Interview: Designer Deanna Littell


I’ve long been a fan of the design work of Deanna Littell, and so I was so pleased when she commented on a post here several months ago.  She had found the webpage where I’ve been collecting Young Designer Butterick patterns, including those of Deanna.

She very graciously agreed to an interview, which we conducted over the phone.  I wrote her responses in the third person just because I could not possibly capture the charming quality of her answers.  But at any rate, the story is there, and I’m sure you are going to enjoy this one!

Deanna is probably best known as one of the original designers for the 1960s New York boutique, Paraphernalia.   Along with fellow designers Betsey Johnson and Joel Schumacher she helped to establish the “Youthquake” of Great Britian here in the States.



1.  How did you first become interested in a design career?

Deanna  studied ballet at the High School for the Performing Arts in New York and after after high school continued studing ballet.  At night she attended Queens College.  But she was disappointed with ballet school, as it did not have the the artistic mix of students that she was used to in high school.  She began to have second thoughts about her career choice.

At Queens College she was in a dance troupe and had the opportunity to make the costumes for a performance.  Deanna had been sewing and designing her own clothes since she was 15, so why not a career in design, she thought.  She researched her options, and applied to Parsons School of Design.



2.  What was it like at Parson’s in the late 1950s?
It was very different from today; there was no Project Runway!  It was in a different location, 54th Street, far from the garment district.  The school was very strict and quite demanding.  Her class started with 60 people, but only 24 finished.  Parson’s had a kindly environment, but the instructors were realistic, and if you did not perform to their expectations, then you were asked to leave.  It was very intense instructionally, but students had less exposure to the fashion world. They were not invited to shows, and were much less sophisticated in the ways of fashion.  But the training was superb and comprehensive and included everything from drawing to draping, from patternmaking  to constructing a garment from start to finish like the Haute Couture.

3.  How did you get started in the design business?

The Parson’s graduates were well aware that the field was very competitive, and noone at the time expected to get a design position immediately after graduation.  Deanna won the coveted Norman Norell Award, which was a great honor, and brought her to the attention of Life magazine.  She and her prize winning garment were featured in a story.  From that story, she came to the attention of  Mr. Mort where she got her first job.  At Mr. Mort she was an assistant to the designer, doing tasks such as making phone calls, placing and receiving orders for sample fabrics and coordinating between the design room and the factory.  There was no actual designing involved, but she got to see how a workroom worked.

A salesman let her know about a job at Evan-Picone, which at that time was a well-known skirt and pants maker.  Deanna did pants with sweaters and tops to coordinate.  She learned so much from Mr. Picone, especially about the fit of pants, and how to manage a line of coordinating pieces.

Between 1962 and 1964 she worked for a sportswear firm called Harold Goldstein.  Her name was on the label, and this job brought with it a lot of recognition. Bloomingdales liked her work so much that gave her the entire Lexington Avenue windows to showcase her collection.  This was quite unusual for the time, as department stores were still sharply divided into departments, with different buyers for dresses, sportswear, separates, and so on.  And then her work was shown in Glamour magazine as well.  When her work was shown in Glamour magazine Bloomingdales was given the editorial credit, but it was difficult at the time to organize the buyers and get them to coordinate on this.

3.  I love the wardrobes you designed for Butterick Patterns in 1964.
How did you come to the attention of Butterick?

At this time, people started to look at young designers, due to the “Youthquake” influence.  People were paying attention to what young designer were doing.  Butterick had seen her work through the recent exposure, and when they learned she was about to embark on a year-long trip with her then-husband, she was given the opportunity to design a travel collection for them.

After returning home she went to work for Zaccari, and the following year, in 1965, was part of a group of young designers that won the coveted Coty award for their work as “young” designers. Thid was a first for the Coty Awards – now known as The CFDA awards.



The travel wardrobe Deanna designed for Butterick.   From the Summer 1965 Butterick Home Catalog.


4.  Tell us about your experience at Paraphernalia.  How were you
selected to be on the design team?  What was it like working there?

Paraphernalia was conceived by Paul Young who was British, and who had recently come to the US.  Together with Karl Rosen at Puritan Clothing he put together a venture that capitalized on the youth craze.  The idea was to do a shop with young designers from London and from the United States.  Puritan would make the clothes, and a fun time would be had by all.

