Sunday, February 18, 2007

Michael Vollbracht

Head designer of the Bill Blass. Michael has been with Blass for more than five years but is not a newcomer to Seventh Avenue. The midwest born and bred boy came to New York when he was 17 to go to Parsons. Afterwards he got a job with Geoffrey Beene answering the phone. “I  also had to give him 50 sketches every night on his desk. He was not a social man. He worked. He wasn’t a laugh a minute but I learned patience and my craft.”

Michael closes out the show

After Beene he went to work for Donald Brooks. He also developed something of a wild-child reputation and was fired and rehired by both Beene and Brooks, and later worked for Geraldine (“Gerry”) Stuz at Henri Bendel.  Stutz was one of the great impresarios of modern retailing that arose in the late 1960s, early 1970s. Stutz was regarded as prescient, a wizard of marketing and design.

For Bendels, Vollbracht worked as an illustrator. He was paid $75 a sketch – good money in those days. He was so good Bloomingdale’s offered him $500 a sketch. He had as many as 15 drawings a week, full page in the papers. Bloomingdale’s in those days was the King of the Hill in not only New York but American retail. Vollbracht likes to tell the story about how Bloomingdale’s had so much power they actually had the direction of Lexington Avenue change once so that the Queen of England could stop in. “She had to get out of the right side of her car, so the store had the traffic direction switched briefly for Her Majesty.”

Meanwhile New Yorkers were walking around with Bloomingdale bags illustrated by Vollbracht.

A Michael Vollbracht collage
After Bloomingdale’s he went into business manufacturing his own designs. He won the Coty Award for his third collection in 1978. But the business didn’t work out. Then he met his all time movie star idol Elizabeth Taylor and started designing clothes for her. Then Joanna Carson (then married to Johnny Carson) came into his life first as a customer and then as an investor.

That business, after a very splashy launch went the way of so many fashion industry ventures. They were tough times for the designer. It was the beginning of the AIDS crisis and he was losing many of his friends. He decided to chuck it all and moved to Florida where he went to work for “a shabby rundown health spa.” He returned also to his illustrating.  Having met and played and worked with so many boldfaced pop icons, he wrote and illustrated a book about his life. It was a beautifully published, coffee table volume called “Nothing Sacred.” It is brilliant and for passionate collectors of 20th century show business and fashion iconography, this book – which was published in two editions (with different copy) is a tribute beyond compare. Michael Vollbracht has the creative ability to astonish, amaze and delight.

Michael solo; Michael with Kohle Yohannan and Cathy Hardwick.
Over the years he kept his relationship with Bill Blass whom he’d first met at Parsons when Blass presented the Norman Norell Award to him. At the end of Blass’ life he and Helen O’Hagan worked with Blass on putting together a book of his work.  The house of Blass had been sold by the designer before his death and had gone through a couple of designers when Vollbracht was offered the position and he took it.

The return to the fashion business was not easy for so much had changed in the fifteen or so years that he’d been away from it.  It was a different world for him. In an interview I did with him for “Q” Magazine, I asked him how it had changed for him:

An illustration by Michael Vollbracht of Bill Blass

“Just getting it off the ground.  Now you now have to deal with tents.  Models are no longer just models, they’re stars. Things went haywire.  We have to hire someone to broker models. I used to be able to call them and book them.  These girls would come hair and makeup ready.  Big names, and they were ready.  Now they have hairdressers. I don’t know how young designers get ahead with all they have to navigate through.

“It’s not easy coming back to the industry because it’s so changed,” he said. “I’m complete pariah in this industry.  Only two designers even speak to me -- Diane von Furstenberg and Carolina Herrera -- who have been sweet to me. I don’t mind that, however, being an outsider.  Bill Blass once told me insincerity goes a long way.

Six years later, the house of Bill Blass is doing tremendous business under the design guidance of Michael Vollbracht. The once wild child of 7th Avenue is memory now, and even unknown to many who’ve come up since. They know Michael Vollbracht, the brilliant artist who works, makes his art and makes good business for Bill Blass Ltd.