Fashion designer Alice Roi has an expression-“Too Shoshanna “-meaning too frilly and
“It’s like an empire dress,” said Ms. Roi, who’ll find out
on June 14 whether she’s won the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s
Perry Ellis Award for Womenswear (think Best New Artist Grammy). “‘ Woo-hoo ! I have a body like a stripper,
what should I wear?’ … Everybody gets mentally masturbatory, obsessed with
their own aesthetic.”
Though they are both nightlife-loving, busty, 25-year-old
Jewish brunettes who grew up in New York City against a background of
privilege, Ms. Roi is in many respects the anti-Shoshanna. Unlike the sleek Ms.
Lonstein, who models her own designs in the pages of Cosmo and around town, the slightly scrappy, freckled Ms. Roi
prefers hanging out in generic track pants, tank tops and flip-flops, as if to
cleanse her palate of the complicated ideas expressed in her collections.
Ms. Lonstein’s line is
fundamentally dumb, based on the premise that women need someone to lay out an
outfit for them: matching dress, matching thong, matching handbag. Ms. Roi’s
clothes require thought. Her fall line features not the ribbons,cherriesand froufrou
popular with Shoshanna and her compatriots of “pretty” (Cynthia Rowley, Kate
Spade et al.), but prints of wandering deer, 19th-century caricatures by
Daumier and sweat guards.
“It’s not just ‘ I’m
feeling flowers !'” said Ms. Roi. “I wanted to say something a bit more
The Greene Street boutique Kirna Zabête is almost sold out
of Ms. Roi’s designs for spring, which include deeply V-necked tops and buttery
hip-huggers. “Nobody dresses head-to-toe Alice Roi,” said Sarah Hailes, a
co-owner. “They all know how to mix it up with Balenciaga or whatever. Ohmigod,
because there’s nothing geekier, or less modern, than having a matching purse
in the floral print of your bustier.”
Not that there was ever much danger of Ms. Lonstein getting
nominated for a Perry Ellis Award. While the CFDA’s Designer of the Year
nominees are predictably mainstream-Calvin Klein, Helmut Lang and Tom Ford for
Gucci (“Women get no props,” sighed Ms. Roi)-the newcomer nominees are getting
fringier and fringier. Quite literally so in the case of last year’s winner,
Miguel Adrover, he of the deconstructed Burberry trench coat. And among this
year’s nominees-and Ms. Roi’s competition-is Imitation of Christ, known for
slapping four-figure price tags on dolled-up Salvation Army finds.
Ms. Roi wants to dispense with the gimmicks. “Personally, if
I were a dead designer and I’d put all this work into my line and I knew
someone was going around cutting up my stuff, I’d be furious,” she said. “It’s
like no respect.”
For her part, Ms. Roi is accustomed to respect with a
capital R. Her life reads like an amped-up version of Kay Thompson’s Eloise at the Plaza .
She was born Alice Roy
Blumenthal, named for her late paternal grandmother, who savvily binged on
property around town during the Depression (“That was her gig,” said Ms. Roi),
and her late paternal uncle Roy, a noted ladies’ man who authored a book called
The Practice of Public Relations . Ms.
Roi’s father, Jerry Blumenthal, died when she was 12. “My father was a very headstrong
person, not a nice one,” she said.
She chose Roy for her professional name and made it Roi , French for “king.” Her label
features a small tiara. “Because it’s like I’m a king,” she said. “I’m a
princess, but I can be king.”
The jewel in the Blumenthal
crown is the Inn at Irving Place, a boutique hotel popular with
celebrities-in-hiding, run by Alice’s mother, Naomi Blumenthal. Mrs. B., as she
is known to some, is a tall, meticulously dressed woman who says Alice was born
“with a crayon in her hand.” She runs the hotel with Alice’s 28-year-old
sister, Sarah, who shuttles from an apartment uptown. The powerhouse female
trio constantly monitor each other’s whereabouts by cell phone. Male friends
and cousins always seem to be scurrying around the hotel attending to their
needs. Recently, Sarah Blumenthal had the walls of the hotel bar painted
shocking Schiaparelli pink.
