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Designer Michael Vollbracht revives a lifetime of tattered fashion

SAFETY HARBOR

Light leaps from the shiny beading of the black silk fabric that hangs loosely on the dress form.

Once upon a time, the beautiful design was the highlight of a 1920s Jean Patou flapper dress. Years of improper storage in a humid Safety Harbor bedroom rotted away its chemise and handkerchief hem. Today, silk and beading is all that remains of the garment — a fact that makes its owner, Michael Vollbracht, kick himself.

"I should be horsewhipped, I know," said Vollbracht, 68, a fashion designer who has dressed everyone from first ladies to movie stars. "You're looking at about one-tenth of the collection I used to have."

Vollbracht has worked for Geoffrey Beene and had his own lines at Saks Fifth Avenue and HSN. He was head designer at Bill Blass until 2007.

When he bought a house in Safety Harbor some 30 years go, his fashion collection came with him, though it suffered in time. Fashion fans can get a look at what's left of it tonight at "Though Tattered and Torn," a showing of the repurposed clothes and 100 of Vollbracht's sketches to benefit the Hinks and Elaine Shimberg Breast Center through the St. Joseph's Hospitals Foundation.

"It's a beautiful concept and very fitting," said Nora Gunn, vice president of development at the foundation. "Women who have breast cancer can feel a little damaged, but they are still valuable and they are still beautiful. That's the connection."

Vollbracht spent his youth in New York City buying designer clothes secondhand at Upper East Side thrift stores.

"In those days it was very declasse to wear used clothing," Vollbracht said. "That was for poor people. All the rich ladies would send out their maids with these designer labels and one-of-a-kind garments and dump them in thrift stores."

There wasn't a specific plan as he picked up piece after piece. He just had to have them. He lugged them back to his apartment while learning the basics of fashion design at Parsons School of Design in the 1960s. He kept them tucked away or proudly used them in his runway shows while operating his own label in the late 1970s.

Vollbracht had to close his shop in the 1980s after his financial backer, Joanna Carson, discontinued her support following her divorce from comedy legend Johnny Carson. It made Vollbracht retreat to Florida to get as far from the New York fashion world as possible.

"I don't deal with confrontation," he said. "I'm the kid who takes his ball and goes home."

His ball was actually trunks filled with clothing that's considered fashion history, from 1910 Lanvin party dresses to 1960s Roberto Capucci jumpsuits.

Before he left New York in a huff following the shuttering of his business, he had collected more than 100 garments and shoes and 60 hats.

He moved on to other pursuits, interior designing and art — even illustrating for the New Yorker — and forgot all about the dresses wasting away in a back bedroom of his cool, ranch-style house on a Safety Harbor side street.

It wasn't until he returned to fashion in 2003, taking over the Bill Blass brand after his friend and mentor Blass died, that he thought about the clothes again.

"The smell. Oh God, the mildewy smell," Vollbracht said. "It was terrible. So many of the dresses were rotted through because of the dampness of the room. I had to throw so much beautiful stuff away."

Not everything ended up in the heap.

He was able to save most of a hunter green 1960s Christian Dior cocktail dress. The bodice lining is gone but the rhinestone and netting overlay still hold up.

He was able to delicately display a red patterned 1920s dress by Charles Worth, who was the first modern designer to eschew corsetry and change fashion. It looks too fragile to be worn ever again.

All in all, 20 looks escaped from the bedroom banishment, and through the encouragement of friends, Vollbracht decided to turn them into an art exhibit and fashion retrospective.

Vollbracht has worked with St. Joseph's before, selling collages to benefit the Complex Care Clinic at the children's hospital. He picked the breast cancer clinic this go-around because his mother lost her battle with the disease when he was a child. Every dime raised will go to the center.

Vollbracht did much of the work on his own time, and all the materials were either paid for from his pocket, found in his yard or donated by local businesses.

He talked Eddie V's into serving hors d'oeuvres for free. Sanford-Brown College loaned Vollbracht dress forms for the display and students to help with the reconstruction. Employees of the SJH Foundation will work the doors and control traffic in the space, Lot 1901 in Ybor City.

"I'm not spending money on anything so all the money can go to the charity," Vollbracht said.

It's a feat that required a little creativity. Out of dress forms, Vollbracht found a decorative steer skull in his yard and transformed it into the torso for displaying an antique wedding top and skirt.

Exhibits like "Though Tattered and Torn" give Vollbracht an outlet for his need to create, he said, and a way to share a huge chunk of his life with the public.

It's all worse for wear, but he sort of likes it that way.

Contact Robbyn Mitchell at (813) 226-3373 or rmitchell@tampabay.com. Follow @RMitchellTimes.

If you go

"Though Tattered and Torn" will display more than 100 years of costumes, textiles and shoes collected and designed by Michael Vollbracht to benefit the St. Joseph's Hospitals Foundation. Doors open at 6 p.m. this evening at Lot 1901, 1901 E Second Ave. in Ybor City. Tickets are $30 online at sjhfoundation.org or at the door. Michael Vollbracht's illustrations will also be on sale. (813) 872-0979.

Designer Michael Vollbracht revives a lifetime of tattered fashion 01/12/16 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 13, 2016 9:25pm]
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