Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Aude Bronson-Howard: Creativity is her Fuel

By Ki Hackney

ABH Design, the shop at 401 East 76th Street (212-249-2276), is the multi-tiered expression of the creativity that has carried one extraordinarily capable French-American woman through international careers in men’s fashion, styling, costume design for major motion pictures, and a rapidly-expanding wholesale operation. It’s a bit east (just off First Avenue toward York), but the trip is definitely worth the extra block or two. You can’t miss it. Right now, a life-sized mechanical polar bear is stretching in the window

Aude Bronson-Howard is the talent behind this emporium that stretches over three levels, each progressively larger, while incorporating a charming little terraced garden on the ground floor. She originally took the space to serve as home base for ABH design, manufacturing and showroom sales, but adds, “the small room in front morphed into a store” for those of us who want to pick up what Aude calls “accessories for the body or for the home.”

There are plenty of these classically original designs to choose from, beginning with generously scaled scarfs ($125-$200) and silk robes ($200) or her quilted jackets ($160-$175), all of which quickly reveal her lifelong passion for fabrics.

Household signatures start with great big bars of Provençal verbena soap, each wrapped and tied in colorful silk squares ($22), and include everything from napkins and place mats ($8 to $25 each) to custom-made table clothes ($125 and up), guest towels ($20), cocktail napkins ($20 and $30 for six), decorative pillows (starting at $125), and a little table ware, plus scented candles ($30). You’ll also find some jewelry, items with her frog logo, whimsical hats, handbags and totes, and amusing hand-knitted animal hats for babies ($25). The stock is always changing but the concept remains the same.

Design school in France launched Aude’s creative journey, and her first job was with YSL menswear.  “I did that for years. I traveled everywhere.  It was the beginning of licensing the YSL name for the international market, and it was the 1970s, which was a fun time to be creative.  There was Biba and that whole thing in London, and everyone was doing things to their jeans; clothing had lots of stuff on it. I was 17 or 18 years old, and all I had to do was look for what was going on in fashion. I was in heaven. Being Paris based immediately put me in the back and forth path, and the French-American connection has been the synergy of my creative life,” says Aude, noting that her late father lived in New York, her mother in Paris and that she spent summers with her grandparents in Switzerland.

Aude Bronson Howard, working with computer expert, Kai, to ready her laptop for a Paris journey
“I didn’t get tired of working at YSL,” Aude continues.  “I was just restless. And, all I really wanted was to design costumes. It took me a long time to get there. I had always styled the YSL shoots and eventually started styling for editorials; then commercials. Through commercials I met all the good VPs and Directors of Photography, because at that time feature film directors were also doing commercials. I had laser focus, then, and that’s how I got into movies.

While we might know her for her films with Robert de Niro (who has been known to show up at an ABH event or two over the years), including Analyze That, Analyze This, or Angel Heart (the first film with her own credit as costume designer), she has a long list of credits including Scent of a Woman, State of Grace, 9 1/2 Weeks, Meet Joe Black, and Carlito’s Way. Although she has very little time for movies theses days, last year she did the costumes for Billy Crystal’s 700 Sundays on Broadway.

Tweety cat, age 20, posing in a “tassel” hat
“What’s really interesting about all of the travails of being involved in a movie career,” Aude reflects, “is that it totally helps you in any other business, because it is absolutely unforgiving. It’s incredibly expensive to make a movie, and you can’t afford to make many mistakes. So, your brain starts to think in contingency plans, and you learn to strategize. Scenarios start popping into your brain more quickly. The pressure is on. Fortunately, in the movie business, we discuss the options collectively. “

Aude admits that even while designing costumes, she always had a little business on the side. “I could never give up the textile thing,” she says. “I started doing scarfs and beautiful shawls and sold them to stores and to movie stars.  Then I got a showroom and that lead to a bigger one. Little by little I started manufacturing. The designs varied, but they were always in deluxe fabrics. It was pretty swanky.

“A lot of my business is not really planned,” she continues. I didn’t wake up one morning and say, ‘well, today I want to do napkins and table cloths.’ I designed a scarf with a border around it and then thought the scarf would be interesting as napkin. The napkin then became a tablecloth and then something else. It was a continuation of things that are visual and tactile. And the clientele followed. It’s not that I knew so many people, necessarily. In New York, you get a chance to have word of mouth.”

When she isn’t designing, scouting other countries for fabrics and a few interesting items to import for the store or managing the production of ABH products (everything is made on site), Aude wears two more hats. She is the guardian of, friend to and steering committee for her best friend’s children, Apollonia and Athena Poilâne. Their mother Ibu, a well-known artist and Aude’s friend since they were schoolgirls, was killed with her husband, celebrated bread master, Lionel, in a tragic helicopter crash in 2003.

Aude is also caretaker for the one who knows her best: Tweety, her loving 20-year-old cat. And back in her designing chapeau: it won’t be long before we see Aude’s creative hand in her role as the new designer for D. Porthault linens.
A peach quilted jacket and scarf, a tunic, and more quilted jackets, are classics at ABH Design, 401 East 76th Street (212-249-2276).
A white pedestal server and lotus leaf candle holder and a table full of spring napkins.
The wall of cabinets filled with linens and household items in the mid-level of the shop with a close-up of shelves full of scented candles and guest towels; and a few of the baskets of napkins in the wholesale showroom and workroom space at the back of the store.
A basket of just a few of ABH Design’s signature soaps that are wrapped and tied in colorful silk squares, $22 each; bordered linen napkins; and a view of the star-lighted entry level of the store and a peek at the shop’s decorative pillow offering on the left.

Photos by Christina Hribar