Paul Young approached Deanna with the idea, and offered her a position as designer for Paraphernalia. She replied that she could do what he wanted – basicly make kooky things for the young market – but that she had a consumer following she had built up, and wanted to continue to make more serious, but still hip, clothing.

The solution was found in another Puritan line, Mam’selle by Betty Carol.  They were looking to do a boutique line along with the more conservative things being turned out by Betty Carol.  So at the same time she was designing for Paraphernalia, Deanna also worked at Mam’selle where she did a line that ranged from double-knits in unusual patterns to floating georgette dresses.


5.  In reading about Paraphernalia, one gets a sense that the designers
had complete freedom to do anything they envisioned.  How true is that
perception?

The original designers at Paraphernalia were Deanna, Betsey Johnson and Joel Schumacher.   They were given a huge studio and a lot of freedom – sort of a Home Alone situation where almost anything went.  However, it was all done with the knowledge that the clothes had to sell.

It was interesting because they had the freedom to experiment with new fabrics and processes.  They took textiles that were not meant for the fashion trade and used them in clothing in new and ground-breaking ways.  For example, they were brought some artificial leather material that had been made in florescent colors like fuchsia and chartreuse.  Deanna used this material to make raincoats, with the addition of glow-in-the-dark white inserts and details.  She also made matching miniskirts and then found some buffalo checked taffeta in the same wild colors.  From it she made cowboy style shirts to go with the minis.  It was perfect gear to wear to go out clubbing.

The atmosphere fostered creativity.  Because clothing was made in small lots, the designers could take risks without a large investment, and so it led to a lot of amazing things. It was thrilling to work there, knowing one was in a sort of a test tube of fashion.

The first Paraphernalia store opened on Madison Avenue in 1965. The  Velvet Underground played the opening which was more like a disco than a store opening party.   Some of the British designers – Deanna remembers  Tuffin & Foale, along with Julie Christie  –  came to the wild opening.

The store did very well, so Paul Young had ideas to move the brand to the next level by opening Paraphernalia boutiques in department stores around the country.  At the time, this was unheard of.  The boutique within a store idea was totally new and untried.

The first collaboration was with a store in Philadelphia.  Paul Young gathered together a clan for the opening and they all took the train to Philadelphia.  As the group was crossing the street with the models, traffic came to a standstill to stare at the group and their crazy dress.  Betsey Johnson was wearing a tiny skirt with mesh stockings and silver tap shoes.  The others, including Deanna, wore wild colors in shocking combinations.


Deanna Littell for Paraphernalia, see label above.

6.  I’ve seen designs from the later 1960s and early 70s under a Deanna
Littell label.  Where did your career, and life, go after Paraphernalia?

In 1967, Geraldine Stutz of Henri Bendel had seen some dresses Deanna did for Mam’selle, and Ms. Stutz wanted her to design a  special private label collection for Bendel’s Fancy, as the “Designer” department was called.  This label was “Deanna Littell for Bendel’s Studio”, where money was no object.  Deanna designed for Bendel’s Studio for three years.

In 1970 she and her family went to live in the south of France.  In 1973 she started her own label, designing clothing that was made in France.  These clothes were sold first at Henri Bendel and Saks Fifth Avenues, and then across the country in upscale stores like Neiman Marcus and Marshall Field.

After she returned to the US, she worked for large companies like Jones New York, as head esigner.  She also worked at Albert Nipon as design director and Kasper as creative design director.


1970s Deanna Littell dress, Made in France
Photo courtesy of vintageous.com

7.  What led you into jewelry design?

Deanna had never had a charm bracelet as a girl, so she decided to make one for herself using vintage charms she collected over the years.  People admired it and wanted her to help them put together bracelets that were reflective of their own lives.  She met Ki Hackney who was writing a book on charms,  The Charm of Charms.  They traded informatiom about charms, and Deanna began to think of starting her own business using her vast collection of vintage charms to help others make tailor-made bracelets. Deanna Littell’s Charm School opened in 2005.  Today Deanna still works, helping others assemble a bracelet that is unique to the owner and that can be a continuing project.  Her latest venture is with HSN, where they are selling replicas of her vintage charms.  Catch Deanna on air on November 17!

Comments: 

Posted by Brenda:

Wonderful interview Lizzie and, as always, super history of vintage fashion designers!

