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Fashion Matters In Tough Times, Says Top Designer

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Fashion Matters In Tough Times, Says Top Designer

Art & Design

Fashion Matters In Tough Times, Says Top Designer

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And now we'd like to take another walk down the runway with a designer for America's A-list. If you watch the Emmys and Academy Awards, then you've probably seen those glamorous, haute couture gowns of Kevan Hall. He's known for dressing fashion stars like Vanessa Williams, Salma Hayek, Celine Dion and Michelle Obama. His work has earned him multiple awards. He was named the Great American Designer by the NAACP in 1989 and the Stylemaker of the Year by Life and Style Magazine in 2005. He is also among the handful of top African-Americans designers in the country.

Kevan Hall grew up in Detroit in the 1960s and later based his company in Los Angeles. Tomorrow, he'll be in Washington, D.C. to show off his 2012 bridal and ready-to-wear collections, so we thought this was a good time to catch up with him as well. Kevan Hall, welcome. Thanks for joining us as well.

KEVAN HALL: Oh, my pleasure. Thank you for having me here.

MARTIN: Now, I understand that you knew from a very young age that you wanted to be a fashion designer. Can you just take us back to those days and tell us how you got bitten by the fashion bug?

HALL: Yeah, I was about seven years old and I would sit in front of the television or in front of watching old movies and that kind of thing with pen and paper in hand and I would sketch and pretend to be redesigning the costumes of whomever, whatever celebrity or star that I saw on TV.

MARTIN: Were you supported in that or was that something that you had to fight your way through?

HALL: No, I was very much supported. My parents were fantastic. I mean they gave me all kinds of art books and materials and a sketch pad and magazines and they encouraged it. I mean, you know, they pushed me outside to play as well but, you know, any time that I, you know, had an opportunity, I was, you know, with my pen and paper in hand.

MARTIN: You launched Kevan Hall Couture in Los Angeles in 1982. But then a decade later you worked to try to revive the legendary house of Halston in New York.

HALL: Yes.

MARTIN: Now, what was that experience like? In a way it's kind of like somebody trying to, gosh, take on, I'm thinking about an analogy of somebody taking on a legendary role by a legendary actor and people are always skeptical...

HALL: Right.

MARTIN: ...and always critical. What was that like?

HALL: People were skeptical. I mean, you know, I was not the New York insider. You know, I was coming from Los Angeles. Although I had a successful ready-to-wear company at the time, people was like, you know, who is this guy? And, you know, it was a thrilling time for me. I was able to go in there and, you know, be the design and creative director. And actually, I commuted between New York and Los Angeles. And, you know, we were picked up by top retailers, you know, Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, and worn by a coterie of celebrities around the world.

MARTIN: And now, of course, your work is being worn by Michelle Obama, the first lady.

HALL: Yes.

MARTIN: What does that mean to have a first lady wear one of your pieces? Does that have an immediate impact?

HALL: It absolutely does. I mean, you know, it just speaks volumes because, you know, the first lady has access to the most beautiful clothes from any American designer and then when she would select something from me, it just was exciting and thrilling, you know, for me, for the house.

MARTIN: Now, I have to ask you, though, it's a kind of a sticky question though, that there are some who are critical that her inaugural gown was not designed by an African-American designer. And it's interesting, given that African-Americans have such a strong presence in the history of American fashion...

HALL: Right.

MARTIN: ...but there are not as many names who are kind of at the top as you are. Were you personally hurt or upset that she did not choose an African-American to design her inaugural gown or any part of her inaugural ensemble?

HALL: I, you know, was thrilled that she turned out looking as lovely as she did. I would've loved to have had that opportunity. I was honestly, you know, a bit disappointed that I didn't get that call.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HALL: But, you know, I was excited when I did finally get a chance to dress her. She's a very beautiful woman.

MARTIN: And what was the occasion? What have you dressed her for?

HALL: She wore a wonderful tie front polka dot simple dress of mine to a speech that she gave in the Washington area.

MARTIN: Did you know in advance that she had chosen one of your pieces or did you find out when you saw it?

HALL: I knew that she'd chosen the dress and that she owned the dress but I did not know, you know, at which point she was going to wear it so I found out, you know, like the rest of the world when she, you know, turned out for that speech looking amazing. And we basically just - we saw it on the Internet.

MARTIN: Did you jump up and down...

HALL: Up and down. Yeah. Yeah.

