Tuesday, December 29, 2009
I learned to sew as a child.
I had no video game console at home, so to entertain myself, I either read books, drew pictures or traveled to old-fashioned arcades where coin-op games were still set-up in a type of electronic topiary maze. Once there, I would wander the labyrinth until I found a favorite and then waste whatever quarters I had on a few minutes of play.
Getting to the arcade was difficult, so I rarely went. I had a few friends with consoles, but visits to their homes were infrequent, and I felt like a bad guest or an awkward opportunist to insist upon playing every time I came over. Excited about the idea of games, if not the games themselves, I found other ways to play what I imaged the games to be. I would draw out worlds on long horizontal scrolls and rotate them using empty paper towel rolls to simulate side-scrolling games like Defender. I would attempt to create physical versions of the games, like vertical dodgeball, by dropping rubber balls from the top of the bleachers to simulate classics like Centipede or Breakout.
The best simulation, however, involved my mother’s sewing machine. I would draw maps of various race courses (usually turning my home town into a Le Mans route) and then load one of the drawings into the sewing machine like a very stiff piece of fabric. The sewing machine looked to me like a car; it had a gas peddle, a gearshift, and running lights. I would load the map into the machine, slam down the pressure foot, kick the gearshift into place, and then stomp on the gas. I was able to pull the paper through with gently guiding fingers to negotiate every curve and turn in the road. Difficult corners could be manipulated by stopping the progress with the needle still in the down position, lifting the foot, rotating the paper, engaging the foot again, and then roaring down the road. I could parallel park using the reverse gear, and simulated jumps by lifting the foot and pulling the paper to a new position and then re-engaging. My results were mapped by the dotted line of the stitching thread. I could see instantly if I ran off of the track or was soft or fat around a corner. With only a little practice, I found I could pull any curve imaginable. I was creating the arching loops that would become the foundation of my initial understanding of sewing. When our clothes would rip, I would mend them. I was always on the machine racing anyways, so why not try an “off-road” game and race the machine across a field of denim or corduroy?
Mending became sewing, and sewing became design. I would return cans for change and then bicycle to the used clothing store to buy essential equipment (old dress shirts, prom dresses, belts with decent buckles) and then use them as the raw materials for my collections.
No one wore what I created, the designs were too sexualized, or strange, or in poor taste, but I did not lose hope. There would one day be a place for my work, even if I hadn’t yet found it.
Thursday, December 24, 2009
Caught between the shadow of sleep and the light of wakefulness, I dreamt the sound of a ringing phone and sat up in bed to answer it. Upon waking, I realized the phone call was a phantom; nothing had woken me except my own mind. Tako lay next to me, blue in the moonlight and peacefully at rest. I went back to bed and took up the dream again. It was a call from a beautiful blue-grey cat with elongated, elegant limbs, short hair, and great posture. The cat could speak, and he immediately began to discuss an important development. He explained that he works at Yale's Beinecke Rare Book Library, technically employed as a mouser, but also serving in his spare time as a general researcher. While crawling around the stacks, he had made a discovery in the archives, something that would cause great literary and cultural excitement in both academia and popular culture. Just as he was about to explain the details of his newest find to me, his speech turned from English to French to the standard vocabulary of a cat: meows, purrs, hisses and wails. I woke again, unfulfilled in my hopes to hear the news of his great discovery.
Agitated, I headed downstairs to the workroom. I flipped on the light to my drawing desk and started to sketch the Beinecke Library cat as I had seen him in my dream: confident, mischievous, luxurious, and refined.
The curve of his tail and the side of his body created a shape that at first was hard to see. It was a curving slice of negative space, a non-space that was created by everything around it, but consisted of nothing; it was defined by its boundaries, not by itself. The shape was long, curved, and ingenious. I placed a second sheet of drawing paper on top of the first one and re-drew the negative space, this time leaving off the rest of the image that had previously constituted the cat. I stared at the shape for a few minutes. I had seen it before, but I was not sure where. I closed my eyes and traced the shape in space. If a falling object had created it, then the bends and curves would have resulted from the object intersecting with a second shape and then gliding along its surface. I concentrated on this imaginary second surface. I felt like I could see it. I took out my pencil and sketched along the paper as I imagined the curved shapes in my mind. I know this sounds like some type of higher mathematics, or scientific visualization, but this type of surface bending is just like draping for pattern-making, and at this point, I feel like I could bend a piece of fabric around a women from across the room in my sleep. Sloping curves are my first language. Drape is my primary utterance. When I opened my eyes, I had drawn something that seemed to be the path a single tear would take if it fell from a woman’s eye and ran down her cheek, only to drop into the well created by the hollow of her clavicles.
I took out a third sheet of paper and drew a woman’s face, neck and shoulder correctly sized for the tear-path. The image didn’t line up. I tired again, this time tilting the woman’s head every so slightly. It was a perfect match. Like an archeologist recreating the face of a long dead ancestor by molding muscles onto a found skull, I had drawn a woman from the negative space between cat’s body and tail. The imaginary cat had brought me to a discovery.
But why was the woman crying? Was it a tear of joy or weeping sorrow? What more can I discover? Is there another secret in the design?
I moved the shape lower along her imagined body. The same pathway created a gorgeous curve just interior to the hip. Could this be a new cut line for swimwear? An alternative to the low-rise and the "french" cut? I drew the rest of the standing woman's figure and sketched a suit on top of it. The new cut line was bold - but was it based on pathos, empathy, or simply exploratory discovery?
I went back to bed, promising myself that I'd try out the new cut on an actual suit in the morning.
Monday, December 21, 2009
Sometimes I feel like there are two of me; one that commands to jump ahead, and the other that holds me back. When I see something that holds my attention, that causes a little piercing in my memory, I want to strike out in a new direction and create a new thought with this new punctum as my seedling. Other times, new thoughts are a distraction, like so much extra noise in a room otherwise quiet and perfect for reading. I am both me and the idea of me. As a brand, I am both a call and a response. When chasing my own tail, I have only the changing shadows of night and day to keep me renewed.
