Heisel, Sylvia

views updated

HEISEL, Sylvia

American fashion designer

Born: Princeton, New Jersey, 22 June 1962. Education: Barnard College, New York, 1980-81. Career: Designed and sold costume jewelry, 1981-82; designed collection of coats for Henri Bendel, New York, 1982, and exclusive line of womenswear for Barneys New York, 1987; film costume designer, mid-1980s; first full catwalk collection shown, 1988; introduced first line of lingerie, 1999; opened first retail store, in New York's SoHo neighborhood, 1999; participated in auction of designer Halloween outfits for DISHES Project to battle pediatric AIDS, 1999. Awards: Chicago Gold Coast award, 1993. Address: 230 West 39th Street, New York, NY 10018, USA.




Stegemeyer, Anne, Who's Who in Fashion, Third Edition, New York,1996.


"Fashion," in Interview (New York), July 1987.

Washington, Roxanne, "Designer Heisel Guided by the Feel, Not the Look," in the Ann Arbor News, 10 September 1991.

Pandiscio, Richard, "Sylvia Heisel: Gun Control Fashion," in Interview, January 1993.

Siroto, Janet, "Evening Star," in Vogue, February 1993.

"Autumn in New York," in Women's Wear Daily, 2 April 1998.

Monget, Karyn, "Style, Substance Lead the Way," in WWD, 17 May 1999.

Gilbert, Daniela, "Fright for a Cause," in WWD, 2 November 1999.

Fass, Allison, "Retail Renaissance on Thompson Street," in the New York Times, 21 November 1999.

"The Last Hurrah," in WWD, 15 February 2000.

Doonan, Simon, "Get Pushy with a Dressmaker; Cram Your Closet with 'Originals,'" in the New York Observer, 5 February 2001.


I think fashion is about who you are right now. What you're wearing says who you are at that moment in time. It's the first thing you communicate to another person.

My favorite clothes are easy, comfortable, creative, and beautiful because that's what I'm attracted to in people. What we wear is a combination of reality and what is in our minds. The reality is where we have to go, what we have to do, and what we can afford. The dream is who we want to be, what's beautiful and exciting to us, and what we desire. I try to design clothes with a combination of these qualities: wearability in the real world with an aesthetic of dreams.

Inspiration comes from everything in the world, more often from the zeitgeist than from other pieces of clothing or designed items. Historically, fashion is interesting because of what it says about any particular moment in history. What looks good, new, and exciting one day looks old and tired the next. It is the most transient of art and design fields. The clothes I design combine skills of construction and manufacturing with the communication of my ideas.

Sylvia Heisel


Sophisticated elegance is perhaps the most distinguishing characteristic of Sylvia Heisel's collections. Her use of exquisite fabrics, colors and the simplicity of cuts have ensured her favorable recognition by fashion buyers and critics alike. As one of New York's young contemporary fashion designers, Heisel has instinctively avoided catering to recent trends. Her approach to fashion combines an "aesthetic of dreams" with the reality of modern wearability and affordability.

Heisel studied art history briefly at Barnard, leaving college eventually to pursue a freelance career designing costume jewelry, theatre costuming, and fashion display. With no formal training in fashion design, Heisel launched her first coat collection for Henri Bendel in New York, followed by an exclusive line for Barneys first women's store in New York in 1987. Her first independent collection appeared in the spring of 1988.

Heisel is interested in communicating ideas intrinsic to particular moments in history. The 1980s' emphasis on body consciousness led Heisel to embrace the notion of executing a controlled draping of her now signature slip and tank dresses. Constructed in fabrics such as jersey, mesh, and silk, these dresses are contoured, accentuating the body with deep-cut backs and high slits. They are simultaneously wearable and feminine.

The growth of professional American women in the job market highlighted fashion designers' need to accommodate this new status with garments both practical and timeless. Heisel addressed these needs with small, tightly-edited collections, including "sportswear-inspired suits, separates for day and sophisticated dresses and coats for evening." Her jackets range from waist length to sleek over-thehip styles. The selected fabrics, such as silk and wool crêpe, are comfortable and travel well. Her garments are architectural, employing both bodyfitting silhouettes and a boxy construction in her coats and jackets. Heisel's color selection is based on instinct rather than forecasts, and she often uses black for balance. The use of solids highlights the minimalist cut, drape, and texture of each garment. At the same time, simplicity allows for a variety of ways of wearing each piece.

Heisel's awareness of contemporary culture was successfully transferred into costume designs for the 1985 film Parting Glances. In 1985, Heisel was included in the New York Times list of young designersincluding Carol Horn, Cathy Hardwick, and Mary Jane Marcasianowho were "currying favors with American women and retailers." Heisel has on several occasions deviated from collections based on minimalist constructionsfake pony-fur coats, lizard prints, and McFaddenesque dresses. She still maintains a consistent approach, stressing that how a woman feels in her clothes is as much a part as how the clothes look.

Though known for her elegant, classic eveningwear designs, Heisel has expanded into other areas, notably lingerie, which she launched in 1999, and sportswear, of which she has been designing a growing number of pieces. While ensuring that her clothes maintain a classic appeal, Heisel injects a sense of humor into much of her work, especially her lingerie and sportswear items. In her fall 2000 sportswear collection, for example, she combined tartan plaid dresses with plaid-lined gold metallic nylon tops and created a strapless dress and jacket from plum tweed cashmere. Women's Wear Daily (15 February 2000) described the collection as combining "a dressed-up sensibility with a schoolgirl approach."

Heisel's lingerie line, which includes camisoles, slips, tank tops, and crop pants, is meant to be worn either under clothing or as clothing. As Heisel told Women's Wear Daily back in May 1999, "We're leaving it up to the woman to decide how she wants to wear it. It's not lingerie you try to hide." For evening, Heisel tends to stick with the bias-cut silk dresses for which she is known. They appeal to all types of customers, not only in their flattering, elegant fit, but because they are available in 100 colors. Similarly, her lingerie designs come in 50 hues, ranging from bright neons to subtle pales.

Heisel opened her first retail store in 1999 on Thompson Street in New York's SoHo neighborhood. There she showcases what Women's Wear Daily describes as her pretty, well-cut apparel, ranging from long skirts, tailored taffeta shirts, sheaths, and boleros to tweed cashmere coats, colored scarves, velvet tank dresses, and printed pants. Most of her pieces are classics that can be worn from season to season, simply updated with a new accessory.

In the store, Heisel is able to highlight some of her fun fantasies, such as boleros of organdy flowers or cocktail dresses featuring two-foot-long gold chains as trim. In a February 2001 article, the New York Observer termed the store's overall sensibility, however, as one of "affordable, hip restraint," a phrase that could be used to describe much of Heisel's work.

Teal Triggs;

updated by Karen Raugust