Fashion Able

I don’t think it’s odd that fashion found a path into my life. I was the fourth girl in this pattern in our family of eight: 1 boy 3 girls, 1 boy 3 girls. I got a lot of dated hand-me-downs. I still possess the first store-bought dress my mother let me pick out for first grade. I either got it at Grant’s or a shop on Main Street before the shopping centers came in and drove them all to closing. I’ve kept that dress all these years even though it is ripped and faded. My kid sisters wore it too. It is turquoise blue on its gathered skirt with a pattern of ballet slippers and violins, and the top is solid nut brown. The collar and short puff sleeves are piped in the patterned turquoise. There is a thin sash that (still) is (partially) sewn into the side seams that hold a bias self-belt. On the belt is an appliqued violin and ballet slippers, and they used to have several rhinestones. I believe one still exists.
I looked for the dress in both of the old chests I have where some of the other important fashions of my life are kept: My wedding suit–light seafoam green, Carmelo Pomodoro silk, my dress of many colors that my mother made for me to graduate college–I was her only college grad. It was so colorful and short as Mary Quant’s. I wore it to New York City in 1973 to be a Guest Editor for Mademoiselle. I also found things kept from college—the black antique beaded and fitted jacket I wore with ripped and embroidered jeans (Can you guess I was a hippie?).

Hidden almost under everything is my mother’s soft denim trousers she wore to garden in. While at Vogue, I found them on a forage home. She hadn’t worn them for years; they were worn and unlike any jeans of those early 1970s–telling of what was to be. I patched their frailty and wore them one day to Vogue. It was bold; it caught Grace Mirabella’s eye as she saw me walking up from the back elevators with stats in my hands. I saw her turn her head and watch me.
So when I ended up at Vogue and illustrating for Mlle, and then at Bendel’s and Rags, and opening a studio for fashion clients like Tahari and Perry and Carmelo and Willi Smith, it wasn’t that I didn’t have it in my background.
I sewed my own clothes to make them special. It was within my budget to do that. I used my babysitting money on a light sky colored trench coat that I also brought to NYC back then and hardly wore, and shoes, and stuff I couldn’t construct. In college I got a job designing and making costumes one summer, and then the producers hired me for the main stage show, Cabaret, at Boston Conservatory after I switched to Mass Art.
My daughter likes clothes too. She has a mini dress form and pins things together on it. She likes clothes and puts them together fabulously. So maybe it’s in the blood

The First of Many Perry Ellis Invitations

Designing for that first Perry Ellis show was hampered by Rea Lubar’s art direction to go pink. The collection–Spring 1979–had some pink, but Perry was launching, not a pink line, but a full blown collection. His time had come. And my time to impress him with my graphic abilities was running short. This invitation needed to bespeak the Perry Ellis about to emerge and after two rounds of design I was feeling down on myself.
Then I got the call. It was Perry, could I meet him at 1441 Broadway in the lobby in 20 minutes? Yes. Good, he had something I needed to see. My studio was 2 stops down from Times Square on the R line; I got there first.
Perry arrived alone and bounded up a dark but grand stairway that looked like it hadn’t been used in a decade. It opened on to a mezzanine landing leading to a dazzling if dusty quadrupled height “ballroom” for want of another word. Four hugemungus brass carousel chandeliers hung about halfway from the paint-peeling ceiling, otherwise the space was echoing empty. Perry spun around like Marlo Thomas in the opening sequence of That Girl, “It used to be a bank; look the vault is even still here, we might have to leave it.”
It was spectacular, the windows looking out onto Broadway were maybe 30 feet tall, and lined that side of the gallery. It seemed improbable that it would be ready in time for the show, we barely had time to print invitations. “We’ll clean it up as best we can; paint the ceiling…I want everyone to know that we haven’t fully moved in, maybe fill it the space with cardboard boxes, shredded newspaper…”
“I have it,” I said, wanting to race back to the studio to design the invitation. Whatever I had to see, I’d seen it, and inspiration was gushing out of me. The timing was perfect as someone on his team joined him and gave me my out.
One of the first art shows I went to in NYC, was Japan House’s “How to Wrap Five Eggs”. I was smitten. I’d been a paper aficionado and always eyed those packing sheets laced between layers of fruits, wishing I had a use for them. Now I did!
c Martha Voutas Donega 2013The three textures were telling of Perry’s sensibilities: My packing matter protectively shielding the voile-like artist’s vellum, and the heavier cover stock, scored and die cut to fit, wrapping it all neatly together.  We always hand addressed. Simple and elegant. And I’m happy to say, just the incentive Perry Ellis needed to hire me to design his corporate identity. But that’s another blog!



