Rodríguez, Narciso: 1961(?)—
Narciso Rodríguez: 1961(?)—: Fashion designer
Narciso Rodríguez won the coveted Perry Ellis award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America in 1998. The annual honor is bestowed on the best new women's wear designer to emerge in the past year, and Rodríguez had recently become a household name across North America when he created the ethereal slip dress for Carolyn Bessette's 1996 wedding to John F. Kennedy, Jr. Prior to that, however, the Cuban-American, New Jersey-born designer had spent years toiling behind the scenes in various Seventh Avenue ateliers. His newfound celebrity led to an opportunity to launch his first collection under his own name in 1997, and critics responded enthusiastically to the coolly elegant femininity in Rodríguez's designs. His commitment to highlighting a woman's best assets seemed to come naturally for him. "I dress a specific woman," he asserted once in an interview with Harper's Bazaar writer Kristina Zimbalist. "She's tailored, she's cool, she's relaxed. She never wears neon colors…. The idea of dressing really well again, traditional things, rich things, things that are cut on the body—that's what I love. I don't want seven colors of lizard shoe. I like to be smarter than that."
Rodríguez was born in New Jersey in the early 1960s, where his parents had settled after leaving Cuba in 1956. There, they had studied chemistry and worked in the island nation's sugar refineries, but in New Jersey his father became a longshoreman. The family lived in an area of Newark populated by families of Cuban, Portuguese, African-American, Spanish and Italian descent, and Rodríguez grew up in a bilingual household. With an artistic bent that manifested itself early on, he became known as the creative one in his family, and gravitated toward fashion. As a high school student, he found work as an apprentice to a local tailor, and there began to learn the rudiments of fine-clothing construction.
Rodríguez attended the esteemed Parsons School of Design in New York City, and after graduating in 1982 worked first as a freelance designer. He eventually found a permanent post with the Anne Klein company, when Donna Karan was still its chief designer. After she left to launch her own line, Rodríguez worked under her successor at the house, Louis Dell'Olio. He knew that someday he would like to present his own vision down a runway, but "I always thought I should gather as much experience as I could," he told Trish Donnally in a San Francisco Chronicle interview. "You make your mistakes on somebody else's money."
At a Glance . . .
Born c. 1961 in NJ; son of Narciso (a longshoreman) and Rawedia Maria (a homemaker) Rodríguez. Education: Parsons School of Design, degree, 1982.
Career: Freelance design assistant in New York City, 1982-85; worked as design assistant under Donna Karan at Anne Klein, New York City, c. 1985, and under Louis Dell' Olio until 1991; Calvin Klein, New York City, design assistant, 1991-95; Tse, New York City, men's and women's design director, c. 1995-96; Cerruti Paris, women's design director, 1996-97; offered his own line of women's clothing in partnership with AEFFE, 1997; Loewe, Madrid, design director, 1997-2001.
Awards: Designer of the Year, Hispanic Society, 1997; Best New Designer, VH1 Fashion Awards, 1997; Perry Ellis Award for best new women's wear designer, Council of Fashion Designers of America, 1998.
Rose to Fame With Besette Design
In 1991, after five years at Anne Klein, Rodríguez moved on to one of the giants of American fashion, Calvin Klein. He spent four years as a design assistant there, and impressed Klein, who has been heralded for creating the fashion archetype of a classic American look for the late twentieth century. "He was very, very serious about the work," Klein told Zimbalist in Harp-er's Bazaar. "Aside from having the gift and the talent, he had the drive to do the best that he could possibly do. And it came through in the clothes." The job at Calvin Klein also served to introduce Rodríguez to Bessette, who was a public-relations associate at the company, and the two became close friends. In 1995 Rodríguez quit to take a job with Tse, a renowned maker of cashmere sweaters, as men's and women's design director. Soon he was lured to Paris as well when offered a job as designer for Nino Cerruti. Once known for its menswear, Cerutti hired Rodríguez to revitalize their women's line. With near-free rein for the first time in his career, Rodríguez impressed many with his design sensibilities. "His casually assembled sportswear pieces hit a magical middle ground," declared Los Angeles Times writer Mimi Avins. "Their sophistication was beyond a college girl's grasp, comprehensible to only the hippest matron. Models loved his sexy, clingy clothes and didn't conceal their admiration as they walked the runway."
