Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Homme Couture

   Some talents deserve better words than one can give them. So sometimes, it's best to go with the reminiscence

   At the risk of producing the sort of lazy entry that is decried by exemplars like ADG and Gaye, I cannot find any better words to proffer on today's subject, the late menswear designer and shopkeeper Roland Meledandri, than those written by his daughter Nina on the Film Noir Buff forum in 2006 (and elsewhere):


My father started in men's clothing at a store called Casual Aire (I believe it was spelled with an "e") where he met my uncle; Joseph Levine.  Together they started Men's Town and Country (which was in the 50's, I think on 3rd Ave; the shot of Marilyn Monroe over the subway grate with her skirt blowing up was in front of the store).  My father left there to start R. Meledandri Inc. at 74 East 56th St. (early '60's); a full service men's retail establishment with a custom tailoring department.  Most of his merchandise was made in Italy and my father (and mother) used to go to the factories where he would have input into the designs made specifically for him.  I would risk saying that in reaction to the prevailing "Brooks Brothers" sensibility he was responsible for bringing elegance and flair back into American men's fashion; he widened lapels, raised the armholes, nipped the waist and flared the skirt.  He brought both the influence of Italian tailoring and the British hacking jacket into his designs.  Cuffs, collars and ties also went wide, and he introduced a range of colors and textures that were previously unavailable to the American male.


Of course anyone with an artistic eye and a flair for clothes would be attracted to the "Meledandri" look and his clientele included fashion photographers, advertising directors, etc; the people who dictate what the world sees when it comes to style.  He was also an extremely charismatic person, when I was photographing his friends and clients, so many of them referred to him as "one of my closest friends".  As I said earlier, his store became a kind of salon, a hang out and one his name synonymous with elegance and success (as when the phrase "the men in their Meledandri suits" was used to describe a certain sector of hip NY in the book "Edie")


Over the years he also developed a wholesale division and had departments at both Barney's and Bloomingdales as well as other fine department stores across the country.  But he was primarily known for the exquisite design and quality of his custom tailoring department.  When he died from a massive and sudden heart attack in 1980 at 51 (quite unexpected as he was extremely fit, a runner and watching his heart) he was in the process of closing "R. Meledandri Inc." and had finally run the first sale in the history of the store.  He was a man of impeccable taste, an artist who expressed his vision through clothes.

   Meledandri was a marvel; a designer with an exacting eye for quality who is still remembered in certain circles for offering some of New York's finest tailoring. He was one of the last 20th Century Stylistics; a sobriquet that sounds hollow rather than sonorous in typical Barimanastic fashion, I suppose, until one tries to think very hard about how many subsequent menswear figures successfully hewed and crafted a diverse, piercing aesthetic vision to direct the way things might evolve or expand (Hedi Slimane, whose feeling for romantic, energetic rebellion, sense of baroque theatre and sensibility for emaciated, speed-fuelled, spoiled rent boys, is thus far the only sensible suggestion for this century's most interesting game-changer)

   Of course, menswear proceeds from the details and Meledandri was no different to his other interesting contemporaries, nor even the couturier talents to whom he may be seen, in some ways, as a counterpart (recall that the defining moments of latter-day womenswear creativity sprang from the oft calmly-dressed likes of Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Dior and Cristobal Balenciaga). His deft switches between his intricate confluence of great fit, expressive fabric patterns and painstaking details to a still expressive, yet more tempered mode that insinuated rather than announced itself made him friendly to those who wanted to play Quiet Assassin rather than Otherworldly Rock Star. Fitting, then, that when Roy Scheider portrayed Dustin Hoffman's Quietly Assassinated sibling in 1976's classic Marathon Man, it was Meledandri - once again sticking the knife in the grey flannel suited man he nevertheless appreciated - who ensured his corpse was good looking:

 That red sculpture in the background is named Double Ascension, by artist Herbert Bayer, and you'll find it at the Arco Plaza (now known as City National Plaza) at 555 S. Flower Street, in downtown L.A. That's in the plaza between the two towers, off the west side of Flower Street (between 5th & 6th streets) 

   Meledandri's name was brought up in my recent meeting with Edward Sexton as I intend to frame part of the resultant piece around the idea of a vanguard at the Peacock Revolution's heart. For if there was an American flavour to the clothing confections that period saw in, Sexton agreed that much of that came from Meledandri's own peculiar creativity. No matter the visceral reaction the fabric surely engenders, I'd be impressed if a cogent argument against the cutting and styling could seriously be mustered; in my dreams, the nicest single breasted suits present a lot like this:

 
Like the coat further below, this 3 piece is still in the possession of Nina. They were created for The Coty's, the men's fashion awards, in the 1970s

