Born in New Jersey of Cuban-American parents, fashion designer Narciso Rodriguez received his formal education at the famous Parson's School of Design in New York. Following freelance work in New York's garment industry, he joined Anne Klein under Donna Karan, and later Calvin Klein designing women's ready-to-wear.
In 1995, Rodriguez became design director of TSE where he presented ready-to-wear collections for men and women in New York, simultaneously. Rodriguez was appointed design director of Cerruti in Paris. It was at Cerruti that Narciso received worldwide attention when he designed the bias cut sheath wedding dress that his friend Carolyn Bessette would wear when she married John Kennedy, Jr.
In October 1997, the first women's ready-to-wear collection under the Narciso Rodriguez label, in partnership with Italian manufacturer Aeffe, was presented in Milan for the Spring/Summer 1998 season. Following the collection, Rodriguez was awarded Best New Designer at the Vogue VH1 Fashion Awards in New York City and the Perry Ellis Award For Best New Designer by the Council of Fashion Designers of America.
He has been at the top of his game and leading the way in the world of fashion, ever since.
Narciso Rodriguez is one in a million, truly. He is the kind of person that everybody wants to know and spend time with. He is refreshing, funny, vibrant, warm - He is ALIVE!
DR: Narciso, tell me about your life and about your work.
NR: Hmm. What can I tell you about my life and my work?
It's hard for me to think about my life without also thinking about my work. Really they are one. I am a very fortunate person in that what I love to do. What I was born on this earth with a passion for, became my job. So it's always been...you know, when I went to school, I went to school for the thing that I love. It's not like that was a struggle. And when I got into the working world, I got to work at my craft. So, it was never really work. Sometimes it gets a little bit overwhelming because I can't separate the two and you forget about a personal life because when you enjoy what you do, you just want to do it all the time; especially the creative process...Once I get an idea or I get on a roll, I just want to keep going and before you know it, 2 months out of your life has been focused on a seam, or a way of cutting, or a sketch, or something, and then you have no friends left because they are tired of waiting around for you to show up. That's not true. They do wait around. They are an amazing support for me – my friends.
DR: But I understand what you mean. It's a concern that you have that you are spending that kind of time on the details of your work and you are very involved in your work – it takes patience. What I am gathering is that you appreciate the fact that they are so patient.
NR: Yes. They are incredibly patient. They think I'm crazy -- but it's O.K. They respect it. They respect the love that I have for my craft and they understand it. That's really important because those are your true friends; the people who get it, who get you, who get your pain and your passion and your insanity.
DR: What's the thing that you like most about the work that you do? What's the thing that is the most fulfilling?
NR: Gee. For me it's always the craft; how to advance the craft. For example, my last collection was a very understated, quiet collection, which I think is sort of the direction that fashion is going toward. We've seen a lot of loud fashion and "in your face" fashion and shock value and real garbage. There's nobody really paying attention to what they are making or their product or the care and the thought that went into it. To me that's the most important aspect of what I do –
How do I make something that is approachable and friendly and usable and practical for a woman? And how does that relate to her life and how does that make her feel? How much more beautiful des that make her?
Simple, romantic notions of the craft, but then the craft gets very intense because I want it -- even though it's a very clean, pure silhouette or idea -- I want to cut it in a new way. I want it to fit better. I want to make something new in a classic way; in a real way. Not just something new...that nobody can wear or completely unapproachable or things that you throw away or look at after a season and go "What was I thinking when I bought this?" Ya know?
And so the craft is the thing that I devote the most time to and it's also the thing that gives me the most pleasure and gives the most back to me. Many people have said that to me that they like that I am evolving the craft and, how I have evolved over the many years that I have been working. Those are really fulfilling things, I mean much more than the nonsense of press and pictures and the bullshit glamour...
Can I say "bullshit"?
DR: Yes you can. You can say whatever you like.
NR: Well no, ya know it's just so much a core belief of what my work is – the things that are real and honest and good and you really believe in and other people believe in. That to me is worthwhile. That to me is exciting.
And then there is the bullshit; the loud fashion. And it's not just fashion it's politics today, its television today. I call it faux reality because you can go to a fashion show and be bedazzled, but there are no clothes on the runway. They don't inspire women to want to dress up. They just put on shows for press; promotion. That's not what I do. I am not interested in doing that – never have been. I think that it's a reflection of our culture too, and the world today --
"Get out there!"
Some cheesy celebrity whose twenty one, will probably sell ten times more product before she's opened her clothing line, then I will. She will be out of business in a few years because...those things that just hit, they are big and then they disappear and hopefully I will be focused on the seams in that dress during that same amount of time.
DR: So you've got an appreciation for substance and that is something that you value?
NR: Absolutely. For me, more and more, I am more rigid about that. More rigid in my belief that substance, above all else, is what makes the work better. It makes people respect you more and it makes you respect yourself more. I mean, the way I feel about my work today as opposed to the way I felt about it for many years working in the industry, is very different because I sort of turned my back on that noise of the press and the celebrity...
