THE MAKING OF A FASHION SHOW BLOG SERIES #1 THE VENUE
Many of you know me as a man of manners, a bon vivant if you will. Or the bow tie guy. I am those things, as well as a novelist. But I began my career, and spent most of my adult life, in the fashion industry. It all began as a CFDA intern for Fern Mallis. Miss Fern was just beginning the organization to centralize the designer shows into Bryant Park that would change the face of New York Fashion Week. Next, I freelanced with the “up and comers” as well as the greats: Isaac Mizrahi, Dries Van Noten (in Paris), Workers for Freedom (London), Jesus del Pozo (Madrid) were all beginning their careers. I then worked for Gianni Versace & Giorgio Armani at the height of their careers all before landing at Bottega Veneta as Vice President.
This was the beginning of Bottega’s return to prominence. The Italian luxury goods house known for its beautiful and stylish leather goods was far from its glory days in the 1980s when every woman had to own a Bottega bag. The companies advertising -- “When your own initials are enough.” – spoke to refined and discerning women who had grown weary of the Gucci “G”. It was also, I was to learn later, a dig at the competition. The Italians are fierce with each other, as they should be. They make the finest clothing and accessories in the history of the world. They invented peacocking.
So there I was, a freckled-face boy from Alabama in the Palazzo Serbelloni in the center of Milan. In those early days there were just the five of us. My best friend Edward Buchanan had been recruited fresh out of Parsons to launch the first ready-to-wear collection. For the uninitiated, ready-to-wear is the high level designer clothes you think of when you think of high fashion. The only thing higher is Haute couture. That is another story for another time.
Edward and I were flown to Vicenza, Italy, the company’s home town. There I met Manuela Morin who would design shoes and Edoardo Wongvalle on handbags. Then there was Mrs. -- Mrs. Laura Moltedo -- the high priestess owner diva of the company who assembled us all together. I called her Mrs: Not signora or madam, but Mrs. And that’s what everyone soon began calling her, husband Vittorio as well. Mrs. was a true diva. She arrived in New York in the seventies a ravishing Italian beauty who spoke not one word of English. She was introduced to Andy Warhol one night at Studio 54 and he hired her to be the receptionist at the Factory. Mind you, she spoke zero English. She told me that Warhol kept her because she made a delicious spaghetti Bolognese. She was my biggest supporter and my harshest tormentor. It was family. Very Italian.
It was during this time that I received my design education. The five of us were headquartered in our own suite at the historic Palazzo Serbelloni. It was spectacularly grand. There were ancient magnolias as well as hydrangeas growing nobly in the courtyard. It often made me homesick, but that’s to be expected from a Southerner. Edward’s nickname for me was Country. As we explored Europe each weekend – Milan, while not a pretty city is centrally located for easy travel to all of Europe – he pulled me along in his world of design and inspiration. Rome, Venice, Florence, Lake Cuomo, Portofino, St. Moritz were all just a drive or train ride away. London, Paris, Amsterdam a short, inexpensive plane ride.
As much as I enjoyed the education and entertaining company of the design team, my job was PR and I was given the task of presenting the first ever -- in the history of this famous company -- runway show. Edward’s first ready-to-wear collection for Bottega Veneta would be shown on a runway to the international fashion world’s top editors. Daunted? Yes. Overwhelmed? Sometimes. I managed to communicate in my broken Italian, hand gestures and crude drawings. I did nearly overdose on coffee once. I was stressing over some issue and losing my mind when one of the British assistants pulled me aside and said, “The trick here is to modulate the coffee intake.” So true! You don’t realize the amount of coffee you drink in Italy. Everywhere you go you are offered these little cups of coffee which seem so harmless. But they are CHOCK full of nuts. I was cracking and tweaking all over the old palazzo until I realized that little gem of cultural dissonance.
