his work into four categories – Spirals & Wraps, Drapes & Folds, Anatomical Cut & Platonic Form and Architectural Shaping.  It’s a very effective way of presenting his work because sometimes James would work on an idea for years.  It’s easy to see how he developed techniques and applied them in his garments.

To help make sense of Charles James’s life and career, there is a year by year chronology of the events of his life.  The dresses and techniques are cross-referenced with the photos throughout the book.  Because James was known to tell the same story several different ways, the authors and staff of the Met spent hours trying to figure out the truth behind the legends.    They did an amazing job of sorting it all out.

Besides the wonderful photos of the garments, there is quite a bit of supporting visuals, like the vintage photo seen in the layout above.  Many of the dresses were shown with period photos of the dress being worn.

Others were shown with drawings James did of the garment.  Some of the drawings were made at the time that the garment was designed and sewn, but most were done by him many years later.  James had a strong desire to document and preserve his legacy.  The collection of his work that was at the Brooklyn Museum (and which was transferred to the Met several years ago) was mainly donated by the owners who were urged to do so by James.  He even sold drawings to benefactors who then donated the items to the Brooklyn Museum.

The photo of the Clover Leaf Ball Gown was enhanced by two drawings by James, both done in 1970.  The bottom drawing was especially useful as it shows how the shirt was pieced.  If the book lacks anything, it is drawings of this type.  There were good descriptions of how each garment was constructed, but I was frequently not able to visualize the construction.  A few simple diagrams of pattern pieces would really have helped, especially in the Spirals & Wraps section.

This circa 1938 dressing gown was made from wide ribbons, the shape achieved solely through varying the width of the ribbons.

As amazing as the ball gowns are, I have to admit that I prefer the precise tailoring seen in the coats and suits of Charles James.  Ever since I saw the garments he made for Ann Bonfoey Taylor, I’ve been a huge fan of his coats.  Just look at the cut of that sleeve and bodice!

The last section of the book was written by Sarah Scaturro and Glenn Petersen, conservators at the Costume Institute.  They explained how James’s construction techniques were often “inherent vices” or that the very techniques and materials he used often have led to the garment’s deterioration.  He freely mixed materials, and he manipulated fabrics in a way that has led them to be unstable.

Try not to cry over this photo of a badly damaged bodice.  The chiffon has torn due to stress put on the bodice from the weight of the skirt and the operation of the zipper.  There is simply no way to fix the problem, so if this dress were to be displayed pretty much all they could do is overlay the damage with a piece of matching chiffon.

If you are planning to see the exhibition, I’d go ahead and get the book before you go, because you certainly do not want to be carrying that heavy thing around the museum and city.  And if you are not going, you might want to invest in this one anyway.  It is a real gem.

 

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Misleading Labels – Mainbocher

Under certain circumstances, my reporting that I’d found a sweater with a Mainbocher label would be a cause for celebrating.  Main Rousseau Bocher was an American who stayed in Paris after WWI, changed his name to Mainbocher, and opened a couture house.  When WWII broke out he returned to the US and continued making clothes, including wonderfully decorated cashmere evening twin sets.

This sweater is not by THE Mainbocher, of course.  A quick search on the US Trademark site showed that this sweater is a product of Stein Mart, a “luxury discounter.”  They have had the Mainbocher name registered since 2005.

I’m not sure how this works, how a company can just take the name of a dead designer and slap it on random clothing.  I do understand revivals, where the label makes an attempt to channel the aesthetic of the designer into the new line (as in the Anne Fogarty revival) or Charles James, where the company actually has an agreement with his children.

I’m sure this happens all the time.  Feel free to share any misleading labels you’ve seen.  I know that about twenty years ago someone registered Claire McCardell’s name, but her family got that enterprise stopped through legal channels.  I noticed that her name has recently been registered as a trademark yet again.

I actually bought this sweater, because despite it being made in China, it is a nice, well-made garment.  It’s the type of thing I wear on a daily basis in colder months.  Somehow cashmere is just a bit more luxurious than sweatshirts.  I probably paid a dollar for it at the Goodwill outlet.

Nice full fashion knitting.  Most cheap sweaters are cut out from cashmere knit and then sewn.  In fully fashioned sweaters the pieces are knit to fit without cutting.

Not bad for a department store cashmere, but not quite couture!

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What I Didn’t Buy – Wool Bonnie Cashin Coat

I lucked into a vintage pop-up shop on the streets of Asheville yesterday, and as I was hurriedly pawing through the racks this coat appeared.  I was pretty sure it was a Bonnie Cashin for Sills, and sure enough I found the label in the side of the coat.

I went for the price tag and was shocked to see it priced at $8, and then I noticed the words, “As is.”  Not a good sign.

It didn’t take long to find the reason for the cheap price.  At the hem of the coat the leather had pulled loose from the wool in several places.   In addition there were places where the wool was a bit worn looking, and the lining, which was jersey knit, was riddled with holes.

