After a Fashion: Born Again

Stephen revels in rebirth – and the roll of stretch fabrics in it

Another reappearance on the scene this year is the Trail of Lights, darkened last year due to economic issues.
Another reappearance on the scene this year is the Trail of Lights, darkened last year due to economic issues. (Photo by Seabrook Jones)

This is the year I came alive again; a resurrection, if you will. I certainly hadn't planned on it; it just happened. I'd laid pretty low these past few years, wallowing in the misery of waiting to die. And when I opened my eyes, like the groundhog on Groundhog Day, life was still there, just as I had left it. The brightness blinded me but gave me time to consider what I might do with myself. Though the fact remained (and still remains) that my cancer-riddled body has very little stamina, I knew two things. One was that I had to find something productive to do. The other was that I knew I was in a spiritual void where nothing, not even my life, meant much to me. Armed with a bit of motivation and a dash of energy, I began my search without even knowing it. The only thing I'd ever known how to do well was design and sew, but after a lifetime of ups and downs in the business, I'd abandoned it emotionally long ago. I'd been so easily distracted before, jumping from one design arena to another (men's formal wear, women's bridal, sportswear, home decor, etc.) without developing a solid reputation in any of them. The fallback safety net was always doing custom work, which I loathed. Just like any kind of customer-service work, there were delightful, fulfilling moments, as well as lots of dreary, frustrating ones. Some clients were a dream, but they were generally the ones that had gorgeous bodies and could shop anywhere. Usually, clients had some sort of (perceived or not) problem area they wanted to address. If it was a physical characteristic, the design was usually easy enough to engineer; but if the defect was perceived, it was like trying to make the Emperor's New Clothes. Doing custom work was not something I enjoyed, and it was part of my reluctance to stay in the design business. It was much easier to look at fashion from afar (knowing exactly what it's like up close). But during my darkest hours, I divested myself of most of the things I truly loved, like my world-class collection of fashion books that I'd invested a fortune in over the decades. I'd forgotten how the awe-inspiring photos took my dreams to new dimensions. But the images were burned in my mind nonetheless. It was through a strange twist of fate that my salvation, as it were, arrived, and soon I found myself floundering through the design process all over again. After many false starts and experimentations, I realized that I was happiest drawing upon the magnificent images of couture from Charles Worth in the 19th century and Cristobal Balenciaga, Christian Dior, and Charles James in the 20th century. With those reference points and an open mind to try more nontraditional fabrics, I went back to my earliest roots, the era of Fifties couture, creating silhouettes that were both classic and contemporary. For the first time in my life, I really worked with stretch fabrics, loving that the simplicity of a well-fitted stretch garment (and I do stress "well-fitted"), adorned with my own elaborations made production of the samples a relative breeze. My theory was always to keep the designs fairly simple and use exquisite fabric. And suddenly, I found myself wading through a studio up to my hips in gowns in varying degrees of completion and shimmering fabrics glistening from a corner urging me to make this dress, too. And suddenly ... suddenly, I was happier than I'd ever recalled being. Even when ragged and tired, I was delirious with creativity and could barely cope with one dress before I was on to the next one. Despite the drama and tears, the show happened, and the dresses that had thrilled me were parading down the runway thrilling others. As I made my milelong solo walk down the runway, I felt dizzy having achieved something that had eluded me ever since the days of having my work in Bergdorf Goodman, Henri Bendel, and Saks Fifth Avenue: pride in myself. And with that pride still warm in my heart, I look forward to a new year with new visions and new surprises ... and a sense that I have found a new religion in fashion, and that this is yet another chance at life. I wish the same to you, dear readers, this holiday season.

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