Monday, November 8th 2010 @ 8:42 PM

Posted by Jonathan Walford:

There are a many designers who ‘were there’ in the midst of an era and are largely forgotten now. Ms. Littell was obviously at the forefront of the American youthquake movement and I am happy to know more about her role now. Thanks for the great interview Lizzie!

Monday, November 8th 2010 @ 8:47 PM

Posted by Couture Allure:

Fabulous interview, Lizzie! Thanks for all the hard work that went into it. I am especially thrilled to learn that I have a Mam’selle dress that was probably designed by Deanna!

Tuesday, November 9th 2010 @ 2:19 AM

Posted by Carrie Pollack:

What an information-packed interview, Lizzie! Not only does it help me understand youthquake fashion better, but there are fascinating glimpses into labels I’ve run across but never known much about. What a long, varied, and rich career Ms Littell has had!

Thanks so much, Lizzie!

Tuesday, November 9th 2010 @ 4:43 AM

Posted by KeLLy Ann:

thank you so much for this article.
I love history, and I love that second dress!

Tuesday, November 9th 2010 @ 8:47 AM

Posted by Carol:

Another great interview! Such an exciting time to be designing clothing.

Tuesday, November 9th 2010 @ 10:56 AM

Posted by Barbara Troeller:

That was great! THANK YOU 100 times for this. I remember when the first store opened and reading about it in the local NJ Sunday paper…I loved Paraphernalia …yes I am that old. I love Betsy too, and it was great to find out what was going on back then when everything was so new, fresh and exciting.

Those days are gone. It just can never be like that again. What a time it was!

Again, thank you, I adore your blog.

Barbara

Tuesday, November 9th 2010 @ 12:07 PM

Posted by MS:

What a wonderful interview, thanks so much!
My mother wore those Evan Picone coordinating outfits, I had no idea that Deanna had designed those, no wonder my Mother looked so stylish.Love your blog, I always learn something new every time I read it.

Tuesday, November 9th 2010 @ 12:44 PM

Posted by Catbooks1940s:

Ah, Lizzie, your blog is a delicious danger for me. I always have such a hard time tearing myself away!

Fabulous interview with Deanna Littell! I too loved Paraphernalia and am that old. But there was so much I didn’t know about Deanna and was fascinated reading all about her. So glad she found your blog, commented, and that you two could get together for this wonderful interview.

Thanks!

Joan

Tuesday, November 9th 2010 @ 12:48 PM

Posted by Pinky-A-GoGo:

Fantastic article!

I would give anything to go back in time to be at the Paraphernalia store opening on Madison Avenue in 1965.

Amazing fashion and The Velvet Underground–what more could a girl want!

Tuesday, November 9th 2010 @ 3:44 PM

Posted by Melody Fortier:

What a wonderful article! The progression of her carreer is fascinating. When I see the vintage from the designers and companies she worked for I’ll be wondering…Thanks Lizzie!

Tuesday, November 9th 2010 @ 5:56 PM

Posted by Sarsaparilla:

Thank you for sharing this fascinating interview! What an interesting life she has led. Would have loved to have seen Velvet Underground playing for the opening of Paraphernalia.

I just visited Deanna’s “Charm School.” Her charm bracelets are incredible! And she’s got a fantastic blog too…

Thursday, November 11th 2010 @ 3:56 AM

Posted by Lizzie:

Thanks for all the nice words. And thanks again to Deanna Littell for sharing her story with us.

Thursday, November 11th 2010 @ 4:24 PM

Posted by Deanna Littell:

Thank you Lizzie for a wonderful article. It took me back in time too. I loved reading all your reader’s comments & the thrill of knowing that I have so many fans.Where’d you get that sequined dress? Could wear it now. Best, Deanna Littell

Thursday, November 18th 2010 @ 12:26 PM

Posted by b2:

tres bien lizzie!…u have truly captured the creative essence of deanna littell! she is a unique talent who adores life’s beauty & continues to inspire!!
it was such fun reading about her ever evolving life! merci!

Friday, November 19th 2010 @ 5:41 AM

 

 

2 Comments

Filed under Designers, First Person Stories

2 responses to “Interview: Designer Deanna Littell

  1. Pingback: Designer Sewing Patterns | The Vintage Traveler

  2. Pingback: Rapid Change: 1967 to 1969 | witness2fashion

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