NEW YORK, United States — Today, at a funeral service and celebration, the New York fashion community bids farewell to one its most loved personalities, Charles Nolan, who passed away over the weekend after a long battle with cancer. Before starting his own business, Charles played an instrumental role in the development of iconic American fashion businesses including Bill Blass, Ellen Tracy and Anne Klein.
I only had the chance to meet Charles once, back in November, when he attended our inaugural BoF Breakfast Club in New York, but was struck by his passion and love for our business, and was flattered and excited to hear that he was a regular BoF reader.
As our small way of commemorating his life and contribution to the business of fashion, the following is a casual and intimate interview only previously published in the program notes from one of Charles Nolan’s last fashion shows, conducted by his partner Andrew Tobias, who kindly agreed to share it with the BoF community.
Q (Andrew Tobias): You want me to interview you?
A (Charles Nolan): You’re the writer. You’ve interviewed lots of people. Why not.
Q: I don’t know anything about women’s clothes.
A: That doesn’t matter. It will save us money to have you do it.
Q: Ah [The interviewer, an investor in CHARLES NOLAN, LLC, brightens]
A: The idea is you doing what you do, helping me explain and brand what I do.
Q: You make people cry.
A: I do not make people cry!
A: We’re Irish. We’ve always been comfortable expressing ourselves freely. In eleven years, have I ever made you cry?
Q: No. But I have cowered.
A: All right. Start asking questions.
Q: Why are you a fashion designer?
A: I don’t really know. I have always loved to make clothes. I love the whole process of choosing the cloth and then letting it tell you what it wants to be. I’ve always wanted to do this but I’m not sure I’ll ever quite know why.
Q: The cloth tells you what it wants to be?
A: You know what I mean. It’s a bit cliché, but my mom had a terrific style. She loved clothes and the whole ritual of dressing.
Q: Do you have a philosophy when it comes to your work? Do you come out of a particular “school”? Other than F.I.T.
A: That’s a good question. I love making clothes…the whole process…but it’s important to me that they work for the wearer. I think I’m a very practical guy. (I know you don’t think so.) The basic idea is to make something as simple as possible while making the cut and construction as interesting as possible.
A: Simple, clean lines. The period that really impacted me was 1960 to 1965. It was such a time of change. All the fins came off the car. The simpler dress was always on the leading lady. It was all about neat and pretty and sleek. It was a still fun and young in a very sophisticated way. You had this reaction to Fifties groupthink that led to the idea of self-exploration. ..and by the of the Sixties it’s all about “do your own thing.”
Q: You were three in 1960. How could this period have impacted you?
A: [Interviewee rolls eyes, mutters something about “the 4:30 Movie every day after school”…inaudible…continues:] “Darling,” the 1965 movie with Julie Christie completely captures that moment. All the characters make completely selfish choices. The aesthetic is great. It is so fresh. Still romantic, but it’s easy.
Q: Did the cloth tell you to say this?
A: You really have no feel for this, do you?
A: It’s all about the fabric. And the fit. And find that element of serendipity that adds a spark. I drive people crazy over the fit because that’s the absolutely most important thing. I want women to tell me they love wearing my clothes; that they feel comfortable. But I also want them to get compliments.
Q: What about the serendipity? Is this why you were baking a dress in our oven?
A: That was a pleated skirt from last Fall’s collection. It’s an ancient way of creating a pleat- you wet it, twist it really tight into a ball and knot it, and then slowly bake it just enough to set the pleat.
But the serendipity, or the spark, or whatever you want to call it, can come from anywhere. It’s what draws the customer’s eye to buy the garment- I hope- and then gets her the compliments when she wears it.
Q: What about big feathers? I’ve never seen you use big feathers. Wouldn’t that be great?
A: I used feathers last Fall and you don’t even remember? I made a turkey feather skirt last fall. Do you even see the clothes? You’re really just trying to annoy me, aren’t you?
Q: [Cowers, slightly.}
A: I’ve always shied away from pieces with too much fuss and excess decoration. I like to keep decoration very simple-but if you’re going to do it, it should be strong. And all this while never losing sight of the fit. No matter what the fashion or the season or who I’m designing for, one thing never changes: the clothes have to be comfortable.
Q: Is being a designer a choice, or were you born this way?
A: [Interviewee rolls eyes.]
Q: I seem to remember from writing FIRE AND ICE that Norman Norell was really Norman Levinson from Indiana, and that Halston and Bill Blass grew up in Indiana, too – and my sense was that they much have escaped from the heartland, dissolved all family ties, and come…NORELL! And HALSTON! And BILL BLASS! Did you grow up in Indiana? Tell us your real name.
A: This is my real name. I grew up on Long Island, the fifth of nine kids, and moved into the city when I was 16. We are a very tight-knit family, as you well know, having become enmeshed in it. My brother Kenneth is also a designer and my closest advisor. My sister Carola helps run my shop. My 11-year-old niece Emma accompanied my mother out on the runway of our Spring show, and then your mother walked down the runway-
Q: – the first runway show she’d been in since modeling for Judy & Jill at $75 a pop in 1939-
A: – and I regularly enlist the rest of my four sisters and four brothers, and their kids, as well. We sometimes drive each other crazy but we’re a very close family.
Q: What was the very first thing you remember designing? Where were you? How old were you?
A: I’m sure it was costumes for a play. When we were kids we were always putting on plays and revues for our parents who would sit through them and pretend to enjoy it.
Q: You once designed a ball gown for Arianna Huffington out of table cloths and roll of aluminum foil. Tell that story.
A: You know that story. You made me do it.
Q: Tell it anyway.
A: It was hardly a ball gown. Arianna was supposed to be the Queen of England in front of 1,000 people in an impromptu New Year’s Eve skit. You all gave me three hours to make her costume. I had to work with what I had.
Q: She looked great. What about Tipper?
A: I had more time for that. I got to design the dress she wore the night Al Gore was nominated in Los Angeles and gave her that famous kiss. That was cool.
Q: And Queen Rania?
A: I’ve never made clothes for Rania. You hear me talk about her because she champions a group I support- FINCA- The Foundation for International Community Assistance. A really great organization that does micro-lending to women in the Third World. For me it’s all about empowering women. Men have had their turn and screwed it up. But now look at Germany. Look at Chile. Look at Liberia. Look at Geena Davis. It’s the women’s turn.
Q: Did having four sisters- and more than one brother with design sense influence you in any way?
A: How could it not? I’ve done prom dresses (junior and senior) wedding gowns, christening robes, Mothers of the bride and groom.
Q: I think of a woman’s clothes a frilly and -
A: You have your own issues.
Q: How much is this show costing us?
A: We’re done.
Andrew Tobias’s first New York Times best-seller was FIRE AND ICE, the biography of Revlon founder Charles Revson. Other than that, Charles Nolan is his only other connection to the fashion world.