Women of a certain age and income may remember Michael Vollbracht as the bright young star of New York's Seventh Avenue in the '70s and '80s who dressed everybody who was anybody, working first for the legendary Geoffrey Beene and then under his own name.
And they will probably remember the smartly tailored suits and tastefully chic dresses he created in homage to his late friend and mentor, Bill Blass, as that house's creative director from 2003 to 2007.
Vollbracht absolutely remembers them.
And waits for them, on a recent weekday, at Saks Fifth Avenue in Naples. They are and always have been his professional raison d'etre.
"I could not care less about these young girls dressed by stylists, with no style of their own," he says. "I would much rather be with a woman who's 50 rather than 17. Wouldn't you?"
Despite his commercial success at Bill Blass with his target clientele, Vollbracht, now 61, resigned in 2007 with no specific plans, saying he had "had enough of that industry." He hinted that he wanted to keep his hand in fashion design rather than drowning in the total immersion of a full-bore fashion label.
The break gave him time to recharge at the small home he bought in Safety Harbor almost 25 years ago when he also needed to regroup, a simple place he has made glamorous with sweat equity and flea market finds, his paintings and those of his friends.
Now he's back in business, back in New York, back on the road.
His new venture is Michael Vollbracht for Saks Fifth Avenue, a line of made-to-measure day and evening wear available only there and only by special order. Their cost begins in the four figures and often goes into five. He personally presents them at trunk shows throughout the United States and will bring the collection to the WestShore Plaza Saks in Tampa on March 9.
"A lot of designers won't touch women who wear larger sizes," he says. "My job is to make anyone look good. And I can."
Case in point:
A woman of a certain age, size and obvious income has wandered over to the designer salon. She's really in the store to meet uber hairstylist Frederic Fekkai, in town to plug his product line.
But something else has caught her eye.
She begins scouring the racks holding Vollbracht's beautifully crafted samples. Her cell phone rings.
"I can't talk now," she screams into the phone. "I'm at a trunk show and you should be here. The workmanship! I'm blown away!"
She has never heard of Vollbracht. Doesn't care that he has dressed former first lady Barbara Bush, size 14, to great effect.
"Hate her," she says, when told. "Love this skirt," holding up a ravishing number in silk taffeta with hand-embroidered flowers. It has a gathered, cinched waist. She has no waist.
She gushes when Vollbracht comes over. She wants the skirt.
She tells him her husband left her for a younger woman. She has lost 50 pounds. He listens as her life spills out over chinchilla trims and bugle beading she passes through her fingers, stroking the clothes.
He suggests that the cut of the skirt could be fitted just for her. A flat panel — so much more flattering — with the gathers below it. Then a top that would float over rather than tuck in.
That it costs several thousand dollars is less important than its unique provenance that will be hers alone. And she will look like herself, only better.
"We're like doctors," he says. "They tell us everything. You have to really listen to your clients. To get to know them. I learned that from Bill Blass."
"Michael will do what a client needs," says Sherrie Dixon, manager of the designer department of the Naples Saks. "Not many designers will. He'll put on a sleeve, lengthen a hem. It helps us sell the clothes."
Though this niche market for the wealthy is somewhat buffered from today's economic misery, he knows it is not immune.
"Everyone is affected," he says. "Even if they still have money. Women came into the Palm Beach store and were hiding. One got caught by her best friend and apologized. But — thank God — there are always women who love clothes and will shop creatively if they have to buy them.
"They don't seem as interested in labels. They just don't want three other women showing up at a party in the same outfit."
He can control that now. Stores don't stock his line in multiple sizes as they do other designers and he will only sell one of his memorable evening designs — they can approach $20,000 — at a trunk show in a particular city to lessen the possibility of such a horror.
"It works well for me," he says. "No markdowns, no returns. My overhead is low since I don't have to make everything up in multiple sizes."
Sizes are, in fact, irrelevant to a couture line. A woman is measured and the order is sent to Vollbracht's workshop in New York, where seamstresses and tailors make each piece individually. The customer has the finished garment in less than a month. If she wants a style in cotton rather than silk, red instead of black, no problem.
Most of his clients are those he cultivated during the Blass years, women who have no interest in being boldfaced names for strangers' entertainment. Like them, Vollbracht's clothes are discreetly luxurious. They're all about the details, the way a lining is made from a patchwork of perfectly aligned silk squares or a pocket is finished like a hand-bound buttonhole. Or the way inside seams are finished with narrow strips of cotton twill. Things only the wearer might see but that make all the difference in the way a hem hangs or a seam follows the body's curve.
In the way its owner feels when she wears it.
In the way a fantasy needs reality.
That's high fashion.
That's Michael Vollbracht.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8293.