Tako is a terrific shopper, but also a terrifically elusive target. She always gets me the perfect gift, and I am always less than satisfied with what I find for her. I am a professional, this should be easy, but it is harder than it seems when it really counts.
The pop-up shop is coming along. I found a nice space in the right place and just about have all of the permits and permissions done. Retail is a carnival of mirrors. I'm getting more comfortable as ring master.
I've been looking at the history of illustration. It is a complete and separate art history that parallels traditional art history, and even shares a few names, but exists wholly on its own. J.C. Leyendecker is a God among illustrators, but doesn't get even a paragraph in the annals of fine art painting. Where will I be remembered? As an aquatic couturier? As a curious side note? Fashion has no memory. Art cannot even pronounce the word fashion, even though it is just as fickle with its trends. I have only today, this season, this idea, this showroom, this fitting, this cut, this drape, this wrap, this moment to get it right. Every attempt always comes down to this.
So do I jump? Do I hold myself back?
Tonight I can hear the symphony of my ideas ringing as clearly as church bells. So yes - I jump.
Sunday, December 20, 2009
While homeless (which isn’t really true, I also have a beachfront house that doubles as a second studio), I’m taking the chance to go shopping for the holidays and to remember what it’s like to be adrift.
There was a time when I didn’t ever go home. Does this make sense? While I was interning, not yet working for myself, I would go from the studio to the club, to the shoot, to the performance, to the political action, to the breakfast meeting, to the client retreat, to the sample-maker, to the fitting, to the party, to the hospital, to the conference, to the airport, to the hotel, to the taxi, to the chateau, to the carriage, to the party, to the fitting, to the notions shop, to the cobbler, to the lace-maker, to the goldsmith, to the photo shoot, to the digital lab, to the print shop, to the ice cream store, to the boutique, to the bus stop (for a photo shoot), to the train station, to the luggage lost and found, to the pet store, to the client’s Brownstone, to the hotel, to the concert, to the coffee shop, to the bookstore, to the makeup counter, to the trim-tailor, to the crash-pad, to the tree house, to the back bar, to the early morning sunrise shoot, to the sanitarium, to the thrift store, to the prop house, to the garden supply shop, to the hardware store, to the paint shop, to the fabric supplier to the place that sold wooden propellers from WWII planes like the one used in Blow-up, to the museum to the opening, to the dinner party, to the silent auction, to the hair salon, to the after party, to the lingerie shop, to the take-out diner, to the watch-maker, to the overnight shipping depot, to the accessories maker, to the team that made cutom boxes, to the engraver, to the graphic designers, to different graphic designers, to the falafel shop, and back to the studio where I had just a few minutes to get ready to do it all over again.
One month I saw my apartment exactly three times, each visit for only a few hours, but I never felt more connected to the dream of design. The pulse of the city was not an abstraction, but was a result of my every action.
Walking around again today, I heard in my footsteps the echo of that drumbeat. Am I making the city move again? Or am I just in the way? I don’t care about anyone else's answer – I feel like I am making a difference, and right now, that’s all that counts.
Wednesday, December 16, 2009
This spring I’m opening a pop-up shop in San Francisco. Why San Francisco? Why not Capri, Nice, Cinque Terre or at least somewhere a little warmer? The reason is personal - Tako has family in San Francisco, so it seemed like a nice way to get away while still working.
For the shop, I’m creating a few pieces that are Prêt-à-Porter. The first look just came upstairs from sample room and I threw it on a mannequin and snapped a picture. What do you think? Very Julia-Roberts-wins-oscar-and-wears-vintage-Valentino meets Duchamp’s Wedge of Chastity, meets white icing on a chocolate cake, meets old-fashioned men’s athletic supporter. Now to work on the wrap…
Also - for all of you FB users out there, you can now become a fan just by clicking this link.
Sunday, December 13, 2009
In between the insults and praise, I block out the distractions and find a hole to climb inside where text becomes design and the body becomes text. There is no palimpsest here, no scars, or nurtured sorrows; there is no history or back story or baggage or old wounds - just solutions, apparitions, harmonics, evocations, rhymes/rhythms and the mathematics of doubt.
We take a chance, and succeed! Or we take a chance and fail. Either way, we are in a rumble with numericus. The numbers will tumble and align or disperse, and we will catch the slope or miss it, and we’ll only know once it’s done.
Yesterday afternoon, I read an old detective novel by a famous poet who normally wrote poems, but just this once attempted literary pulp. I liked the idea of the novel much more than the novel itself. Does anyone ever say this about my swimwear? Does anyone like the idea of buying a Serg Riva suit more than the actual suit? They must! Everyone who buys one must love the idea more than the thing itself. The idea is what enables a garment to transform the wearer. Without the idea, even the best garment goes flat. Transformation requires both the garment and the wearer. The idea of me is the “silent e” at the end of the word that changes the meaning and the resonance. The idea turns the plan into a plane.
Each time I sit down to design a new swimsuit, at first I am lost, but then I start to find a way. When it feels like I am getting to a new place unseen by others, there is always something un-quiet going on in my head, a little surprise that gets stuck and repeats itself until the form of the repetition replaces the original meaning of the thought. The little surprise could be almost anything, a gesture, a phrase, a color, a scent, a joke, a transgression, a stammer, a typo, a perfectly natural adaptation - whatever it is, once it begins to loop, the pattern of the loop presents its own vocabulary. Looking at a finished design, I sometimes think: my vocabulary did this, I just listened.
Right now, the loop repeating while I’m working is the comedy of the fig leaf. I wish I could describe it more completely, but you can only catch the laughter if you can somehow recreate the loop of it yourself, and then you can watch the shadows emerge like the increasing errors in a re-photocopied image. The comedy of the fig leaf is a language poet's dream. As for design, I’m starting to think that I create nothing else.
