Abbijane by Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe

BOMB 27 Spring 1989
027 Spring 1989

Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing

Abbijane 1 Body

Abbijane, 1989. © Bonnie West.

Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe Is it true that you only use very expensive materials?

Abbijane I don’t use lavishly expensive fabrics, but I try to use quality fabrics that last a long time.

JGR You design series of possibilities, a long skirt which reveals a short skirt…a dress that has sleeves on it which began as a sleeveless dress. You begin with this ideal girl and then build it up.

AJ I’m a little obsessed, yes. Usually, when I make a pattern, I start off with the Holly-Go-Lightly black shift and then build it into a classic that I think anyone can wear. Everyone has an image, and certain amounts of money, and a certain length of time to make this image work. They can only do one thing. So what I’m trying to do is make all these women from size 6 to 16 look elegant.

My big argument now is to try to tell them that they don’t want it to be black—it’s a scare—to try and convince them that soda green is an earth color. It’s like the river, some are green. It’s like the wind. I’m a little upset. I was in L.A., on Melrose, and they all wear black. You can’t even wear black and have everyone say, “Oh my God, she’s from New York.” Now black is everywhere.

JGR What’s the idea, for you, of style?

AJ Me? I usually wear black lace, white turtle neck, and then I add a piece of my own clothing. I get my clothes off to show clothes—I can take my skirt off right now, for instance, and put something else over it and be comfortable.

JGR You started 10 years ago?

AJ I started back in high school for my rock and roll friends.

JGR What’s the profile now?

AJ Very mixed. It’s unbelievable. I have attractive women with money and with gorgeous daughters. They both come. I have clients who travel a lot and will buy a whole collection in one color combination. They want those six pieces because they can make 15 outfits out of them.

JGR What is the relationship between rock and roll and the corporate world? What essentially differs from one to the other?

AJ If you took the black shift and wore a white blouse underneath that—I have a friend who is the head of a corporate company and she must have something to change into when she’s going to cocktails. She doesn’t really have time to go home. All she’s doing is going to the ladies room, putting on red lipstick and she’s ready.

JGR So you make these dresses for people who are in today’s world, or something of that sort.

AJ Because of my beginnings, music is a big influence. So those are the kind of people I’ve worked and grown with for years. They were 25, now they’re 35.

JGR I’ll run this by you. You make these clothes, on purpose, so that people may bring as much frivolity to work as possible…

AJ People work a lot of ways.

JGR And then minor adjustment (clap hands)—off for the night. So they bring rock and roll to work, and then, as quickly as possible, you get right back to work.

AJ Right.

JGR There’s a very nice sort of mirror—counterculture and official culture. It’s like rock and roll in the office.

AJ I have pregnant women who come here who were rock and roll girls years before and have changed into another realm in their lives. To me, they’re the same person. And they have to go to the Grammy awards and they’re pregnant.

The kind of collection I’m doing now—I thought that something light and airy would be a big change and I could still do dresses in black gabardine if I wanted to, they still work. The styling of the clothes didn’t change very much, but you can get the idea—it could be a black dress in winter, in the summer, pink. Like I said, now you’re walking down Melrose and those kids are wearing black. Do they know why they’re wearing black? I mean, I don’t know.

JGR It goes better with a tan.

AJ What is this with you and tan?

JGR How did the celery green come about?

AJ I love it. I’ve gotten a few colors I really love. I love pink, turquoise, and green, different types. Kind of color that looks like it’s old, it has that medieval quality, then again, it can be very new.

JGR They’re very soft colors, turquoise, green, pink, spring colors. They are very natural colors.

AJ I call it tulip period.

JGR Tulip? What’s that.

AJ When you look at certain flowers and you just have to have them? Pink tulips with green stems. And you’re obsessed with it. Or Sterling Roses that have that old purple color, then again, you can’t figure out what color, they’re grey, they’re silver, you can’t tell. That kind of thing. Perry Ellis was really strong on the theory of matching the brick as you walk down the street. He invented the Yuppie with that. Sorry. I think so. It works. Most people…

JGR Is your work a rock and roll critique of that Yuppie look?