   Sexton is becoming known for a personal credo of "romancing" the suiting one wears - be not afraid to think out the details, balance the elements and display a palpable pride in wearing clothes of distinction and tailored grace. In other words, be one's true personal stylist, for it will always be appreciated, particularly by the wearer. Dressing to enjoy life is a free action; the stealth wealthy and the reactionary class get to bitch about it because they just don't know how to smile. Meledandri makes me smile; there's the requisite foolhardiness (up, middle finger!) in donning his most extreme stuff, but if one's in such pieces, one surely knows they're in a certain company; not only the communal kind that Nina describes below, but also the kind who lived in the same world as everyone else, though not wholly interested in seeing it in the same way:


salon: the store was often thought of that way, it was definitely a gathering place, especially on Saturday afternoons and it tended to attract people connected with the movie & advertising industries (which overlapped quite a bit anyway since many art directors and photographers of that time eventually went into film).  many of the people who hung out at the store would convene later at Elaine's.  at some point i will try to post the list i was working from for my book but since that was pre-digital, it will take some time.  off the top of my head, some of the people i photographed were (in no particular order): Dan Melnick, Billy Dee Williams, Mayor John Lindsay, Richard Benjamin, Richard Meier, George Lois, Noel Behn, Carmen Capalbo, George Segal, Joel Schumacher, David Susskind, Art Kane, Steve Horn, David Z. Goodman.


my memories: well, i certainly don't have an adult perspective, the time i spent in the store was mostly during high school but i did spend a lot of time there.  it was a very comfortable place for me which is a bit surprising since i was an extremely shy kid and it was such a social environment.  i think what attracted me to it was that my father was so in his element there, he really had an incredible sense of style and here he was surrounded by people who not only appreciated his clothes but relied on his eye.  in some ways his interaction with his clients was like a performance, not that it was contrived or in any way disingenuous  but in the sense that it drew you in, watching him oversee a fitting and then accessorize the suit seemed like magic to me
 


designer/tailor: it is true that my father was a designer not a tailor nor did he have any training in that craft. but he intuitively understood clothing and what made a successful garment.  he could look at a pattern and know what was wrong with it and he was a total perfectionist when it came to the finished product, something that i think was particularly important to his clientele.  his expression manifested itself not only in the style and fit of his clothes (the proportions) but also in his choice and combinations of colors and textures.


photos: when i get to packing that box, i will try photographing the prints, again none of this is digitalized and unfortunately nobody was wearing his clothes for the photos i took (i didn't start the project until a few years after he died).  also i will try to shoot some of the press clippings that i have
 A sampling of Meledandri's pocket squares
it is actually easier for me to answer questions or comment on things raised here, since my recollections are going to run the gambit of (somewhat) objective to highly subjective.


one (possibly) little known fact: my father loved shoes and could not refrain from buying them for the store even though he always lost money on them.  he would often say of a shoe that it was "so ugly it was beautiful".(Author's note: I have seen some of his shoes. And if ever I want to recreate my primary school uniform, i will definitely scour the earth for a pair)
   So here's to Roland Meledandri. And here's to ugly beauty; the kind one should not only admire, but also the kind one works to appreciate and  should eventually, actively revel in. Because as every good and bad aesthete knows, it's definitely the fun kind

   

5 comments:

Bruce Barone said...

Fascinating! Thank You !!!

little augury said...

you know of course-this is JUST the kind of story I LOVE! personal, researched and full of beautiful-words and ideas and clothes. "Dressing to enjoy life is a free action; the stealth wealthy and the reactionary class get to bitch about it because they don't know how to smile."

Barima said...

Bruce, you're most welcome

Cher PGT, I'm glad this was to your liking, also. In the interest of disclosure, I'm afraid I cribbed the line you quoted from Barbey d'Aurevilly’s “Du Dandysme”, of which I've only seen a snippet: “They think they are serious because they do not know how to smile.” That's the subconscious for you

Best as always,

BON

Terry said...

I moved to NYC as a 20 year old woman in 1968 and worked for Roland Meledandri for 3 months as his receptionist. I was always amazed by the people who walked through the front doors...Leonard Bernstein, Judy Garland with her daughter Liza and her husband Peter Allen and so many others whose names I have long forgotten. I walked into his shop the afternoon I arrived in NYC looking for a job and was hired. He was a difficult and exacting boss. I learned a lot from my short stint there and have never forgotten, Mr. Meledandri.

happy said...

it is april,2013...my husband is gone
3 years...but i still have some
meledandri shirts, ties and squares..
my husband loved wearing meledandri
clothes...brings back memories of
yesterday. m. goldstein

ShareThis