This past week I had the pleasure of meeting the young, talented, (unapologetically non-minimalist) couturier Max Nugus (www.maxnugus.com) at his Madison Avenue atelier (1065 Madison Avenue, 212-249-0162). Since his aesthetic defines the notion ‘More is More’, his given name could not be more fitting. “I like to do treatment on things…I don’t want to do just fabric, even fur. So if we do furs, we put ribbon on it, we slash it…we make life difficult on ourselves” he joked.
While Max is not shy about admitting monetary success is certainly part of the motivation, he is hardly in it only for the money and that is immediately apparent upon talking with the inventive designer and Arnold L. Goodman (his General Manager), a longtime veteran of 7th Avenue whom I first met years ago when he managed Revillion Furs and I was at Harper’s Bazaar. By the way, he and Max are so compatible they practically finish each other’s sentences.
The Bangkok born San Francisco resident, whose father was a diplomat, grew up in many different cities (Hong Kong, Tokyo, Vienna, and London) and was therefore exposed to many varied cultures and lifestyles. He made the decision to study fashion design in San Francisco rather than New York because being from an Asian family, where a premium is put on higher education, it was important to his family that he received a 4 year degree (a BFA) which is not always possible at traditional fashion schools.
In 1991, while still in school he decided to open up a boutique in San Francisco, followed by Beverly Hills, Palm Desert, Phoenix, Houston and finally New York. (Phoenix and Houston were ‘experimental’ for about one year but he hopes to go back to Houston again).
When I asked who his “design Gods” were (beside himself of course) the ambitious designer proclaimed, “If I want to model myself after a person, I would say “Oscar de la Renta”. I want to reach his success, or Valentino, that’s what I want to do.”
“I don’t want to be commercialized like Versace (when he was still alive) or Dolce & Gabbana. l want to do clothing that is timeless and that lasts…I don’t want to do fads, and I don’t want to have underwear licensees. Or socks, or cigarettes” he laughed amusedly. He certainly knows himself, he knows his customers, and is not trying to be all things to all people.
Which celebrities has he dressed? Glen Close for the Oscars two years ago (a black beaded tuxedo pantsuit and coat), as well as the ‘Trophy Girls’ that same year in similar black beaded gowns (they’re the ones who give out the Oscars). Arnold recalled with obvious pride and amusement that “the producer was initially against the girls wearing those gowns because he feared they’d look BETTER than the movie stars. “Gee, what a complement that was!” he reflected.
Max recently dressed Kim Bassinger (for her birthday), and Mrs. Walter Annenberg. “I was invited to her ‘18 hole golf course’ home in Rancho Mirage and she ordered an entire wardrobe. That’s the kind of customer we need – a whole wardrobe!” He also counts the heirs to the Levi Strauss empire (who live in San Francisco), as loyal customers, and told me about another client in San Francisco who “has so many of my pieces, she flew in her own plane to New York to see what I was keeping here for her.”
In fact, on the day I was in his atelier, Barbara Tober, an attractive, beautifully groomed New York social fixture who sits on many boards, was due in later for a fitting on a gown to be worn at a big event she is chairing in November. The elegantly glamorous bronze embroidered chiffon and lace creation was in the corner of the shop on a mannequin, awaiting her arrival.
With glee, Max told me that when Ms. Tober first met him and came upon the shop, she declared it was like stumbling upon a surprise ‘jewel”. She ordered this dress back in March. “We love customers like this who don’t rush us and give us lots of time for proper fittings.” The designer also said that ideally, he wants 8 weeks for fittings (during which time 36 measurements are taken by him or Arnold) “and you can’t change your shape” he jokingly warned. Of course, he sees that there is some extra fabric left in the seams (“we leave a lot of seams…there’s always room”) even though “most of our ladies just wear the gown once.. It’s a one shot deal”. “We don’t ‘own’ every lady” said Arnold…”but we want to” interjected Max.
As Arnold put it, “It’s true couture. We make sure everything is perfect. We have to meet continually with clients…clients who are ‘walking advertisements’ for Max Nugus clothes.”
And just who is his ideal customer? Who would he love to dress that he hasn’t? Max had no problem answering this one…he quickly said, “I’d really love to dress Catherine Zeta-Jones.” Arnold concurred, “He’s in love with her and she’s gorgeous…she’s a glamorous Hollywood movie star who wears clothes well.” (So Catherine, if you’re reading this….)
While Max Nugus is hardly the only couturier out there, he does set himself apart with two very rare characteristics:
1- He will NOT lend his clothing. As Arnold put it, “Max doesn’t give his clothes away. Glen Close bought what she wore to the Oscars…his customers (all of them) must pay…and that’s a stiff rule”. Though he did admit to loaning a gown to Miss Universe for a special occasion. (But as he observed, “there is only ONE Miss Universe” and she is hardly a multimillionaire (or billionaire).
2- By his own admission, he’s “very nice to work with” and is eager to say that he doesn’t have a “huge ego like a lot of other designers do. So if you want to change my design, that’s fine.” After all, the customer is ultimately wearing the item so she might as well have it her way.
Max Nugus Haute Couture is all about “statement making” special occasion clothing (perfect for “socialites” as Max observed): custom made one of a kind ready to wear, tailored day suits, cocktail couture, red carpet worthy evening gowns, bridal, shoes, jewelry, accessories, handbags, and menswear. The price range for eveningwear goes from about $3000 to as high as $12,000 or more (for an elaborate bridal gown).
Signatures are the elaborate hand work and painstakingly exquisite workmanship (as seen in the intricate cut outs, beading, fur trim, embroidery, brocades) that come with the territory. But that doesn’t mean there are no fun ‘surprises’…like the exquisite hand beaded proud peacock that adorns the back of a turquoise silk blazer, or the use of fine art as inspiration (more than just a big trend these days and one worth watching as we head into the next season).
For example, one pantsuit features a jacket whose back is emblazoned with a facsimile of Jacques-Louis David’s famous painting, ‘Napoleon Crossing the Alps’. Max originally found a silk screen printed t-shirt with the Napoleon print on the front, while in Paris and he had the idea to create something more luxurious with it. So he bought the t-shirt and cut out the print and used as embroidery on the back of the jacket.
And one decidedly muted hand beaded gown (which by the way is my favorite piece in the collection), is hauntingly and surrealistically printed all over with Botticelli’s ‘Birth of Venus’.
For more information, or to set up an appointment to view the Max Nugus Haute Couture and bridal collection (www.maxnugus.com), please contact Sandy Blye at Sandy@blyemediarelations.com.
Are you listening Catherine?