Sophia Kokosalaki 1972 – 2019

Greek born designer Sophia Kokosalaki trained at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London before launching her label at London fashion week in 1999. Known for her draping, Kokosalaki came to fame designing costumes and uniforms for the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. She collaborated with Top Shop in 2001, Diesel from 2009 to 2012, and served as creative director for the relaunch of Vionnet in 2006/2007. Between 2012 and 2017 she designed a line of wedding dresses for the modern bride, and in 2015 she updated the uniforms for Aegean Airlines. She died this week at the age of 47.

Scarf designer Vera Neumann

Vera Neumann (nee Salaff) was born June 24, 1907 and attended art school and the Traphagen School of Design. She began working as a fashion illustrator before going into textile design. After marrying George Neumann, the two founded a silk screen textile printing company called Printex in 1942. Her first signature printed scarves appeared shortly afterwards and quickly became popular sellers. 

In about 1959 she adopted a ladybug motif which appeared alongside her signature scarf, linens, and yardage prints throughout the 1960s. The motif gradually fell from use, disappearing by 1976. Five years after the death of her husband in 1962, Vera sold the business to Manhattan Industries but remained their creative director. The company expanded into sportswear, eventually hiring Perry Ellis to oversee the sportswear and luggage divisions. 

Vera’s artwork was critically praised and shown in galleries during the 1970s, especially her Japanese sumi-e (ink painting) designs that she preferred to use for most of her work. In 1988, Neumann began licensing her name to Salant Corporation, closing her Printex business later that same year. She remained head designer until her death on June 15, 1993. Vera Licensing was sold on to The Tog Shop in 1999; resold to Susan Seid in 2005; and sold again in 2013.

Vera Neumann, 1970s

Isabel Toledo 1960 – 2019

Isabel Toledo in 2009, at her retrospective exhibition at F.I.T.

Isabel Toledo died Monday from breast cancer at the age of 59. Born Maria Isabel Izquierdo on April 9, 1960 in Camajuani, Cuba, Isabel immigrated to New Jersey in 1968. She met her future Cuban-born husband, Ruben Toledo, in high school when she was 14 and he 13. The artistically-talented Ruben became her collaborative partner in love and business when they married in 1984.

Isabel attended the Fashion Institute of Technology (F.I.T.) and later, the Parsons School of Design, but left in 1979 before graduating to intern for Diana Vreeland at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Toledo presented her first independent collection in 1984 at the club Danceteria, and debuted her work at New York Fashion Week the following year. She quickly built a reputation as a “designer’s designer”, in the same vein as Charles James and Iris van Herpen. The Toledos received the Cooper Hewitt National Design Award for their work in fashion in 2005.

Isabel’s couture work, which ignored semi-annual seasonal collection schedules, was more often featured in museum exhibitions than in fashion magazines. Her more commercial work appeared while she was the creative director for Anne Klein in 2006/07 and in collections she began designing for Lane Bryant in 2014.

Although well known in the fashion world, Toledo came to the world’s attention when she unknowingly created Michelle Obama’s lemongrass-coloured sheath dress and matching overcoat of wool lace for the 2009 inauguration. Mrs. Obama had bought the dress from the Chicago boutique Ikram without meeting Isabel Toledo before wearing the ensemble. Later that same year, F.I.T. staged a retrospective of her work which I was fortunate enough to see. I blogged about my impressions of the show on July 29, 2009:

“Cuban-born Toledo is difficult to define. Her work shows a lot of Spanish influence, superb detailing, intricate pattern cuts, old fashioned fabrics, and a great deal of influence from designers such as Balenciaga, Gernreich, and especially Madame Gres. Each collection grows in a different direction, sometimes bordering the ridiculous such as a brassiere designed for drag queens and her ‘pubic hair’ bikini (a ‘hairy’ fabric bikini but don’t worry, no pubic hairs were actually involved in its manufacture) to Avant-garde designs of asymmetrically draped and gathered dresses with odd folds and peekaboo seams – hardly the same style of dressmaking as Mrs. Obama’s elegantly simple inaugural suit!”