Eh, Designers, They’re a Dime a Dozen–Rea Lubar

From my first job at Vogue where I barely designed, (think Devil Wears Prada, I’m Anne Hathaway’s character getting coats thrown at me) to Henri Bendel’s AD where my timing wasn’t so great and I was easily hired away to relaunch a counter-culture magazine, Rags, (that didn’t float), to my ongoing efforts to relaunch my acting career, I set up in 1978 in NYC’s wholesale flower market as a graphic design studio. It was a small patch of real estate in a cojoined loft building. Fabric designers worked up front and a photography studio that played non-stop Donna Summers was in the back. I found a room-sized space just off the elevators. It was in that space that I designed my first Perry Ellis pieces.

Phillip Matthews and my friend David Lewis had launched a decorative pillow business, the showroom for which was also in the front loft. Before staking out the elevator space, I shared a corner in the big loft with Phillip and David, and used their phone for the few calls I made or got. Home furnishings market week was approaching and they had no graphics–no sell sheets, nor hangtags, no press release. I asked Phillip if I could help; he said his friend in PR, Rea Lubar was going to provide that. Fast forward to too late, and I opted in. I shot some Polaroids and statted them up across the street, used typewriter type, statted it down and threw it all together.

The next week Rea came in to see the line. Phillip introduced us. She was impressed with the copy I’d written and asked if I wanted to write for her company. I said, ” Well, I’m a graphic designer.”

“Eh,” in that Elmer Fudd voice that Rea could emit, “graphic designers, they’re a dime a dozen.” Phillip quipped, “Not this one, you should see her book.” Rea took the time right then.

“You know I’m working for this designer, Perry Ellis, heard of him? well, he’s up for a Coty and he needs an invitation to his new show. Can you do it? His line’s all pink and white, you make it pink and white and it will fly. It’s 500 bucks and don’t ask for a penny more. I want you to go see him tomorrow.”

I’d already illustrated Robert Renn’s book on haircoloring–another Dead Designer–and I had early Donghia Showroom pieces in the book, plus the Vogue and Bendel’s work. I might have even had my Gilda Radner cover for the short-lived Rags. I showed him and Jed and Patricia the book in a sunny corner of the Vera offices. Vera was a Manhattan Industries line and they were about to launch Perry’s own collection; that’s what they needed the invite for. He closed the book, looked up said well, “I think you can do it. I’m nominated for a Coty tonight and I’m having a win or lose party at Cafe Un Deux Trois, would you like to come?” He handed me an invitation.

That was the start of a very long relationship. He didn’t win the Coty that night for the Portfolio line, but he won me. I walked over–having only just met him—Carey Donovan and people all around. He extended his arms and said, “Martha, It’s so good you could make it.” And he hugged me. We’d both make it; it was a winning combination.



All My Dead Designers

Sorting through a pile of samples of graphics I’d designed over the years, Dennis asked, “What’s that pile?”
“Oh, those are the dead designers I worked with.”
“Sounds wretched.”
“Right,” I said and went on sorting.
There’s a waxing nostalgia in me since in October I’ll be traveling to NYC again for the Perry Ellis book launch (Rizzoli), and I just returned from a wedding of New York friends where I reunited with both Mark Ingram who was Sales Manager at Carmelo Pomodoro when that very talented designer died and also with Leo Chiu, the late Bill Robinson’s partner in life. So many talented people gone–lives and legacies lost–and here I am weeding out samples I’ve hauled from NYC to Rockaway to Amenia and now through two moves in New Orleans.

BillRobinson_square copy
I like to think of myself as a designer’s designer; we came together, they and I in the 70s and 80s, them needing branding, packaging and advertising and we collectively designing beautiful things. The dead designer list is long —
Carmelo Pomodoro
Perry Ellis
Angelo Donghia
Bill Robinson
James Terrell
Willi Smith
Carroll Cline
Thommie Walsh
Bernie Chaus
All of my late clients, except the last three, died of AIDS related illnesses; the plague that rolled through the fashion-able industry as though it were a bowling ball. A big, black one, powerfully thrown.
There were others, of course, who didn’t die, and others still that have died, but these are the ones who got sorted into the pile along with Izod Lacoste which should perhaps have never lived together in the first place.
Having survived a few deaths close to me, I know that we all need time to recover. So on the eve of 9/11, twelve years later, I thank those designers for hiring me, for the insights they shared with me that ignited and fueled my design career. It was an awesome haul from 1973 when I first appeared in NYC as a Guest Editor for Mademoiselle and left for New Orleans only last year. I’ve kept our processes and our samples alive even though you are gone. Adieu.