“Fashion people are O.K. They aren’t harmful. They may be silly and flighty, for sure, but they aren’t ax murderers,” said fashion writer and artist Michael Roberts over dinner at Da Silvano. “And they tend to live in hope. They sit in this kind of bovine way through fashion shows that often are pretty bad, but they’re really hoping they will see something that will transport them. It binds all the people there, and they’ll be back next year for more shows. Still sitting, still hoping.”
Fashion weeks may intrude, but they do not annoy Mr. Roberts, who’s also a photographer and filmmaker who received an MTV award for best breakthrough video in 1988 for Bryan Ferry’s “Limbo.” And when the fall shows swing into New York on March 28, Mr. Roberts will be most watchful. For at the not-even-open Mercer Hotel in SoHo on March 31, Vogue editor Anna Wintour and New Yorker editor Tina Brown will fete the artist upon the publication of his first children’s book, The Jungle ABC (Hyperion-Callaway), which he brilliantly illustrated in intricate, cutout-collage style. Iman wrote the introduction.
This in the same week that Donatella Versace’s Versus show takes the stage at Roseland on March 28, and Giorgio Armani presents his Emporio Armani collection, the same show stopped by the Paris police on March 11. Even Mr. Fashion Forward himself, Helmut Lang, has decided to present his spring 1998 women’s collection here on March 31 rather than in Paris, where he has shown for several years. In fact, Mr. Lang is in the process of relocating his headquarters to New York from Vienna, his native city. Meanwhile, the fashion faithful can worship the latest offerings from the Americans. Something for everyone, from Daryl K. to Oscar de la Renta. Local heroes Marc Jacobs and Michael Kors will be back home from Paris and their triumphant debuts as designers for Louis Vuitton and Celine, respectively.
The last time Ms. Brown and Ms. Wintour planned anything so convivial was when they lunched with Diana, the Princess of Wales, at the Four Seasons restaurant around the time the Princess’ frocks were auctioned at Christie’s last June. Mr. Roberts does not come to Ms. Brown and Ms. Wintour by any comparable tiara trickledown; he simply has been their mutual friend for over 20 years. When Ms. Brown edited Tatler in the early 1980′s, Mr. Roberts was the glossy’s style and art director. Later, in New York, he was the style director of Vanity Fair for a spell when Ms. Brown began editing the magazine in 1984. Mr. Roberts currently is the director of fashion visuals for The New Yorker , where his work appears in the weekly as fashion sketchbooks from the collections here and abroad, and his cover illustrations range from special fashion issues to the star-spangled study of an African-American figure on the cover of a special “Black in America” issue in April 1996.
Between working for Ms. Brown, Mr. Roberts was design director for British Vogue when Ms. Wintour edited the magazine in the mid-1980′s. In fact, when Mr. Roberts worked on Vanity Fair in New York, he lived in the basement apartment of a MacDougal Street town house owned by Ms. Wintour and her husband, Dr. David Shaffer. Dr. Shaffer’s first wife, the posh caterer Serena Bass, another Londoner who now resides in New York, introduced the two men. Mr. Roberts knew Ms. Bass in London during the 1970′s when he was writing the fashion column for the Sunday Times , having been hired by Harold Evans, the former editor of the London Times and the husband of Tina Brown.
Not quite Bloomsbury, not exactly the Algonquin Round Table, but a certain, oddly loyal circle of friends nonetheless. One perfectly crafted for a biographer of the Sally Bedell Smith school, no doubt. Six Degrees of Bryan Ferry or at least Twelve Degrees of Pamela Harriman. Any thorns in this gold-woven crown of competitive Brits abroad, any dramas? Yes, sure, but mostly all forgiven, if not forgotten. Friends recall an interview in which Mr. Roberts once compared Ms. Brown to a TV dinner, or British slang to that effect, but never mind.
“Michael is the Cocteau of the fashion world,” Ms. Brown said when she named Mr. Roberts to his New Yorker job in April 1997.
Mr. Roberts was born in Buckinghamshire outside London and attended an art school nearby. Although he was in no great rush to tumble too far down memory lane, he said that his people were not extraordinary, nor part of any fashion set. At 18, he moved to London, where his first job was assisting a professor of fashion at the Royal College of Art. The professor introduced him to the elderly fashion writer for the London Times , whom he later replaced.
Writing about fashion and related matters for the the London Times in the late 1970′s, Mr. Roberts took an edgy, New Journalism approach. “The newspaper was filled with award-winning journalists then. I’d become a writer by default, but I felt I had to offer something of the same value, not P.R. handouts.” He visited Mae West in her Los Angeles apartment before her death in 1980. “While I was there, she saw some apparition float through the room,” Mr. Roberts remembered. He spent an evening carousing with Halston and his gang. “They all thought I was as out of it as they were, but I wasn’t. I wrote everything; one of those mean journalistic things I used to do until I got bored of it.” Halston was furious. As was Emanuel Ungaro the Sunday Mr. Roberts’ column began: “Emanuel Ungaro has a great charm. He wears it around his neck.”
In Paris, where Mr. Roberts resides most of the year because he prefers the light there to London or New York, he begins his workday at 5:30 A.M. “Cut and paste. Spray. Stick. These millions of pieces of paper,” he explained. “You get the best paper in Paris, and I jumped on this technique because in my graphic paintings, I was trying to get as clean an edge as possible. I couldn’t get it with a brush.”
The week before he jetted off to the European fashion shows in Milan and Paris, Mr. Roberts was joined at Da Silvano by another friend and protégé of Ms. Brown and Ms. Wintour from London, Gabé Doppelt, VH1′s creative director for fashion. Seared tuna and potatoes. One glass of red wine “for the ticker,” Mr. Roberts requested. Against the current tide of fashionable informality, Mr. Roberts wore a handsome jacket and tie.
“A nice white shirt and a dark suit are the most subversive things you can wear. You hide in plain sight.”