JEFFREY BANKS’ NORMAN NORELL

Interview by Jeffrey Felner

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There are very people in one’s professional life that can be counted as both friends and colleagues of extended periods of time but that is not the case when it comes to this gentleman and I stress gentleman!

My first encounter with his was some 40 years when, I’m guessing we were both sort of kids starting out in the business of fashion. Sometimes there are those who are never forgotten not because of anything specific but because of their demeanor and talents; such is the case with one Jeffrey Banks.

Skip a few decades and we became friendly again through the magic of social media after both of us had taken somewhat divergent paths, He became an author and continued his journey in the menswear business while I was off an running trying my hand at anything from being a buyer to designing Miriam Haskell to designing table clocks for Timex.

Long story short, here we are on the precipice of the release of one the great books of 2018… NORELL: Master of American Fashion which drops in stores within the next few days and followed by an exhibit at the FIT museum. What better time for he and I to speak a bit of what was and more to the point of what is quite literally days away.

Here in his own words is my friend Jeffrey Banks…..

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Jeffrey Felner: For those who might not be familiar with your many talents, would you give us a brief resume of your accomplishments up to this point?  

Jeffrey Banks: I have designed Menswear, Womenswear, Children’s, and now, Home Decor for HSN. I have won numerous awards including 2 Coty Awards. And I have just finished my 5th Book. The others being, TARTAN: Romancing the Plaid, PREPPY: Cultivating Ivy Style, PERRY ELLIS: An American Original, and PATRICIA UNDERWOOD: The Way You Wear Your Hat.

JB:To date this is your 5th book (Norell: Master of American Fashion) … what prompted you to choose one of the great pioneers of American fashion?

JB: Norman Norell was one of the reasons I wanted to become a designer as a child. His pure classicism and elegant lines really spoke to me, and I was shocked that outside of his inclusion in a couple of anthologies on fashion, there had never been a book written solely about him. He simply changed the way American fashion was viewed on the world stage! And he raised the bar for quality in American ready to wear manufacturing.

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JF: If you could invite any 5 people to dinner who would they be and why

JB: Obviously Norman Norell  ( I’d love his take on fashion today ), Cary Grant ( I’d think he’d be so interesting to chat with ) Irene Mayer Selznick ( she grew up in Hollywood when the streets were still not all paved ), Hubert de Givenchy  ( a Master of his métier ) and of course, Audrey Hepburn ( do you even need to ask ? ). If I could just have one more, I’d have the brilliant George Gershwin (who doesn’t love a Gershwin song!) to dinner.

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JF: As if the book release isn’t exciting enough, you are also curating an exhibit at F.I.T. featuring Norell’s body of work.  (February 9th thru April 14th). Can you tell us about the show and how you amassed these pieces and what made the grade and didn’t?

JB: Working with the amazing team at FIT headed by Patricia Mears has been a real joy and they have given me tremendous freedom.  The hardest part is that because of Norell’s 5 decade career, many of the earlier items are not available or are just too fragile to exhibit , That said,  the biggest focus in the show is on his clothing from 1960 to 1972. I firmly believe he was at the top of his game during those years and at his most creative. I think this is because at the age of 60 he finally had total financial control of Norman Norell New York, and it just gave him copious amounts of creative energy. FIT has amassed a beautiful collection of close to 300 Norells, and I had the great fortune of meeting designer Kenneth Pool, who is even a more rabid Norell fan than me. He has over 100 top rate Norell pieces in his collection and has generously loaned us many for the show. Although Norell did many beautiful little black dresses, they are very difficult to light properly so we have tried where possible to focus on color, which fortunately he loved very much too!

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JF: Addressing both book and exhibit … Can you speak to the high points and the disappointments of both and why?

JB: As far as the book is concerned, I regret that I was unable to interview Bill Cunningham, Bernadine Morris, Yvonne Presser and Gillis McGill. They all knew Norell well, and it would have been wonderful to get their thoughts on him. Also, as you know, securing the rights to certain photographer’s pictures is a very expensive thing, and, as it is I have put thousands of my own money into this book. I wished that I had even more money to spend. As far as the exhibition is concerned, if I had my druthers, the exhibition would have 500 pieces! But as a curator one has to learn to edit (not unlike a good designer) to the distillation and essence of the great Norell’s work. I was also very fortunate that FIT was very eager to revisit the subject of Norell with this exhibit. Valerie Steele at FIT had done a very small show. (Consisting of one client’s Norell’s) as it turned out, it was Valerie’s very first show and obviously, she and the Museum have learned a lot in the ensuing years.

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excerpt from WWD: “Known for his sleek, sophisticated American glamour, Norman Norell will be the subject of an upcoming exhibition, “Norell: Dean of American Fashion” at The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology from Feb. 9 though April 14.

The designer died in 1972 at the age of 72.

Approximately 100 Norell ensembles and accessories from the Museum of FIT’s permanent collection, as well as objects borrowed from the private collection of Kenneth Pool, will be displayed. The exhibition is organized by Patricia Mears, the Museum of FIT’s deputy director, and designer Jeffrey Banks, guest curator. The centerpiece of the exhibition features Norell’s eveningwear, which was known for its clean lines and comfort. Some of his designs had dramatically plunging necklines and were embellished with sable trim or jeweled buttons. His work is best exemplified by his glittering “mermaid” gowns frosted with thousands of hand-sewn sequins. The base of these form-fitting evening gowns was knitted jersey. His designs attracted an A-list clientele that included Lauren Bacall, Babe Paley, Jacqueline Kennedy, Lena Horne, Dinah Shore, Marilyn Monroe and Lady Bird Johnson.

Norell was born Norman David Levinson in Noblesville, Ind., on April 20, 1900. hroughout his career, Norell won numerous industry accolades including the Neiman Marcus Award for Distinguished Service in the Field of Fashion in 1942; Coty American Fashion Critics’ awards in 1943, 1951, 1956, 1958 and 1966, and Parsons medal for distinguished achievement in 1956. In 1965, he was elected the second president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America.

Norell was the subject of a retrospective organized at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1972, but was unable to attend the gala dinner in his honor because he had suffered a stroke the day before, and died 10 days after the opening. The Museum at FIT exhibition is accompanied by a book entitled, “Norell: Master of American Fashion,” written by Banks and Doria de La Chapelle. It is published by Rizzoli.

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