Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Needle and Thread

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

Late at Night Awake and Alert...

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.