Alice Roi, the 25-Year-Old Designer, Is Thinking Girl’s Anti-Shoshanna

Fashion designer Alice Roi has an expression-”Too Shoshanna “-meaning too frilly and

puerile.

“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

concerned-morose, even.”

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

lacy.

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

you!’”

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

representing me.”

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.