“Couture in America: A Lost Art?”

 Lauren Levison wearing a Guild of Hands couture dress under a School of Historical Dress/Nabil Nayal Dress Coat to the Save Venice 2023 Byzantine Ball – photo by itgirl.mx

Paris Couture Week ran from Monday, January 22, to Thursday, January 25. Ralph Rucci originally planned to present his spring 2024 couture collection in Paris, but instead, it will take the form of a lookbook. As in past seasons, a fabric “swatched” Rucci sketch is to be shown alongside a Bil Donovan illustration.

In 2002, Rucci became the first American designer in more than 60 years to be invited to show in Paris by the French Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture (the only other designer to be so honored was Mainbocher). Ralph has subsequently shown six collections in Paris over three years.

Christy Rilling with her Guild of Hand artisans in her Manhattan atelier – photo by Andrew Walker

Ralph Rucci, the only American to meet the strict standards set by The Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode (FHCM), is in a class by himself. However, a few other ateliers in New York create “high-end custom fitting clothing from start to finish with extreme attention to detail and finish, often using time-consuming hand-executed techniques,” a dictionary definition of haute couture. Christy Rilling is one of them.

A dress form at Christy Rilling Atelier – photo by Andrew Walker

Christy launched Guild of Hands, an atelier in the heart of Manhattan’s garment district where clothes are designed, developed, and made by a talented group of artisans, in March 2023. Before that, Christy Rilling Atelier, a made-to-order atelier, opened its doors in the NYC garment district in 2010. “The new name embodies my atelier’s spirit, growth, and transformation. My deep love of couture collaboration in an atelier setting made an eponymous brand no longer seem appropriate,” notes Christy.

Hands at work at Christy Rilling Studio – photo by Andrew Walker

Ms. Rilling, the subject of an article written by Ruth LaFerla for The New York Times, March 9, 2023, “Michelle Obama’s Secret Style Weapon,” was Michelle Obama’s tailor and dressmaker throughout the White House years. She was introduced to the First Lady by the editors at Vogue. Christy created extraordinary headpieces and accessories for Vogue magazine’s shootings and fashion shows for a long time.

Lauren Levison wears a Guild of Hands Couture Rose Gown to the ABT Spring Gala 2023 Lincoln Center – photo courtesy Lauren Levison

Many editors, like Tonne Goodman, would have things commissioned. In 2010, Christy formally opened Christy Rilling Studio. During Covid, they stopped doing tailoring and dedicated themselves to making clothing. In 2023, Christy added a bespoke ready-to-wear collection, which she introduced twice a year.

Lauren Levison wears a Guild of Hands ruffled couture dress to the 2022 ABT Spring Gala – photo courtesy Lauren Levison

Guild of Hands, located at 336 West 37th Street, employs 2 pattern makers, 2 design assistants, and 10 seamstresses, all with different specialties. Some are adept at tailoring, and others at corsetry and dresses. There is one 28-year-old FIT intern who is “brilliant with her hands,” according to Rilling. She specializes in embroidery techniques, flowers, bows, and other accouterments necessary for red carpet creations.

Currently, Christy is working on ensembles for several high-profile guests of the Musicares Gala in Los Angeles and the BAFTAs (the British Academy of Film and Television), and she would love to dress a few women for the Oscars. So many actresses are under contract to wear a specific designer, so hopefully, a young independent actress will be willing to try them.

Julianna Margulies wearing a vintage 80’s YSL couture gown to 2011 Golden Globes remade by Christy Rilling – photo Getty Images

Among Christy’s VIP clientele are Paul McCartney and Bruce Springsteen (for their tours), Irene Neuwirth, Julianna Margulies, Brooke Garber Neidich, Ariana Rockefeller, and Lauren Santo Domingo. Ms. Rilling takes on a limited number of special commissions for private clients each year.

Left, Christy Rilling at a fitting with Lauren Levison in her atelier – photo by Andrew Walker

In 2016, Lauren Santo Domingo recommended Christy to Lauren Kulchinsky Levison through Moda Operandi. It was, as they say, a match made in fashion heaven. The duo has become great friends, and a fruitful ongoing collaboration began.

“I would characterize Lauren’s style as the effortless embodiment of cinematic glamour. Her fashion choices are timeless, influential, and sometimes sartorial, inspiring anyone who crosses her path. As a muse to many designers, I feel exceptionally fortunate to create clothing for her.”