In 2012 she published her autobiography, “Roots of Style: Weaving Together Life, Love, and Fashion”, with illustrations by Rubin Toledo. That same year she told CNN in an interview “I’m not supposed to say I’m not a fashion person, but I’m not. I just, I love design… design is so different than fashion. That’s why design lasts forever. It’s like an engineer. I love to engineer a garment.” 

The New York Times did a lovely memoir of her life and work in an end of year tribute.

Gerald McCann, 1931- 2019

Gerald McCann c. 1964 (11 November, 1931 – 26 June, 2019)

English born Gerald McCann trained at the Royal College of Art, graduating in 1953. He designed for Marks & Spencer as well as upmarket manufacturer Harry B. Popper, whose clothes were worn by the queen herself. In 1955, McCann was also asked to help design clothes for a new boutique run by his friend Alexander Plunket Greene’s girlfriend Mary Quant. 

In 1963, after a decade of designing clothes for other brands, McCann started his own business on Upper Grosvenor Street in Mayfair. His clothes, made in London, supplied boutiques as well as stores like Harrods and were bought by celebrities like Julie Christie, Jean Shrimpton, and Susannah York. In the late 1960s, he began designing for the American Butterick pattern company and his British appeal quickly spread across the Atlantic where Bloomingdales opened a Gerald McCann department. In 1974 McCann moved to New York where he designed under the Larry Levine label on Seventh Avenue. The clothes were sold across the U.S. through stores like Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf Goodman.

McCann returned to Britain in the early 1990s, and while he doesn’t retain the same kind of fame his peers Mary Quant and Jean Muir do, at the time his work was seen as equally important to the young styled British Chelsea look. A retrospective of his work in the 1960s was showcased in an exhibition in Leeds in 2016.

Gloria Vanderbilt 1924 – 2019

New York ‘best-dressed’ heiress and ‘Jeans Queen’ socialite known for her troubled childhood, failed marriages, various affairs with numerous celebrities, exquisite taste, and mother of news journalist Anderson Cooper, died Monday (June 17).

There are plenty of tributes about Ms. Vanderbilt, but it’s primarily her contribution to fashion I want to mark with this post. In 1976, Gloria Vanderbilt was in discussion with Hong Kong fashion firm Murjani about creating a line of clothes under her name. Sexy-fitted high-waisted women’s jeans in stretch denim became the focus of the line that was an instant success the moment it was launched in 1977. Vanderbilt ushered in the era of designer jeans that would become cluttered with names like Calvin Klein, Jordache, and Sasson. The label remained popular for years, but by the late 1980s other brands had overtaken sales.

Max Azria 1949-2019

The youngest of six children, Max Azria was born in Sfax, Tunisia on January 1, 1949. He was educated in France and in 1970 began his career in fashion. In 1981 he immigrated to the United States and launched Jess, a woman’s apparel boutique in Los Angeles. 

Max Azria with second wife Lubov, who is the creative director at BCBGMaxAzrial

In 1989, Azria launched his BCBG brand. The name was derived from the French phrase ‘Bon chic, Bon genre’ a Parisian saying meaning ‘Good style, Good attitude.’ The label strove to produce designer fashion styles at affordable prices. Later labels followed, including the BCBG Max Azria Runway collection in 1996, Max Azra Atelier in 2004, and Max Azria in 2006. 

1998 was Max Azria’s year. He acquired Hervé Léger’s fashion house, and was inducted into the Council of Fashion Designers of America. His relationship with Léger didn’t last long and the two parted, with Azria retaining the right to use Léger’s name. In 2007, Azria relaunched the Hervé Léger label. 

In 2008, Max Azria launched another collection aimed at a younger audience called BCBGeneration, and in 2009 he created a line with Miley Cyrus for Walmart called Miley Cyrus & Max Azria. 

BCBG, spring 2012

Sales dropped off as the company went into decline and the label became associated with cheap adolescent fashion. Azria left his own company in 2016 and the company filed for bankruptcy in 2017. It was subsequently sold to Marquee Brands. Azria died May 7, 2019.