As the show loomed on the horizon months away I began to seek out the advice and wisdom of the maestros. One such person was Karla Otto. Ms. Otto is the woman who made Prada, “Prada”. She organized all Miss Muccia’s shows in the beginning so I exerted my one ace in the hole to procure an appointment. Southern charm is indeed a valuable potion. Ms. Otto met me at the palazzo as that was the venue I had chosen for the runway show. I’m a strong believer in authenticity and ease. And frugality. If your office is in a 17th century palace in the middle of an ancient European city – one where Napoleon & Josephine resided for 3 months and hosted lavish balls -- that’s where you have the inaugural presentation. It says who you are and what you’re about before the first model walks.
I wanted to have the runway show in the porticos which are long, tall hallways connected by a guard house. I remember so distinctly the words from Ms. Otto upon laying eyes on the space. “Darling, you must have the fashion show in one room. The audience has to feel the energy and witness the experience as one. It must be one space.” I informed her that we could fit less than 100 guests in each portico and our requests for attendance were pushing 400. “Then move the venue or cut the list,” she replied with that patented Italian coolness they exhibit when the subject is beneath them.
After much debate and harsh decisions, we whittled the guest list down to 100. Only top editors would be invited. The rest would have to come to the showroom to see the collection. Fashion editors come and go. Today’s top editors were assistants or second assistants when I began. For this period two of the reigning editors were Polly Mellen (Allure) and Marin Hopper (Elle). Ms. Mellen began her career under Dianna Vreeland at Vogue. Marin was top editor at Elle, and not incidentally, the daughter of Dennis Hopper and Brooke Hayward, real Hollywood royalty. Polly entered the space with a flourish and darted over to investigate the palazzo’s courtyard. She said to my associate Matthew that is was a splendid palace for a fashion show. After the show, Marin came to congratulate Edward on his debut and she whispered to me upon leaving, “It was so beautiful, one felt privileged to be invited.”
As we count down the week before the airing of my first full collection of menswear on Southern Charm Monday night, I thought I would take you through the process you’re about to witness. That’s if, I could be so bold to hope, you’ll tune in. The first thing you do to build the foundation of the event is choose the venue. This sets the tone for everything else: lighting, music, décor, flowers, furniture, staging and guest list. It is the most important step.
I know Frances Palmer through my Charleston family friends. I have enjoyed the magnificent breakfasts she lays out for her lucky guests, and I stop by on late afternoon bike rides along the High Battery to have a glass of ice tea or a fresh-baked cookie. If Frances, or her friend Bruce, is there I have a chat. If not, I say hello to the guests and make my way to the piazza. The Palmer Home is the ancestral home now in Frances’ hands. To keep things up, much like Downton Abbey, she has turned the great house into a bed and breakfast. As I sit on that piazza looking out over Charleston Harbor I see Ft. Sumter. Battered but not destroyed, the fort sits there at the mouth of the harbor, no longer guarding the city except in memory. The sea breeze casts a magical film of exotic mist on my face, the same mist that greeted foreign visitors in Charleston’s golden age, the so-called Age of Pinckneys (1720-1820). The port rivaled any on the Atlantic coastline in commerce and ship traffic and its society was often compared to Paris and London. Opulence reigned.
The collection of tuxedo separates in this fashion show is a nod to a time when men, gentle or not, dressed for society. The Evening Suit, as the show is called, is my effort to create a collection of evening clothes men can layer into their black tie they already own. As I thought about the presentation of this made-to-order collection, I thought of the intimacy of the Paris couture shows of the mid-Twentieth century. Designers would present the collection to the clients, not the press. The clients seated in little gold chairs could see up-close the detail, the workmanship, the luster of the fabric. This is what I wanted to emulate. Not in any pretentious or fussy way, but in an authentic presentation in a venue where one could imagine wearing these clothes. The Palmer Home in its blazing pink splendor on the High Battery was the natural choice. Frances generously offered us the space. All we needed next were the little gold chairs.