New York-based fashion designer Eric Gaskins creates classic, elegant clothes for women that are sold at Barneys New York and Bergdorf Goodman, two of the most prestigious floor spaces in fashion retailing. One of a handful of African-American designers with show-rooms in New York City's Garment District, Gaskins has managed to keep his company privately held and focused solely on designing for its well-dressed customers. Gaskins does not create trendy, logo-laden hand-bags that bring profit at the expense of brand integrity. "I try to design clothing that can be worn over and over again," he explained in a Q magazine interview with Andrew Black. "I want my client to be able to wear a garment now, and years from now, and still have it be modern and relevant."
Born in Germany in 1958, Gaskins has a twin sister named Donna. The Gaskins family returned to the United States and settled in Groton, Massachusetts, and Gaskins attended a private school there called Lawrence Academy. After graduation he entered Kenyon College, which Gaskins later described to Vogue writer Andre Leon Talley as "a small, conservative Midwestern college." At first, Gaskins told Talley, "I wanted to become a writer. Then I got into designing costumes for the drama guild." Gaskins completed his fine arts degree at Kenyon in 1980 with a focus on printmaking, and a professor suggested he apply for the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, named after the founder of International Business Machines (IBM). The Watson fellowships are generous stipends granted to graduating seniors for a year of independent study abroad, and Gaskins won his after submitting a proposal for a comparative study on the cultures of France, Italy, and United States as viewed through the prism of fashion.
Gaskins' fellowship led to a permanent job offer from Hubert Givenchy, the Paris-based fashion designer best known for dressing film star Audrey Hepburn for several iconic screen roles, including the 1961 classic Breakfast at Tiffany's. "Working with Givenchy taught me about the rigor of classical dressmaking—about creating lasting shapes," Gaskins told Black, a writer for Q. But that prestigious first job in Paris failed to open the doors he expected on Seventh Avenue, the center of the U.S. fashion industry. "Nobody, but nobody, would give me a job," he recalled in the interview with Talley about his move to New York City in the early 1980s. "So I worked in a bookstore. I ended up sketching on paper bags."
Gaskins eventually landed design assistant jobs with Koos van den Akker and Jack Mulqueen, among others, and began a side business out of his New York City apartment designing Bermuda shorts for men cut from the exuberant prints made by the Finnish textile firm Marimekko. From his apartment, he began sewing simple shift dresses, and finally launched his own eponymous label in 1987 of women's eveningwear, partly because "I was watching people I had come up with strike out on their own and was feeling left out," he told New York Times fashion writer Bernadine Morris. Over the next few years, he landed accounts with top fashion retailers, and in 1990 was singled out by the fashion industry's most influential publication, Women's Wear Daily, or WWD, as one of the new crop of talented young designers on Seventh Avenue. The article described his latest array of dresses as "a well-rounded group that shows a certain amount of real flair not only for fabric and color, but also for solid design."
Initially, Gaskins relied on sales representatives to sell his work to department-store buyers, but in 1993 he opened a 1,200-square-foot showroom on a street just off Seventh Avenue in New York's Garment District. Having buyers come to him was a little intimidating, he told WWD writer Chuck Stuensee. "I thought you had to come on really strong in order to sell, and I was really afraid of that. That's why I was always with a rep up until now," he explained. "But I'm very straightforward with people, without attitude. And without attitude, miracles happen."
Until 1998, Gaskins concentrated on evening dresses; but when he launched a daywear line that year he won new followers. Yet his evening dresses brought him the most attention, especially when Selma Hayek wore a lilac satin, crystal-laden gown of his design to the 2000 Academy Awards. "Everyone was suddenly talking about him," noted the Kenyon College Alumni Archive. He used his success to broadened his prospects further in 2003, inking a deal with QVC, the home-shopping television channel. Sold under the name "Jolie," the daywear separates were manufactured from his designs, and he told WWD's Kristin Larson that he was "floored by the…level of quality and workmanship," adding, "there are pieces I could have in my showroom and no one would know it wasn't collection."
Gaskins' Jolie line sold a respectable number after his QVC stint, though prior to the taping of his segment he admitted to Larson, "I'm scared. I've been on TV several times, but never selling." The designer was likely referring to his appearance on an ABC reality series that began airing in the spring of 2002, The Hamptons, which followed a number of residents of the tony Long Island resort community though their summer. The camera crew showed Gaskins and his longtime partner, Anton Bronner, both at home and on the social circuit, which for Gaskins included equestrian events. "Far from the glamour and mayhem of the Hamptons' nightlife scene, Gaskins and Bronner's life together as an interracial gay couple looks downright civilized as they visit with family and ride horses," asserted Advocate writer Matthew Link in an article about the ABC series.
Gaskins became involved in equestrian sports later in life and competed in events in the New York area and, during the winter season, in Palm Beach, Florida. His love of horses and equestrian competitions stems in part from a childhood sense of deprivation, he told Vogue's Talley, because in his hometown of Groton "all the neighbors had horses and we never owned one. It was really something I wanted." He remained non-plussed about breaking down any longstanding, unspoken color barriers in the sport, noting that as a black designer on Seventh Avenue he was a bit of a rarity, there, too. As he recounted to Talley, he once arrived for a job interview at prestigious atelier and was mistaken for a messenger. "Anyone who doesn't realize race is a large issue in this country is living in denial," he told Vogue, noting that his office is adjacent to his showroom, and sometimes he "can hear the enthusiasm of the buyer over the collection. Then I come out and meet a certain individual and they simply do not connect the clothes to the man they are meeting. I am a patient person, so none of this really stops me."
At a Glance …
Born in 1958 in Germany. Education: Kenyon College, BA, studio art, 1980.
Career: House of Givenchy, Paris, assistant to Hubert Givenchy, 1980-81; worked for the fashion designers Koos Van den Akker, Bob Evans, Jack Mulqueen, and Scott Barrie before launching his own label, Eric Gaskins, in New York City in 1987.
Addresses: Office—Eric Gaskins Design, 264 W. 40th St., Ste. 502, New York, NY 10018.
Advocate, June 11, 2002, p. 60.
New York Times, July 30, 1989, p. 142.
Palm Beach Daily News, November 29, 2005, p. 1.
Q, Spring 2006, pp. 90-94.
WWD, August 21, 1990, p. 4; October 24, 1994, p. C33; November 2, 1993, p. 11; September 27, 1994, p. 17; November 4, 2002, p. 2; June 18, 2003, p. 10; August 9, 2005, p. 12; May 5, 2006, p. 11.
Vogue, October 2001, p. 91.
"Style Maker," Kenyon College,http://www.kenyon.edu/x22961.xml (November 27, 2007).