Canadian Fashion Connection – Backing the Bandage Dress

Hervé Peugnet was born in 1957, and after working as a hairdresser and milliner, he turned his hand to fashion. In 1981 he got the chance to work for Karl Lagerfeld at Fendi. Lagerfeld advised Peugnet to change his surname as it was too difficult for Americans to pronounce. Hervé chose Léger when he created his first collection in 1985. 

In 1986, Azzedine Alaia created a collection that used Lycra bands, spawning the age of ‘body-con’ fashion. Léger may have copied Alaia’s idea or independently developed a similar style. He said he had been inspired by seeing scraps of Lycra trim in a work room and wondered how they would work sewn together. Léger launched his ‘bender’ dresses, as he called them, made of knitted bands of Lycra in 1989, and offered them every year for the next eight years. Although he used other materials to create other fashions, it was these bandage-like dresses for which Léger became known.

The Canadian Bronfman family who owned Seagram’s Group bankrolled Léger’s business when they were diversifying their portfolio (outside of liquor) in the 1980s. However, due to the economic recession of the 1990s, over-extended projects, and many poor business decisions, like the Canary Wharf development in London, Seagram’s sold off Hervé Léger in September 1998 to BCBG Max Azria Group of Los Angeles. Not liking his new boss, Léger quit in 1999, losing the rights to his own name. Hervé took the new last name of Leroux in 2000.

Max Azria was surprised to discover that the Léger bandage dresses weren’t as simply made as they appeared. The back catalogue had been ransacked before the buy-out, so Azria had to buy back samples for the company archives, mostly on eBay, as well as from a former muse of Hervé Léger. In April 2007 Max Azria relaunched the Hervé Léger ‘bender’ or bandage dress, and the next year presented the Hervé Léger by Max Azria collection at the Fall 2008 New York Fashion Week.

Fashion Hall of Obscurity – Rosina Schiavone Ferragamo

While we are in Italy, here is another name that eludes research. Rosina Schiavone Ferragamo is often cited as being the sister of the more famous shoe designer Salvatore Ferragamo. Her birth date is recorded as 1905, but I have not been able to find a death date – unusual considering she was designing shoes under her own name from the mid 1950s (the MET has several positively identified from then), until the mid 1980s, when there were also leather clothes being sold under that label (see eBay). Even more peculiar is that the Ferragamo company, family, or museum all fail to mention her existence. Perhaps there was a bit of a family scandal…

Patchwork suede pump by Rosina Schiavone Ferragamo, c. 1969, FHM collection

Fashion Hall of Obscurity – Oppio

In 1940, Anna Ancillotti Chiarugi established a dressmaking business in Sovigliana-Vinci, near Florence. Her four daughters Sandra, Lucia, Rosaria and Stella Chiarugi inherited the business in 1975 and seven years later renamed the company Oppio (Italian for opium). The label found international success, but by 2009 the company had been bought out or sold.

Embroidered and applique knit two piece dress, mid 1980s, by Oppio

Karl Lagerfeld, 1933 – 2019

Karl Lagerfeld died earlier today of pancreatic cancer at the age of 85. Rumours of failing health surfaced a few weeks ago when he didn’t make his end-of-show-bow at the Paris Chanel show on January 22.  

Karl Otto Lagerfeldt was born in Hamburg, Germany to a German mother and Swedish father on September 10, 1933. By 1952 he had moved to Paris and in 1954 he won a prize for a sketch of a coat that led to an offer to work as a design assistant at Pierre Balmain. In 1957 Lagerfeld left Balmain to take on the position of art director at Jean Patou where he remained until 1963. He began designing for Fendi in 1965 and Chloe in 1966.

In 1983 he took on the role of artistic director at Chanel where his successful revitalization of the atelier was spectacular. The following year Lagerfeld launched his own label, which he sold to Tommy Hilfiger in 2005.

In the 1990s Karl was known for wearing sunglasses at all times, as well as carrying a fan. Shortly after the turn of the century Karl kept the glasses, but dropped the fan, as well as 93 pounds. He began to wear the slim gentleman-vampire chic of Hedi Slimane, designer for Dior’s menswear. Karl became known for his look of leather pants, tall collars, mitts and beads. The New York Times had an excellent obit about the mystique of Lagerfeld.