Christy Rilling, Guild of Hands

Lauren Levison on her way to New York City Ballet Fall 2023 gala wearing vintage YSL couture and Guild of Hands accessories – photo by itgirl.mx.com

Lauren is the definition of “Style Original.” The former Chief Style Officer of Mayfair Rocks, a 4th generation family-owned and family-run business, Levison stays somewhat involved, having done a curation for their Easthampton store last summer. Still, she refers to herself as a consultant and curator who especially loves to lend her expertise and advice to young startups.

Lauren wears a Guild of Hands one of a kind organdy dress with hand embroidered grand robe – photo courtesy Lauren Levison

Lauren’s creative background speaks volumes about her ongoing love affair with fashion, music, jewelry, and the arts. “Arts” is the operative word that best describes Lauren’s uniquely exuberant, personal style. While only 5’3 & 3/4″ (Lauren laughingly admits she thinks of herself as 6 feet tall), Levison has a big fashion persona and can seemingly pull anything off.

“If there’s texture, volume, and room for accessories, I wear it. That’s what’s important to me.” Lauren Levison

Lauren Levison

Lauren channels Audrey Hepburn in a Guild of Hands red coat and shoes – photo courtesy Lauren Levinson

At the beginning of each season, Levison and Rilling sit down and discuss all the events Lauren plans to attend. “I mix characters from screen, literature, and music, and that’s how I come up with what I want to wear says Lauren, whose ongoing personal style hero is Audrey Hepburn.

Lauren wearing Carolina Herrera and Guild of Hands floral embellished gloves to the ABT Fall 2023 Gala – photo Lauren Levinson

Lauren is very exacting, deliberate, and detail-oriented. She has a precise idea of how she wants to look, and Christy helps make Lauren’s imaginings a reality. Sometimes, Rilling creates an entire ensemble; sometimes, it involves designing a perfect accessory for a designer outfit Lauren already owns. Sometimes, it’s about tweaking the fit of a vintage couture piece in Lauren’s vast collection.

Lauren wears a Gabriela Hearst leather coat & Guild of Hands dress to the 2023 Couture Council Artistry in Fashion Lunch

Lauren and Christy are both “cape crazy;” capes are a recurring theme for Lauren, along with what she dubs “MY DRESS.” She designed it, and it’s her favorite piece as it is highly versatile. It can be made short or long, straight or a line, with or without a bow. It can also be a shell and cigarette pants. For the upcoming cocktail reception in celebration of the Museum at FIT’s exhibition, “Statement Sleeves,” they are probably adding a great sleeve to “MY DRESS” and shortening it, says Lauren.

It’s all about the fabrications, and Christy’s fabrics (she uses the same velvet employed by Yves Saint and Laurent Balenciaga) are highly curated and incredible.

Lauren wears a Guild of Hands Bespoke gown & cape at the 21st Gem Awards Gala

Among Lauren’s high-profile events in 2024 are Save Venice’s Un Ballo in Maschera at the Plaza Hotel (she is wearing a vintage couture Balenciaga), The Frederick Law Olmsted Awards, the ABT and the NYCB Galas (ballet is a particular passion), and of course, the FIT Couture Council Artistry in Fashion luncheon in September.

Philanthropy and giving back is critical to Lauren and her husband Andrew. This year, Lauren joined the newly formed invite-only philanthropy group, Friends of the CFDA, spearheaded by Jordan Roth. Lauren and Andrew are very involved in the Bridge Golf Foundation, a Harlem-based tutorial and mentoring program whose mission is to help young men close gaps in achievement, learning, and opportunity, improve their college readiness, and help them into the workforce.

Each year, Lauren cleans her closets and donates items from her vast personal collection to Dora Maar, a luxury consignment shop. Levison is one of their ongoing muses, and she estimates that approximately 400 of her items are currently for sale. The Bridge Golf Foundation will donate 100% of Lauren’s proceeds.

Latest Comments:

  1. Thank you for that RF….yes..it’s an ongoing complaint..and it is NOT about looking young..it’s about looking and feeling great and…

  2. So refreshing to see you aging gracefully and looking fabulous! Too many people fixated on looking young instead of appreciating…

  3. Hi Marilyn..”ABOUT TURNING 75″….You can add me to your almost 75 llist…Oct 29th of this year. I am so glad…

  4. I discovered Dries 15 years ago as I was walking through Barbeys NY in LA. There was this amazing coat…

Marilyn Kirschner

I am a long time fashion editor with 40+ years of experience. As senior market of Harper's Bazaar for 21 years I met and worked with every major fashion designer in the world and covered all of the collections in Paris, London, Milan and New York. I was responsible for overall content, finding and pulling in the best clothes out there, and for formulating ideas and stories.

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