Survivors: Designer Michael Vollbracht rescues vintage fashions to help fight cancer

"Though Tattered and Torn…" on Jan. 14 raises money for St. Joseph's Women's Hospital.

click to enlarge Selections from "Though Tattered and Torn…" and other vintage finds at Vollbracht's Safety Harbor home. - Todd Bates
Todd Bates
Selections from "Though Tattered and Torn…" and other vintage finds at Vollbracht's Safety Harbor home.

 “I have a good eye for trash,” says Michael Vollbracht.

Boy, does he. Except that what the designer spotted on New York City sidewalks and thrift shops is more treasure than trash — a trove of extraordinary fashion finds that he is showing to the public for the first time in “Though Tattered and Torn…,” a fundraiser for St. Joseph’s Women’s Hospital and the Hinks and Elaine Shimberg Breast Center on Jan. 14 in the Ybor City venue Lot 1901.

Vollbracht amassed his collection over the course of a tumultuous career in haute couture. A fashion wunderkind who launched his own award-winning label in 1979 when he was in his early 30s, he’s also a renowned illustrator, the creator of Bloomingdale’s famed “Face Bag” as well as drawings and collages for The New Yorker and iconic portraits of stars like Marilyn Monroe and Bette Davis. He dressed some of the most famous women in showbiz, among them Liz Taylor and Joan Rivers, writing in his book Nothing Sacred that he and Rivers were a good match because “we both wavered between Vegas floorshow and fourth floor Bergdorf Goodman.”

But in 1985, after losing his biggest financial backer, the third wife of Johnny Carson (she lost interest when she and Carson divorced), he closed the fashion house and found his way to Safety Harbor, drawn by the (short-lived) prospect of doing a design overhaul at the town’s fabled but fading resort and spa. A few years later he bought a nondescript ’60s-era ranch house at the end of a leafy dead-end street, turning the home into a charming, eclectically decorated retreat from NYC.

He returned to the spotlight in 2003 as head designer for the house of the late Bill Blass, a long-time mentor, only to run into a bumpy economy and a fashion press that was no longer welcoming. (“You do such beautiful clothes,” one editor told him. Another added, “Don’t take that as a compliment.”) He stepped down in 2007, moving to Safety Harbor permanently in 2012.

The voluble, charming Vollbracht, 68, has shown his paintings in local galleries, sold his clothes on HSN, and supported causes like AIDS, cancer and domestic abuse prevention. And his designs are resurfacing as vintage; Beyonce and Lady Gaga have worn them in fashion shoots, and Eva Longoria wore his flamboyant Bill Blass rainbow gown (which will be part of “Tattered and Torn”) in the first episode of her new NBC series, Telenovela.

But until now he’s never revealed the astonishing cache of vintage fashions and footwear he began assembling when he was a student at NYC’s Parsons School of Design in the ’60s.

click to enlarge The designer pictured with a mix of old and new. See photo information, #1, below. - Todd Bates
Todd Bates
The designer pictured with a mix of old and new. See photo information, #1, below.

His mother set an example for him early on; a “smart cookie” from Dallas who was a salesgirl at Neiman’s during college, she had no shame about shopping for bargains at the Salvation Army. When the young Vollbracht arrived in NY from Shawnee Mission, KS, one of many Midwest towns he lived in growing up (his father was in the military), he channeled his mother’s exploratory spirit and delved enthusiastically into Upper East Side thrift shops. One favorite was conveniently located between his apartment and Bloomingdale’s. “I would stop in Everybody’s Thrift and pick up a Madame Grès or a Chanel like we’d go to Starbucks and pick up a latte.”

click to enlarge Yves St. Laurent for Christian Dior, 1959. More information below at #2. - Todd Bates
Todd Bates
Yves St. Laurent for Christian Dior, 1959. More information below at #2.

But after his label failed, he was so disheartened that he stored all the clothes in “the worst place” — an un-air-conditioned back room in the Safety Harbor house. “For years I didn’t want to see them,” he says, and during that time humidity and insects destroyed many priceless creations.

click to enlarge Jean Patou, 1927, with a Vollbracht scarf suggesting the original chemise. More info at #3, below. - Todd Bates
Todd Bates
Jean Patou, 1927, with a Vollbracht scarf suggesting the original chemise. More info at #3, below.