MARTIN: ...do the happy dance?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HALL: Yes, we did - singing and shouting.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with Kevan Hall. He's known for dressing some of the hottest celebrities in Hollywood, as well as First Lady Michelle Obama and A-lister's around the country, and he's heading to Washington to show his 2012 bridal and ready-to-wear collection, so we thought this was a good chance to touch base with him.

I did want to ask you about the fact that many Americans are struggling financially and unemployment has hit African-Americans particularly hard. And I know that that's not exclusively your customer base, that you dress people of all backgrounds who can afford your work, but I'm wondering whether the country's economic challenges affect the way you think of your work right now or affect your designs.

HALL: Yeah, it absolutely does because, you know, everybody is being very price conscious and they're not able to buy as much as they used to buy or maybe they're not buying, you know, they really cut back and they're not buying at all. So, you know, and my approach to that is to try to find fabrics and things that are, you know, are a better price point where they still have a look of luxury but perhaps they are, you know, maybe not 100 percent silk or maybe there's a silk blend, or maybe I'll find, you know, some interesting jersey fabrics or something that I hadn't even considered before but, you know, still stays within the look and within the aesthetic of the brand.

MARTIN: Can I ask you this other - a question, though, and I just want to assure you that I have asked other designers of other backgrounds this question when I've had an opportunity to speak with them. There are those who - and maybe we can sort of loop it back to the first lady, Michelle Obama. On the one hand people are very appreciative, particularly people in the American fashion industry, are very appreciate that she likes fashion, that she wears it well, that she's interested in a broad range of designs and designers. I mean she does it all - from the haute couture to the J. Crew and Target even, from what we're told. So on the one hand some people are very appreciative of that. On the other hand, whenever we do a conversation like this, someone inevitably will say this is trivial, this is unimportant, why are you talking about that nonsense, you know, at a time like this when, you know, we have people suffering? So for people who do question why it matters, why does fashion matter, what do you say?

HALL: Well, fashion matters because there is, you know, it's a huge industry in California and actually, you know, throughout our country, a huge industry. In California we do more manufacturing and production than any other state. New York certainly is a capital as well. We have to think about the mills that are making fabrics. You think about the sewers, the people that are, you know, sitting down, stitching the clothing. There's still a lot of industry and a lot of manufacturing that's done here, and it's an important part of our economy.

MARTIN: And why bridal?

HALL: Bridal - you know, I did a dress for Tia Mowry. She had asked me to do her wedding gown, and from that, you know, from the press that we got from that and from also other of my clients, their daughters asking me to do their gowns, I thought I'm going to actually roll out a full-blown bridal collection. And I find that girls don't really want to look like, you know, cupcakes anymore or like, you know, princesses; they want to look like movie stars. And so that's what we do. We have taken the red carpet aesthetic and we're giving it to the white carpet, so that girls are looking, you know, beautiful and glamorous and really like Hollywood.

MARTIN: And finally, before we let you go, do you have any advice for people who are listening to our conversation and who would like to follow in your footsteps?

HALL: In terms of being a designer you must, you know, study at a school or study as an apprentice so that you really get your hands into the design process. You should, you know, immerse yourself in books and magazines and museums, and go to the stores and shop and look at all kinds of clothing. And then pick something that really speaks to you and what you love to do and then follow that dream.

MARTIN: What other dreams do you have?

HALL: We are going to be launching some secondary collections that are going to be even more affordable so that...

MARTIN: Oh, you mean for me is what you're saying.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HALL: We embrace everyone.

MARTIN: Okay.

HALL: So we want to, you know...

MARTIN: I don't know how I feel about being called a secondary collection.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Can't we come up with something else?

HALL: I'm sure you can do the first collection as well.

MARTIN: I don't know...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Two kids to send to college, but anyway...

HALL: Yeah, I hear you. But we are going to be doing a lot of different collections that will address the needs of, you know, beautiful women around the world.

MARTIN: Is there any piece of clothing that just makes you crazy, just think oh, no, I just can't bear it?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Anything?

HALL: Nothing that, nothing particularly that I have to buy, but one thing that I am not a fan of are leggings. I don't think everybody needs to be in a legging, that's the one thing that bugs me.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Okay. Duly noted.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Kevan Hall is an award-winning fashion designer. He was kind enough to join us from our studios in Culver City, California. Tomorrow he'll be in Washington, D.C. to show off his 2012 bridal and ready-to-wear collections. We were able to catch up with him. Thank you so much for being with us.

HALL: My pleasure.

MARTIN: And if you'd like to see some photos of Kevan Hall's latest designs, we will have a few of them posted on our website. Just go to npr.org, click on the Programs tab and then on TELL ME MORE.

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