"Where do I get my inspiration? Just look out that window," says artist and fashion designer Koos Van den Akker as he sits at his sewing machine surrounded by pieces of colorful fabric. "The buildings, the streets, the traffic, the people - the picture is constantly changing. This city is one big collage!"
Collage. Webster defines it as an art in which bits of objects are pasted on a canvas or other surface in an incongruous way to create strange and witty effects or suggest symbolic meaning.
Koos, who has been called the "Pasha of Patchwork," celebrates the art in almost every outfit he produces. His cutting table is a miniature skyscraper of scraps - piled high with materials of all different kinds, shapes and colors.
"I use them the way a painter uses his palette and brush," explains the designer. "I move them here. I move them there. I combine and recombine to get interesting designs. Slowly, an idea will begin to take shape and grow. The pattern comes first; then the fashion design.
"It is not the clothes I like so much as the art, you see. If I could earn a living making my little collages, I could easily give up fashion. The glitz and the glamour really mean nothing to me. But I have found a niche in the apparel industry; a place where I can be as creative as I want and still make enough money to pay the rent. So, I'm content. And it pleases me to please my customers. They're not average people buying average clothes. My customers are connoisseurs who seek the different and unique . . . they wear their art. It is for them that I work here at my little sewing machine."
Koos pats the sewing machine affectionately, never missing a stitch. Clearly, wasting time isn't his nature, and it's fascinating to watch him juggle several projects deftly and simultaneously. Obviously, this man has had to be clever and move quickly to survive.
Survival was the name of the game from the very beginning. Born in The Hague, Holland, to a working class family, Koos left home at 15 to live among his friends who were artists, painters and writers. Without any formal training, in 1955 he managed to enroll in the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague. He remained there until 1958 when he enlisted in the military.
After his military service, Koos moved to Paris in hopes of furthering his art career. Eventually, he began attending fashion school and became an apprentice at Christian Dior.
In 1965, the young man returned to The Hague and opened his own boutique. But business in his homeland never fulfilled its promise.
"I quickly became disenchanted with the Dutch fashion industry," Koos says. "Then one day I saw the movie `Breakfast at Tiffany's' and I fell madly in love with Manhattan. No one could talk me out of it. I simply had to come to America."
He arrived in New York with an old portable sewing machine strapped to his back and about $100 in his pocket. Lincoln Center seemed a good central location, and that's the area where he first set up shop - on the street - and began selling dresses at $30 apiece.
Each dress required a full day's work, and so his take-home pay was barely enough to cover groceries. But the stint on the street served its purpose. His following grew; the apparel and art worlds began to pay attention.
The first Koos boutique in America was opened on Columbus Avenue in the fall of 1970. Later, the store moved to Madison where it is now located. A second store focusing on men's clothes is located just off Madison.
The designer says these stores are used to test his ideas. "Design laboratories" he calls them. They also provide a place for him to meet with his clientele.
The clientele, admittedly, is limited. Not every person has the courage to wear art and make such a bold fashion statement. Not every person can afford the collector's prices. But among those who have the cash and the dash, Koos Couture is highly regarded. And when he puts on a show at Parson's School of Design during market weeks, there always are staunch devotees attired in his exquisite one-of-a-kind creations sitting front and center.
"I don't attract the huge crowds that some of the others do when they put on shows. Actually, I don't put on shows very often - just frequently enough to let people know I'm still around," explains the designer. "They cost too much. It's ridiculous. The cheapest models charge about $350 an hour. By the time you've put together a production, it runs $60,000 at least. Someone who doesn't have backers and is independent the way I am just can't do that frequently. Anyway, I don't want to spend my time that way. I like to be behind the machine or searching for fabrics to use in my work. Collage is very time consuming."
Koos usually can be found in his workrooms from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. He has assistants, yes. But showing them how to do the fine art of collage seldom is successful, he says. A person must have a definite talent and most couture pieces end up being done by the designer himself.
Sixty to 80 pieces of fabric are worked into most of the collages. Sketches aren't made of the designs beforehand. Koos prefers to work with the fabrics directly, mixing such diverse elements as leather, suede, beads, prints, solids, furs, metallics, brocades and lames into intriguing interplays of texture and color. The collages that have brought extravagant praise from peers such as Geoffrey Beene, who's recognized as the dean of fashion designers.
"After Beene saw what I was doing, he began using collage extensively, too," says Koos with a smile. "I consider it the finest form of flattery. A high compliment."
As for the fashions that carry the Van den Akker label, they're plain, simple and act as mere canvases for the artistry that Beene admires. Koos Van den Akker is not a designer who deals in elaborate cuts, silhouettes and dressmaker details. But he does deal in signature pieces such as the jacket.
The jacket, in dozens of incarnations, appears in every collection. Styles may vary, but the theme is always the same: a timeless item that the customer can use over and over with pants, skirts and dresses. The day we visited Koos' workrooms, several jackets on dress forms stood against his collage wall - a colorful area of the spacious studio that has been papered with pattern. They'll be just as good ten years from now, pointed out his model and assistant Pamela Housman.
Pamela, a striking red-haired model who poses for pictures and also served as a part-time public relations person for the designer, was scurrying around making sure all the accessories were ready for the big show at Parson's. Koos was working as usual and taking care not to disturb a big white cat that was languidly sprawled in the middle of a collage destined to end up on a sweater for actor Bill Cosby.
Dozens of other fashion projects were waiting in the wings - designs for hats, jewelry, stockings and handbags. And there was a young designer, Christian Roth, who was waiting for advice from his teacher and mentor.
"Christian's mother came to me and asked if I would help teach her son about art and fashion - she felt he had real talent and needed guidance," says Koos. "I agreed, and he has been with us ever since. This season he has done a small collection himself. . . I'm very proud of it. The work is far different from mine. I do more abstract and decorative things. Christian is into bold graphic appliques. He has a jacket in his collection, for instance, that features the heads of barking dogs. Another is appliqued with paint tubes.
"I feel this young man will go places, and I think one of the most important contributions older fashion designers can make to the industry is to help these young ones along. Fashion is such a tough business."
Koos speaks from experience. During his years in the rag trade, he has known good times and bad.
"This business of fashion is like a collage," he says getting ready to close up the place and go home to his apartment at the historic old Ansonia Hotel. All kinds of experiences are constantly mixing and combining. Maybe that's what makes it interesting, right?"