Saturday, December 05, 2009
Here is an article I wrote for a new fashion magazine that went under just two months after launch. It’s tough times all around for print media. I thought you might enjoy the article, so I'm posting it here.
The Best Swimwear for Women
by Serg Riva
As a designer of swimwear, I am constantly asked about the best swimwear for women. Often this type of advice is geared towards women between the ages of 30 and 55, the reasoning being that women who are younger than 30 look fantastic no matter what they wear, and women who are older than 55 either have it all figured out already, or couldn’t care less. I think this is nonsense, and that women of all ages can equally benefit from the following few ideas. Here are my best five suggestions for hitting the beach:
1) Buy a robe. This is not to cover up your body, but to reveal it. I don’t care if you are a soccer mom, a 19 year-old supermodel, or the fittest, most beautiful cougar in Saint-Tropez, the key to gorgeous beachwear is all in the reveal. So pick up a fantastic robe and think of it as the curtain that opens before the show. Your leg will appear and disappear under the robe like a rhythmic, seductive, Siren’s call. Remember that narrative creates a fantasy, fantasy activates the imagination, and imagination is the key to all fashion. Don’t have a robe? Then wear a men’s dress shirt. Steal, swipe or borrow one from a man you know and you’re ready to go. Do not roll up the sleeves, however, instead push them up. The resulting shoved-up sleeve is sexier and more sophisticated. Just shove and go. Try a blue shirt, as if you have just had a romantic liaison with a very wealthy banker who is also trim, thoughtful, and a patron of the arts. The look works best if the shirt was previously ironed, but is now wrinkled. So there should be a crease down the sleeves, a sharp collar and placket, and then wrinkles on the tail and possibly a lipstick stain, depending on how dramatic you want to make it. Unbutton it a little more than you normally would. You’re wearing a swimsuit underneath – so what’s the harm? Enjoy the walk from your cabana to the shore, or from your car to the bar, or from your carpool to the kiddie pool. Summer is fun and you should enjoy yourself.
2) Pick your feature. Are you showing off your uptown or your downtown? Is your best feature your firm arms or your fantastic feet? Pick something and feature it. Get a pedicure, buy some sunglasses, wear a necklace, whatever it is - feature your feature, make it the star.
3) A swimsuit is essentially several clasps held together with the smallest amount of fabric. If you don’t want to spend serious money for a swimsuit with gorgeous, beautiful, clasps, then buy something inexpensive and swap out the claps with a vintage find, or something from the bead store. Just remember, some clasps heat up more than others. Choose wisely.
4) Get a hat. The right beach hat keeps your face out of the sun and provides a sense of mystery. Who is that gorgeous women in the mysterious hat? She reminds me of a movie I wish I’d seen.
5) Walk like you mean it. The most appealing person on the beach is never the person with the fittest body, but the person with the happiest, most confident, most playful, creative, encouraging, intelligent, humorous, and intriguing personality. You can see this in her walk, in the way she fearlessly tells a joke, the way she yawns at pretension, the way she handles both pleasure and annoyance, the way she drinks her water, reads her book or responds to a phone call, and on the happy faces of friends or children near her. Relaxed gestures unfold from her body like the long poetic exhale of a piece of scandalous literature. Sounds like you, non?
Serg Riva is an international swimwear designer. You can follow his life at http://sergriva.blogspot.com/
Saturday, November 28, 2009
Serg Riva: The Urge to Serg...
Have you ever loved someone so much that you'd brave a storm just to watch the sunset? In this short video from the hit Reality Series, Serg Riva: The Urge to Serg... we find Serg and Tako having a heart to heart while out at sea. The audio cuts out, due to a tremendous storm rocking the yacht which serves as Serg's floating atelier, but Serg and Tako keep talking until the suns goes down. Subtitles fill in the blanks to keep you in the loop.
About the video
This was shot during the same storm where I lost my tooth. About an hour after this was wrapped, I went back up on deck to check that everything was holding together and ended up getting tossed against the guard rail. We're not sure if this clip will air or not, because the storm caused all kinds of technical problems and a one point the audio cuts out and is gone. There are subtitles so you can follow along with the conversation, but it is a little tedious to have to read every word. It makes the whole thing feel a little more like a foreign film, however, so maybe we'll keep it. I love that I finally got Tako on screen for more than a few seconds.
Glad the storm is over. Now to get back to business.
Monday, November 16, 2009
I broke a tooth on the guard rail of the yacht last night while fighting for footing against the waves. We were tossed across the peaking valleys and slid deep into the yawning wells that seemed, from the bottom, very much like the mouth of the whale that ate Jonah. We all survived and nothing was lost that couldn't be replaced. A quick roll with Poseidon does wonders for one's humility.
A few items were soaked. Some rather nice wine was broken in the unsecured cellar, and as I mentioned, my tooth was knocked.
Today I phoned my cosmetic dentist and he assures me there will be no lasting lacuna in my smile. Until then, I am a pirate, with a Stonehenge smile and a two-day beard.
I am seriously considering getting a gold front, maybe with a little SR stamped in diamonds. I would be like an aquatic couturier version of Slick Rick the Ruler.
Friday, October 16, 2009
Standing taller than her, looking down her forehead while holding her close, her face becomes a landscape. I can see the lovely shape of her eyebrows, and the delicate rise of her upper eyelids, the fanned elongation of her eyelashes, the peak of her nose, and the flowering of her lips that fades to the valley of her neck just past the curve of her chin. In love with Tako more than ever, I hold her close and keep staring. She looks up, and I melt.
The interstitial space between the fabric and the woman is the essence of drape. In cutting a dress, you construct this space and nothing more. The rest is decoration.
Faint, faint, if any
Said Vreeland to her assistant.