Rodríguez remained a relative unknown, however, until September of 1996 when headlines across North America and Europe announced that America's most eligible bachelor and ersatz "crown prince," John F. Kennedy, Jr.—named after his slain president-father—had wed a Connecticut blonde named Carolyn Bessette. With a deep aversion to publicity and the tabloid photographers that followed their every move in New York City and elsewhere, the pair planned the nuptials with utmost secrecy. News of the wedding was made public only with a photo taken by a family member that showed Bessette wearing what the Los Angeles Times 's Avins described as "a simple, bias-cut slink of pearl-colored satin" and, not incidentally, the "most famous wedding dress of the decade."
Rodríguez later recalled that Bessette and one of her sisters had come to visit him in Paris a few weeks before the wedding to have the dress finished and fitted. Both that dress and another that Rodríguez made for the bride-to-be for the rehearsal dinner were gifts to her. He had brought them himself from Paris back to the States in time for the wedding at a candlelit small church on Cumberland Island, Georgia. The dress had a Cerruti label inside, and though some at the Paris atelier knew of their boss's top-secret design project, Rodríguez remained quiet about his mystery client. He hand-carried both frocks back on the flight from Paris, as he told Janice Min in People. "I tortured everyone on that flight with the boxes," the designer admitted. "No one could touch them. I must have driven every Air France employee mad."
Rodríguez's friend Bessette and her husband died in a 1999 plane crash off the coast of Martha's Vineyard. The dress that he designed for that wedding became even more iconic, given the tragedy. Rodríguez had told Min in People that the fairy-tale "wedding … was so nice, so beautiful. I think it will be the thing I'll be proudest of my whole life."
Own Line Garnered Rave Reviews
Soon Rodríguez's roster of appreciative clients included British model Kate Moss, and he also created special-occasion dresses for actresses Sigourney Weaver and Claire Danes for the 1997 Academy Awards ceremony. His Cerruti 1997 autumn/winter collection won more rave reviews when shown in the spring of 1997, and Rodríguez was hailed as a designer whose star was on the rise. "In two seasons, his minimal tailoring and soft, lightly decorated style—adventurous but wearable—made Cerruti more watchable than it had been for years," declared Financial Times journalist Avril Groom. Many in the industry, then, were stunned when Rodríguez and Cerruti parted ways in mid-1997. He had just a few weeks to find another post, or his next collection, for spring/summer 1998, would neither be shown nor even made. Luckily, he was offered a post as women's design director for the House of Loewe, a Spanish leather-goods maker whose Madrid roots stretched back to 1846. Not long afterward, AEFFE, a company owned by Milan designer-manufacturer Alberta Ferretti, signed a contract with Rodríguez that gave him his own line under his own name. AEFFE was already the highly esteemed manufacturer of the work of Jean Paul Gaultier, Rifat Ozbek, and Moschino. "There was a heaviness for me that lifted when I went out on my own," Rodríguez told Guardian writer Susannah Barron. "Having my own collection was a dream I had put on the shelf for a little while, and then, when it was on the shelf, I kind of forgot about it."
