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A Comeback of Vintage Collage

For spring, designers draw on Koos van den Akker's colorful patchwork styles of the '70s and '80s.

January 04, 2002|VALLI HERMAN-COHEN | TIMES SENIOR FASHION WRITER

If you didn't read the labels, the clothes hanging on a rolling metal rack at Decades, a Melrose Avenue vintage boutique, might seem like samples plucked from the upcoming spring fashion collections. But the 1970s and '80s patchwork peasant blouses, the metallic collage blouses and the intricately appliqued silk pajamas are the work of fabric craftsman Koos van den Akker .

The Dutch-born New York designer, who rose to fame in the late '70s before falling into relative obscurity, is having a fashion renaissance that's one part serendipity and two parts hard work. "What's nice about it," said the designer from his New York workroom, "is that those things usually happen after you're dead."

Virtually everything about the renewed interest in Van den Akker is out of the ordinary. The 62-year-old designer's signature collage style has been openly acknowledged as the source of inspiration in major fashion collections, though borrowers rarely credit their sources. Even if the origins are recognized, the designer almost never profits from the new exposure, but Van den Akker is poised to see his reputation and his pocketbook rewarded. Remarkably, though high fashion is famously allergic to associations with the mass market, for three years, Van den Akker's diffusion line called Koos Of Course! has made him one of the top-selling designers on the home shopping channel QVC.

"It's all about old clothes," the designer says deferentially, "but now it's just called vintage." Perhaps the revival of Van den Akker--who has quietly operated a small couture salon in Manhattan for nearly 30 years--is most unusual because it came not from a museum retrospective or a celebrity wearing his clothes, but largely from the efforts of Los Angeles vintage dealer Cameron Silver.

"It's all for him that it happened," said Van den Akker in his slightly fractured English. "Thanks for Cameron Silver."

Silver, 30, will host a private party next Friday launching a retrospective of the designer's 39-year career at Decades Gallery, the new show space at his 41/2-year-old boutique. While patrons sip Heineken beers and nibble Dutch chocolates, they will meet the gregarious Van den Akker and see firsthand the source of the distinctive patchwork patterns and peasant styles that appeared in the spring 2002 collections of Jill Stuart, Marc Jacobs, Louis Vuitton and Paris designer Nicolas Ghesquiere, whose Balenciaga Le Dix collections have been top trendsetters for the past few years. His spring Balenciaga collection of intricately pieced prints, metallics and metal mesh was an instant hit. Leading designers recognized the significance of collage to fashion today. "Van den Akker was the 1970s and '80s interpretation of that moment we loved about the '60s," said Robert Duffy, chairman of Marc Jacobs, who also designs Louis Vuitton. "His was the grown-up, designer version. There were a lot of artsy, craftsy collections back then, but Koos, I think, did it the best."

As a dealer in designer vintage pieces, Silver was among the few privy to the often-secretive fashion research that led to Van den Akker. When Ghesquiere arrived at Silver's shop late last summer and asked to see vintage Van den Akker, Silver adroitly realized the significance of his request. He tracked down Van den Akker's publicist and convinced the designer to stage a retrospective at his Los Angeles gallery. Silver began promoting the show with press releases and a phone call to a well-placed friend who helped land a mention in Harper's Bazaar. Later, Vogue published a story about the designer's influence.

Silver himself hadn't always appreciated the artsy-crafty feel of the clothes. About three years ago, the vintage dealer bought several pieces from a New York client. "I didn't know if they were good or not, so I put them in my 'nobody-gets-it' bag," he said. "It took me a couple of years to see the relevancy of his clothes." That bag wound up in the garage of his assistant, Jarred Cairns, who was sent to immediately fetch it as Ghesquiere inspected other Van den Akker pieces at the store. The bag contained items that are very likely to become a key look of this spring and beyond: peasant blouses with intricate collage.

"And a revolution was born," Silver quipped. "Now I wish I had 30 of them."

Silver will have dozens of new works that he commissioned from Van den Akker, who personally handcrafts his collage designs. The designer is making a small collection of $600 men's shirts, similar to the sample that Silver frequently wears these days--a fanciful blend of contrasting top-stitching running across twisted strips of red fabric, Asian-inspired prints and colorful patterns.

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