Ms. Roi lives in a dollhouse-like, gleefully untidy
one-bedroom apartment downstairs from her mother in another Blumenthal-owned
building a few blocks from the hotel. A recent visit found T-shirts piled in
the TV cabinet, Vuitton and Chanel handbags tumbling out of kitchen cupboards,
and family photographs stuffed in a maxi-pad box. On the kitchen counter was a
bottle of Kaopectate, an open bag of double-chocolate Milanos, a pink container
of birth-control pills and Xanax (“For the plane,” she said). Nan Goldin’s book
of photographs, The Ballad of Sexual
Dependency , was next to the bed, which was covered by leopard-print sheets.
A drawer was spilling over with bras and panties. “I never wear underpants,
really, but I love underwear,” said Ms. Roi, as she fingered something ecru and
In early adolescence, young Alice wore ear cuffs, skull
earrings and Doc Marten knock-offs as she trooped off to Point O’ Pines
sleepaway camp in Lake George. She was tormented by fellow campers. “They
spread a rumor that I was a devil worshiper,” she said. “Meanwhile, they’re
wearing Keds without laces and 12 pairs of socks. They were the worst people
ever in the history of people. They hated me. They hated me .”
Back in the city, Ms. Roi went underage to clubs such as
Carmelita’s and Octagon and changed outfits 35 times a day. At Friends
Seminary, she designed a senior-yearbook page with herself sniffing a daisy and
quoting Mae West: Too much of a good
thing can be wonderful .
“I used to be the
biggest homegirl you ever met, ever ever ,”
she said. “I had a nose ring; I had so many piercings, my ears split so bad I
had to have them sewn up.” She puts models of different races in her show
because, she said, “aesthetically,Ifind black and Hispanic people more
beautiful.” She believes her collection has “a hip-hop sensibility.”
“I love really, really, really short skirts,” she
said.”Not,’ Ooh , Gwyneth looks so
sexy.’ Not Alexandra von Furstenberg or whatever pursing her lips up and going ‘ Mmmmm ,short
skirts-how delightful, ‘butrather,
‘C’mon, let’s shake whatyourmama gave
Duringher sophomore year
at New York University, she had such debilitatingpanicattacks that she
sometimes hired a car to idle outside for her between classes. During part of
her senior year, she roomed with a stripper from Scores.
Like Eloise, Ms. Roi has a dog who looks like a cat (a
Yorkie named Sonia, after designer Sonia Rykiel), a European maid and a
penchant for repeating things thrice. (Plans for her spring 2002 line: “Hippie,
hippie, hippie meets S&M.”)
Liv Tyler: ‘Creamy’
If Eloise had made it past adolescence, she might well have
been smoking Marlboro Lights, drinking Pilsner beer and belching freely, as Ms.
Roi was on a recent evening as she sat on a couch in her mother’s hotel, next
to her boyfriend of four months, Marc Beckman. A dark-haired 31-year-old who
quit a legal career to start an expensive cosmetics line called Défilé, he was
more dressed up than Ms. Roi: a black Hugo Boss suit, a hooded sweater trimmed
with frayed wool and a swirly Vivienne Westwood ring on his right hand. She was
wearing jeans, a gray sweatshirt and a chipping black pedicure wedged into
Donna Karan espadrilles.
“The award is driving me crazy. I’m having nightmares,” said
Ms. Roi, referring to the CFDA ceremony on June 14.
“She had a nightmare that I was wearing Imitation of
Christ,” said Mr. Beckman. ” Shaddup .
You are not having nightmares.” He eyed a tray of petit fours.
“With five people, I’m
fine,” said Ms. Roi. “More than five people, I start having big problems. With
a lot of people, I freak out. Freak out .
If I win, I’ll be really upset. I’ll be like, ‘I don’t deserve this, I’m not
good enough!’ And if I don’t win, I’ll feel like, ‘Gimme that award, I need
it!’ Either way, it’s fucked up.”
The subject turned to
business, something Ms. Roi isn’t crazy about. She would like to be backed by
someone other than her mother.
