Michael Vollbracht at the beginning of his career when we first met, late 1970’s. Inscribed photo courtesy of the Nena Ivon Archives at Columbia College Chicago.
When the news reached me last week that Michael Vollbracht had died, after total disbelief, I immediately wanted to do a post on my wonderful times with him. I didn’t want to do an obit, His dear friend, Jeffrey Banks, did one so eloquently for the CFDA and it was followed by an brilliant piece in the New York Times and Woman’s Wear Daily. All detailed the life of a unique, brilliant talent. But rather, I wanted to honor him with personal reflections.
I first encountered Michael’s talent when Saks Fifth Avenue bought his collection and I featured his extraordinary garments, all of which were amazingly beautiful prints that he had created, in many of the charity fashion shows we did at the time.
They were great hits so much so that SFA Chicago invited him to bring his collection to the store and do a formal fashion at The Hilton Chicago, the first of several formal shows with him, (home to many, many of our shows!) In those days, I met all the designers (and often their representatives if the designers weren’t making a personal appearance) at the airport, actually at their gate, we could do that until 9/11, and escorted them to their hotel. This allowed us to get to know each other and, in my opinion, set the stage for a comfortable, successful event. In addition, I was on the selling floor throughout their visit and usually was included in the dinners we hosted for the designers.
We got to The Hilton on the day of the show, it was a luncheon in the Grand Ballroom, a magnificent room to this day, I can’t remember a time when I checked the room before I would arrive at any venue. Of course, I would do a walk through of the space prior to any event. The charity usually did the decor, centerpieces, etc. We opened the doors to the room and were met with at least 20 American flags on flag poles placed on the balcony hanging over the stage (they had been there for some political event and left!) I love my flag but it was a bit much, to say the least, for a fashion show. There was nothing to be done but work with them. Michael’s reaction, “How charming, a salute to a born and bred American designer….love it!” This gives you an idea of his sense of humor, his ability to adjust to the situation and deal with it.
The twinkle in his eyes…..
Michael had a special relationship with Bill Blass (Michael later designed the Blass collection, I thought the perfect fit!) who asked him to design his retrospective exhibition at Indiana University the fall of 2002. The opening night was attended by many of Bill’s New York designer pals such as Adolfo and Carolyne Roehm as well as the ladies Blass dressed all of whom, after viewing the exhibition, sat down to Bill’s famous meatloaf. The only thing missing was Bill who had died shortly before the opening.
Talking about Bill Blass
Michael asked to describe the exhibition said it would “be a mixture of museum and theatrics.” The exhibit had dramatic lighting, the walls were what Michael called “cafe latte”, music of another Indiana native, Blass was from Indiana, Cole Porter, was piped throughout the space. I was devasted not to be able to attend this once in a lifetime event, work prevented it I did however go to see it at the invitation of Kate Rowland, curator of the University’s Sage Historical Costume Collection. I was able to see it several times the day I was there…fortunately the first visit was early in the morning when I walked through it by myself…fortunately I say because I burst into tears at the first thing I encountered, Bill’s office, totally reassembled, again the only thing missing was Bill! Bravo Michael…you totally did it and Bill would have totally approved. I adore fashion exhibitions and this was done to perfection in a very small space, luckily we have a book co-authored by Michael, Kate, and my first SFA boss/mentor/supporter, the incredible, Helen O’Hagan.
I wanted to share some of the portraits Michael did of his designer friends, they are fabulous and capture the personalities perfectly.
Love this of Pauline Trigere, it captures her perfectly
James Galanos, exquisite
Donald Brooks (sorry for the poor quality, the only copy I could find)
Diane Von Furstenberg, gorgeous
Norman Norell, another designer who passed away prior to the opening of their exhibition from the Nena Ivon Archives of Columbia College Chicago.
Two illustrations from the divine monograph NORELL by the brilliant Jeffrey Banks….if you don’t already have it purchased it immediately, it is glorious and a MUST have for your library along with the Blass book
Lucky me, I worked with all the designers, above, who were captured by the insightful eye of Michael Vollbracht.
The famous Bloomingdale’s shopping bag, Michael’s Book, and…….no words needed!
My last in person encounter with Michael was at a Costume Society of America Symposium in Kansas City, (Michael was a hometown guy!) in 2010 when he was the Keynote Speaker. A bit of background, at the 2009 CSA Symposium I was seated with the cochairs of the Kansas City event and they were discussing how excited and a bit intimated that Michael Vollbracht was coming for their event, I spoke up and said, “what a coup, he is the Renaissance Man and you will love him.” Their response, and I think in unison, “do you know him!” “Yes, yes, I do” I said….well needless to say I became golden and was asked to be his host…yes, please.
I set up the room before his presentation with pieces he had sent and put them on dress forms. I introduced him and he began by talking about me much to my embarrassment, but I was nonetheless thrilled. He got a standing ovation, not easy from the group…he was perfect, of course he was! There is always a Patron Dinner for the keynote and those who wanted to be up close and personal with the guest…again he charmed the group with his “unfiltered” stories. He and I went to The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art to see the Edward Steichen photography exhibition, who better to go with and spent another evening with Dennis Brozynski, my Columbia College Chicago Fashion Studies colleague and long term CSA supporter (the other member of our group, my dear friend and CSA roomie, Dianne Erpenbach, also a CCC Fashion Studies colleague, was tied up with CSA meetings and couldn’t join us) getting Kansas City barbecue….Michael knew all THE joints to go too. We roamed around, stuffed full of some of the best barbecue ever. Ah memories…all good ones
My little black dress sketch, hangs on one of the shelves of my fashion library. It is visible from the foot of my bed, so we can say I wake up with Michael every day! Photo taken by me
So much has been said of his talent, his art, his fashion, his newly found voice on Facebook with wonderful in-depth stories of his career, his relationship with mega stars, such as Elizabeth Taylor, his frustration with the fashion industry, to say his death is a huge loss is a major understatement. Rest In Peace Michael Vollbracht, your art lives on.
All photos and illustrations unless otherwise noted are from Pinterest credits unknown.