I never set out to do this to be a celebrity or for money. I love that people respect my work and like my work, therefore if I get any celebrity or money that comes that way – that's fine. That's appreciation for what you do.
I was so disappointed last year and I actually stopped tutoring kids...it seemed like the kids in school who are getting ready to get out there in the fashion world, they were more interested in being a rock star in Us Weekly then in actually designing clothes or anything like that. It's kind of a turn off. I tried to help them along the way to see what a better way was but – to each his own.
DR: Tell me Narciso, what is it that you value most about yourself and what is it that you value most in other people?
NR: I value my faith so much. I value the things that my parents taught me that are just simple and honest goodness. That you can be a good friend, that you can be completely committed...committed to yourself...
Funny, I recently came to this conclusion that my whole journey has been this amazing...desire to always better myself, whether it be going to the gym and being healthier or bettering the work that I do or bringing beauty to the world...doing things like that, it always makes me feel like "Tomorrow is going to be the first day that I get to do that. I am doing it today but tomorrow is really going to be the first day." So it's always fresh. It's not even a challenge. It's like some lovely quest that you're on.
I take a lot of pictures –daily. I shoot pictures all the time. I don't know. I'm a documentarian. I don't know. I document every moment. Whether it be on the street, or walking to the office from the gym, I just take a lot of pictures of people and life and everything that's around me because, its 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 putting that into your work...
DR: Tell me about a dream that you have for yourself that you haven't yet fulfilling quite yet.
NR: (Laughs) That's quite funny. Umm, a dream for me would be a little bit more balance in my life. A lot of my friends; a lot of people I know, who are my age, are career driven, whether it be their craft or their business, they become so passionate about what it is that they do that, they never seem to find a good balance between the personal and the professional. That's a challenge for me, and something I'm always conscious of and I always work at. That's a real challenge.
DR: Is there anything that you have a passion for that you haven't pursued that you want to pursue eventually?
DR: Really? (We laugh) Do you think you'll ever get around to doing that?
NR: There are so many other things I need to do before I get to gymnastics. There is a thing with my world here – my office, my environment, my business, my craft, my life – it's ever growing.
I started this 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, and more people and my atelier grew, and the work that we do in there is very inspiring. And then we started to make shoes...
DR: (Thank God)
NR: ...And then we started to make handbags, and then we launched a fragrance. So there is always a new facet that's exciting. Last season we launched menswear. It's something that I had always wanted to do.
People go into these businesses like "Oh, I'm gonna be the biggest, fast, blowhard...menswear fashion designer in the whole world." It just completely – again -- bullshit. I always wanted to do it because, again, I love the craft...And it's not like I don't have enough to do, but I just did it! I didn't do it with a big business plan in front of me...I just, I did it. I never thought it wouldn't be successful because I just believed, always in that space of...
I have this faith about my work. I can always doubt a little bit, ya know, like maybe I'm wearing the wrong thing to the wrong place or...I could always be insecure about myself in other areas but, in my work – I am very courageous. And I just...I did it. And it worked! And it was fun! It was good.
DR: Do you ever get scared?
NR: Yeah. Don't you? Doesn't everyone?
...For me I think the fear keeps me motivated and alive. There's always that appreciation for what I have now because I have seen so many great designers go out of business or not be able to continue working...It's a harsh reality of the business world, especially a design house. So, you celebrate what you have today. You are not cocky and obnoxious about it. You do it with dignity and you do it to do, better things. It's really so simple, Dana. Really it's so much about celebrating a woman and her beauty, her personality, her life...There's an honesty to that. I always feel that a woman, when she takes something of mine off a rack and puts it on, I always feel that she senses tha it is not product...but it's something that I made with my own hands.
DR: What I always get is that, it's thoughtful. There is a thoughtfulness.
NR: Well thank you! That's exactly what it is!
DR: That's what I personally appreciate and I would imagine that's what women who love your clothes appreciate. There's just such a thoughtfulness to it.
NR: Women and their husbands. I love that, when I meet a husband who knows more about what the dress his wife is wearing and "How do you do that? How do you make it go..." and "Her butt always looks..."
I get like such a rush from that! I travel around, meeting people in stores and stuff like that, ya know parties...Super straight business guy in a grey suit with a tie, and he could not be more straight, and know less about fashion but, he's talking to you, well he's talking to me about what I do. And that's really amazing. That has nothing to do with fashion. It has to do with...something different. I love that.
DR: Well what I love about talking to you is that you are so passionate, and passionate about what you do. You are clearly a happy person, which I'm not always left with – happy – when I talk to people.
What would you say that you are most happy with right now?
NR: The struggle.
It's funny to hear you say that I'm happy because there's a dual sort of Narciso. There's the very artistic sort of dark side of me and then there's the guy who never really grew up. The artist in me is like always growing and pushing.
I have a very simple life and I mean I don't know if you've ever spoke to Auguste about...
...I just go to the gym and I hang out. I've been going there for fifteen years and my life was really very simple – like a kid. Sometimes I have to tap myself on the shoulder and say "Hey! You're forty four buddy. Move on."