Watching a woman walk is to evaluate the placement of potential drape. How much swing, and where are the points off which to hang the cavalcade? When she stops walking, how will it settle? When she stands, with one hip slightly higher than the other, the interstitial space should feel expressly manifest as a static form as well as ripe with the potential for the polymorphism of movement.
As King Lear said, "Ripeness is all."
Speeding at night towards an unmoving deer that has been stunned by your headlights, you can sense this ripeness for movement. The deer will jump, but which way?
Ballast in a boat provides stability but can decrease your speed. There is a perfect weight for optimal speed and maneuverability. Ballast in taste is a lightweight affair, but it needs to be there. How much baggage do you bring with you to ensure your judgement is meaningful, and how much baggage is just too much extra weight, slowing you down and causing you to make long wide turns? With no ballast at all, you just skip across the top, but can easily flip and sink.
Why does anyone care about clothes? There is no larger meaning to apparel, but there are limitless smaller ones.
Back on the street, watching a figure walk towards you, calculating the length of her stride and the off-set tilting of her hips, so that a traveling ellipse could be created in space that wobbles to the side as it tracks the peaks of her hips, pivoting on a disembodied sacrum that moves forward with each step, and slides slightly to each side when it pivots, so that it sea-saws like the profile view of a canoe travelling over rolling waves of river water; you can sense a virtual representation of this particular woman's style ballast. She carries it in her hips. She dips it side to side while moving it forward. Tracing the path of this virtual flow would yield a graceful wake of movement, like when you drag a gentle finger zig-zagging through the icing on a cake.
I cut clothes in my mind. Is this unreasonable? I doubt I'll stop thinking about drape, about the interstitial space, or about the tracking of someone's style ballast.
Watching someone sitting there, I often imagine the slight adjustments I might make to their shirt or trousers. Often it is a small change, such as raising the shoulder break, or more usually a shoulder strap, by just one or two centimeters. Sometimes it is a larger change, but for that I have to imagine something of his or her frame, such as the line of the clavicles, so that my hopes for an alteration are based on something essential about that particular body. But mostly, alterations are just after-thoughts, easy things to do in your mind when you glance over in someone's direction but don't wish to have a conversation. A harder thing is to design from scratch. Everything else is wordplay.
Calling out after her as she walks down the hall, not because you have anything more to say, but only for the reason that if you call with just the right tone in your voice, she will half-turn back towards you while continuing to walk forward, and this elongated twist, this sloping S-curve that not only rocks forward and back, but also right to left, is the essence of all sculpture - she is moving in space, but connected back to you. She coming and going, locked in, yet leaving, a part of the current moment, and moving toward something else. The transition of the figure is the teleos of drape.
Where were we when we first realized that we were on the edge of no longer being very young, and then that edge extended, and kept broadening, and then started to slip away in an asymptotic gloaming? Youth is everlasting only as a constant glimmering fade.
Near the surface of the water, the trout flashes its silver body and shakes free the hook. In the boat, we reel in the line, and re-bait the hook.
Is there any more compelling argument for the existence of poetics than the natural body of a woman? What is more beautiful? What is more elegant or more hypnotic? Watching the woman you love look over at you and smile is to draw an invisible chord between the ends of the arc that starts in her mind and ends somewhere deep within your chest - at a location that is near your perceived center of gravity, somewhere between your gut and your heart.
How high should the armhole ride on a woman's blouse? If it is too high, it can bind and cause difficult pulling across the front panels. If it is too low, the entire torso lacks any will to exist. The answer seems to be to place the armhole as high as you can without looking like you are trying too hard to get it there. The armhole should feel unforced, but also superior - just a little higher than normal - and just a little bit better placed - but not in a way that calls attention to itself. The woman will simply look better and no one knows why. Her arms are just a little more elegantly connected than expected, due to the subtle placement of the armhole.
When is it best to show your neck and when is it best to hide it? The elongated neck of a woman is the twisting tree trunk of beauty. It rises from her bosom and extends to her eyes before being carried by her hair to the atmosphere. If her hair is down, the neck curves around in the shadows, if her hair is up, it is both brave and vulnerable. An exposed neck should be worn fearlessly - delicately, elegantly, but fearlessly.
Thursday, October 15, 2009
You may remember that a few weeks ago I agreed to doing a Reality TV show. Well, we are finally starting to see some of the footage.
(please be patient while the video loads below, and if you're at work, wear your headphones, there's both creepy music and a deadpan voiceover...)
Ever feel like you are caught between a dream and daily life? Serg Riva knows the feeling. Why does he keep dreaming of his own murder? Is it his life or his high fashion atelier that is at risk? Who is the masked woman? Who is the dancer? What is the meaning of the man in the chauffeured car? Judge for yourself.
About the Video...
Even though Tako is my most trusted companion, I still never know what will make it into an episode and what will get cut. She tells both my true story and a fictional version of it at the same time.
For instance, I told her about a dream I had where I was murdered. We had been watching night after night of Film Noir classics, like Double Indemnity and Criss-Cross and so I told her my own dark, noir dream. The cameras were rolling and so she got the whole story on tape, right down to the flat-fake-film-noir voice I used to tell the story.
But then when I saw the episode, instead of showing me sitting there telling everyone about it, she attempted to re-create the dream. She cut together pieces of my life that she'd already filmed and lined them up to match my story. Next, whenever I mentioned something that was in the dream, but didn't happen in real life, she sent her crew out and filmed it as a "re-creation" using the members of her crew and sometimes complete strangers as actors to fill in the gaps.
The result is something like a reconstructed dream. As the person who had the dream, the experience is unsettling. But I'm proud of Tako, I think she did a great job.
Posted here is the first peak at the Serg Riva Reality TV show. It is the Dream Sequence I just described. Tako and I still haven't decided what to call the show. I want to name it "Interstitial Orrery" whereas she is voting for "The Urge to Serg."