But he didn’t lose everything. Many precious garments remain — ranging from a 1880 mourning jacket to a 1959 Christian Dior to originals by Vollbracht himself — all showing varying degrees of damage but still retaining their inherent beauty. As such, they are an apt metaphor for cancer survivors — hence the name of the fundraiser, “Though Tattered and Torn.”

click to enlarge Vollbrachts from two decades. See info at #4, below. - Todd Bates
Todd Bates
Vollbrachts from two decades. See info at #4, below.

The vintage fashions will be the centerpiece of the event, but don’t expect stuffy or pretentious — not with Vollbracht in the mix. He’s found ingenious (and economical) ways to revive, repair and re-contextualize the fashions he’s showing. He’s also selling 100 of his small croquis drawings, or fashion sketches, at $100 each to benefit the hospital. Plus, he’s a playful font of fantastic gossip; ask him what Larry Hagman snorted, or what it’s like to fit Oprah, or what it was like to drink with Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. He’s known them all and has stories for days.

click to enlarge Oscar de la Renta (with accessories from Michaels Craft Store). More information at #5, below. - Todd Bates
Todd Bates
Oscar de la Renta (with accessories from Michaels Craft Store). More information at #5, below.

But the real conversation pieces will be the clothes. Like the women the event aims to help, like Vollbracht himself, they’re survivors — and fascinating ones at that. 

click to enlarge Valentino, 1980s. See #6, below. - Todd Bates
Todd Bates
Valentino, 1980s. See #6, below.

The fashions in the photos

#1: Vollbracht regards a funeral jacket from 1880-90 (left) with skirts that he rescued from five rotted evening dresses (including one by the Spanish couturier Pertegaz). The watch was given to him by the nonagenarian fashion trailblazer Iris Apfel. The soigné white gown (right) was designed by Mme. Vionnet, c. 1932; it may have been a wedding dress. The jacket in the foreground is a Vollbracht design from the Bill Blass era; its intricate handwork was done by the same atelier, Lesage, that did the embroidery on the Dior (#2) 40 years before and is owned by Marie McCarty, who was Blass’s sales director. Vollbracht wanted to make sure it was included in the show because McCarty herself is a breast cancer survivor.

#2: Much of the exquisite House of Lesage embroidery on this 1959 evening frock, part of St. Laurent’s first collection for Dior, has fallen off, but what remains is still striking. “Can you imagine how beautiful that dress was?” muses Vollbracht. He managed to attach fragments of the fabric to the dress dummy and reconstruct the bateau neckline. “This dress became démodé at Kennedy’s assassination,” he says; a few years after it appeared, women’s fashions would enter a period of radical change.

#3: A 1927 evening dress by the French designer Jean Patou. The chemise that would have been worn underneath had a handkerchief -point hem; it didn’t survive, so Vollbracht improvised by attaching one of the scarves he designed to sell on HSN. The mannequins in the show were loaned by the IADT School of Design at Sanford-Brown College. This one's right hand (not visible in the photo) is at a slight disadvantage, he points out: “She’s missing the fuck-you finger, you'll notice.”

#4: The cape, designed by Vollbracht for his own label, was originally worn by Mary Martin, the Broadway star of Peter Pan and South Pacific, for a performance before Queen Elizabeth in San Francisco during the Reagan era. The gown, from Vollbracht’s Bill Blass years, was modeled after a 1920s design by Madame Schlee and purchased by Oprah Winfrey, whose stylist sent it back because Oprah needed it recreated in pumpkin orange for the Emmys. (She never did wear the pumpkin, and hasn’t asked for the green one back.)

#5: “I wanted not just to show old clothes," says Vollbracht about the "Tattered and Torn" event. "I wanted to make them into art pieces.” The original ruffle on this de la Renta bubble dress (circa mid-’70s) was ruined in storage, so Vollbracht created a little neckline magic using raffia ribbon and a cascade of colorful plastic orbs from Michaels. For the headgear, he’s also heading to the strip mall: “I’ll go to Party City and find a tinsel wig.”

#6: “He was one of the greats,” says Vollbracht of the now-retired Italian designer Valentino Garavani. “If I were a rich dame I would have worn only Valentino in the evening.” This dramatic cape and matching skirt is on loan from Sanford-Brown. Vollbracht included it in the “Tattered and Torn” show to make sure its era and designer were represented.

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