Although I am a junkie for fashion created in the ‘70’s – ‘80s era, the late textile designer Michael Katz (who passed away in April at the age of 66) was not previously on my radar. The Art and Design Gallery Pomerantz Center at FIT has a jewel box exhibition (through November 15) of the prolific artist’s colorful one-of-a-kind hand-painted silk crepe-de-chine clothing that’s guaranteed to brighten up the dullest of days.
Katz, a New York native, was basically born with a paintbrush in his hand — as a child, he would paint anything and everything in front of him. He attended the School of Visual Arts, where he studied silk-screening and print-making.
Upon graduation, he teamed up with Cynthia Knott creating Theacat Co. selling hand-painted fabrics to Stephen Burrows, Halston, and other designers. They eventually started their own fashion label sold at Henri Bendels before Katz began his own line.
In 1988 he introduced a ready-to-wear collection based on reproductions of his hand-painted designs. Katz’s fashions were featured in Vogue (American and British), Cosmo, and Women’s Wear Daily; worn by celebrities including Joan Collins, Natalie Wood, Polly Bergen, Dionne Warwick, Mick Jagger, Elizabeth Taylor, three Charlie’s Angels (Jaclyn Smith, Farrah Fawcett, Cheryl Ladd), Christina Ford and many others; and sold at the three B’s (Bonwits, Bergdorf’s, Bloomies), as well as Lord & Taylor, Hattie, Leonard, Neiman Marcus, Wilkes Bashford and Brown’s of London.
Along with the easy silhouette dresses, culottes, pajama pants, cocoon coats, tunics, men’s and women’s shirts, neckties, scarves – all in a kaleidoscope of hand-mixed colors, are some fascinating glimpses into Katz’s life via shockingly well-preserved memorabilia.
A display case contains thank you notes from Joan Collins, Diana Vreeland, Elizabeth Taylor (well, technically from her assistant as Ms. Taylor was traveling but wanted to express her gratitude) as well as a letter from designer Perry Ellis asking Katz to join the CFDA (the dues were $300/yr then!). There are handwritten instructions to the models!
There’s an article written by Eleanor Lambert extolling Katz’s talent, success, and low-key attitude. “At this point in his career, Michael Katz is successful enough to be Big Business if he wants.” His lack of interest in participating in the fanfare during what Vanity Fair termed “the media decade” is profiled thus: “So far, Michael Katz loves the status quo, and glories in his unpressured independence from the rat race of the media eighties.”
Michael Shyka, a long time painting assistant, describes the Michael Katz Studio painting techniques of employing wax, paint, brushes, and a jotting tool, adding this illustrative tidbit: “Michael liked to paint with loud music playing; often opera, and sometimes he would sing along to it. For me, it was all fascinating to be around to see a table of white silk transformed into an exotic garden. And to blast opera and paint along to it!”
I stopped and watched the video of an OG Michael Katz fashion show, which may have been for store presidents, merchandise managers, buyers, world press, maybe even ladies who lunch. Everything looks so elegant – from the models pleasant, refined demeanor (they glide rather than stomp); to the white, fern laden venue (Katz gave shows in New York, D.C., Houston, Scottsdale, and Beverly Hills); to the clothing with a decidedly Palm Beach appeal, loosely and luxuriously skimming the model’s body.
Katz was a friend of FIT’s Visual Presentation and Exhibition Design program for over 20 years. He spoke to classes, juried windows, and donated original work to the program’s wardrobe collection, allowing students to use current luxury brand fashion for their displays and portfolios. FIT has done a great job of memorializing the student mentor and designer/artist with this exceptional exhibition.