Kansai Yamamoto 1944 – 2020

Kansai Yamamoto with stage costume he designed for David Bowie

Born in Yokohama, Japan, Yamamoto learned civil engineering and English before self-training as a fashion designer. He debuted his work internationally in London in 1971 where young fashions were still originating. Two years later he began collaborating with David Bowie who often wore his genderless creations on stage. Yamamoto debuted in Paris in 1975 and rode the wave of Japanese design that dominated fashion until the end of the 1980s. After the early 1990s, his fashion shows became more extraordinary and his clothes less commercial. He died last week from leukemia at the age of 76.

For more about his life see Vogue and the New York Times

Cotton jersey dress by Kansai Yamamoto, late 1980s, FHM collection

Fashion Hall of Obscurity – Conover Mayer 1995-2006

Just before COVID-19 shut down the world, I was invited to guest lecture at Syracuse University for the fashion arts program. Two of the teachers in that program, Jeffrey Mayer and Todd Conover, were former design partners working under the label Conover Mayer. Their high-end women’s fashion line produced two collections per year between 1995 and 2006 that were sold through stores like Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus.

I won’t repeat all the tea served in conversation, but it was fascinating to hear how the fashion industry shifted and changed during that decade. The two were already teaching fashion design at Syracuse University while they designed their collections, and continue to teach there today, but both have since moved on from designing fashion on the side. Todd Conover now designs jewellery, and Jeffrey Mayer curates fashion exhibitions.

Sergio Rossi, 1935 – 2020

Sergio Rossi was born in 1935 and apprenticed with his father to learn the art of shoemaking. He began making sandals for summer tourists in Rimini in the 1950s. By 1966 he had set up his own shop in Bologna and two years later launched his own eponymously-named brand. 

His name became synonymous with luxury Italian footwear and by the 1990s he was creating shoe collections for fashion houses including Versace, Dolce & Gabbana, and Azzedine Alaia. In 1999 his company was acquired by the Gucci Group, now known as Kering, before being resold to a private equity firm in 2015. 

Sergio Rossi contracted Covid-19 and died in Cesena, Italy at the age of 84.

Emanuel Ungaro 1933-2019

Emanuel Ungaro, c. 1973

Born to Italian immigrants in Aix-en-Provence in the south of France, Emanuel Ungaro learned tailoring from his father before moving to Paris in 1955. Emanuel first worked for the men’s tailor Christiani before moving over to Balenciaga in 1958, and then Courreges in 1961.

In 1965 he founded his own company and concentrated on ready-to-wear rather than couture. In 1973 he launched his first menswear collection and was also one of five designers representing France at the famous Versailles fashion show that year.

In 1996 Ungaro partnered with the Ferragamo group and continued to design under his own label until he retired in 2004. The company was sold in 2005 to Asum Abdullah, and the label soon became notorious for its revolving door of creative directors that bizarrely included Lindsay Lohan.

Ungaro, fall 1966

Joseph Thimister 1962-2019

Josephus Melchior Thimister was born in Maastricht, Holland on September 16, 1962. He attended the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp and worked as an assistant for Karl Lagerfeld and later Patou before becoming the creative director of Balenciaga in 1992. Thimister left Balenciaga in 1997 to start his own label but, despite critical success, struggled to find investors. He took a side stint as creative director of Genny but in 2004 Thimister ceased designing under his own name. Between 2005 and 2007 he worked as the artistic director of Charles Jourdan, the shoe company.

He then worked different jobs: an interior designer, consultant at Pucci, and taught at la Cambre art school in Brussels and the Institut Francais de la Mode in Paris. He returned to fashion with a comeback couture show in 2010 which lead to an opportunity to design ready-to-wear in 2011, but his work never found an audience. 

He possessed an artist’s temperament: dramatic, stubborn, sensitive, flamboyant, and moody, and eventually his depression got the best of him. Thimister commited suicide at the age of 57 on November 13.

Thimister dress, Image by Irving Penn for Vogue, April 1999

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.