When I first joined the forces of fashion, I was under the impression that we all must search deep inside to provide original designs, and only original designs. How stunned was I when ten years later presenting my couture sketches for review to Mrs Grey at St.John knits I was asked where they came from? She and her sales team were not open to the risk of introducing original or ground-breaking designs to the market. All they were comfortable with was something inspired by power couture houses. Inspired by Chanel knit skirt suits, which company success was built on. Roberto Cavalli inspired prints that Mrs. Grey’s daughter, and company face at that time, Kelly Grey loved plus a handful of other well-known labels. Nothing that American consumers would not be familiar with. The entire business model was to provide people with quality garments, that didn’t look too unusual at a competitive price. In 2003 St.John was already forty years in business with their biggest growth through the late eighties and nighties. In the beginning of a new millennium, they were facing a fading of their core clientele and looking for new ways to bring younger target groups. However, creativity was not a business option in their mind. A great example was the missed opportunity in the custom trim I developed for their Autumn 2004 collection. I stacked mabe pearls through tubular tulle and stitched each pearl to the leather strip. Fifteen years later we are still familiar with the pearls in tulle concept, that went viral when Lanvin launched their jewelry line in May of 2004. People got obsessed. Everybody started producing some version of this idea. The sad part is that St.John had a chance to be the first, or parallel to Lanvin, but they did not take that chance. Not that they did not like the concept, they just thought production of it would be too expensive without even exploring any options.
At St. John I used to create day couture, my favorite tailored jackets, skirts, pant suits, and some dresses. All were popping straight out of my head, but then I had to spend hours looking through magazines desperately searching for something that will at least slightly resemble my ideas. It was very discouraging and heartbreaking. It eventually initiated my withdrawal from fashion design as the core of my career. I also noticed that other designers did not even bother to sketch anything, they just tore away pages from fashion magazines for reviews. Often when designs would overlap they would assign the design to the older or favored designer. There were so many of us there, about five head designers, one per division, and each had from two to five design assistants, associate designers, designers, senior designers and such. The lower your title was the harder you had to work scrambling trough the footwork for others. However, there was some creative outlet there. Mainly being textile design. Within house knitting department, the sky was the limit. Well, almost. We could design anything our brain would imagine as long as knitting time was production friendly and stitch not too difficult. That was fair! We could also design our-own embellishments, from embroidery, hand crochet, paillettes and hot fix crystals that St.John is renowned for. It was a fabulous time. I pushed for unusual designs anyway. I flew under the radar and managed at one time to have a massive amount designs approved to the line. It rocked the boat when everyone realized this new eastern European girl, that just got here was able to crack the system.
I pulled away from designing after Howe denim. With Jade Howe I was able to create and develop some original embellishments. Blocks we used were very classic and standardized for the punk rock cowboy concept. When head of our production told me I must be in charge of technical packages since I have tailoring background, I cried all afternoon. After that I came to terms and slowly transitioned into the production side. I found designing in Los Angeles too competitive and way too copy-orientated any way.
In the last fifteen or so years I have work with only handful truly creative, and what I would call real designers. One of my favorites was Laurie Deakers from Equipment. We produced a simple silk shirt line, with some cashmere pullovers, a couple pajamas and dresses. Most team creativity was focused on original and striking prints, but we also managed to develop around twenty-five shirt blocks. Nonetheless, Laurie’s clear and strong vision was a true dynamic force that made all of us deliver. As follows Equipment femme also had great commercial success. Who knew that in Los Angeles, an original concept might be so financially successful? Serge Azria owner of Dutch LLC, which included a part of Equipment, Joie and Current Elliot had a strong personality. He would run us like a tyrant, but Laurie was able to get right through him and made him trust her. We started developing suits. Him and I hit off after a short conversation when no one had an idea as to what he was referring to when asking for an English sport shooting blazer. I worked mainly for Equipment femme and homme but began to oversee the tailoring line for Joie to some extent. Seldom encounters with Serge’s muse were quite unpleasant. Kate, I believe was her name insisted since she cannot move her arms in a Celine Blazer, the blazers does not have to be comfortable, nor functional. According to her the penguin range of arm movement – from wrist to elbow, was perfectly sufficient.