For a few minutes, my mind was working through the problems, and I had myself convinced that I could save this beautiful coat.    It would involve removing the leather binding at the hem, cutting off an inch or two, and reattaching the leather.  I actually did this with a Pendleton coat a while back, but the bulky textured wool of this coat would be trickier than the smooth Pendleton.  And then there were all those holes to mend, and some reweaving to boot.  Then it occurred to me that my entire wardrobe consists of cool colors with only a piece or so of pink and orange, and no yellow at all.  I decided to leave this coat for someone who would love it, mend it, and wear it.

The wool was really special.  It could possibly be one of the Bernat Klein tweeds that Cashin is known to have used.

The only closure was a leather tie slightly above the waist.

A real heart-breaker, this one.

But all was not lost.  At the same sale I found a really special piece, which I’ll be showing off next week.

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Charles James’s Day Has Arrived

from The Fashion Makers, copyright Barbra Walz and Bernadine Morris, 1978

Unless you are living under a rock, you know that the long-awaited Charles James exhibition at the Met opened to the public today.  The press preview was earlier this week, and already there are enticing images showing up on fashion blogs.  It really does sound like the fashion event of the summer, and unlike last year’s Punk fiasco this show is getting rave reviews all around.

There are enough recaps of the life and career of Charles James that I’m not going to add to the noise.  I’ve been reading about him all morning, and after a bit all the articles started sounding the same.  Most of them used the same “iconic” Cecil Beaton photograph, and most mentioned the same three garments – the taxi dress, the white satin puffed evening jacket, and the clover ballgown.  It began to feel as though I was reading the same press release over and over.

It rather bothers me that they all keep referring to James as “forgotten.”  No, his is not a household name, but few dead designer’s names are.  Ask your non-fashion-history-nut friends if they know Claire McCardell or Bonnie Cashin or Paul Poiret or Adrian.  I’m pretty sure they will not know any of the names unless they are older and can remember them from when the designer was active.

Of course there are the dead designers whose labels live on such as  Chanel and Lanvin and Dior and Balenciaga and Saint Laurent.   But with the exception of Chanel, whose image is kept alive by the company, and Saint Laurent who only recently died, are the others really remembered?  Can your average fashion consumer tell you about Jeanne Lanvin?

To people who love fashion history, James has never been forgotten.  Even during the last years of his life when he was pretty much not working, he was sought out for inclusion in a book called The Fashion Makers, by Barbra Walz and Bernadine Morris, published in 1978, the year of James’s death.

Most of the excitement surrounding the exhibition seemed to be centered on his lavish ballgowns, but my favorite James designs are his tailored suits, coats and dresses.  After seeing the collection of Ann Bonfoey Taylor last year (she had fourteen James garments) I came to greatly appreciate the skill that man had in cutting a bodice and sleeve.

Photo from Fashion Independent, copyright Phoenix Art museum, 2011

Start at the waist and let your eye follow the seamline all the way to the sleeve cuff.  Then note how the bust dart is actually part of the sleeve.

Photo from Fashion Independent, copyright Phoenix Art museum, 2011

This is the back of the shoulder of another garment.  See how the seam curves to fit the shoulder.  The seam that cuts across the bottom of the shoulder continues on to the front and is the princess seam of the bustline.

Photo from Fashion Independent, copyright Phoenix Art museum, 2011

Here are two coats, showing details.  The checked coat is cut on the bias, with the set-in belt cut on the cross grain.  How effortless he made a very complicated construction look!

I hope that many of you will be able to visit the Met this summer to see this show.  Until I saw the work of Charles James in person, I did not really understand just how great it was.  There is a reason everyone keeps referring to him as a genius.

 

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Updates – The Rest of the Story

I posted about this great White Mountain skiing outfit back in March.  I recently got an email form Elizabeth, who sent some White Mountain ads my way.

This is a newspaper ad from 1950, and yes, that is my ski suit.   The ad mentions that is comes in grey and red, and that the jacket is reversible.  An earlier ad from 1936 tells a bit about the company:

If you are serious about skiing you’ll take to White Mountain.  They’re not only inspired by that famous White Mountain Ski Camp which attracts snow trains of enthusiastic sportsmen and their ladies, they’re more than that…They’re tried and experienced ideas of people who mean business when they plan their snow wardrobe.  No fussy “extras,” no furbelows – just simple efficiency which sets its own fashion.

You may remember the delightful conversation I had with handbag designer Magda Makkay.  For my birthday I received a huge box from her, and inside was what has become my go-to travel bag.  Here it is sitting outside the 1920 elevator of the Biltmore Greensboro Hotel where I stayed recently.  It’s just incredible that she can turn out a fantastic bag like this.

I happen to know that Magda has a birthday coming up in late June.  If you’d like to join me in wishing her a happy 89th birthday, send me an email and I’ll let you know her address.  I know she’d be pleasantly surprised by cards from lots of fashion history people who want to says thanks for her contributions to fashion.

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