National News

Michael Vollbracht, Fashion Designer and Illustrator, Dies at 71

Posted June 12, 2018 12:21 p.m. EDT

If you had designs on acquiring status in late 1970s New York City, you would have likely been spotted around town toting a Bloomingdale’s shopping bag identifiable only by the splashy artwork on its side.

A partial profile of a woman with towering cheekbones rendered in red, black and gray, the illustration was the brainchild of Michael Vollbracht, an artist, illustrator and fashion designer whose work came to encapsulate that heady time.

Vollbracht’s runway creations drew crowds and reaped accolades. But it’s that bag, stowed in the archive at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York, and commanding high prices on eBay, that remains etched in many people’s consciousness, a vibrant expression of its creator, who died on Thursday at 71 at his home in Safety Harbor, Florida. Roberta Greene, his former publicist and a longtime friend, said the cause was esophageal cancer.

In designing for, and capturing on canvas, the images of clients and admirers like Elizabeth Taylor, Paloma Picasso and Diana Vreeland, Vollbracht came to symbolize the unfettered giddiness, extravagance and glamour of the late 1970s and early ′80s.

“He was our very own John Galliano,” designer Jeffrey Banks said, referring to the flamboyant British couturier.

But Vollbracht’s aesthetic, Banks noted, was equally shaped by the designers he idolized, an American pantheon that included Pauline Trigère, Norman Norell and Bill Blass, whose label Vollbracht briefly took over in the early 2000s.

“He was above all a true creative,” Greene said. “He looked at a fabric, a space, an idea, and he built it into something greater and more beautiful.”

Vollbracht’s designs, and particularly his evening wear, were not conceived for his most retiring clients. A fall collection shown in 1982 at the crest of his runway career was replete with fluid jumpsuits, caftans and billowing gowns executed in rainbow patterns and screen prints interspersed with high-visibility graphics and the occasional bird of paradise.

“They have a lot of power and are different from anything anybody is doing anywhere else,” New York Times fashion writer Bernadine Morris wrote at the time.

Those screen-printed images were his signal contribution to the world of style, said Freddie Leiba, a prominent fashion editor and stylist and Vollbracht’s frequent collaborator.

In his artworks and catwalk creations, Vollbracht had many different styles, some realistic, some fantastical.

“He loved to mixed mediums,” said Banks, who worked with Vollbracht, “and his work, it was almost like a collage. Ink, pastels, pencil — all combined in the same drawing, and a mix of textures, shiny and dull.

“Virtually every print that he designed and had printed was engineered for that specific dress or coat,” Banks continued. “It was like seeing an art show and a whole fashion collection combined.”

Vollbracht’s shows were theatrical events. Some of his more over-the-top productions featured Eskimos, American Indian chiefs and, in one scandalizing instance, a troupe of G-string-clad dancers from the Chippendales all-male revue.

As he himself once said, he looked at the world in cinematic frames, his aesthetic shaped by the long afternoons he had spent in the movie houses of his hometown, the Mississippi River city of Quincy, Illinois, where he sat transfixed by the likes of Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford and Claudette Colbert.

Later in life he befriended a handful of Hollywood stars, Taylor chief among them. Vollbracht once told of joining Taylor in her hotel room and luxuriating with her on her bed surrounded by millions of dollars worth of jewels.

“They were laughing, she regaling him with stories, as they both tried on the jewels,” said Ivan Bart, the president of IMG Models and Fashion Properties, who had heard the story from Vollbracht. “I was charmed.”

Michael Vollbracht was born into a military family in Kansas City, Missouri, on Nov. 17, 1947, the middle of three siblings. He spent his early years in Quincy.

Leiba said Vollbracht had been unhappy growing up, feeling stigmatized for being gay. “There was some sadness he had as a child,” Leiba said, though Vollbracht referred to it only obliquely. “He would say, ‘My father was in the Army — and here I was his son, a fashion designer.'” He would always bring that up.”

He moved with his family back to Kansas City in junior high school and, after finishing high school, left for New York in 1965, dreaming of a fashion career. He studied illustration at the Parsons School of Design, and his drawings caught the eye of Seventh Avenue potentates.

In 1969, Geoffrey Beene made him a member of his design team, and he became an integral part of the house. By 1971 he was designing for Donald Brooks Boutique. Two years later he joined Henri Bendel, becoming the house illustrator for that Manhattan citadel of chic.

Bloomingdale’s recruited him in the mid-1970s, paying him $500 per sketch, astronomical for its time. He sealed his reputation there with a pair of celebrated shopping bag illustrations, one of the woman in partial profile rendered in red, black and gray; the other depicting the disembodied features of a woman’s face: blue eyes, wing-like eyebrows, small nose and ruby lips.

Around that time, in 1978, he introduced the Michaele Vollbracht Collection (thinking the final e in Michaele was more distinctive, though he later dropped it). The line was a smash, landing in Bergdorf Goodman and eventually other high-end stores, including Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus.

The next year he received the prestigious Coty American Fashion Critics Award: Designer of the Year. (Coty was then the equivalent of the Council of Fashion Designers of America.)

Vollbracht went on to write and illustrate “Nothing Sacred” (1985), a visual diary of his 25 years in New York rubbing shoulders with a bevy of personalities, from the fashion, theater and movie worlds.

By the mid-1980s, his name and screen-idol looks were well enough known in American households that he could play a version of himself on an episode of the detective series “Hart to Hart,” about a fashion designer who is suspected of killing off his models.

But it wasn’t long before his business began to suffer, afflicted by declining sales and his reluctance to license his name, and he closed it to focus on art. He went on to produce collages and drawings for The New Yorker.

He is survived by two sisters, Michele Polivka and Carol Lynne Clinkscales, as well as a niece.

With considerable fanfare, Vollbracht returned to the runway in 2002, taking over from Lars Nilsson as the creative director of Bill Blass Ltd. That relationship endured for five years, during which Vollbracht sought to meld his own flamboyant vision with the more conventional ideals of an old guard clientele.

Receptive at first, the fashion world became disenchanted, Leiba recalled. “He brought back his favorite models — Pat Cleveland, Karen Bjornson, Sara Kapp and other runway stars of the day — but Vogue didn’t understand this too well,” he said. “I don’t think anyone did. It was a whole different time. He wasn’t the darling of what was going on.”

Vollbracht kept painting, and his fashions were resurrected or updated from time to time in collaboration with Leiba and others and worn by stars like Renée Fleming, Angelina Jolie, Janet Jackson and Beyoncé.

“The fashion industry misses him,” designer Carolina Herrera once said. “He did collections that didn’t look like anyone else.”

Vollbracht himself had little use for nostalgia, preferring to cast himself as a survivor, his wry worldview intact. As Greene recalled, “'When the end of the world comes,’ he used to say, ‘all that will be left is you, me, Cher — and some cockroaches.”