Serg Riva: The Urge to Serg
Too much? Not enough? If you can think of a better name for the show, please let me know.
Sunday, October 11, 2009
Waking while the night persists, with the sound of waves on either side of me, the stars old and drifting, the moon hot, but cut by the Earth’s shadow, and my body warm against the cold of the sea, I am pulled to thoughts of fashion, and how I might create something transformative. No amount of description is enough. I must not describe – but instead must transform. Without transformation, we have only text, not poetics - we have illustration, not art - we have memory but with no poignancy.
I design swimwear. This is my curse. If designers are at odds with the cultural hierarchy - with opera, painting, sculpture, dance, theatre and literature firmly at the top, and cinema, fashion, architecture, and graphic design somewhere further down - then as a swimwear designer, I am near the bottom.
A plain nude figure is not sexualized, but is instead anatomical. Pose the figure in a certain way and it gains the hint of a narrative. Partially drape the figure, and it suddenly reeks of sex. Desire is always in a state of partially revealing itself. If completely revealed, it disappears. It can only cast the shadow of it’s own making. A hint of a second intent.
All fashion exploits this tension. Swimwear, however, is mistrusted most, as it is so close to the final reveal as to threaten the elimination of the narrative and to send us back to the anatomy with no trace of the poetry. We desire literature. We crave story.
As a swimwear designer, I have to work twice as hard to find a way towards narrativity. The story of your own internal world is the one I’m trying to represent. The story of your body is already told; I must instead use the body as a landscape to reveal your intent, your thoughts, your desires, and your mind.
When I start a collection, I do not start by thinking of a woman, but instead I start by thinking of a gesture, a motion seen by accident that reveals the woman is thinking of something that unlocks her inner story. Sometimes it is how she places her hand around a cup or how she slowly slides her fingers into the pocket of her coat. Other times, it is how she shifts her weight from one leg to the other, causing a cascade of angles all the way up through her shoulders and neck. Mostly, however, it is how she covers or uncovers her eyes. Pulling her hair to the side, looking up when you would expect she’d look down, glancing sideways with a long pull across her own face – a woman will reveal her inward thoughts by how she reveals her own vision. Do not look to her hips or chest for clues - whatever signals emanate from those regions are decoys at best. Instead watch how she chooses to reveal her own looking. The gesture, if you catch it, will be brief.
Everyone thinks being a designer is easy, that my decisions are a capricious yawn I turn with fickle pleasure to declare this color or that silhouette to be the most desirable for a particular season.
Wallstreet goes up and down for specific reasons even if the results seem random or superstitious. The reasons are more complicated and fragile, however, when it comes to what to wear, as we are not concealing our desires, but draping them across our bodies.
Early encounters with social derision keep our senses on high alert when it comes to apparel. We know that someone is always around the corner ready to point out when we fail to get it right. But fashion is an aggregate wisdom; the group learns by churning upon itself. Mistakes are mutated into innovation. Dead ideas are pruned away, but never forgotten for long. New ideas take shape. New desires find their voice. The crowd rolls over the old and recycles the new.
Fashion cannot exist without a crowd. But it also cannot exist without instigators. Designers are both members of the crowd and mischievous outsiders who disrupt and disturb the old in order to perpetuate the new.
We claim our clothes keep us warm, protect us from nature, give us comfort, and keep us dry. We are even willing to admit that some clothes make us feel good through their intrinsic materials: soft cashmere, warm wool, ligneous, yet diaphanous linen. And yet - with the exception of the mountaineer sleeping in a cave of ice, we are not comforted by materials, but rather, we are comforted by ideas.
It is the idea of sensuality and the idea of beauty that drives the orrery of fashion. But we are cautious to admit taking pleasure in these ideas. We deny the sexuality of an overcoat in order to keep the power of its mystery intact.
Wednesday, September 30, 2009
We are an atelier. We make everything by hand. There are no sewing machines in the workplace. We stitch each seam tighter than a surgeon suturing skin; we lock each pull-through with the strength of the thread pulling against itself, not against the fabric. Our knots would silence a sailor (if he saw them under a microscope) and our hems are optical illusions of perfection—suddenly the fabric just… stops—no one knows exactly how. Leave no footprints; reveal no trace.
With only a few square inches in the average bikini, we are not talking about yards and yards of forgiveness. We are specialists who work on miniature masterpieces.
I only mention this because it makes what I’m about to say seem a little more believable.
Dinner began in the way it always does: some enormous house or estate where each person arrives wanting something from someone else and attempts in their own subtle way to steer the conversation and seating arrangements accordingly. I usually sit this little dance out, but I must confess, this particular night I was playing the game, too.
I needed a new typeface for Serg Riva Designs. I’m not ashamed to admit it when I need some help. I can call out your inseam from across the room even if you are wearing a trench coat over a muumuu, but I am a candle underwater when it comes to designing type.
My solution was to invite (secretly, of course) three of the finest typeface designers to the party hoping that they might get into something of a friendly battle over the idea of fixing up the Serg Riva nameplate. Unfortunately, the battle was neither friendly nor little, and it cost me dearly.
At one point, one of the type designers was hanging from the chandelier, trying to use it to swing across the room and kick another typeface grinder in the teeth. He missed, slipped, and fell through the table, taking out what was left of the salad course and ruining a Louis XVI chair in the process. The chair was old and needed to go—but the salad was divine (heirloom tomatoes flown in from France and sardines caught that morning from my favorite place along the Italian Riviera). The second designer responded with a punch, and the third jumped into the fray calling out a word I did not know but assume was Swiss-German slang for “weak-minded.”
Two of my servers were former high school wrestlers before they became models/waiters, and they were kind enough to put down their trays and subdue the typeface designers, who at this point were locked into some kind of three-way embrace that involved hands shoved in each other’s faces, arms twisted behind each other’s backs and all six of their legs squirming like a calamari right before frying.