Rodríguez went quickly to work on his own line, which debuted in Milan in October of 1997 to fawning critical response from the fashion pack. "Up close, the garments are jewels of meticulously bias-cut, tailored, lightweight menswear and luxury fabrics," opined Houston Chronicle journalist Linda Gillan Griffin, who predicted that the pieces from this first foray with Rodríguez's own name on the label were "destined to become collector's items." His colleagues were also enthusiastic about Rodríguez's talents. "He's Cuban. He's fire and ice," stylist Lori Goldstein told Zimbalist in Harper's Bazaar. "But it would be very boring otherwise." Rodríguez told the same writer that he was not interested in creating outlandish, unwearable clothes, or items that only seemed well-suited for a six-foot, 120-pound gamine. "Really, if it's not desirable to a woman, if it doesn't sell, then it means nothing," he said in the Harper's Bazaar interview. "It's just performance art." Rodríguez further clarified his theories about fashion in the talk with Donnally of the San Francisco Chronicle as well. "My responsibility is to celebrate a woman's beauty," he told the newspaper. "I love hips, I love draping on a woman's figure…. It's unnecessary, all the tricks and gadgets. People want to forget about fashion when you see really horrendous things coming at you."
Rodríguez also worked round-the-clock to ready a small holiday dress line for Loewe that was shown in the fall of 1997. The house, once the exclusive leather-goods maker to Spanish royalty, had fallen on hard times and had even been nationalized for a time under the regime of Generalissimo Francisco Franco. It had no U.S. outlets, but Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy, the luxury-goods group known by its LVMH acronym, recognized its prestige and potential, and hired him to create a line of women's wear, much in the same fashion that suitcase-purveyors Prada and Vuitton had revitalized their companies through new pret-a-porter lines under young designers in the 1990s. "To Loewe … he looks like the answer to a prayer," wrote Groom in the Financial Times of Rodríguez. "His Hispanic background will give confidence to home customers who need gently modernising away from stylish but over-decorated 1980s-based conservatism." Rodríguez agreed, admitting that "Loewe brings out my Spanishness, as well as its own luxury and history," he told Groom. "I call my look for it Baroque minimalism." The Financial Times writer noted that the pair seemed well-suited to one another, asserting that Rodríguez's "deceptively simple, fluid style would appeal equally to post-feminist New Yorkers and modernised Latinas in Central and South America or Spain—underexploited areas for fashion marketing."
Officially Became "New York" Designer
By early 1998 Rodríguez's own line was selling well at premium fashion retailers like Barney's and Neiman Marcus, and the Loewe items, expanded to a full line shown in Paris in March, was also proving a hit with women customers. The dual feat earned him the CFDA's Perry Ellis award for best new designer of 1997, one of the industry's most prestigious awards and a tremendous career-booster. Rodríguez was overwhelmed, as he told Women's Wear Daily writer Rusty Williamson. "It was like a giant whoosh of excitement and happiness all rolled into one when they called my name at the awards ceremony," the designer recalled.
Rodríguez continued his line for Loewe until 2001, when he announced that his Spring 2002 line would be his last for the Madrid house. Leaving the deep-pocketed LVMH umbrella, some felt, was a daring move. "I gave up all the prestige, all the money," Rodríguez said in the Harper's Bazaar interview with Zimbalist, noting that he felt compelled now to spend more time on his own line. "People said, 'Are you crazy?'" Still, the decision meant that Rodríguez could stay more permanently at his home in New York City's East Village, where he had lived since the early 1990s, and less time on trans-Atlantic flights. Later in 2001 he signed a deal with Beaute Prestige International (BPI), a unit of Shiseido, to launch fragrance and makeup lines.
Financial Times, November 22, 1997, p. 10.
Guardian (London, England), February 28, 1998, p. 40.
Harper's Bazaar, August 2001, p. 169.
Houston Chronicle, February 19, 1998, p. 1.
Los Angeles Times, March 5, 1998, p. 5.
New York Times, April 28, 2002, p. 9.
People, October 14, 1996, p. 65.
San Francisco Chronicle, February 12, 1998, p. E6.
Women's Wear Daily, March 10, 1998, p. 62S; May 4, 2001, p. 13; November 16, 2001, p. 8; September 12, 2002, p. 14; October 3, 2002, p. 5.
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