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Narciso Rodriguez

For him, for her, for fashion.

It was a dress—one very specific dress—that put designer Narciso Rodriguez on the fashion map. It was back in 1996; he had been toiling away for years in the industry, trying, as many do, to make a name for himself, when his good friend Carolyn Bessette asked him to design her wedding dress. One bias-cut sheath dress for John F. Kennedy, Jr.’s bride became one of the most copied silhouettes of the past decade—and Narciso suddenly found himself moving from the front row to centre stage in the design world.

“It really took a lot of courage to tell my parents, when I was a teenager, that I was going to be a fashion designer,” says Narciso, reflecting on his realization at a young age of what he wanted to do. “They said, ‘No. You cannot do that. Absolutely not!’ ”

He was born in 1961 in New Jersey, and growing up, his Cuban parents would have much rather seen Narciso in something more serious, such as law or medicine, though he eventually did spend his college years at Parsons School of Design. There, he made the acquaintance of Donna Karan, who helped him break into the fashion-design world by offering him a job assisting at Anne Klein.

He later moved on to another Klein—Calvin—and continued designing womenswear. He was then appointed design director at Cerruti in Paris, and eventually accepted backing from Italian company Aeffe to present the first Narciso Rodriguez women’s ready-to-wear collection for Spring/Summer 1998 in Milan. The collection was a hit and made it into virtually every major fashion magazine; the orders began pouring in. Soon after, Narciso returned to New York, and by 2003 he was the only designer ever to receive back-to-back Council of Fashion Designers of America awards for outstanding achievement in fashion. Not bad for a guy who, as a teenager, got “one big ‘no’ after another”.

Narciso’s clothes are understated and comfortable. He is known for his exquisite tailoring, minimalism, fine design and craftsmanship. His success comes from a well-honed talent and an astute knowledge of the feel and quality of materials and fit. “It can be a classic suit, but one detail—one extra seam—can make the fit more distinctive, and make the silhouette implicitly sexy, not explicit and in-your-face,” says the designer. “It’s as simple as a T-shirt with a carefully placed seam.”

In this time of celebrity-endorsed everything, and loud and aggressive fashion that is all about bedazzling, Narciso remains true to the fashion craft. “The craft is the thing that I devote the most time to,” he says, “and it’s also the thing that gives me the most pleasure. My work defines itself by cut, fit, attention to detail and using my love of the craft to create clothes that are about the body.”

After garnering tremendous success with his women’s ready-to-wear collections, the creation of a men’s collection, first shown in September 2005, seemed predestined; it was simply a matter of timing. “I really started with menswear. The first thing I ever made was a vest for myself, and I’ve always had a great love for tailoring. My goal with men’s fashion is a classic, clean, effortless look.”

His fashion sketches, all hand-drawn, become finished pieces in his Irving Place studio. “I started my collection in a small way in a factory in Italy. Then I got a little office space here in New York, and then I got a bigger office space.” Just like his clothes, his studio is understated and comfortable: white walls with touches of grey throughout; bolts of fabric in bins; crowded work tables; inspiration boards with scraps of fabric and colour; stacks of magazines, including W and Harper’sBazaar dating back to the year of his first self-titled collection; markers, organized by hue; and many sketches of ideas both realized and preliminary.

“My intention was to create a scent with an identity that is strong enough to surprise and seduce, something you can’t ignore.”

Narciso’s creative process involves a passion for photography. “I take pictures every day. The camera has become like my sketchbook—I’m never without it,” he says. “I just take a lot of pictures of people and life and everything that’s around me, because it’s all sort of magical and it all sort of speaks to my creative mind—that you can just look and see life and see everything around and put that into your work.”

Narciso’s initial foray into fragrance occurred in 2003 with the launch of forher. Now, a few of us have been invited to New York to celebrate his latest project: a companion men’s fragrance, for him.

As he talks about his life, his designs, and his fragrances, Narciso is cheerful, at ease. He has a twinkle in his eye, a larger-than-life smile, clearly defined dimples; he is the boy next door. The fashion world is a cold-hearted place, and many recognize Narciso as a breath of fresh air. Vogue’s Anna Wintour has even been quoted as saying that he’s “so low-key sometimes” and “so not a diva”. He is unassuming, and as we sit at an intimate, informal dinner, his nonchalant attitude evokes the feeling of a relaxed evening with friends.

The heart and soul of both forhim and forher is Narciso’s own signature scent, the exotic Egyptian musk oil he has worn for years. Narciso was introduced to the scent by an unforgettable woman when he was a teenager (for us, she is anonymous; for him, she remains mysterious), and from it he and parfumeur Francis Kurkdjian have created two distinct fragrances.

“The objective [of for him] was to avoid a mere masculine version of Narciso Rodriguez’s feminine fragrance for her, because men have their own olfactive identity, totally disconnected from references of femininity,” says Kurkdjian. The creation of for him demanded “hundreds of trials over a two-year period before fine-tuning one that fully satisfied Narciso”. The fragrance cannot simply be reduced to an exhaustive list of ingredients, because perhaps more integral than the composition itself are the emotions that echo Narciso’s words: an essence of mystery, with nothing aggressive or in-your-face, but something that’s wonderfully enigmatic.

Kurkdjian spent countless hours smelling in his lab in Paris. Yes, smelling: a parfumeur’s repertoire can reach up to 2,000 scents. Drawing an analogy between his work and that of a chef, Kurkdjian comments that creating a perfume is like baking a cake: the ingredients are set but the procedure is not. His challenge was to meet Narciso’s request that the fragrance be simple yet sensual. The oil parfum is a musky heart blended with a silky oil for a unique perfumed aura. The eau de toilette is composed of musk amplified by three facets, violet, woody and amber, which results in an intoxicating scent. The for him line also includes aftershave lotion and emulsion, a deodorant stick, and shower gel.

“My intention was to create a scent with an identity that is strong enough to surprise and seduce, something you can’t ignore,” says Narciso. When you smell it, whether or not it’s your particular thing, you cannot help but respond, so in that he has definitely succeeded.

This past May brought the news that Narciso had entered into a multi-faceted agreement with Liz Claiborne Inc., which reportedly paid $12-million (U.S.) to acquire a 50 per cent ownership interest in the Narciso Rodriguez name. Narciso will continue as creative director, working to further develop the Narciso Rodriguez brand worldwide. The transaction marks the first time in the U.S. fashion industry that a mainstream clothing company is betting that it can buy a niche luxury designer and come out ahead. “Right now, I feel that I’m in a moment of great change that’s exciting, both personally and professionally,” says Narciso.

“When someone looks at my life or looks at my work, I want to be remembered for bringing a little bit more beauty into a world that so desperately needs it—especially today.” Given the acclaim he has already garnered with both his fashion and his fragrances, being remembered shouldn’t be a concern. He has been a creative force, and one hopes that even more beauty, more creation, lies in Narciso’s future.

Photos by Jacky Marshall.