By JULIA REED
ON THE BULLETIN BOARD in Narciso Rodriguez's downtown Manhattan workroom is a photo of a black-and-white T-strap Spectator shoe with a pointed toe and spike heel. Immortalized in a Vogue Italia shoot that featured only the model's legs in fishnet tights, it made its debut in fall 2000 as part of Rodriguez's first-ever accessories collection. When the shoe hit the stores, it was snapped up so quickly that photographer Nan Goldin offered Rodriguez one of her own sought-after photos in exchange for one pair. They were destined to become even more collectible: Rodriguez's business partner at the time scaled back his investment in the line, and, within a few years, the shoes, the bags—all the accessories—were discontinued and the Spectator would live on only in the memories of the obsessed.
Photos: Designs by Narciso Rodriguez
Last fall, Rodriguez's relaunched accessories line— his first in six years—made its debut at Barneys and the Spectator itself will return for pre-fall 2013 (hence, its inspiration board prominence). Rodriguez has a new seasoned and committed CEO in the form of Robert Wichser; a new website (which launched in February) featuring e-commerce; and a current spring collection (including beautiful body-skimming crepe dresses and a perfectly tapered pant) that was among the most raved-about of the season. The offices are being renovated, years of designs are being archived, a wildly successful fall line for Kohl's has been followed by a stint as an advisor for Banana Republic. A secondary line for Rodriguez's own label is among the expansion options the company is currently considering, along with intimates, eyewear, home accessories and freestanding boutiques. Finally, after almost 30 years in the business and 15 years designing under his own name, Rodriguez has the support he needs to do what he has always done best.
"A designer's focus should be on creating and not worrying about the cash flow, the production problem or the fabric that didn't come," says Rodriguez, outfitted, as usual, in jeans, his signature black tee and a pair of New Balance running shoes, as he walks me through his cluttered office. "When you don't have the proper funding and backing, it limits what you can do. Every designer needs a good business partner to be able to grow: Calvin had Barry [Calvin Klein cofounder and CEO Barry Schwartz]; Marc had Robert [Marc Jacobs's president Robert Duffy]; Yves Saint Laurent had Pierre Bergé. I'm very lucky today that I have Bob Wichser."
Wichser, a former executive at fashion companies ranging from Manhattan Industries and Warnaco to Sean John and Joseph Abboud, joined the house as a strategic consultant in 2010 and became CEO last spring. "In those two years," Rodriguez says, "we've grown more than we've grown in the history of the label."
Before Wichser's arrival, the label's recent history had been especially tumultuous. In 2007, after years of frustrating stops and starts—due to insufficient funding and ineffective management—Rodriguez still remained on top creatively (he'd been featured in a show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in L.A., and Rachel Weisz had accepted the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in a dress he'd designed for her), but the business itself was on the brink of bankruptcy. "It was painful and distracting, and I'm sure it affected my work," he says. "It was like trying to read a book when someone is drilling on the other side of the wall."
When the drilling finally became unbearable, he was forced to bare his soul and precipitously empty bank account to friends and advisors, ranging from Anna Wintour and Donna Karan to Jerry and Jessica Seinfeld. "The way he handled himself during that period was like someone going through a major trauma, but his inner strength was so inspiring," Jessica Seinfeld says. "I think I was more frantic than he was. I'd lie awake at night and think, Who do we know? How can we help him?"
The group brainstorming led to a deal with Liz Claiborne, the former sportswear powerhouse that bought a 50-percent stake in the label from Rodriguez's original Italian backer Aeffe. Claiborne hoped to regain much-needed edge and relevance, while Rodriguez longed for a protective partner. The "marriage" was celebrated at a glitzy dinner attended by the aforementioned pals as well as such longtime Rodriguez clients as Sarah Jessica Parker and Claire Danes, but less than two years into it Rodriguez was back on his own.
When Wichser stepped in, he—like everyone else— was blown away by Rodriguez's talent and sensibility, as well as the quality of his retailers and his success in the fragrance business (in 2012 the designer's signature scent was given the French Fragrance Foundation's Fifi award for being the "best feminine fragrance of the past 20 years"—even though it is only 10 years old). What he didn't have, Wichser says, was "a clear blueprint. You have to have a vision about what you want the company to become." The goal now, say both men, is to transform the brand into an international powerhouse.
Rodriguez first achieved global fame in 1996, before his label even existed, when he designed the bias-cut slip dress Carolyn Bessette wore at her secret wedding to John F. Kennedy, Jr. At the time, Rodriguez was a freelancer working for the Italian house Cerruti: "I didn't have an office or press people," he says. "I was kind of left to my own devices to work my way through all that. Still, it was kind of amazing to see my name on the front page of every newspaper around the world." It was the defining moment that not only launched him as an independent designer (he debuted his signature line almost a year to the day later), it is still constantly referenced (most recently on ABC's hit show Revenge).
Rodriguez had met Bessette at Calvin Klein, where she worked in PR and assisted the boss, during his four-year stint there—part of his long apprenticeship with the greats of American sportswear that also included six years at Anne Klein, where he first worked with Karan. When Bessette died in a plane crash in 1999, Rodriguez says he lost his "soul mate." He still wears the silver Georg Jensen bracelet Bessette closed around his wrist almost 15 years ago. "She said, 'You'll always have this.' And I've never taken it off."