The trouble started when the honored hostess, who of course was not really hosting but was merely there to be honored, asked one of the typeface designers about his work. She evidently made the mistake of using the word “font” instead of “typeface” and the trouble escalated from there. The fight was clearly more about egos than actual insults.
Just for the record, a font is a particular size and style of a typeface, such as Courier Bold 18 pt. With the advent of computers, the term font has morphed to replace the word "typeface" as the name of the type, instead of a particular size and weight variant of that style of type. So, on display screens, you no longer hear questions of which typeface to use, but questions of which "font." It is a small distinction, but to dedicated designers of type, it is a significant one—a direct insult to the history of their craft. The hostess got caught in the middle. At one point her dress was torn. Personally, I am fine with the careless use of font to mean typeface as it seems to get the point across. Then again, I'm not a type designer.
Like everyone else, I was at a loss for what to do. I walked over to one of the smaller tables and, like a magician or vaudevillian performer, jerked the tablecloth out from under the place settings with a single flourish, pinning it to the wall with two crab forks. I took a lipstick tube from the purse of the woman standing nearest to me and I traced two simple shapes on the tablecloth. I then cut along the shapes and pulled a sewing needle out of my billfold and whipstitched together the seams. I walked over to the hostess and handed her the tablecloth. She pulled it over her head and slid her arms through the armholes and gasped at the near-perfection of the fit.
I had copied her dress in less than two minutes and had the whole room clapping and laughing.
“Serg! I had no idea you could do anything but thongs!” was a common response.
I turned to the three fighting type designers and explained that I could do a lot of things with Serg Riva Designs, if only I had the right typeface.
Needless to say, I’m expecting their competing rough drafts for a new Serg Riva signature typeface in the next few days. I’ll keep you posted on the results.
Monday, September 21, 2009
It's easy to think you have it all figured out when things are going well. Whenever I start feeling this way the pleasure lasts just a few hours before something slips into my consciousness and starts quietly ringing like a little bell.
Sometimes it is a creative worry, such as when I know a design isn't working, or feels too old, or says the wrong thing.
Other times it's a financial worry. Running a studio means that you are responsible for the lives and paychecks of dozens of people. It is not just your own ego on the line, but other people's dreams of one day owning a house or sending their kids to college, or buying a vacation home on the shore or at least several really nice pairs of shoes and a vintage convertible.
I worry about finance. Not just because I want to be successful, but because other people are depending on me.
Wednesday, September 02, 2009
Like a glass cloche placed over a cake to keep it moist once taken out of the oven, Brigitte Bardot’s hair in Jean-Luc Godard’s 1963 film, Contempt, sits atop her head protecting her beauty and drawing us in with it’s tempting curves and shaggy flip. I’ve always loved the structure of her hair design in this film, but I’ve always had a problem with the color: it is simply too blonde. She was a natural brunette – and I wish she had been styled that way.
We were hard at work planning a teaser campaign for the swimwear line and I had the idea to re-create scenes from Godard’s Contempt, but instead of a bottle-blonde Bardot, we would use an unknown brunette we would somehow find on the web. We stopped what we had been scripting (a terrible idea that was more or less an uninspired rip-off of A-ha’s Take on Me music video) and started preparing the new concept.
It didn’t take much searching to find our model. There are so many great faces on the internet. Three days later, our model was booked and we were on set shooting. She was a complete amateur, but acted like a total professional. She never faked her way through anything – if she didn’t understand something she simply asked, and if she had an idea that could help makes things go more smoothly, she spoke up. It was great working with her.
For the script, I took Contempt as a starting point, and then threw away everything but the hair and wrote a completely new story. It grew into a 22-minute film.
The plot is simple – an intelligent woman is deep at work on a literary project when she stumbles upon some research left by her late great uncle in the family library. The research seems to be some type of cure for a rare form of cancer. Right before she can bring the discovery to the Swiss Institute of Medical Research, the family mansion is burglarized and the research is stolen. She follows a trail of clues to a villa over looking the sea, and goes undercover as an aspiring bikini model to track down the research and recover the cure. Along the way, she falls in love with the son of the thief, and must reconcile her heart and her mind. Is there any way out for our hero?
The scene we were shooting was similar in set-up to the “roll around on the rug” scene from Contempt, but instead of shag carpet, we were in a park on the grass, and instead of being nude, our actress was in a strapless wrap dress that unwrapped as she rolled around to reveal her Serg Riva swim wear underneath. It was quite a scene, and very technically difficult to get the dress to unwrap in just the right way as not to appear too burlesque.
Everything was going just fine and we were all wrapped and watching the footage back at the atelier and when I realized that a dog had visited our set without us knowing it and had deposited a particular piece of set-dressing that I had not intended to have placed in that specific scene. I couldn’t have our star rolling around in that and was furious. How had we missed this on set? We were all so focused on the dress and the hair and the unwrapping reveal of the swim suit that we totally over looked the grass and the present from our dear dog friend.
We had to re-shoot the scene – this time with no dog droppings – in the middle of the night with rented lights. I woke everyone up and dragged the entire team out to the grassy lawn. Our star was a good sport about it – and to be honest, looked even better with her hair slightly crushed in the way that only bed-head can achieve. The harsh shadows of the lights added an extra feeling of subterfuge to the shoot. I was so happy with the end result that I didn’t even flinch when the sprinklers came on and soaked everyone right after we cut from shooting the final take. Tired, soaking wet, and filled with excited screams, the crew squealed their way out of the park and ran back to the prep area. Our star stayed a little longer dancing in the sprinklers, and Tako walked out in a white silk evening gown and slipped her hand around my shoulder. She had been filming this whole time too, it seems, and was happy with the final shot.