Another amazing designer I had the privilege to collaborate with was Michele Manz at Lucky Brand. Michele is a British designer who has a couture background. She began her worldwide career at Alberta Feretti couture atelier, straight from London school of Fashion. She jumped into designing custom dresses for Hollywood stars like Julia Roberts. At Lucky Brand together, we developed one of the best fitting denims. She would always look for original inspirations, traveled all over the world, visited museums and exhibitions for her work. I never saw her with magazine tear away in her hand…. she would sketch or verbally explain to me what she wanted while we would work on blocks. One of my personal faves was High waist Olivia skinny jeans, inspired by Olivia Newton-John Grease movie costumes. Another one was a mid-rise Brooke, named after Brook Shields. Both gave woman flat clean front and push-up for their bottoms. Even women without spectacular buttocks could notice visual shaping. These two blocks were the base for variety of jeans from leggings, straight leg, flare leg to even wide leg pant. Apart from those feminine jeans we developed great boyfriend jeans and revived 1990 high waist mom-jeans. Our men’s denim line started looking at least ten years younger also. With its super slim leg, dropped crotches and joggings.
We also re-balanced Sienna cigarette jeans, Malibu shorts, Dixy denim jacket for women and other staple blocks for men. Michelle understood the need of balance and comfort, she understood couture and tailoring. Our conversations were productive and based on a professional partnership.
Two other great designers I worked with are very young but super talented. First, I Shan Liu, Taiwanese sweater designer who was featured as one of the “Emerging Fashion Designers” by Schiffer publishing house in 2010 with her original line of sweater cocoons. I Shan is not only greatly talented, she is humble, a sweetheart and creative powerhouse to work with. Together we collaborated on producing sweater lines for the Olsen twins PJK and Elisabeth and James line. Her designs were spectacular. She knew the difference between yearns, twists, gauges and a variety of knitting techniques. What I love most about creative designers is when they are hands on and eager to make the swatch for themselves and factory to follow. I love people who try to visualize their own sketches before submitting anything for development. This saves money and time for everyone involved. There are no cancellations after the first run of fit samples when garments do not appear as imagined by designers. Often technical teams can foresee such failure coming but are not in a position to vocalize their concerns. Designer’s ego is very sensitive and super proud, and their attitude is not always cordial. Other supportive teams are usually looked down at by design, that is a big mistake and counterproductive business conduct. Businesses would only benefit and evolve in a cooperative and inclusive environment, where there is no division between the tech team and design team. Unnecessary waste would be prevented while productivity would increase.
Enough of my divagations about cross functional teams, last but not least is Max Gengos, a super young and extremely dynamic designer from New York. Max at the age of 26 already had successful entrepreneurial experience under his belt and had been working for Marc Jacobs and Calvin Klein. He joined frilly’s team late 2016 and started to show his feathers without wasting anytime. His eye was sharp and clear. He had fierce vision combined with an understanding of construction which made him easier to work with. Nothing worse than unsure and not knowledgeable designers who have no idea what you are talking about. He swiftly moved to conducting hand offs and fittings. His answers were clear and straightforward. I loved his sexy, but not slutty lines. The ability to distinguish between the two is not easy to come by, and marks the difference between a great designer and fast fashion/street designer. He is the next Gianni Versace if you let him. His Black Panther/ Parisian chic line for Saltt was not only sexy, it was versatile. Young millennials could pull it off as well as middle aged women like myself. My favorite was our suit jumpsuit; a combination of high waist slacks with tuxedo. Super modern and very sexy garment that sold quite well. Others were our body conscious blazers and corset dresses. You can see our last collections in my gallery, look for the Saltt line.
I am sure I will still work with fabulous designers, I hope they will all be able to express their talent and not be forced to only copy. There must be a wider middle ground, where one does not have to feel so restricted, have broader margin and ability to take risk to develop some spectacular if only, editorial pieces. I truly believe in art and the craft of fashion. Otherwise I would not be able to do it for over twenty-five years. My passion for fashion is still alive.