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July 29 2014

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Costume Drama: Robert Lee Morris On The Relaunch Of His Namesake Brand

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Robert Lee Morris. The first name—or three—in costume jewelry blazed a new path for contemporary fashion accessories when he launched his namesake collection in 1971 with big, bold, tribal-inspired pieces that attracted the attention of retailers, press, and fellow designers. He went on to collaborate with some—Calvin Klein, Karl Lagerfeld, and most famously Donna Karan, with whom he designed jewelry for 28 of her collections. After a brief stint in the fine jewelry sector, Morris is now relaunching his eponymous brand with Haskell Jewels (as in Miriam). The prices are lower—ranging from $150 to $1,000—but the iconic RLM look is all the same. Style.com sat down with Morris to talk old days, newcomers, and what stood between him and Tom Ford, and to take an exclusive first look at a few of his new pieces.

Robert Lee Morris relaunches this September at Bergdorf Goodman, Kirna Zabête, Morris’ Soho store, and www.robertleemorris.com.


How is this collection different from anything else you’ve done?
The thing that makes this collection different is that it is primarily affordable. It’s constructed of solid cast brass, which is a wonderful metal; I’ve always used brass in everything I’ve ever made, because I can get big, bold shapes and I can do anything with it. With the economy being what it is, it makes more sense to shift my entire direction towards the affordability and my desire to want more people to have my work, and that’s the big difference. I’m able to distribute my work at a much more affordable price without losing its signature look.


How has the costume jewelry industry changed since you got started 40 years ago?
It’s come full circle. When I started, it was the beginning of a revolution that I was very much a part of. Similar ideas were happening in Japan, Europe, and America—of creating jewelry that was challenging and full of content. That was the beginning of the designer-artist jewelry movement. That has never died, though it’s certainly had some low points. When I started, it was a heyday and opened many doors; retailers went crazy for it. Then in the nineties we had the complete opposite: All shows of wealth became a no-no. The recession hit hard, the Gulf War was going on, the stock market crashed. Everything that was fabulous and wild in the eighties came to a screeching halt. Nobody wanted to spend money on anything that wasn’t just pure “meat and potatoes” safe, and my range of the jewelry business collapsed. Then in 1995, Tom Ford at Gucci started showing Halston-esque, sexy, body-hugging clothing, and the next thing you know, we’re back in business. It was a revival and we didn’t do anything. I didn’t think I was even old enough to have a revival. The creativity is still not 100 percent back yet, but there’s been a slow return in costume jewelry of big, bold, fun-to-wear, wacky, crazy things. Designers who were once subtle are kicking it up ten notches to crazy.

You’ve collaborated with a lot of A-list names in fashion. What are some of your favorite memories from these collaborations?
One of my favorite memories was in Paris around 1981-’82. I was working with the Japanese designer Kansai Yamamoto. So he would take me to Paris every season, and after the shows were over, there would be these fabulous parties where all these French designers were hanging out. I remember Lacroix was just getting started and we were all partying with Claude Montana and Karl Lagerfeld and Thierry Mugler, and then we’d all jump in airplanes and go to different places. Like we’d all meet in Venice and start partying in Venice. It was a fabulous time for French fashion.

In terms of American parties, my favorite was the after-party for the Calvin Klein show in 1981, when he showed his Fall collection on 81 models, and I did this blockbuster collection of jewelry for him that I won the Coty Award for that year. We went to his skyscraper apartment overlooking the East River, and Brooke Shields was there as this little child, and Steve Rubell and all those people were there, and we were beside ourselves with joy because we knew the moment was so beyond-belief fabulous. And the many parties I had with Donna at her various houses, after the show where we’d be sitting around waiting for someone to run out and get WWD at the first newsstand, watching reruns of the show, squealing when something happened. It was a tribe. Being part of a tribe of people who worked their butts off to create a 20-minute expression of art and fashion that would become a global phenomenon, and watching it happen, year after year after year.

There are a lot of designers that have recently come up in the fashion jewelry space. Who do you think is presenting new and exciting collections right now?
My most favorite is Pamela Love and I’m so sorry she didn’t win the CFDA this year. Pamela has a unique vocabulary; it’s not a rehash of something else you’ve already seen, and a lot of young ones are doing that. What truly matters is invention and we need more invention. It’s hard work to go deep inside yourself and do something that’s never done before, and you need to know your history to know what’s been done before. I was lucky because when I started, there wasn’t much there. It’s hard now for people to find an original place to start from. But all you have to do is go to nature, and go directly to the woods or find books on nature and you’ll see design patterns that you could never exhaust. But people today keep doing renditions of the Hermès type, or a lot of spikes and pyramid-shaped things. That’s pretty rampant, it’s all over the street. But where Pamela is great is that she’s deeply involved in a more metaphysical search, and you can see her search through her work.

Do you have any collaborations with ready-to-wear designers on tap?
Now that I’m at my new company, it’s a big learning curve for me on how to be here. Donna wanted me to collaborate on this Fall season, but I couldn’t. I think I’ll continue, though, I can’t imagine ever stopping. We’re just known together. Once, Tom Ford told me he couldn’t see how he could work with me because I’m so connected to Donna, and I said that’s fine. She represents clean, American sportswear that is a perfect foil for my work. Though I would never turn down an opportunity to work with the youngest, newest people—either to help guide them on or help create focus for their work.

Who are some of those young talents?
Prabal Gurung, Phillip Lim, Joseph Altuzarra…I was very disappointed to hear Doo-Ri [Chung] left [her label]. I loved her work. Mary-Kate and Ashley [Olsen]. I’m crazy about them; I love what they’re doing. They’re so focused on who they are and how they want their clothes to look. I used to watch their early movies with my daughter and they’d have these fashion shows. That really started at a young age—these girls wanting to be designers. There’s proof!

Photos: Courtesy of Robert Lee Morris

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