Friday, August 28, 2009
When Tako said that she wanted to propose something to me, I foolishly thought for a moment that she was talking about marriage. My hopes were crushed when she revealed that her plans were much more focused on immediate concerns. She had left the "medical drama" and was now out of work. Further, she had been looking to make the move from acting to producing/directing and now felt that she knew exactly what she needed to do. I played a part in her plans, she explained, and it would be beneficial for me as well, she hoped.
She explained that Serg Riva Designs needed a facelift, and that although my work was better than ever, my media presence was still stuck in the golden age of couture swim wear that reached only the most financially gifted via word of mouth and hand-lettered invitations. What I needed, she explained, was a way to reach a broader audience. What I needed, she went on, was a Reality TV show.
I was the most interesting character she knew, she explained, and this said a lot, considering she works in Hollywood.
I hated the idea of having the atelier invaded by a television crew, but loved the idea of seeing Tako more than just a few times a month. I let my mind run away with me and started to imagine the show as a glamourous rendition of my creative life. I would go on living as I had before the cameras started rolling, the only difference would be just a little more art direction and slightly better lighting. All the boring moments could be edited away, and what remained would be like a spread in Elle Decor or Architectural Digest, but on video.
Somewhere in the back of my mind I knew the idea was a potential nightmare, but I didn't care.
Against all sound judgement, I agreed to do the show.
What have I gotten myself into?
Sunday, August 23, 2009
“We are not designing swimwear,” I declare to the sleepy-eyed beauties stitching together hand-made gold lamé bikinis on my floating atelier, “we are designing dreams!”
We have been working hard. The whole team is pushing late enough each night to watch the stars visibly rotate in the sky. I am thrilled to be working again, making great pieces and finding new answers to old questions that come drifting to me in the night like the distant echo of a siren’s song; I am seduced by design, that much is certain.
You can only push a team so far before the mood starts to crack. I knew I had to do something if I was going to keep working the team as hard as I was, so I arranged for a little team-building relaxation event.
The girls on the team are die-hard fans of a certain famous fashion designer. I have never let on to the team that he is a friend, but instead called him in secret and arranged for him to send a few things. He sent samples from the last few seasons, including a few dresses from Spring 2009 – as he knew these were my favorites – and I happily hid them on the boat while I got everything ready. As I thank you, I sent a small group of fake resort wear to him that included a pair of swim trunks with his face silk screened on the front with the nose right where the nose ought to be. I also included a ridiculously luxurious swim wrap. In addition I sent two cases of his favorite champagne, just in case he didn’t appreciate the swim trunks, and a very nice vintage rolex watch with pink gold accents and the numbers rearranged by a jeweler to be in the "wrong" order (my standard thank you gift).
The team is crazy for some show called Gossip Girl, so I had the sailing crew adjust the main rigging so that I could use the sail as a giant screen. I caught the team staying up late at night watching the last two seasons in preperation for the season premiere, which is still a few weeks away. I called my friends from Brown who work for College Hill Pictures and somehow managed to get a copy of the season premiere a little more than a month early. The only part of the deal is that I had to fly out a member of the studio to the yacht who would monitor everything to make sure that no one copied it, as well as take notes on the crowd reaction – which I guess means that my crew is now some sort of focus group? This is standard practice in Hollywood for films, so I’m not surprised that TV does the same thing. It was adorable seeing the studio guy try to dress “upscale resort” for the party. I knew this was what he was trying to do, because that’s how he answered when I asked him about his outfit. He was actually a nice guy, particularly once he saw how much it meant to the team that they got to see the premiere early. BTW – don’t even think of asking me about the show – I signed a stack of Non-Disclosure documents and you won’t get a word out of me.
We have a helicopter landing port on the boat – which sounds like an extravagance, but is actually the only way to keep everyone safe – how else could we get to a hospital if someone got hurt? So in addition to flying in the dresses and food and drinks and studio execs, I used the heliport to bring in friends. First on the list was JJ. Jabez Jr. flew in to do the music and brought a new DJ he was promoting. He awkwardly brought his own helicopter, however, which was a real problem because there really isn't room for two. So we had to push all of the life boats into the water and tow them behind the boat so that his helicopter had somewhere to perch.
I worked everyone especially hard in the morning. Getting everyone up early and pushing through with only the slightest lunch break imaginable. I then kept demanding more and more changes and fittings and drawings. The team was started to get agitated, but I knew that they were also starting to catch on, because the kitchen crew was working overtime and we had had three extra shipments of “supplies” that morning. Just before sun down, I sent the two helicopters out for the guests and everyone freaked out when their friends started to arrive. At that point the team knew exactly what was about to happen. I flew in boyfriends and girlfriends of the team, and brought a few extra former models and up-and-coming artists, musicians and literary scholars for those without significant others. Inside his or her closet on the boat, each team member found a dress or a suit designed and a hand written thank you note for all of their hard work.
Tako surprised me by showing up (she had originally said that she couldn’t make it – but then flew in at the last minute with the College Hill exec). I was so happy to see her that I slipped and fell on deck running to embrace her.
With the golden light of the sun just sliding into the open mouth of the ocean, JJ started in on the music, as an official call to start the party. We served food and drinks and danced and laughed until I called everyone onto the center of the deck and announced that although the party was fun, we still had some work to do, and that we had some required research still left for the evening.
In the middle of everyone's groans, the projector flipped on and blasted video up onto the mainsail while the theme song to the GG season premiere played over the speaker system. The response was enthusiastic to say the least.
While the show played, Tako and I slipped away to the back. I was so happy to see her. Why do we spend so much time apart?
She had tons of news: she had been kicked off of a medical drama for fighting with the director (this makes sense, as Tako, in addition to being a talented actress and a stunning beauty, also went to medical school – my guess is that she made one too many corrections on set…). She also asked if I’d be willing to hear an idea. She wanted to propose something to me. I wonder what she’s cooked up now?
Friday, August 14, 2009
After the party we went back to work. Swimwear design isn't all about playing in the sun or dining in moonlight, there is some work involved. We set up shop back on the boat and got to sketching out the new looks for the southern hemisphere - summer is just around the corner for everyone fashionable south of the equator.
