Fashion Diary: When the designer is you
Gossip, first impressions, trends in the making, celebrities and style setters. A regular feature by fashion critic Booth Moore.
Watching all the Twitter feeds and YouTube videos posted by the citizens of Iran this week, I can't help but think it's time the Internet started revolutionizing the fashion landscape as it has the media and political landscapes. New York designer Malcolm Harris’ new One Dress project may just be the ticket, not to mention the first true expression of democratic fashion, way beyond mass retailer H&M and luxe label Jimmy Choo trying to cash in on yet another collaboration.
A graduate of FIT in New York, Harris makes his first foray into the industry with the Madonna-fronted line Katsumi & Malcolm in 1996, followed soon after by his own label Mal Sirrah. Then, three years ago, finding himself disenchanted by the fashion merry-go-round, the celebrity freebie mentality and the insatiable appetite for new merchandise, Harris took a break.
“Part of being a fashion designer is solving problems, but I didn’t feel like that was what I was doing. I was making esoteric things but not solving problems,” the designer told me by phone today. So, he founded the charitable organization Designers for Darfur in 2006 with Lydia Hearst, organizing a runway show to raise money for refugees and experimenting with MySpace for the first time to publicize it. Although he admits it sounds hokey now, while trying to chart his next move, he kept playing over a scene in his head from the film, “The Color Purple,” in which Celie makes a pair of pants that fit everyone. “I always wanted to create something that would be a gift in that way.”
The Internet was the key.
“I realized I had this new tool that was not there when I first started designing, and it allowed me to ask women about the problem.” Eighteen months ago, Harris began using social networks such as MySpace, Facebook and ASmallWorld as a design laboratory, interacting with more than 1,000 women from around the world and asking them questions about what was missing in their wardrobes.
The message was clear. “Women felt as if they were being forced into certain things, forced by magazines, forced by designers. In my mind, I kept thinking liberate, liberate, liberate,“ he says. Although he anticipated women would ask for a go-to piece, he thought it would be tailored. What they really wanted, it turns out, was an updated version of a wrap-dress, something versatile enough to be worn multiple ways, in a lightweight, packable silk jersey fabric.
Eventually, Harris developed a prototype — a design based on a circle that can be wrapped and tied around the body in a number of ways. To get feedback, he Fedexed the dress around the world, including Europe and the Middle East. Since the official launch of Harris’ website Monday, he says he has sold 500 of the $250 dresses on his website. A portion of profits will benefit Womankind Worldwide and KIVA.org. All of his manufacturing is done in New York's Garment District, and there is now a three-week wait for new dresses to ship. I can't say how the dress fits, but I will try to order one and let you know soon.
The notion that Harris could, eventually, be putting himself out of a job never crossed his mind, he says, “because very few women are going to sit down at a sewing machine to create their own dress.”
Maybe so, but he might want to start being a little more publicity savvy anyway. Harris got a ribbing in Page Six yesterday for hanging up on Angelina Jolie the first two times she tried to call to place an order. Harris thought it was a prank. The third call was a charm, and Jolie explained that she wanted the dresses to wear to events on World Refugee Day, coming up on Saturday, June 20. The designer sent them straight away.
And yes, she did pay for them.
Photos: One Dress, Credit: Mal Sirrah; Angelina Jolie Credit: Matt Sayles / Associated Press