AJ No. I don’t think so. Music is a strong influence to me, and all the maniacs I know help that influence along. But I think the clothes are classic, elegant, simple. The person wearing them makes them work. It’s not like you’re wearing this sweater with this crap all over it. Where you become a part of the sweater. If you turn around and see somebody wearing something that’s got a whole lot of schmutz on it, you remember the dress, you don’t remember the face. I’m trying to make women take their own beauty and make it work. The simplest thing makes the woman look the most beautiful.

JGR So let me paraphrase. You make the clothes based on this very reduced structure and you have sort of springish colors which are still sort of medieval. Certainly more pre-modern…

AJ Can’t figure out what it is. We have to call my astrologer and find out.

JGR And these clothes are very simple. Not adorned and sculpted and they can be worn and are worn by people who go to work and also to play. And they help them feel good. And they help them feel good by not being anonymous, by not mixing in with the bricks on the street and at the same time not being particularly assertive either.

AJ It’s a hard niche to find. I don’t think the department store mentality is good for me. There aren’t that many specialty stores that buy American clothes anymore. They’re all buying in Europe. It’s hard to find a place to sell clothes.

JGR It’s like being an American chef. What’s going on now?

AJ Total chaos. Retail’s terrible. I’m trying to think of a way, because people don’t have money. In Europe, someone would spend their money—a lot, or what they had—on quality things, a small amount of them. In this country, people buy a large amount of cheap junk. Trendy cheap junk. It’s great. For short term. But I think they’re starting to buy things that are going to last.

JGR If you wanted to design clothes to make money at the moment what would you do?

AJ I would make something inexpensive and package it so everyone could get it. Something that’s in a grocery store. I’ve always liked that idea of pantyhose in an egg. Something you can throw on and look fabulous in.

JGR Describe this thing that you wouldn’t want to do.

AJ Oh, I would want to do it. A black turtleneck, cotton, long dress that fits perfectly. You go zip! It fits. Something supernatural about it. You put it on and you look fabulous, like when you’re in a cartoon and they draw it on you.

JGR Couldn’t it be done? Or is it impractical?

AJ Well, it’s impractical marketing, unfortunately. You can’t buy fashion at Woolworth. It would be mass market, just a norm. Facial tissue is Kleenex. What’s Kleenex? A brand name. Same thing, a name for these clothes doesn’t exist. How do you do that with fashion?

JGR It would be fashionless, actually. Among the things that you don’t like in this world, there are beige pantyhose that are anti-naturalistic and cosmetics…

AJ Why? No one looks good in it. Certain things, I think, no one looks good in. I can’t figure out why they do it.

JGR Tell me some more things.

AJ These women with these sneakers and suits.

JGR That really does suck, doesn’t it?

AJ When you’re looking at it, you want to die. There’s nothing more annoying than walking down the street and seeing 4,000 guys with fucking baseball caps on. What do they hide their eyes for? If you look them straight in the eye, they turn their head.

JGR Well, that’s the trend of a specialist.

AJ Fingernails bother me. These people with long fingernails. Nothing more disgusting than someone spending their day having their nails done.

JGR There’s something—aesthetic of the natural.

AJ Yeah.

JGR Are you coming back to that? The natural with rock and roll.

AJ You’re not giving that one up. Listen, I did the Platinum Blonde. That’s not natural and they looked great. Natural is my idea of friendliness, not natural as some sort of religion. It’s not that serious. I mean, black eyeliner doesn’t look natural, but it’s fabulous.

JGR Okay, Abbijane, what else should we ask about you? Have you got anything else to put out—that we need to know? Perhaps I should ask an L.A.-New York question.

AJ I don’t drive. And any place you can’t wear high heels or buy a pack of cigarettes, or walk for milk, you shouldn’t live. That’s what I say.

JGR What’s the biggest difference between the New York customer and the L.A. customer? Given that they have probably lived in both places.

AJ I would say, because of the weather and stuff, people want more exposed clothing in California. They’re much more body conscious in L.A.

JGR More suburban?

