The Opening of the Norman Norell Exhibition at FIT

At the morning press preview for The Museum at FIT’s new exhibition, “Norell: Dean of American Fashion” (February 9 – April 14), I had a chance to speak with both Patricia Mears, Deputy Director and Jeffrey Banks, Guest Curator.

Patricia Mears

Ms. Mears described the exhibition (filled with 99 ensembles and accessories; many from the private collection of designer Kenneth Pool) as a platform for “Jeffrey’s vision”. Its emphasis is on quality, materials, and specifically, the last 12 years of Norman Norell’s career (1960 – 1972) which was his “most creative period”; something that is highly unusual, as the inverse is usually true. The timing of the celebration of this American designing legend who worked in New York, with New York Fashion Week, could not have been better.

Denise Linden and Jeffrey Banks

She called it a “wonderful collaboration”. “Jeffrey chose the outfits and I figured out how to organize it”. “He was a great partner. If you are going to have a partner, he is the best. Everyone beams when they talk about Jeffrey. He is such a gentleman”. (For his part, Jeffrey gushed about working with Patricia and her whole team). She also noted that this was his first exhibition but not his first book. No kidding. Jeffrey has had a whirlwind week leading up to the celebration of his new book, “Norell: Master of American Fashion” co-written by Doria De La Chapelle.

Marilyn Kirschner and Robert di Mauro

I had a chance to ask Jeffrey a few questions.

Marilyn Kirschner: Norman Norell was called “America’s Balenciaga”. If he were alive now, how do you think he would feel about Demna Gvasalia’s Balenciaga?
Jeffrey Banks: I think he would HATE it. He would absolutely HATE it and I want to go on the record as saying I HATE it too. It thumbs your nose at everything they stood for.
In his time, people called Norell America’s Balenciaga. He was a ready to wear designer. Everything was made off the rack and sold in the stores. He did not allow women to come up and get wholesale. He thought it was a disservice to stores.
But if someone wanted the one piece the store didn’t buy, he would make it for the customer. He used to say, “I owe it to the customer. I owe it to the store. Nobody would do that today There’s not a designer on 7th avenue who would do that today.

MK: What was the one thing that surprised you most about Norell that you didn’t know prior to your research?
JB: I think it was what I just said; a testament to his incredible integrity. He just simply wanted to make beautiful clothes to make women look beautiful. I attended a 1972 retrospective of his six decades (the clothes were shown on models). I was 17 years old and working for Ralph Lauren at the time. I told Ralph he had to go. He asked, “Who is this Norell?” I called him the greatest designer in America which I am sure he did not appreciate (he said with a laugh). They got a list of his best clients. Approximately 300 women sent 1500 dresses, some came in boxes the size of a dining room table. They were packed like Renoirs. The women said even if they hadn’t wore these dresses, they could not bear to part with them because they were so beautiful. Norman Norell just wanted to make beautiful clothes to make women look beautiful.

MK: Do you have a favorite section or favorite piece in the exhibition?
JB: This navy dress I really love. It’s Michele Obama. I can see her in this dress. It’s just a stunning silhouette and with her arms and skin color I think she would look unbelievable. All she would need are earrings. With Norell, you really didn’t need jewelry. If you had jewelry you could wear it, but you didn’t need it. It was all about the cut and silhouette of his dresses.

MK: Do you think it was his evening wear or day wear that was stronger?
JB: I love both. And he was one of those rare designers who did both with equal strength.

MK: Who is your next subject for a book?
JB: I have not thought about it. I am spending this weekend sleeping (lol). Norell was really a dream of mine. It was truly the book I wanted to be my second book. I made this very elaborate presentation to Charles Miers, the publisher at Rizzoli. I spent about $1000 putting it together. And I was initially told by Charles that nobody would be interested. He told me that nobody would want to read it; nobody cared about Norell. I was so angry I actually started talking to other publishers but eventually I did four other books for Rizzoli. The last book was Patricia Underwood, completed two years ago. Charles came over to me at the book party at Swifty’s and said, “You can do anything you want now” and I said “hold that thought” and I brought over 4 people as witnesses.  And I said, “I am doing Norell!”

MK: What are your thoughts about New York Week?
JB: It is certainly evolving and changing. I am concerned about it. So many people are jumping ship, like Joseph Altuzarra, who is wonderful and who makes clothes that make women look beautiful. That’s the whole idea. Now it’s just ugly clothes. Like Gucci. Ugly and expensive. Like Balenciaga, I think Gucci is horrible. The Gucci shoes I have now I just won’t wear. The problem right now in fashion, is that the clothes are so expensive. Frightfully expensive. $1000 for a pair of black pants. People wonder why retail is having such a hard time. Design some clothes people want to wear that people can afford. Sure I’m older, but I believe in the idea of appropriateness. I get the appeal of sneakers, but there are times when sneakers are not appropriate. This morning I posted something on Facebook asking people to dress up if they were coming to the opening reception tonight (Mr. Norell was notoriously formal). I will be in a tuxedo but I’m not telling you to wear black tie but please dress up.

Zang Toi, Jean Shafiroff, Carol Alt & Maggie Norris

And for the most part, they did dress up. If you are wondering if there are any sequins (a Norell signature) left on the planet, there are, but a few less after seeing Couture Council board members Jean Shafiroff and Yaz Hernandez (the former wearing Oscar de la Renta) and Kyle Farmery in a fuchsia sequined jumpsuit topped off with an Adrienne Landau pink marabou coat.

“The Michele Obama Dress”

Adrienne was there, as were fashion designers Ralph Rucci, Bibhu Mohapatra, Yeohlee Teng, Maggie Norris, Nanette Lepore, Victor dE Souza, Malan Breton, Zang Toi (who arrived with Carole Alt dressed in a black ensemble from Fall 2018).

Adrienne Landau and Kyle Farmery

In addition to Jean and Yaz, other Couture Council Board members on hand (the exhibition was made possible thanks to the generosity of the Couture Council of The Museum at FIT)  were Liz Peek, Michele Gerber Klein and Eleanora Kennedy. Dr. Joyce Brown, Dr. Valerie Steele and Patricia Mears mingled with Fern Mallis, Audrey Smaltz, Robert Di Mauro, Ike Ude, Doria De La Chapelle, wearing a fur trimmed Norell which had belonged to her mother (she attributes her love of Norell to her mom).

Silver sequined mermaid dress worn by Denise Linden

Jeffrey Banks was there of course, along with two special guests: Kenneth Pool (as I mentioned, many of the ensembles in the exhibition belong to the designer) and Denise Linden, a Norell model who is now in her 80’s and still looks amazing. She posed in front of a beautiful long sleeved silver sequined gown that she had once worn in one of his shows (there was a picture of her wearing it).

Duchelle satin ball gown with fox hemmed vertically striped skirt

I was inspired by one spectacular gown in the show (an evening ensemble with striped duchesse satin ball skirt hemmed in black fox) to wear my vintage 1970’s Malcolm Starr circus themed skirt.

– Marilyn Kirschner

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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