Carmelo Pomodoro My father was a shoe manufacturer and I grew up in New York. I wanted to be an architect first, and then an actor, and then I decided I wanted to be a painter. I actually went to Parsons to study Fine Art. After a year the Chairman of the Fashion Department called and said, “You’ll starve to death. Why don’t you try fashion.” I wasn’t so concerned about the money but being introspective to begin with, I was a little nervous about being alone in a room and painting by myself. I thought it would be a challenge to be out with people—bring out another side of my personality. So I took a special eight week course that taught me all the technical aspects of design I had missed the first year. It just seemed like all the pieces fit.
Elizabeth Cannon Did you find that ideas you were working on in painting could translate into fashion?
CP It definitely infiltrated everything, particularly the advertising. The chiaroscuro, the double imagery that we’ve been playing around with. The first collection actually came out of my collages. It’s basically a study in white—white ivory and pale yellow—no color in the first collection. Everyone thought I was out of my mind, but we opened up and it was just phenomenal right away.
EC You didn’t work for another designer after school?
CP I definitely did. I worked for Charlotte Ford who was from the age of socialites as designers. She really wasn’t a designer—we, who were employed there, were the designers. Then I worked for Bill Haire who was a great designer, of the caliber of Anne Klein, at the time. And then I went to work for Ralph Lauren; where I learned a whole different aspect—packaging. Having respect for what you do, and wrapping it, and presenting it properly. so that people see it in the light that you want them to see it in. And then I worked for Betty Hanson, a full designer there, not a design associate, or assistant, or whatever. Basically that was cutting my teeth and problem solving, learning about the real nitty gritty. It also was, frankly, the antithesis of what I wanted to do myself. It crystallized for me what I really wanted to do. It was an act of faith, really. It cost me some money to get out of my contract, but as soon as it was completed, the next day, the phone started ringing. My life has just been putting one foot in front of the other and seeing where it leads following instincts.
EC Did you ever, during this time, get disillusioned with Seventh Avenue?
CP Oh yeah. That was part of starting up my own business. I made a decision that 1 was either leaving the business completely, or that I was going to do a business the way 1 saw it. There was going to he no trade off there. My company is largely women. It’s a family here, not like a typical Seventh Avenue business. I have great respect for everybody who works here; they’re all very talented and I believe in them tremendously. By working with talented people, it can’t help but work. It doesn’t have to be some grand marketing plan.
EC I get a sense of freshness and spontaneity in the clothes. Can you talk a little bit about how you begin to develop a collection. Do you have themes?
CP Working within a theme is usually a stumbling block for me. I’m not a theme-y kind of designer. I inevitably work from instinct, and my instinct in the beginning is to just open it up completely and work on lots of ideas I’ve stored up that I want to tackle. It’s a bit harder not to work on a theme, but I don’t think themes are what modern life is about. Themes are roads to completely disposable fashion, “You’re wearing your Hawaii outfit, today.” I believe in lifestyles, specifically. The customer that I dress already has a pretty specific idea of who they are. And what they do in their life. I can only help to add a new development to that context.
EC Do you begin with drawings or are you more tactile—do you do draping?
CP Actually, I begin with color first, and then I work on my yarns and fabrics. It’s more tactile in that sense. Then I really work sketching. Thank you Lord. I happen to be a good illustrator, I just have a facility. The people in the studio draw extremely well—I’m sort of a fanatic about that. We get involved in the draping only in the last four weeks. And that’s basically about changing. I’ll rip things apart and say, “No, the sketch didn’t work. I want it to work this way.”
EC Do you have an image in your mind of an ideal woman from whom you’re inspired, or a muse?
CP I have a muse—someone I work with who is a model. She happens to he Dutch and very wild—who just has a great spirit to her. But I would think it would be someone like Jessica Lange. I always perceive the men and women I dress as intelligent. I think that that’s sexy. I see it as a growing generation of people. A woman today can’t be fooled. She wants a new twist, and it’s frankly more an intellectual twist than anything else.
EC You’re giving the woman more power.
CP More power. More intelligence. Like in the Fall collection, many of the clothes do three or four different things. The scarf wraps and attachments are not gimmicky or confusing, but just naturally, you can do three or four different things. So the dress fits into whatever she’s doing for the day.
EC In Europe, in the couture, specifically, fashion design is considered a laboratory in which experimentation is quite important. How much freedom do you have to try out your ideas in your collection? Or do you feel you need other outlets as well.
CP I use other outlets—doing the Absolute Vodka campaign or doing something fun like talking with Reynolds Aluminum about the possibility of having Christo wrap a building and for me to design clothing that will have the essence of what Reynolds Wrap is, without being Reynolds Wrap. I’m trying to put together a Junior Committee for the Council of Fashion Designers to raise money for great causes, be it AIDS or design scholarships. I work on the videos and I need to work on the ads. I’m working on a TV script right now about the fashion industry and I’m taking a course at the New School. Unless you have a business that just has so much money to lose, you can’t be totally ridiculous and wild, and then there’s a part of me that thinks all that’s a thing of the past anyway. The craft of fashion is that it’s utilitarian. The challenge is to meld the art and the creativity to the fact that people have to walk down the street in it. It’s an entrepreneurial business. I have a partner who is in many ways, ideal. He is probably one of the top three collectors of Art Deco in the world. He has his own eye, and he’s very respectful of the creative spirit. Our lawyers call him a disinterested interested partner. Involved enough to oversee the business and disinterested enough not to meddle in the creative aspects. When you have an organization like this, you have a responsibility to the other people in it, not just to yourself. The clothes have to sell so that they’ll all make their salaries and the business is prospering. I can’t be incredibly self-indulgent and say, “I have to do this and that’s the end of that.” In America, it’s a very fine line.
