Updated: Jul 5, 2019
Patrick Michael Hughes Men's Fashion Editor
(Photo Nena Ivon Archives at Columbia College Chicago)
“I am a fashion illustrator. I am a fashion designer, I can do a mean interior design. I have photographed many erotic images and painted many children’s portraits. All this is based on the fact that I was born an artist. Whether I’m good or bad that’s up to you.”
On September 4, 2018 the worlds of fashion, commerce, design, New York society and art came together on the campus of Parson School of Design in the New School’s Alvin Johnson/JM Kaplan Hall to celebrate the life of creative original Michael Vollbracht. He was well known and highly respected among the top tier of the Seventh Avenue’s fashion elite during the days of high volume, American manufacturing and giddy recognition of American sportswear during the 1970’s through the early 1990s.
Michael Vollbracht is not a name known to many of the new generation in fashion but Mr. Vollbracht was an artist who shaped and challenged fashion when it need new ideas and left fashion to peruse his love of illustration and fine art. He left fashion when the party was in full swing and he moved on to his renaissance. The quintessential message of the life celebration was reinvention, taking risks and not giving any credence to what others think particularly editors and critics he was …”a complete original and more than good”
Kay Unger, who was a close friend, colleague and is the Chair of the Board of Governors at Parsons School of Design, organized the event. The arrivals were greeted to the sounds of Barry White’s greatest hits a favorite and what seemed to be as we would later learn a subtle signature of the designer.
Vollbracht’s life as a fashion designer began at Parsons School of Design in the mid- nineteen sixties during an era of great change, graduating in 1969. Kay Unger and Willi Smith were among his classmates. Vollbracht was the winner of the prestigious Norman Norell Award at Parsons that happen to be presented that year by a sportswear designer Bill Blass a designer who would later play a significant role in Vollbracht’s life.
Illustrating for Geoffrey Beene, was would be the first job he landed after graduation. One of his tasks was illustrating the bridal trousseau of first daughter Lynda Bird Johnson. While at Beene he be-friend another young designer Issey Miyake, whom would have a life long admiration for Vollbracht’s work as a designer and artist.
A speaker at the life celebration was Geraldine Stutz of luxury retailer Henri Bendel on Fifth Avenue in New York City; recalled the wet and rainy evening a young fashion illustrator pitched is his work for the position as the artist to help re-brand the store. She was sold by his focus, wit and charm. Upon reflection one could rank Vollbracht’s style as original, bold and that idiosyncratic fashion word ‘directional’ meaning instep with the time with an innate understanding of elegance in alignment with the luxury boutique experience. He was the next chapter and heir apparent to the older generations of Carl Erickson and Kenneth Paul Block. He also was a design team member at Donald Brooks another American fashion label from the sixties to the seventies. Brooks was the creator of costumes for stars such as Julie Andrews in Star! 1968.
Bloomingdales was his celebrity tipping point ,during the mid-nineteen seventies. He created a shopping bag with the portrait of a female face paired down to the eyes nose and mouth. Kay Unger stated in her remembrances that Vollbracht loosely based it on the features of Marilyn Monroe. The other part of the back-story was that it was a printing error and the white shopping bag had a nine million item run before anyone said it does not say Bloomingdales. However, the bag was a hit and instantly recognizable for the store and the Bloomingdales New York, shopping mystic. A collection of the originals are housed in the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. The shopping bag was generously reprinted by the store for the attendees of the gathering.
Vollbracht began his own collection and company with little funding at the end of the nineteen seventies. This was during the days when fashion designers stuck to themes , sizable industry collections featuring fifty, sixty and up to eighty looks. It was a market driven audience along with a few friends and socialites, not a mob of cameras and celebrities. He earned two Coty Awards the fashion Oscar and pre curser to the CFDA (Council of Fashion Designers of America) Awards. He was an avid fan of the golden age of Hollywood cinema directors and producers such as Frank Capra and George Stevens.
He often credited Hollywood with his love of fashion and glamour. This was far from the Hollywood of today. When reflecting upon the historical timeline of popular entertainment during the late nineteen sixties through the late nineteen seventies this would have been in step with tastes and style of fashion’s sportswear aesthetic and late-night television. Long before there was Turner Classic Films or AMC cable networks. A number of the great stars of the past such as Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and a young Elizabeth Taylor saw a revitalization due to late night television. This was a glamour narrative, feeding a escapist appetites, a growing nostalgic culture in post civil rights, post hippies, almost post Vietnam War footage to pre and post Watergate inquest. Vollbracht, was fond of escapist musing he saw the world through a cinematic lenses. He befriended Joan Crawford and corresponded with her frequently during the final years of her life.
