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A conversation with Einar Holiloekk

By Marilyn Kirschner, New York Editor

If you don’t know the name Einar Holiloekk now- you will. He is the man entrusted with carrying on the Geoffrey Beene label following the passing of the innovative, award winning and revered designer at the age of 78 on September 28 th. In fact, Einar explained that he found out he had become ‘head designer’ literally overnight - “the day after Mr. Beene died”. “I had no idea prior to that. It was a bit of a shock”. Needless to say, this had very much been the wish of Mr. Beene himself, set in stone and legally put into place prior to his death. So the question is- just WHO IS Einar?

Relatively young (in his late 30’s) he came to New York from Norway when he was 20 (he has been an American citizen for about 5 years) and enrolled at Parsons, later transferring to its Parisian outpost, which he found to be “different, freer than New York.” Though he stayed for three years, Manhattan was already in his blood, so he headed back to the city to complete his senior year and graduate. It was 1989 and a time in fashion that- as Einar put it- “was very geared towards The Avenue” (7 th avenue of course). He was also well aware that he “didn’t quite fit in, they couldn’t put me in a box- I wasn’t a Donna, or a Calvin…I was really a little lost, I’d be the first to admit it.”

In fact, he’d be the first to admit that he has “never been a part of the fashion industry” and realistically sees himself as somewhat of an outsider. But while he also appears to be completely at peace with that now, he also noted, “it’s not necessarily so much fun at school where you find you just don’t fit in, you just don’t click.” He also remembers, “when I was hired for the first time, people I was close to just didn’t talk to me any more,” which he describes as a “very disappointing experience”. Jealously, I asked? (What a dumb question!)

At this time he is not a member of the CFDA, nor does he say whether or not he intends to become one, noting he has done fine without it. And although fashion certainly seems to be his life’s calling, it is hardly his only life. He actually ‘has a life’ outside of his craft. He and his Spanish born wife (who he describes as an “olive farmer- actually an olive owner” who also translates children’s books from English into Spanish) live in a brownstone in Brooklyn Heights (technically Boerum Hill) with their 4-year-old daughter.

I asked who his design heroes were back then. “I was very Europe oriented, I didn’t find American designers THAT (he emphasized ‘that’) interesting. I admired Alaia- I loved Alaia- and Yamamoto of course.” But they were in Paris, and he was here in New York, so he took an internship at Geoffrey Beene. (“That was the only place I really wanted to work. I knew his clothing and found it very interesting.”)

His initial responsibilities did not exactly put him in direct contact with either the design legend, nor the design process as he didn’t sketch, pin, or drape at that early stage. “Mr Beene was reserved, a little removed, you didn’t chit chat”. (Just a note- he respectfully referred to GB as Mr. Beene throughout the entire interview- something that is routinely practiced by all former assistants and employees).

Einar admitted that he was “essentially packing clothes for Harper’s Bazaar.” (I chuckled, pointing out that I was the editor he was probably packing the clothes for, since at that time, I was a senior fashion editor at the magazine and claimed Geoffrey Beene as one of the designers I covered). And it was an eye opening experience for the fledgling designer (“I was packing and getting accustomed to the clothes, I was AMAZED at the clothes.”) While he observed that Alaia and Yamamoto were astounding for their “silhouette and look”, he knew that they were definitely not in the same league as Geoffrey Beene and he waxed poetic about the perfect finishings, linings, fabrics- and effused about the incredible workmanship and details.

Eventually, Mr. Beene hired him as an assistant designer on ‘Mr. Beene’, the lower priced line that unfortunately “didn’t quite work out.” Without getting into more detail, he surmised that it had to do with the fact that Mr. Beene could not get the quality he wanted from Hong Kong.

But Mr. Beene kept him aboard as an assistant, and he found himself working on accessories for the collection. He eventually went back to Europe but since he missed New York, he moved back and took a job at Yohji Yamamoto where he was a buyer (“I went to Paris to buy the men’s and women’s collection for the flagship store here but also helped with the boutiques in Barneys and Bergdorf’s as well as the West Coast stores”). Looking at him in his chic, pared down, and sleek black clothes, it was not exactly a stretch to visualize him working in this capacity.

He discovered that working on the business side of design was a “very good experience”. “Mr. Yamamoto is very shy and doesn’t go outside his close circle- and there was a language barrier too”, which enabled him to assume “complete responsibility” in New York. Among his other responsibilities were working with private clients like the late Caroline Bessette Kennedy (who was known to be an avowed Yamamoto fan). Once again, his time spent at Geoffrey Beene turned out to be an “invaluable experience” that enabled him to multi task. As he put it, “having been at Geoffrey Beene, I obviously knew pattern and construction so I could alter all the clothes.” And then he smiled knowingly adding this understatement, “his (Yohji’s) clothes were not easy to alter- you had your hands full there!”

When he returned to Beene in 1998 he noticed a difference, “Mr. Beene gradually trusted me more and more and gave me more responsibility” affording him the challenge to make “decisions in the workrooms”- a place where things constantly changed, and where he had to deal with fine details like finishings and construction.

What was the most fascinating part of the whole experience? The ‘Divine Inspiration’ factor. “Mr. Beene had an open eye and an open mind so he really let the inspirations come to him and then he would process it. He was always looking. Always looking.” And as if to illustrate the point, he recounted the time Mr. Beene showed him a postcard and commented to Einar (“this would be a great embroidery”.)