In 2000, after years of shuttling between Italy, France and Spain, he brought his collection to New York for the first time. In 2002 and 2003 he won back-to-back Womenswear Designer of the Year awards from the Council of Fashion Designers of America, an achievement that is still unmatched. While the business side was always frustrating, the awards and critical acclaim continued to pile on—as did his stable of high-profile clients, who range from Danes, whom he first dressed for the Academy Awards when she was 15, to Celia Cruz, the iconic Cuban singer. Another devoted fan is Michelle Obama who made a splash on election night 2008 by wearing a memorable black and red Narciso sheath, and who continues to wear his clothes as first lady.
“"The way Narciso handled himself was like someone going through major trauma, but his inner strength was inspiring."” —Jessica Seinfeld
"He's been my pal more than half my life," says Danes. "When we first met, I had zero clue what it meant to be feminine or in the world of fashion. He educated me."
It's a sentiment echoed by so many of Rodriguez's "girls," who say they consider him family. Rachel Weisz wore her first Rodriguez design, a fitted red dress with spaghetti straps, to a premiere in L.A. and said, "I've never felt more like myself." The year she won her Oscar, at six months pregnant, he not only dressed her, she took him with her as her date. He made Danes's wedding dress, a structured slip with a gauzy cap-sleeved overlay, when she married Hugh Dancy. ("It was the most beautiful dress I've ever worn," she says. "He embroidered little secrets into it, like [Hugh's] name and a four-leaf clover.")
Julianna Margulies, who wears Rodriguez's clothes on her hit TV show The Good Wife, says, "I always know what's his without having to look at the label." Like Danes, she credits the designer with helping her discover her feminine side. "Before I met him I was much more of a tomboy," she says. "But in Narciso's clothes I can feel like a woman without having to fight ruffles and frills. I like simple lines that can still hold the female form in a way that embraces it."
THOSE SIMPLE LINES are often the most complicated to achieve, but Rodriguez has always been a master of technique and tailoring. At Calvin Klein he took fabrics and cut them on the bias, and almost every major American designer followed suit. Before presenting his spring collection, he says, "I spent a great deal of time changing the cut, changing the way I was looking at things, trying to never lose sight that the ultimate goal is creating, so that women look beautiful." The result was a show heralded by one critic as "the ultimate in modern minimalism," but Rodriguez himself prefers different adjectives. "People say minimalism and all that, but I think precision and purism are so much more interesting," he says. "Because when you strip things back to what's elemental and profoundly beautiful, you don't need the rest of it. That's where I live, and I always have."
The actual bricks and mortar house in Newark, New Jersey, where Rodriguez lived as a child was a two-family affair that included his aunt, uncle and cousins, whom he and his two sisters considered siblings. "I grew up in an environment in which everybody was doing something with their hands," he says. "My grandmothers embroidered and sewed, and my mom would take fabric and make something for a party or for us to wear." His grandfather and uncle were barbers, so his aunt decided she'd cut hair too. "She was funny, fun and really audacious; she could take the radio apart and fix it or she'd build us a go-cart."
From a very young age, Rodriguez says he was "always cutting things" or turning shoe boxes into buildings. At first he wanted to be an architect, but when, at 13, he discovered the work of the great fashion illustrator Antonio Lopez, he realized he wanted to make clothes instead—"which was really a shock to the family," he adds, laughing, especially for his longshoreman dad. Still, while he was in high school, his parents allowed him to enroll in weekend programs at Parsons The New School of Design, from which he ended up graduating in 1982.
Rodriguez says he never lost his love of slightly more concrete design; Seinfeld compares him to architect Charles Gwathmey, who designed her modern apartment. "Sometimes in fashion you just throw a lot of chiffon on a mannequin and pin it together and off she goes," Rodriguez says. "An architect approaches his work in a much more thoughtful way. There is a very careful selection of materials and how those materials relate. That part of it has stayed with me and is part of my thinking process when I'm trying to do a collection."
He says one of the reasons he was so excited to do his affordable collection for Kohl's last year was the company's proposal that he travel to a city for inspiration. He chose Istanbul, where the "amazing architecture, the prints, the ceramics, the unbelievable color" all provided rich fodder for the clothes. The Kohl's experience in turn provided inspiration for his own possible secondary line. Most of the pieces, which sold out, cost less than $100. "It was a great example of how you can create a dress that's very desirable at a very affordable price." He describes his year-long consultancy at Banana Republic, which he began last fall, as a similar "think tank." In exchange, says Banana Republic's creative director Simon Kneen, "Narciso brings us his modernity, his fresh perspective and his years of amazing experience."
These days, he says he derives strength from the more difficult parts of that experience. "I had a conversation with a friend about that not long ago, and we had a chuckle. It's the past—that's the good part." He adds that "if there's one thing I've always been, it's persistent and resilient"—qualities he says he gets from his Cuban immigrant parents. "They did something so much more courageous than I could ever do: They left the warmth of the tropics to come to a cold, hard island, and they did it so that their children could have a better future."
These days his own has never been brighter. "There's an energy level that we're all thrilled about," says Wichser. "Narciso is more confident and so challenged and excited." Even in the worst of times, Seinfeld says, "Jerry and I kept saying that he's too talented, too special and too beloved to fail. And he didn't. He's made of the best stuff, and now it's his time again."