Here's a shot of me between drawing sessions. I'm trying to work out a certain literary reference for a new trunk - but I don't want to be too serious about it. My team was giving me a hard time - calling me Mr. Sourpuss. I'm actually hiding a smile under my frown - look closely - you can just see it.
What a night of drawing. New ideas falling out of the sky like the perseids. More soon.
Saturday, August 08, 2009
After several days at sea, we stopped in port for a party. It was a weekend of sand, sun, old friends, and new acquaintances. One surprise was seeing Jabez Jr., a childhood friend. He had always been like a younger brother to me, but I hadn’t seen him in a long time.
My father had taught agriculture on a humanitarian mission in Tunisia years ago, and his favorite student had been Jabez Sr., a former a star footballer in Tunisia who had played for the national training team before his knee was destroyed and he went back to school to learn agricultural science. I remember as a child being delighted by the tricks he could do (flipping the ball backwards over his head at a full run, or balancing the ball on his forehead while tying his shoes, etc.). His son was also named Jabez, and as kids, we called him JJ, for Jabez Jr. I know this sounds like a glamourous time, but it was actually quite hard for everyone involved. Jabez Sr. was not wealthy, but struggling, and the agricultural needs of his community were severe. My own father was equal parts cowboy and educator, and so although I make him sound a little like an ambassador, he was more like a farmer with a passport, struggling to understand a culture different than his own. It did inspire me as a child to think of the world as a global community, rather than a series of countries. And Jabez Sr. did have a lot of style, even if he didn't have a lot of money.
When we arrived at the party in a castle in the hills by the shore, I was delighted to find out that the host wasn't the up-and-coming band playing in the yard, but was JJ, who was now evidently, a rather successful music producer. Although we weren’t anywhere near Tunsia, I recognized him the second we walked in.
Jabez Jr. was standing near an antique pool table, not playing pool, but talking to at least three people at once, and while everyone else was drinking Grey Goose or champagne, he instead choose to drink tea from an heirloom cup and saucer that he undoubtably had borrowed from some cabinet he'd found in another room. He handed the cup to the nearly nude model who was approaching him for music-career advice, asked her to hold on to it for a moment, and then tried to sneak over to my side to surprise me. I, of course, had seen him coming, but was pretending I hadn't, playing it cool, so that when he turned to tackle me (acting like the little brother he always was), I ducked out of the way and he ended up tackling an ex-VC banker turned environmentalist who was just drunk enough not to feel the fall. JJ laughed at the mistake, and asked the man if he could get him another drink and then turned to me at last for conversation.
His father had died two years ago, and JJ had been producing music for the last five years. His dad got to see him get his first song declared "gold" and had officially accepted his career choice, as long as he “stayed true to himself.”
We couldn’t just sit there and reminisce forever, so one thing lead to another and pretty soon we had a full scale soccer match staged in the garden. JJ and I were on one team, with the band as our backfield, against the bankers, some guy who owned an airlines, a “fashion exec” and what looked like to be actual athletes who appeared from nowhere once the game began. The band members were skinny, but fierce.
My second assistant was a descent mid-field man, I worked the left striker position and JJ was on the right. Several statues were destroyed (cheap copies, assured JJ) and one goal was scored when the keeper wandered off with one of the more attractive wait staff. One of the bankers laid down and took a nap. The airlines guy dribbled off with the ball into another part of the garden. The band started playing while playing their instruments. No broken bones or lost teeth – not a bad match.
The night ended with a call from Tako. (If you are new to this blog, learn more about Tako here, here and here). Nothing was sweeter than the sound of her voice.
Wednesday, August 05, 2009
Nothing relaxes like sailing at night. You can't see it here, but I have a French 75 in one hand and a good book in the other. Wearing my favorite boat shoes always makes me swear like a sailor: courageous rhymes, animated metaphors, unexpected comparisons. Notice the charm, stolen from a couture suit I did for a client friend of mine who wanted something sharp sculpted as a fastener for her bikini - as if to say look out! Get too close and you might get hurt.
When was the last time you read by starlight? It is a challenge, but sets the mood wonderfully.
I have been debating the best course of action for days. I think it cannot be to make more commercial work simply for the sake of selling. My designs have always sold - why chase the ever retreating horizon of someone else's market?
Instead, I am taking aim at simply making the best designs I can. Everything else will sort itself out. So what if I am not a household name? Isn't better to be loved by a few than liked by all?
Where are the poetics in mass production? Even Andy Warhol got tired of that.
The rocking of the boat makes me think of the time my second assistant tried to tattoo himself while we were sailing. He ending up misspelling his own mother's name. Distracting waves - all thoughts are drowned by the immensity of the sea.
Wednesday, July 08, 2009
The Serg Riva sun bleached diaphanous boyfriend shirt. Wear it over your swimsuit or wear it to bed, or wear it for breakfast with a sun hat and nothing else.
Generous neckline reveals the shadows caused by your clavicles and the subtle contours of your neck. Tapered sleeves fit snuggly around your upper arms - no sagging or too-perky short-sleeves making annoying triangles off of your shoulders. The well-loved fabric is sun bleached on the deck of my yacht and is diaphanous without being too sheer (is there such a thing?) and retains the structure of cotton with the softness of cashmere. Resort 2010.
Monday, July 06, 2009
Inspiration comes from imagination and experience.
Here I'm gaining both.
Monday, May 18, 2009
Thursday, May 07, 2009
Tako never quits. Keeping up with her is a full time job. I love the sport of love, but occasionally I have to rely on cunning to succeed, because I'm too tired or lazy to battle it out any other way. So I stopped making women's wear for a few months and concentrated on expanding the Serg Riva line to include men. Did it work? Judge for yourself. Here is Tako smiling at me again.