EC Is the design world extremely competitive?
CP I do many things with peer groups and I sense a lack of that competitive spirit, it’s more supportive than it used to be. If somebody else does well, that’s only going to add to the whole group as opposed to trying to edge somebody out. I’ve worked a little bit in Europe, and I saw the camaraderie. Azzedine Alaïa goes to St. Laurent’s show, and everybody goes to everybody else’s show. It was different in New York, but I think the young designers are changing it.
EC We’ve just experienced a dramatic swing from the madcap fashion of Christian Lacroix of a few seasons ago, to a much more conservative climate in fashion at the moment. There was such a sense of abandon and there seems to be such a shift back towards conservatism. Is it just a reaction?
CP I’m sure it’s a reaction. The next reaction will be for people to once again focus on what works for them. To select four or five designers that they really enjoy. Which has happened in the past. In the ’70s there was a big boom in designer fashion because people stayed faithful and really went with it. I always considered LaCroix a little bit of a fashion burp. I didn’t see how it was going to sustain itself. I think he’s very talented, but it was too much like fast food. Here’s an idea, it’s dubbed fashion as bad taste.
EC Well everybody just jumped on it, like a boat where everyone rushes to one side. The whole thing sank, for one thing, because he got smothered with everyone’s expectations.
CP And also taking on too much. That was the problem with Stephen Sprouse opening up three lines at once. It’s hard enough launching one line. The expectations placed upon people are just too much.
EC Can you control that? As a designer, is there a way to keep a distance?
CP I always detach myself from the press. I consider it a separate entity unto its own.
EC Can they destroy you? Do you think they have that much power?
CP I think they can help you—if it’s a terrible collection I think they can destroy you. I decided in the early launch of the business, it was a conscious decision, that I’m not the kind of person who could be happy opening up and being explosive. I wanted to open and have something small and intimate that I considered wonderful and pure. And then to build upon it. By making that statement, without even realizing it, it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. I’m more interested in a long, slow, nurturing kind of process. I wasn’t ready to have myself out there. I was concentrating on the inside of the business, the product, the people, and where we were going. So I basically didn’t give clothes to the New York Times or Women’s Wear. By not giving the clothes, you don’t get the press. You have to know when to pull back a little. Right now, I feel in an expansive mood, and I’m ready to take it all on. But you have to use it to the best advantage. David Cameron had tremendous press and hardly any product in the store. Then on top of that, he didn’t have a very large audience. The impetus that’s going to keep it rolling is if people out there respond to it and like it. It’s either going to be a small group of people, in which case you keep your business small, or larger. That’s a decision you make, but there’s got to be somebody out there. Otherwise, I’ll just lock myself up and sketch, show you drawings instead.
EC Do you think there’s such a thing as timeless fashion?
CP Well, in a certain sense, there are things which are so well designed that they essentially establish themselves as new classics. They take on from where something was and evolve it into the next step. I think there is a timeless fashion. I do think though, that fashion is an emotional business. It’s an emotional involvement. At this level, you’re not wearing the clothing as shelter. It’s not a survival aspect. You’re wearing it because it makes you feel beautiful, or it makes me feel sexier or more masculine. God only knows, that’s always the element that I try to key in on—the touch and the feel and the sensuality of the garment.
EC Have you been particularly influenced by any designer, past or present?
CP If I were influenced by anyone in particular it would be Egon Schiele, Robert Rauschenberg. A Pop influence, culturally—I mean, I grew up in the age of Andy Warhol. There are designers I have respect for because they do what they do so well: Armani, or Azzedine Alaïa. You can tell there’s a great creative force behind it; they’re really saying something and sticking to it. Because of that I buy their products. There are some things to be learned from everybody. I think Ralph Lauren is a masterful art director. He’s a magician. It’s just amazing how he has this incredible single-minded belief, tunnel vision, and everything that is around that might work within this context just suddenly becomes part of the context as if it were originally conceived. There is a lot of great talent around. Unfortunately, a lot of it is getting stomped on all around.
EC Do you think there is a collective unconscious among designers? What I mean is the way different designers who maybe don’t know each other, or are in different places, suddenly come out with a shape that’s similar. The pyramid shape in Paris, which seemed to come from I. M. Pei’s architectural pyramid at the Louvre. I remember one season in Paris, the Spring before last, almost every designer had roses all over the clothes.
CP There are a few elements. One is a natural evolution. The pendulum of how the customer feels—they’ll go from LaCroix to being very conservative, for instance. Maybe it’s not a pendulum swing but a natural building process. I assume that my boredom becomes the customer’s boredom. I’ll suddenly have a real feeling for georgette or something really sheer, because there’s a whole sensuality to what’s going on in clothing, and it’s not just me, it’s obviously many designers having the same response.
—Elizabeth Cannon is a couture designer who lives and works in New York. She is also Fashion editor at BOMB.