Parson’s Tribute to Michael Vollbracht

Michael Vollbracht

Today, the Couture Council at The Museum of FIT will bestow its annual Artistry of Fashion Award on Narciso Rodriguez.  While this event has traditionally kicked off NYFW, last night, another event had that distinction, and it too, paid tribute, though posthumously, to a designer for his artistry in fashion. The New School’s Parsons School of Design Auditorium was filled with fashion notables (Ken Downing, Kay Unger, Stan Herman, Louis Dell’Olio, Joel Towers, Freddie Leiba, Bethann Hardison, Julie Britt, Maury Hopson, Jeffrey Banks, George Carr) who came to pay tribute to the life and work of Michael Vollbracht who passed away at the age of 70 in June.

Ken Downing at the Michael Vollbracht Tribute
Photos: Marilyn Kirschner

The mid-west born Parsons Grad (1969) won the school’s prestigious Norman Norell award and was given the fashion industry’s prestigious Coty Award in 1980 for his highly recognizable boldly patterned creations that “dripped with color, glamour, and wit” (several women, including Kay Unger and his niece Tracy Stanley, were wearing his iconic designs). Michael was also head designer for Bill Blass from 2003-2007. How many fashion designers showing collections in the upcoming month, will, like Michael, make a mark, or be instantly recognizable by just one of their designs? Unfortunately, not too many!

Bethann Hardison and Stan Herman

Michael considered himself to be first and foremost a fashion designer, but he was undeniably an illustrator and artist extraordinaire and that remarkable talent, was the theme of the evening. His book of illustrations, Nothing Sacred, was published twice, and his large-scale paintings, seen all over the world, were continually being commissioned by a global roster of discerning art clients. Michael also supplied the gorgeous original and vintage illustrations for “NORELL: Master of American Fashion” written by his great longtime friend, Jeffrey Banks and Doria de La Chapelle, who was among the 11 speakers taking the stage to make their remarks last evening.

Steve Gold

Others were Freddie Leiba, Bethann Hardison, Ken Downing, Stan Herman, Reed Evins who designed shoes for everyone one of Michael’s collections, including the one that garnered him the Coty Award. Also, his publicist, Roberta Green, Joel Towers (Dean of Parsons), and Kay Unger, chair of the board of the governors of Parsons who was a classmate of Vollbracht’s in the mid 60’s and also a lifelong friend. Another close friend, Iris Apfel, who hailed him as a “Renaissance man who could do everything,” calling him “the sweetest most fun guy imaginable” when he passed, was scheduled to be there but did not make it. Who could blame the 97-year-old icon for not feeling well in the 94-degree heat?

Joel Tower and Kay Unger

Michael was remembered as an irreplaceable, one of a kind, unique, amazingly talented artist and fashion designer, and someone who was young at heart, with a playful streak and a big heart. He was also fabulously handsome. As Doria de la Chapelle put it, Michael looked like he could have been a “Tom Ford model long before Tom Ford even had models.” Even when he had no money, he was highly philanthropic.  Joel Tower cited his magnetism, talent, humor, and wit (“he was electric”) and Kay Unger said that his work had “reached a level of immortality” and the “power of his creations was gorgeous and complex.”

She noted that his iconic Bloomingdales shopping bag (which was recreated for the event and placed on every seat), represented the “first inkling of what branding could be.”  Bethann Hardison said there was “no replacement for Michael.” “He is one, that’s the mold. That’s it”.

Ken Downing

Ken Downing talked not only about his artistic bent and wicked playfulness, but his desire to design for real women and not fashion editors, who he did not particularly like. Stan Herman, who taught both Michael and Kay at Parsons, said that his talent was “a gift to our industry.” “His illustrations became art. He challenged the establishment. Hopefully, there will be more like him!” Roberta Green had everyone in stitches when she said that her “leading man handsome client” was constantly telling her, “When the end of the world comes, there will be you, me, Cher, and cockroaches!”

Jeffrey Banks

Jeffrey Banks called him a raconteur, an artist, and a lover of beautiful women who was a “Parsons legend in his early 20’s”. Michael made everyone laugh talking about how he taught one semester. His classes were in his Upper East Side apartment, barefoot and wearing ripped jeans, with Barry White’s “Love Unlimited” blaring in the background, and regaled the students with stories of movie stars like Joan Crawford, Liz Taylor. Needless to say, he only taught that one semester, he joked. Jeffrey described Michael’s shows as “not just shows, but happenings.” Norman Norell had always been his hero, and when he learned that Jeffrey was writing a book about him, he wanted his soignee illustrations to go along with his writing. He cared so much, and he wanted it to be perfect, and they were on the phone constantly talking about every detail. He was a perfectionist, and it was a labor of love.

Michael Vollbracht’s niece Tracy Stanley wearing a Michael Vollbracht coat
designed for Elizabeth Taylor

But perhaps the best description of his innate artistic creativity and his desire to bring wit and humor to the world came from Michael himself. The evening kicked off with a short video from a segment of Good Morning America which was taped in 1980. A few models, including Cheryl Tiegs, wore his exuberant, iconic designs, and he joked, “I can’t give away solids.” “My work is not for the masses, I go to Neverland.”

Maury Hopson and Julie Britt

The gathering was meant to be a celebration and a celebration it was. Kay knew that Michael would not have wanted a maudlin event, and this was anything but, thanks to the often humorous (if not often tear felt) remembrances made by those on stage, and of course, a few of Michael’s upbeat iconic designs and sketches on view didn’t hurt. But it was only a sampling. Parsons will be mounting a full-blown retrospective of his work at a later date.

– 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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