Few in the menswear industry an industry that revolves around classic clothes and conventional styling - deserve the title of "fashion innovator."
Designer Bill Robinson does.Robinson, winner of this year's Cutty Sark Outstanding U.S. Designer Award, has earned industry-wide recognition for his ability to temper tradition with modernity. Fashion innovation isn't just a descriptive phase to him, it's a way of professional life.
Consider silhouette. Robinson has taken a whole new tack - broadening and softening shoulders, then narrowing the line from there on down. The cut of his suits and jackets, unlike most American-designed male apparel on the market today, is decidedly not square and boxy. A bit hard to wear if you're portly. But custom-made for the trim and fit.
Then there are the fabrics and prints. The designer pays special attention to them, often spending days in European markets looking for luxurious cashmeres and wools and scouring textile research libraries in search of fresh patterns for his shirts and ties.
Colors, too, are essential to Robinson's innovative style. There are always lots of rich earth tones and near-neutral pastels - rugged, no-nonsense masculine shades. Yet, he recognizes the impact brights can have and firmly believes that men are ready for more color in their wardrobes. (This fall's collection is filled with punches of an unusual shade called poison green.)
Details, redefined and reworked, also play an important role. And the elements that often are a part of casual clothing become, in Robinson's hands, an off-beat, elegant touch on tailored apparel. To illustrate: Tabs appear on suit jackets; Hollywood waistbands and inverted pleats decorate dressy trousers and prominently placed zippers define the pockets of leather duffle coats.
Silhouette, fabric, colors, details. Put them all together and mix in the designer's insistence on quality, and you have a line that Woody Hochwender, New York Times menswear reporter has called "forward-looking and definitely worth watching."
Bill Robinson's designs became worth watching early in his career - a career entered through the back door.
"I always loved clothes but never thought of being a designer," says the Philadelphia native. "Theater and art were more interesting to me at first. But it just so happened that our high school art class got tickets to a fashion show at Parson's School of Design in New York. When I saw that first fashion show - well, it just knocked me out! The models, the lights, the excitement . . . I loved everything about the experience. And I knew right then and there that I wanted to be a part of it."
Moving to New York, he enrolled at Parson's. But instead of applying himself to his studies, Robinson got caught up in the glittering attractions and distractions of the Big Apple.
"I was young and didn't take things seriously enough," the designer admits. "My professors told me I'd better shape up or I'd be out."
After the warning, Robinson settled down and began learning everything he could about the apparel industry. Although he'd had little or no background in sketching and draping, the talent seemed to come naturally and he quickly won the student designer of the year award as well as three other prestigious design awards - something that had never happened at Parson's.
The impressive achievement helped land a job with Anne Klein. Then it was on to Valentino, Stan Herman, Leo Narducci and Gloria Vanderbilt.
In 1977, Robinson joined Calvin Klein and worked as chief designer of the menswear collection for six years. It was while with Klein, he says, that his real practical education in fashion took place.
"I had a chance to learn merchandising and to study the manufacturing process. I got to design all kinds of things, including ties and belts, underwear and socks. But at the end of my time with Calvin, we weren't seeing eye to eye. My ideas were growing and changing. It was time to move on."
The move was to Yves St. Laurent, where Robinson put in a short stint revamping the Parisian designer's menswear collection. He still remembers the thrill of having Yves stand up and applaud the line.
Applause or not, the urge to create a collection that was uniquely his own continued. And finally the opportunity came in the fall of 1986.
The early collections - clearly different from the Brooks Brothers image that was prevalent in the industry - brought acclaim. Robinson became the first designer to ever receive two Cutty Sark Menswear Award nominations in one year - he was nominated as Outstanding U.S. Designer and Most Promising Designer, winning the latter. Still, not everything was bright during the early years.
"We tried some very daring, very arty things that were interesting concepts but had a limited consumer appeal," says Robinson. "The majority didn't understand what we were trying to say with the clothes and sales suffered. I learned the hard way that you have to temper creativity with practicality if you're interested in the commercial aspect."
The clothes designed by Bill Robinson still feature supple and fluid fabrics and innovative cuts, but they aren't quite as extreme as they once were. The fit has been modified, the designer says, so that more men can wear and enjoy. Prices also have been adjusted somewhat so that the market isn't as limited.
"I don't think we've compromised in any way - we've just grown smarter and more realistic," Robinson explains. "It's essential to do this if you want to survive in fashion today."
Today Bill Robinson is backed by Bidermann Industries, the international fashion force that backs Yves St. Laurent menswear. The firm has refinished an impressive space for the designer on Fifth Avenue in New York and clearly seems to expect him to become one of the brightest jewels in its crown.