I am happy that I do have this amazing work, this amazing gift and this amazing faith in this work. Not a whole lot of people can say that. A lot of people have jobs that they go in at 9:00 on the dot and they take the 10:15 break and they go to lunch and they don't want to be there. I can't imagine living like that. I can't imagine being stuck like that because I would have to get myself out of that. That's a tough one. That's a tough one.
Not to say that my life is all glamour by any stretch of the imagination. It is a struggle...
DR: Is there anything that you would change about your life, right now, if you could?
NR: Yes I mean there are little things; silly things like oh I'd like to lose 10 pounds again or I'd like to spend a little bit more time doing things that aren't related to my work or I'd like to have more time to photograph, more time to paint. But I just think those little moments when I do get to do those things, I appreciate them more. Because –
that damn dress takes up so much time!
DR: Well it would be a missed opportunity for me not to ask what one of the biggest challenges was that you faced and how you overcame it.
NR: Gee, ya know, so many people said "No" to me...When the bell rang and everybody started to run, they didn't open my gate they just said "No. You can't run. You can not do it."
And it was really hard...my parents were immigrants and we were poor...I was born in Newark. They came to this country without speaking the language...We had a very humble beginning. When my father saw an opportunity to move us out of the city into a better life, I guess I was about eight, I moved to a suburb which was all blond and Aryan, Irish, German – who had never seen Spics, right. And they used to bomb our house with eggs and write things like "Nigger, get out."... We were faced with the struggle. My parents were really hard working and really committed to their children...They taught us what it is to work hard and to better yourself; to really work hard. And then you had "the better life"; the house with the tree in front of it, kicking you in the teeth and you were wrong.
On top of that, being Gay in a very macho society, whether it be the Latin community or the Anglo community...was not easy at all. 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. That was like admitting to being Gay. And they said "No. You can not do that." They said "Absolutely not!" They forbid me.
DR: To be Gay or to be a fashion designer?
NR: Well, no. They wouldn't even talk about Gay. Forget that. I couldn't be a fashion designer because...they said "If you play with scissors and fabrics, you'll go Gay." And I was thinking "I am like 15. I haven't had, ever, a girlfriend. Hello! I dress up – PRETTY – I'm not exactly playing sports." But parents live in denial about stuff like that, ya know.
I was told "No" and I sort of enrolled in Parsons later on...I borrowed money to go to school and that was a big challenge. One big "No", after another.
And then, even at Parsons I had a rough time because...the chairman of the department was a horrible, horrible person...she was racist, she was really – she was such a bigot. She was just a really bad human being. She promoted people who fit in more. She told me I wouldn't get anywhere...They actually busted her and fired her. She changed all my grades to failing grades, just so that I would not go forward. She said "No" to me.
I think that it is great now that all of these people said "No" to me. It just made me stronger; more determined. Lord knows nobody's got more perseverance. I just never ever even thought about it, Dana. I don't know, maybe it was the gift of my work, but I never even thought for a second I shouldn't do this.
I was in my 30's. I was successful. I was working at Calvin Klein. I like one of the top design jobs in the world. My mom says to me "When are you going to give up that ridiculous career of yours? Your father can get you a job as a longshoreman before he retires." And I thought "What the hell am I going to do on a dock? Like pick up sailors?"
Can you imagine?
DR: That is funny.
NR: It's hilarious...They're so sweet. They are really wonderful people and they have grown so much...I have sort of brought them along with me.
When I started to show in Europe....The first time they left this country, I took them to Milan and they started to take these side trips and it opened up the world to them. And now they have traveled all over the world....They are very, very proud. At the end of the day, it's --
the American Dream.
My mom called me this weekend...she went shopping at Saks in Florida. She was buying up my fragrance and I was like "Mom, why are you buying that? I can just give that to you." And she was like "Oh the lady she wanted to tell me all about you and I didn't want to correct her." I said "Did you tell her that you're my Mom?" And she was like "No, no, no. I would never do that." But you know that's a lie, Dana. She spent probably the whole afternoon at that counter, with my father's credit card; my father's named Narciso too. And she just loves letting people "dig their own grave" and then handing them the credit card...
DR: That is so great.
NR: It's the cutest thing ever.
One of the most amazing things that has happened to me lately, and there have been quite a few...how happy and moved I was when my sister told me that my nephew, who is twelve, has been researching schools and architecture and how to study architecture. I said "Where did he get that from?" And she said, "He got it from you." And I said "From me?"...That my life has touched his life or inspired his life to open up his mind to do something like that, really blew me away. It's been really a nice thing. I'm going to go visit him this weekend.
DR: I have a nephew and so I can relate...It really comes down to that. That's really what it's all about. All of it.
NR: Yeah, passing it on. It's so simple.
My sisters are so funny. They always say "You are really successful". And I am like "No, you're both such fools. You are the ones who are really successful because at the end of the day, you have raised these amazing kids and you have passed on to them what our parents gave to us – simple goodness, simple kindness". That's what it's all about.
DR: Tell me, a hundred years from now, what do you want to be remembered for?
NR: Again, something quite simple. 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.