From ‘Command Central’, the desk in her midtown Manhattan apartment with views across the city’s skyline, Caroline Simonelli runs a slick operation. Constantly hooked up to her computer and a clunky black telephone, she presides over the futures of many bright young things in her role as professor of fashion design at two of New York’s most venerable design institutes: Parsons The New School for Design and Fashion Institute of Technology.
Known to her friends as a ‘camel trader’ for her ability to make things happen, Simonelli uses her hard-earned wasta from years of work as a womenswear designer to pave the way for the fashion fledglings who are embarking upon the unpredictable and frequently unfriendly path that she trod after her own graduation from Parsons in 1959. In addition to her professorial duties, she’s an active mentor for The Creative Space, a Beirut-based NGO giving free fashion design education to underprivileged Lebanese students. At 76 years old, life shows no signs of slowing down.
To speak to Simonelli is to be drawn along a meandering path – poorly landmarked, but bright with beauty – before falling down a rabbit hole of grandiose stories and esoteric ideas. With five decades in the fashion industry under her belt, she is a formidably knowledgeable and flamboyant character that has carved an enduring career out of designing what she deems to be ‘normal clothes.’ But it hasn’t been easy: as she tells it, ‘the wave went up and the wave went down’ with the premature death of her beloved husband Don Simonelli in 1994, a renowned fashion designer whom she’d met while they were both students, and the ever-changing fortunes that have kept true financial success at bay.
As she drinks from an ‘I Heart NY’ mug – its kitschness sitting starkly against the simplicity of her trademark tinted shades and oversized black t-shirt – she speaks with emotion about her career as a womenswear designer, her transition into teaching and how personal style is more important than you think.
Let’s start with the basics – why did you become a designer?
I wanted to be someone. Who was that somebody? I don’t know, but I used to think to myself, ‘If I was given fabric and someone else was given fabric, I bet I can make something better than they can.’
Who or what has been the most important influence on your life?
Issey Miyake, a famous Japanese designer who really does what he wants to do. Everything about his clothes is beautiful; in harmony, in balance, mindful. And I love that they have no season, no size: you bring yourself to those clothes. I mean, when you wear those kimonos, you have to keep your chin up. You walk like a Chinese empress. When Don brought Miyake’s clothes back from Japan, I started to dress in a very different way. I knew that I didn’t look like anyone else so I didn’t have to dress like anyone else, and I was interested in reducing what I wore to its essence. I wasn’t trying to develop a style – I was just finding out that there were other ways that people could dress.
When you speak of your career, you talk about making ‘normal clothes.’ But to an outsider, you have a very unique aesthetic. How would you define it?
About the time I was 40, I was having lunch with the editor of Women’s Wear Daily and she said to me, ‘When did you start to dress the way you dress?’ I said, ‘Oh, when my husband came back from India, I started to wear the kurta shirt.’ Then I decided to make a few black silk kurta shirts – loose, tunic-like tops – for my husband because he was always cooking and getting spots on his shirt when we entertained, but it was too big for him so I wore it instead. And then all of a sudden, the way I started wearing clothes, which is really very Eastern, started taking off. I’d always wanted my own style. All of a sudden, I had it and everyone recognised me for it. It was like an iconic persona that had just developed around me. Personally, I am interested in simplicity. If you open my closet, you’ll see 20 pairs of tops and 20 pairs of pants and 20 pairs of shoes and they’re all the same. I’ve got to the point where I don’t even change my bracelet.
You started teaching in 2002 after a tumultuous five decades in the fashion industry and have described your method as the ‘future of fashion.’ What exactly does this mean?
It’s a lot of different things. It’s the way that fashion is taught. It’s the way that we incorporate all the digital stuff. It’s the way we repurpose fabric so we don’t throw things away. It’s the way we understand that we’re not on this idea of a specific trend, but that it’s an individual way of looking at the world. I am sneaking a Zen message into my work so that my students know there is no wrong or right – to know that it’s fine to make mistakes and that you don’t essentially need approval, but you have to do what feels right. Because after all, what you feel has an electrical field and it resonates with people. I didn’t really understand until I became a teacher that I was capable of having an energy exchange with a student. But everyone loved the class. They thought I was someone special – and of course, I wasn’t someone special, I was just bringing some fabric and talking about it – but I was being present [Caroline pauses, then wipes at her eyes before inhaling deeply on her cigarette.] I want to connect my students’ hands to their heart space. When you ask people what they want to do, they open up. And when you touch into that as a designer, you find something really special: who you are, what your identity is, what your logo is. You and your work become one.
Something I’ve been struck by is your interest in spirituality. It appears to affect everything – from the way that you teach to your approach to designing clothes. How would you describe your spiritual journey?
I am very attracted to beauty and I’ve had the opportunity to be surrounded by mounds of it. I used to live in this Renaissance palace of an apartment, an eight-room place that was rent-controlled. But then I started becoming interested in spirituality and I wanted to become a sadhu [holy man], which meant giving up all of my material possessions. So, I gave up this rent-controlled apartment to live in a glass house in the country because I thought that’s what I wanted to do. The new house looked like a Zen dome. [Pauses] This is a real kind of ‘Caroline story,’ you know what I mean? It’s one of those crazy stories. But anyway, then the place flooded and I got hysterical and I thought, ‘So much for enlightenment, I’m still attached to material possessions.’ [Laughs] It takes a very, very long time to really get to that place.
As a fashion designer with Lebanese heritage, what’s your honest opinion of fashion emerging from the region today?
I think the DNA that’s coming out of Lebanon and the amount of talent that is hidden from the West is amazing. There is new-looking, none-derivative stuff. The Middle East is the centre of great beauty. The other day, I was talking to my colleague at Parsons about how excited I was about these Middle Eastern embroideries I’d seen. They were acts of meditation. The art form is beautiful – it’s elevated.
With your involvement in The Creative Space, it seems like you’ve been able to combine your Lebanese heritage with your expertise in fashion design to enable positive change. What has the experience been like?
When I visited The Creative Space, it was my first time coming to Lebanon and I thought I was going on an adventure. It was at the end of the adventure that I realised I’d come full circle. With The Creative Space, I didn’t do it for humanitarian reasons. I understand how these kids feel because I was one of them. Maybe not in such extreme circumstances, but they’re kids with talent and they don’t have any money. I was the daughter of Lebanese immigrants but my sisters allowed me to go to school, if I could get the scholarship and the grades. The possibilities of what happened to me because of this are extraordinary.
This article can be found in Brownbook’s November/December 2014 Issue.
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