His collections lasted for seven years, growing and hanging on by sales, “Michael’s unmistakable and beguiling charm” and intermittent funding. The Vollbracht look was colorful, strong prints, graphic lines almost in the same vain as Kansai Yamamoto, Kenzo, Krizia paving the way for future American talents akin to Stephen Sprouse and Todd Oldham. Towards the end funding even came from Johnny Carson due to the fact of his friendship with Carson’s then third wife it was withdrawn during the divorce proceedings. This was part of the epistemological tale of the Vollbracht story, correspondence with celebrities were framed along with portraits around his home in New York’s Greenwich Village. These were iconic women ranging from Joan Crawford to Elizabeth Taylor, Brooke Shields and Janet Jackson. When the fashion design under his own label was over, Vollbracht continued to illustrate and be the fashion artist for such brands as Carolina Herrera, Cathy Hardwick and Mary Mc Fadden. During this time period he authored a book ‘Nothing Sacred’ a chronicle of his work in fashion, art, and illustration. All of the proceeds of the book went to Cancer research Vollbracht was always generous to this cause. He was heralded by New Yorker Magazine as one of top artist, producing a number of covers over the next decade.
By the nineteen nineties another tipping point in Vollbrecht’s career occurred. He was asked by Bill Blass to take over the Bill Blass Collection as creative and design head. “Remember this is not the Michael Vollbracht show” as Vollbracht recalled about Blass’ stern advice to Judy Licht on cable television show ‘Full Frontal Fashion’ “it’s Bill Blass”. He was known for collections full of life and full of fun mixing generations of models to the confusion of the press and buyers. A theme long before its time seen in today’s new generation of creative’s. Among his design team at Blass was the now acclaimed and award winning Nepalese women’s wear designer Prabal Gurung. Vollbracht created clothing for First Lady Laura Bush to Jessica Lange and can be spotted in an key scene chronicling the importance of fashion and color in ‘The Devil Wears Prada’- Meryl Streep’s memorable gold embellished jacket was a Vollbracht design from 2006 for Bill Blass.
He was also an advocate recycling and up-cycling textiles. He never did this at Blass which ended in 2007 but on personal projects and commissions he did for ‘people he liked’. This was a statement and a message that rang clearly through at the life celebration, from the eloquent remembrances of Robert Di Maruro who worked on Vollbracht’s first Coty Award winning collection as a shoe designer, pioneering model Beth Ann Hardison, fashion designer Stan Herman and stylist and creative director Freddie Lebia. It was additionally stated Vollbracht’s true love was illustration and being and artist.
However, it was from Nieman Marcus Fashion Director Ken Downing we learned of Michael not spelled with an ‘e’ at the end, an affectation he adopted as a teen to perturb his father later dropped as an adult. It was about the rambunctious, flirtatious, breathtakingly handsome Gay man with a past, stories too salty to tell and the friends too loyal to divulge, but they let us know they were there, he had a life, there was Champagne and there was Vodka. Author and former men's fashion designer Jeffrey Banks was a student and life long friend of Vollbracht told of how Vollbracht held his ruthless and difficult drawing classes during his brief time as an instructor at Parsons in his apartment, to the blaring music of Barry White, greeting the class in ripped jeans and a t-shirt an education indeed. We, the attendees were also reminded in a subtle and poignant way that he was part of the pioneering generation of Gay men in the Fire Island -Pines Community who lived to remember and tell it’s stories with details and camp.
My first encounter with Michael Vollbracht was on television as a child watching the ‘detective’ crime sitcom Hart to Hart where he was supposed to be a glamorous walk on with a fashion show but as his publicist Roberta Green stated in her remembrance he charmed everyone and it grew into a lined speaking role. The second time would be many years later as a graduate student at a Donald Brooks Retrospective Exhibition at Parsons School of Design, we chatted and I told him my tale and what I was up to, he was so engaging and flirtatious in a refreshing gentlemanly manner as we bantered with one another. Periodically, over the next several years, I would see him in the West Village neighborhood at the hard wear store or the gourmet market and say hello he would always smile and say hello in return.
Michael Vollbracht died of esophageal cancer he recently finished his last round of chemotherapy and was looking forward to getting better but that was not to be, his death happened suddenly at his home in Safety Harbor, Florida on June 7, 2018. He was 70 years old. Vollbracht was an elegant, handsome and talented artist with conservative views who would argue, frustrate and listen with respect however, what was most celebrated was his extraordinary personality, his generosity, the fact that he was loved, will be missed as a friend and a true creative.
“ …darling remember we are not ordinary” Michael Vollbracht