Friday, May 22, 2015
Michael Novarese: California Fashion Designer
When I wrote a recent blog article about a Novarese dress from the 1970's I was discouraged by the lack of information on this talented fashion designer from California, so I dug deeper to find that he was well celebrated by the press during his time. What I write here is based on many regional and national newspaper articles on Michael Novarese made through out his career, and his obituary published online.
Michael Novarese stated that he always knew he would design women’s fashion. His love was for elegant, well designed fashion, and that is what he planned to create.
Of Italian descent, he was born in 1926, in Memphis, Tenn. At an early age his family would move back to Italy where he spent his early childhood, returning to Memphis as a youth and completing high school there. This was followed by serving in WWII and being stationed in Europe. After the war he returned to Memphis for a short time, but moved finally to Los Angeles where he studied fashion at Woodbury College. This was located in downtown Los Angeles at that time. It had a small but strong program in apparel design, graduating other fashion designers of note such as William Travilla.
In his early career, he worked as a blouse designer. This would evolve to designing evening cocktail dresses in a custom dress making business. By 1957 he was able to open his own label with eight dress designs. These were made from silk crepe, a classic textile with a matte finish and a slight stretch that he used often throughout his carer. He was able to sell these first designs to Saks Fifth Avenue.
Early on, Novarese had made the decision to create only high end fashion constructed with quality textiles and sewing techniques. He would focus on a customer who was often professional, working in high paid careers such as advertising and public relations. They wanted his quality designs as part of their stature both at work and at home. In 1981 he would estimate that 70% of his customers were professional women. “My clothes fit as investments because they have a very secure look about them” and could be worn for several seasons to validate that investment.
As a young designer in his thirties, he was seen as slim, small and brown eyed by one reviewer in 1962. His southern drawl was an asset, along with his vibrant and engaging personality. By this time he had been in business for only five years, yet he was being interviewed in New York by regional fashion journalists for local papers. That year he also presented his collection in his hometown of Memphis, which was an honor for him.
Novarese evening designs were known for being subtle, elegant and finely made. He was able to do this while still incorporating texture through beading, lace and fullness. Often this was emphasized in the sleeves, an area that he was well known for embellishing or making dramatic statements. When asked about this infusion of renaissance style he would reply “After all, I am of Italian extraction”. His early childhood in Italy played a part in creating his elegant signature styles.
He worked with professionals at the top of the field. His beading woman, Mae Murry in Los Angeles, was known for her work in movies as well. She created the wonderful textures his evening gowns were known for. “She’s the greatest in the business” was his comment about her. His work also emphasized pristine dress making. “I always believed that a customer is entitled to a complete product in that the inside should look as good as the outside.” To do this he “set a guideline in regard to the way clothes should be made”.
Because his designs required couture level sewing and expensive high quality textiles and trims, his fashions were known for being expensive. In the 1970s, his dresses were bringing in $1,000 each. He recounts a story of one new customer who loved his prints so much that she ordered the same dress in five prints, spending over $12,000 to do this. In the late 1980’s he would state the “competition in our price bracket is fierce, and we have to ensure every faculty we possess to maintain a position in the marketplace”
In 1974, his customers would spend between $400 to $2,500 on a dress. Early on, established actresses such as Bette Davis and Ann Baxter were clients. Other actress customers during his career included Jane Russell, Liza Minelli, Judy Garland, and Dinah Shore. His gowns were also worn in the 80’s by the Reagan era wives in Washington D.C. He describes his client as “a lady who understands quality fabrics, quality workmanship and designs that are not limited to that particular period”.
This made for a conservative sense of style. During an economic down-swing, he would comment that “you don’t play around with design when the economic situation is not secure. You deviate when a lot of money is around. Customers want clothes that won’t go out of style and they’ll wear what they buy from two to five seasons.” The point of view was that his fashion should be classic, (my) “clothes are not fad-oriented, gimmicky or eye-distracting. They are clothes that will take you from year to year and still look correct”.
He maintained that to stay in business he had to emphasize his unique style, the quality of the garment, and the fine dressmaking skills that created it. He would be most popular in Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston, while also traveling to present his collections in trunk show throughout the US and in New York City.
When asked why he didn’t create another line at more affordable prices he responded that “I had no intention of dressing mass America. I left that to someone else”. And “I do not design sport clothes or swimsuits. My clothes are day-through-afternoon dresses and cocktail, evening, debutante and wedding dresses”. Part of this was due to his dress making standards where he wound never “vacillate from a set method in regard to making clothes. It’s just as easy to make it correctly and well”. These designs would be worn by the customer “who understands quality fabrics, quality workmanship and designs that are not limited to that particular period” in time.
In Los Angeles, Novarese was part of a well known group of designers called the “California Fashion Creators”. They promoted their own regional apparel at a national level. He was also one of a select few California designers whose collections were considered couture along with Charles Cooper, Lee Herman, Stanley Nelson, and Wiliam Travilla. They often presented their collections together in New York during fashion week. In 1965 they produced a fashion show at the Plaza Hotel, hoping to snag buyers and the press on Sunday with their unusual concept of fashion and buffet.
Novarese retired from his business in 1992 at about 66 years old. His final business location was in West Hollywood on Holloway Drive, a convenient location to both Hollywood and Los Angeles. His retirement was honored and celebrated by his clients who staged a special invitation dinner with a gallery display at a local design college, each invitee was encouraged to wear her best Novarese to this event. That final year he had worked about 35 years under his own label. In retirement he lived in both Palm Desert and Los Angeles. Novarese was well known for his volunteer work in the community and his philanthropic works through the Catholic church. His partner of 36 years, Robert Nelson is still living in southern California.
In one of the last statements Novarese made about his designs, he said “Strangely enough, my clothes are not, and never have been designed with California in mind. They have an international flavor that can be worn in any spot in the country, as well as in Europe.” Having lived his life both in the US and Europe he would know best about that.
While there isn’t a book or chapter written on Novarese, his life and designs were documented by the many female fashion journalists who worked for the syndicated national press and smaller local newspapers during his career:
Barbara Cloud, 1965, 1966, 1981: Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Peggy Gandy, 1987: the Oklahoman
Doris Klein, 1964: syndicated
Mary Lou Loper, 1992: syndicated
Jean Miller, 1974: St. Petersburg Times
Aileen Ryan, 1962: Milwaukee Journal
Mary Jan Spencer, 1965: Blade News
Joan Sweeney, 1968: syndicated
Violet Webber, 1970: Toronto Blade