AJ Not suburban. I find that L.A. is a young city with older people trying to be young. In New York, people pretty much are right on to who they are. I had arguments with a 40-year-old customer who really wanted to wear the short dress, and I say you should wear the skirt under it. It’s my dress. I don’t want them looking like an idiot. I’m trying to explain to them that even though you work out at Jane Fonda’s and your legs are great. But. You don’t go to a restaurant with your ass hanging out. In L.A. they vie to be young.

JGR In regard to this question of New York women dressing more appropriately, having a better self image, more confident about being 45—could you then imagine designing clothes for someone who was 85?

AJ Oh, absolutely. There was a woman who came to one of my shows with her granddaughter. She used to be a shoe designer. And she bought a plain shift dress and she looked fabulous. Something that was real simple and loose. She was a real classic, but she wanted something in her eyes, modern. It was the fabric to her that was modern, not the look of the clothes. She was obsessed with the idea of having a viscose dress, which you could wash. In the old days of rayon, if it rained, the dress shrunk. That was the miracle to her.

JGR Here’s the last question. We’re going to get you to define classic. What’s classic?

AJ Each person’s different.

JGR You have an idea of what’s classic. It has to be very simple to he classic? It should be very simple.

AJ I think so.

JGR It should hang nearer the body, and not distort it?

AJ Not necessarily. The Pope’s uniform is considered classic. It’s not exactly the body.

JGR In Abbijane’s weltanschauung it’s based on…

AJ Classic is simple, elegant. And how to pull it off for that person. That makes it classic.

JGR What is not elegant?

AJ Orange makeup and beige pantyhose.

JGR Let’s agree that that precludes elegance. Is elegance a matter of…

AJ But the person has to make that.

JGR Some little thing that the person then propels further.

AJ Because they feel good in the clothes.

JGR In your view, elegance then, has to do with a certain kind of restraint? Assertive, but not super-assertive. Is it not a matter of restraint but a matter of just enough and just enough is what you want.

AJ You want to give everyone something that makes them feel good so that they can portray their own image.

JGR But not something they have to compete with. So this is the principle of this question of restraint. We still haven’t defined elegance though.

AJ Ohhh…elegant is like love making. It’s different for each person. I can give you an example. Audrey Hepburn as Holly Go Lightly is the elegant idol of a million people. She has that elegance but still has that funky but chic quality.

JGR I won’t tease you about some indefinable term. It does seem to me about right that these clothes that you make, the way you describe what you’re trying to do with them, has a lot to do with the notion that the clothing should be very simple. So that the body presents itself, maximizes itself in this sort of stock market language. It’s some way of bringing simplicity into play in a very flexible way. We have this very simple dress which can be adjusted according to the age of the person who wears it. And which comes in black or a number of odd, historically natural colors. And it’s really not a question of elegant clothing, in the sense of making an evening dress, it’s a question of making clothing which people can be elegant in. Whatever that term might mean.

AJ The clothes aren’t as important as the person in the clothes.

JGR This question of clothing takes a back seat?

AJ I would rather have the person make a dress work for them than a dress make the person over.

JGR I take it this is a very flexible person who may have been a rock and roller yesterday and a corporate lawyer today; both people are still in that person.

AJ People change. That’s why fashion changes. People change.

Isaac Mizrahi by Elizabeth Cannon
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Carmelo Pomodoro by Elizabeth Cannon
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A fashion interview between designer Carmelo Pomodoro and Elizabeth Cannon.

Sally Beers by Elizabeth Cannon
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“I experiment a lot, it’s true. I like to try a lot of things, and repetition is not one of my favorites.”

Isaac Mizrahi by Elizabeth Cannon
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“I love a strapless dress that makes you look voluptuous. It’s an art form.”

Originally published in

BOMB 27, Spring 1989

Salman Rushdie, Polly Apfelbaum, Dennis Cooper, James Nares, Penny Arcade, Mats, Alexander Kluge, Robert Greene, Nancy Shaver, Abbijane, Terry Kinney, Michael Tetherow, Bill Barrette, and Carmelo Pomodoro.

Read the issue
027 Spring 1989