“Looking back I realize now that after graduation from Parsons, being at Geoffrey Beene was my “real education”. It was there that I learned my craft”. And that’s not all that was memorable. “It was very glamorous too, down at 550 (referring to 550 7 th avenue, the legendary building where all the ‘big guns’ have traditionally had – and still have- their showrooms). “The editors, the clients…I was very star struck…it was great!”

By the way, he fondly recalled how Alber Elbaz, now the head of design for Lanvin in Paris (who is currently enjoying his moment in fashion’s sun), came onboard as a design assistant “a couple of months” after he, and noted that Alber had publicly thanked Mr. Beene for being his mentor, and acknowledged that he learned quite a bit from him. Einar said that GB thoroughly enjoyed when his assistants went out and became successful.

The west 57 th street atelier presentation this past September during New York Fashion Week featured designs that were the collaboration between Geoffrey Beene and Einar, but this coming February, when New York designers unveil their Fall/Winter 2005 collections, his first collection- completely his own- will debut in a manner we have all come to expect- an informal Friday presentation on mannequins and dress forms shown to a small and select group of clients and press.

Will that change any time soon? Einar does not rule out a formal runway show somewhere down the line, but for now he is keeping the status quo. “Right now I’m finding my way and staying with a format I know and just sort of figuring things out.” The company is also in the process of hiring more people and adding to the workroom in order to keep up with the demand and to fill the orders which are coming in. Hiring a design assistant (or two) is also inevitable based on Einar’s quickly expanding responsibilities.

How much is he relying on the precious archives that are at his disposal? “Mr. Beene had the greatest vocabulary, so you build around that, adopt that vocabulary and work within that.”

Are there other changes in the future? “Fabric wise I am enjoying the best fabrics- money is not an object- but I will explore new fabric resources because some of the more traditional ones are disappearing in Europe so I have to go out and find more. But the core is there- the double face satins and all that yummy stuff with top quality- otherwise it’s not going to change that much.”

Whose designs does he admire and find inspirational now? When he went to see the ‘Form follows Fashion’ exhibit at FIT he was “blown away” by a Charles James dress (“It’s hard to grasp- the more you learn the more amazing his designs seem. You learn something every time you see one of his designs”). He also singled out Balenciaga.

Does he look at fashion magazines? “Sometimes, but not on a regular basis. I don’t find it that informative, I really don’t!” So, where does inspiration come from? It apparently comes rather easy and naturally to him. He recounted how he had a quick idea one night, came into the office the next morning, and made a quick sketch over coffee. The creation- a soft red jersey gown with braid trim- ended up at the Goddess Exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute. He also spoke of how the reflection from his neighbor’s green house (which he sees at night from his garden) inspired him to do a group of gowns with back interest. He routinely “takes draper’s tape and just works on a form- you start draping and see the lines coming- it’s very interesting.”

Despite the obvious differences in background (“He was from the south of the U.S., I’m from the north of Europe; he grew up with different levels of society- I came from a very socialistic culture where everyone is equal (in Norway you don’t put women on pedestals like they did in the South”); the two obviously shared far more similarities in the all important matters of design. Although Einar proclaimed, “I have no problem with pants” referring to Mr. Beene’s comment, “I believe by the 21 st century, women will be wearing pants and I honestly hope I won’t be around”. Interestingly, while GB did design pants (and some of the most memorable jumpsuits around) he admitted he preferred to see a woman’s legs.

What were some of the invaluable lessons he learned from his mentor? As Einar put it, “Mr. Beene never copied- he said there’s nothing wrong with admiring and being inspired by other designers, but don’t copy! And he had some harsh words for some current designers -who shall remain nameless! There’s a dialogue, you’re filled with ideas back and forth but you have to process them yourself!”  

GB also taught him that “A good pattern doesn’t come with an expiration date”, recalling how he had draped a (leather) jacket several seasons ago, and because it didn’t quite “fit” in the collection, he took it out. But when he showed it to Geoffrey this past summer, GB said, “go ahead, cut it”!  

Geoffrey Beene was one of the most modern thinkers around, always striving to find ways to make women look beautiful, but in a relevant, un-demeaning manner. Einar shares that same modern philosophy; so don’t look for him to empathize with clueless, hopeless fashion victims. As he phrased it, “It’s a little depressing to see people become trapped in fashion- when they don’t use fashion as a tool to ease their lives! It all becomes so cumbersome.” Well said, that to me is the essence of a modern thinker! I very much look forward to seeing what Einar does in the future- he is certainly primed for success.  

I asked if his name would ever be on the label and almost without hesitation, he said, “I don’t need my name on a label, I really don’t. I’m very happy. This is a great situation- to have this couture set up with its incredible workrooms. It’s a privilege.”  

Despite his new situation, and all the pressure he must be feeling, he is unpretentious, philosophical, soft spoken (with only a hint of a Norwegian accent) and appears to be taking it all in stride. Does he even feel the pressure? “I try not to think about it. These are big shoes to fill. I would never try to compare myself to Geoffrey Beene. That’s scary. I try not to think about it too much. Some people want me to succeed and some people want me to fail. So I just do my job.”




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