Narciso Rodriguez grew up in a polyglot neighborhood in Newark, N.J., in the '60s and '70s. Like any child who naturally adapts to his environment, he didn't consider the Cuban, Portuguese, African American, Spanish and Italian communities surrounding him charming or exotic--life in a city energized by its proximity to Manhattan was all he knew. But today, as an American fashion designer who works in New York, Milan, Madrid and Paris, he's grateful for his early exposure to a variety of ethnic groups with strong visual identities.
"Maybe I feel comfortable in Madrid because I'm Latin," he says. "Maybe that's why I love the idea of being a citizen of the world."
His perspective, which focuses more on people's similarities than differences, is partially responsible for his success. Rodriguez, 37, was named best new designer of the year by the New York-based Council of Fashion Designers of America in February. Last year, VH 1 gave him a comparable honor at its fashion awards ceremony. And he had already attracted an avalanche of attention for designing the most famous wedding dress of the decade for Kennedy bride Carolyn Bessette.
Now his first collection under his own name is selling out of stores such as Neiman Marcus and Barney's and was shown this week in Milan. Later this month in Paris, he'll present his debut collection for Loewe, a 150-year-old Spanish leather-goods house owned by the largest luxury goods company in the world.
On a rainy Los Angeles night in February, he talked about his design philosophy in his suite at the Mondrian Hotel before going to greet customers at Neiman Marcus in Beverly Hills.
"I don't believe in categories of clothes--day, night, work, play," he said. "I just design clothing that is comfortable and easy in the most luxurious manner. My clothes will always be feminine, and have a sensuality about them."
Amid the arch modernity of the Mondrian, Rodriguez's appearance was careless and friendly. Wearing a long-sleeved white T-shirt and loose black trousers, his dark hair askew, he cut a curious figure for someone whose work is infused with worldliness. Although "luxe" is one of his favorite words, it isn't a quality he strives to personally project.
Rodriguez spent 15 years designing clothes before a label bearing his name was sewn into a garment. While still in high school, he began working as a tailor's apprentice and studying at the Parsons School of Design in New York. At 21, he left Parsons to work under Donna Karan and Louis Dell'Olio at Anne Klein. In six years at Anne Klein, then the epitome of a successful, widely marketed American collection, Rodriguez worked up to head designer under Dell'Olio. Karan had left to start her own line in 1986. He moved on to Calvin Klein in 1991, where he spent the next four years. There his knowledge of marketing, advertising and image-building grew.
Although he was an anonymous member of Klein's design studio, Rodriguez was beginning to become known within his industry. He began receiving offers from other companies and in 1995 left to inaugurate a ready-to-wear line for TSE, a maker of fine cashmere sweaters. Rodriguez thought he could manage the job at TSE while designing the women's collection for Cerruti, a respected European menswear producer that counted Clint Eastwood and Jack Nicholson among its customers. After one season, he was devoting all time to Cerruti. Company patriarch Nino Cerruti has a fine eye for talent; Giorgio Armani was his assistant for eight years before starting his own business.
At Cerruti, Rodriguez attracted the praise of the fashion press and savvy stores. His casually assembled sportswear pieces hit a magical middle ground. Their sophistication was beyond a college girl's grasp, comprehensible to only the hippest matron. Models loved his sexy, clingy clothes and didn't conceal their admiration as they walked the runway. They even wore them when not on the job.
Years of training on Seventh Avenue brought Rodriguez to a place where he could create clothes relaxed and elegant enough to shelter Kate Moss on her day off. For many designers, that would constitute professional heaven. But after showing two highly praised Cerruti collections at a Beaux-Arts auditorium on the Parisian Left Bank, the earth moved.
A friend from his Calvin Klein days, Carolyn Bessette, asked him to design her wedding dress. The groom's name was John F. Kennedy Jr. The wedding gown, a simple, bias-cut slink of pearl-colored satin, attracted an avalanche of publicity.
"It was something I did for one of my dearest friends," Rodriguez says. "I would be a fool to say that the attention that it brought to my work, which looks very different from that dress, wasn't positive. But . . . at a certain point we just stopped talking to the press about it."
Other matters were pressing--a month after the Kennedy wedding, Rodriguez had a Cerruti collection to present in Paris. It contained no bias-cut evening dresses. "That was something very separate, for a friend," he said. "When people came to my show, they saw real clothes for real women--the same type of thing I had presented the season before. And I'm still doing that. I'm not a wedding gown designer, and I would never capitalize on a situation like that."
Yet Rodriguez had been thrust into the spotlight. Professional suitors pursued him, and after one more collection, he decided not to renew his contract with Cerruti. The Loewe job, secured a few months later, put him in the league of John Galliano and Alexander McQueen, designers working for the Dior and Givenchy divisions of the same firm that owns Loewe (pronounced loo-AY-vay). His signature collection is produced in Italy by the manufacturer of the Jean-Paul Gaultier, Alberta Ferretti and Moschino collections.
Rodriguez doesn't dwell on the heady company he keeps. "I was never looking for money or fame in my career," he says. "A lot of great things have happened to me that I'm very grateful for, but the most important thing is the passion that I feel for my work. I'm very tactile. That's what drives me. I love working on each garment and changing it 12 times. That's the moment when it all comes together for me."
In Rodriguez's Cuban American family, that passion for design made him the "creative one," a term that meant, in family code, black sheep. "Now they're really proud of the press that I've gotten, but they're also really proud of the fact that I decided what I wanted to do and I stuck with it till it happened," he said. "There was a point when they realized, OK, he's a freak, but he's serious about it, and he must be good, because people are really talking about him."