“Right now, I’m coasting,” she said. “I think I’m coasting
right now, breaking even. In some ways, I like keeping it a precious thing, but
I can’t anymore, because what happens today is Janet Jackson sends in how far
her nipples are from each other, because she wants pants and a jacket and this
and that, and then it’s like, ‘In fact, I’d really like it if you make this for
me in denim.’ And then, at the same time, I am trying to design pre-spring. I
start to get buried.”
While Ms. Roi acknowledged the importance of celebrity
clients for publicity, she expressed frustration with their whims. She
described a fitting that had taken place with actress Liv Tyler (“boisterous in
the middle”) the day before. “There was a cream satin outfit that we showed on
the runway, but Liv wanted it in navy because she felt like the cream satin was
a bit too … she felt too Elvis-y. And also she’s very creamy herself, so she thought she’d look washed out. So it’s hard,
because I want to design, rather than being a dressmaker. Explore and explore
and explore an idea until I get it to what I consider to be perfection. Then
doodles and doodles and doodles, and sketches and sketches and sketches … I
just want them to keep saying, ‘Good collection, good collection, good
collection.’ I don’t even want it to be ‘Great
collection.’ I just want good. Because in my life and my relationships, I
appreciate solid people more than the strange characters that come in and
out-like Marc,” she said, poking him.
Mr. Beckman felt she was getting off-message, that she
should stick to talking about business. “Alice isn’t saying the right thing,”
he said, like a concerned public-relations man.
Ms. Roi is not sure she wants to make the compromises
necessary to expand her company. “I would like my stuff in the store to look
like it does in the show,” she said. “I do make a sellable line, but it drives
me nuts. The stores always buy the most mundane and awful … they always buy the
real no-brainers. And then when I see it in the stores, I get upset. And I
think, ‘This is what people think of me-that’s terrible!’ I feel it’s not
As the conversation drew to a close, Ms. Roi, who has a
“sitting-still problem,” jumped up to show her boyfriend the day’s purchases: a
bag full of sheer underthings, bras and thongs in black and white, which she
laid over the carpet.
A few days later, Ms. Roi was braless and nervous. It was a
sparkling spring Sunday, yet the fifth floor of Bergdorf Goodman had the
perfume of desperation. Ms. Roi’s line, so popular with the downtown girls,
wasn’t exactly flying outofBergdorf, which was threatening not to reorder for
fall. So the store had invitedafewhundred of its best clients to meet Ms. Roi
in an in-store appearance. It was a last-ditch attempt to move her
product.Andit didn’t seem to be working.
Ms. Roi ducked in front of a mirror and adjusted her breasts
in a $305 Alice Roi black-and-white halter top that she had paired with
skintight Frankie B. jeans. “I was late; I couldn’t find any of my own!” she
howled about the jeans. Her tan lines were showing.
A gray-haired woman in sheer black stockings sidled by the
refreshment table and gingerly surveyed the lollipops, taffy, halvah and fruit
drinks Ms. Roi had personally lugged from Economy Candy on Rivington Street.
But she ignored the blue-star-printed orange miniskirts and ragged chiffon
blouses hung nearby. Men in navy blazers, khakis and polo shirts came up the
escalator, blinked at the spectacle and proceeded upward. One crotchety,
red-haired female customer scowled at D.J. Shorty, a friend of the Blumenthals,
who was spinning 1980’s pop tunes. “If you don’t turn down the music, I’ll call
the store manager,” she said loudly. “This isn’t Macy’s.”
An hour later, the racks remained fully stocked with Ms.
Roi’s clothes. The designer had wandered over to the shoe department, picking
her way in Gucci wraparound sandals that added four inches to her elfin frame.
She said she didn’t feel at home up here in Contemporary Clothing, the “hip,”
trendy floor. She wished her clothes were in Modernist Designer Collections,
two floors down, where Chloe, the line designed by Beatle daughter Stella
McCartney, is featured.
“Someone just told me,
‘You need to get more pink in there,'” she said, rolling her eyes.