August 2 2014

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narciso rodriguez by the book


Narciso Rodriguez began work on an eponymous coffee-table book well before the fashion industry began whispering about the health of his relationship with Liz Claiborne, Inc. After a steady build-up of murmur and speculation, news broke last week that Liz was indeed handing its 50 percent stake in Rodriguez’s company back to the designer—which makes this month’s release of Narciso Rodriguez a well-timed reminder that the back end of his business is the least interesting thing about him. Published by Rizzoli in celebration of the tenth anniversary of Rodriguez’s label, Narciso Rodriguez avoids the “greatest hits” approach to retrospection and shines a light on the designer’s creative process instead, compiling on-the-fly sketches and photos by Rodriguez, snaps of his old inspiration boards, and shots of some of the signature dresses the designer has summoned from all that raw material. Here, Rodriguez talks to about falling up, the friendship that launched his brand, and why he’s not worrying about the future.

What made you decide to do a book?
It wasn’t my idea, actually. Rizzoli came to me, and at first I was a little skeptical. I wasn’t sure how I’d make a book about my work interesting. What would it be, just pictures from the collections? That seemed a little, you know, eh. But the offer got me thinking—in a way, it made me acknowledge that, yeah, I’d been doing this for ten years, and maybe there could be something creatively invigorating about looking back. And then Sam Shahid came by my studio, and he was checking out the collages I put up each season, and I showed him some of my sketches and travel photos.

And that’s how you arrived at the idea of making the book about your creative process?
Like I said, I knew I wasn’t interested in a compendium. Temperamentally, I’ve always been a designer who finds the journey to a collection more exciting than the ten minutes the clothes spend on the runway. My work is my life. I take my sketchbook to the gym, I’ve got my camera with me everywhere I go, I’m doodling on napkins… It’s like a diary. Very moment-to-moment. That was all sort of fascinating to revisit.

It was really illuminating to see the links between, say, your photos of the beach in Brazil and the palette of the collection that came after that trip. Do you like to travel to lots of different places to scout ideas, or are there a few places you always find inspiring?

I’m always, always inspired by Tokyo. Walking around that city is like being inside a pinball machine. I love urban environments. I love my neighborhood in New York. And I do gravitate back to Rio—that’s like a giant city stuck to the side of a beach. It’s a baffling place. And the architecture, too—there’ll be some thirties Art Deco building next to a Niemeyer spaceship-looking-thing next to a colonial church. I just shoot and shoot and shoot.

I’m guessing your archives are rather extensive. Did collating all that stuff lead you to any big-picture revelations about your work?
I saw how the work evolved, how the person evolved, how the craft has evolved. I saw things I liked. And I saw a lot of clunkers. I saw everything. When you research a book like this, you have to go into every box, every sketchbook. I saw a consistency, and that made me happy. Not to sound hokey, or, I don’t know—rehearsed—but I think my work has managed, consistently, to draw on my profound respect for women. I remember, when I was thinking about launching my own house, having this conversation with Carolyn [Bessette Kennedy] about wanting to celebrate a woman’s beauty. And really, this whole time, that’s been the goal. Simple, but it brought me a lot of joy to see that goal reflected over ten years of archives.

You’ve put a few of your own photos of Carolyn Bessette Kennedy on her wedding day in the book. Do you think you’ll ever have the opportunity to design a dress that iconic again?
Well, I never say never. But that dress… It was a moment, I was blessed to be a part of it, and I find it hard to imagine another moment like that one coming around again. But for me, you know, I don’t really see the cultural moment when I look at those photos—I see Carolyn, and it’s very personal and sweet. I miss her. She was such a great fashion icon, but to me she was simply one of the dearest friends I ever had. When you’re that close to someone, they don’t go away. And I love it when people say, ‘Oh, you did Carolyn’s dress’—I love that phrase, because it means people are remembering her, too. The public Carolyn, perhaps, and not my Carolyn, but still.

That dress introduced your work to the public, but when did you first stop and say to yourself, “I’m a designer”?

Twelve or thirteen? My early teens, anyway. I don’t recall a specific thought, like, “Oh, this is who I am,” but I was always watching my mom make clothes, and so I was comfortable with the idea of tearing into a piece of fabric. I remember a piece of black wool felt—I was making a very cool vest, and Mom walked in on me with the scissors in my hand, as I was cutting into the felt, and she freaked out: “What are you doing?!” I was ruining a lot of fabric back then.

Did you wear the vest?
Yeah, I wore the vest! I was about…15? There were a lot of experiments gone wrong, but I was proud of that vest. And anyway, you know what they say—you learn more from the failures.

Has all of this looking back influenced your thinking about the future?
Not really, because the only way I know how to work is in the moment. Cutting, draping. What happened yesterday or last week—that was then. Whenever I wake up, there’s this feeling like, “Today’s the first day.” And every sketch I make, or photograph I take, that becomes the future.

Photo: Marcio Madeira