Barbara Tfank designs the kind of clothes that women dream of wearing; elegant and timeless in wonderful, richly textured fabrics sourced from Italy and France. Arab News caught up with Tfank in London this week; she was in the capital for the launch of her collection at Harrods in the midst of preparing for her upcoming show at New York Fashion Week.
She looked immaculate in one of her own beautifully cut, jewel-like dresses. What was immediately notable was that Tfank wears her clothes — the clothes do not wear her, and that is something that the top fashion people already know. It’s why you see leading fashion editors from, for example, Vogue wearing her designs. The clothes confer effortless elegance of the kind associated with Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly or Elizabeth Taylor.
It’s a testimony to her reputation that First Lady Michelle Obama wears her designs. Tfank recalled how her husband e-mailed her early one morning to inform her that he had just turned on the TV (he was visiting relatives in England) only to see Michelle Obama meeting the Queen at Buckingham Palace in one of her dresses.
She subsequently had the opportunity to meet Mrs. Obama, and naturally, felt a little apprehensive. She received a call from James Costos, now serving as US Ambassador to Spain, who sought to reassure her about what to expect during the meeting. He told her that Mrs. Obama is a very warm and friendly person and that she should relax and be ‘laid back’ about the upcoming meeting. Tfank laughed as she recalled her response: “Laid back! I can’t be ‘laid back’ — I’m from New York!” she told the ambassador.
However, when she came face to face with Mrs. Obama, Tfank found her nerves dissolving as the First Lady complimented her on her talent and gave her a great confidence boost by saying how much she loved wearing her clothes. She subsequently acted as a mentor at the first ever Fashion Education Workshop held by Mrs. Obama at the White House.
Recently, at the State of the Union Address, Mrs. Obama looked stunning in a Tfank sapphire blue twill dress which she wore for the President’s State of the Union address in the House of Representatives.
“When Mrs. Obama was photographed in a sea of people wearing dark suits she looked luminescent,” remarked Tfank.
Tfank has a fast growing reputation as a sought after designer but it’s a path that she had to make a determined effort to follow. After receiving her BA from Skidmore College and MA from Stanford University, she initially worked in museums. But in her mid-twenties she came to a point where she knew she had to change her career track.
“I knew I had to change my career, and I remember saying to my family ‘I’m going into fashion’ and they said ‘Oh my goodness! After all that education!’
But she had the courage to follow her instincts and this ability to embrace change and be flexible served her well in a career that saw her moving between fashion and film.
“I was able to segue quite effortlessly,” she said.
Her work as a stylist brought her to prominence when she dressed the actress Uma Thurman for the Oscars in 1995. Tfank dressed Thurman in a flowing lilac Prada gown with a chiffon wrap. It was a triumph — high fashion on the red carpet.
“They say it was the moment that changed Oscar dressing. The image went onto the cover of Women’s Wear Daily which was amazing for me. I was a design consultant — I wasn’t expecting anything from it,” recalled Tfank.
Her experience in the film industry gave her special insights into what works and what doesn’t when it comes to dressing for the Oscars.
“It was the most brilliant education imaginable. I learnt about lighting and how fabric looks during the day and the evening. One of my big observations about the Oscars is that so often when all that flash bulb lighting hits a dress it just washes it out. You hear people saying – ‘Oh, that daffodil yellow was so beautiful! And you think — ‘Daffodil yellow? — it looked white!’
Her eye for design also benefitted from some extraordinary mentoring during her early training from the revered American fashion and portrait photographer, Richard Avedon.
“He was such a genius. He used to show me photographs of Dovima (the celebrated 1950s American model) in Paris. I was just a New York kid and I landed up in his studio and he was pulling me aside and showing me photos because he knew I loved the history of fashion. I was fascinated by what people wore in different decades. I loved wearing all my mother’s clothes — I was doing vintage before anyone,” she said.
The influence of her mother is something Tfank recognizes as being very important in nurturing her early love of fashion.
“I was very lucky to have a mother who loved clothes and loved to shop. I was taken by my mother one summer to my very first fashion show which was Chanel couture in Paris. I was a teenager and I remember being so stimulated. Couture shows at that time were very quiet and there were only important customers present. The models were amazing. I remember my mother having to tell me ‘calm down!’. I noticed everything; I remember asking her why all the models wore beige shoes with black tips and she told me it was because this style elongated the leg. I was, in fact, getting a very good instruction. I also accompanied my mother to Hermes; my mother was buying and I was looking and learning.
“Our relatives were very chic women and I saw them wearing Yves Saint Laurent. They loved the fact that I was so interested in fashion because they were working in that area as well,” she reflected.
All of this rich experience and exposure to the very best that the design world has to offer made Tfank determined to stay true to the core elements of couture that involve a respect for cut and understanding of fabrics that cannot be acquired without hard work, talent and dedication.
“When I decided to set up my own company I thought: “I must respect the past. I will do what is modern and cool and elegant but I have to bring forward the smart things that people used to do; the way they cut clothes. Because today things can look very sloppy,” she commented.
This disciplined approach and refusal to compromise on quality paid off.
“I was very lucky; my very first collection was bought by Barneys in New York. Everyone was wearing black at the time and I came in with brocade, and they said, ‘This is fantastic! Where did you find this?”
Ladies all over the world will be glad to hear that Tfank designs for a wide range of shapes and sizes. It’s something she feels quite passionate about — she feels that fashion is something that should be available to all.
“I feel fashion has been quite prejudiced. I am a woman designing for women and there are a lot of men designing for women who don’t think about the things that women think about. I have a lot of knowledge about what makes women happy and feel good about themselves. I love working with people of all sizes,” she said.
Singer Adele can testify to her ability to create designs that bring out the best in women regardless of their dress size. Tfank was asked by Vogue to design a dress for Adele for the Grammy Awards when she appeared after making her first album.
“She was nineteen years old — she had just made her first album and had been nominated. She came in wearing a loose tunic and when I saw her hour glass figure I said, ‘Adele — we are going to cinch you in at the waist.’
“She embraces her body — she is not insecure. People who are a size zero are more insecure than she is. It’s unfair to expect everyone to be a size zero,” she observed.
Another aspect of Tfank clothes that many women appreciate is that they are cut to perfectly accommodate jewelry. “They love that I make necklines that are appropriate for necklaces and I do bracelet length sleeves,” said Tfank who herself loves to wear jewelry.
Women also appreciate the exclusivity. They can be confident when wearing a Tfank creation that they will never have the experience of turning up to an event only to see another women in the same outfit.
“All the garments are made in the US — in New York and Los Angeles. There are no short-cuts for production; each piece is cut individually, by hand — we don’t do mass manufacturing. Because it is so exclusive you don’t ever run the risk of going to a party and seeing someone else in the same outfit. In a way that’s worked to my advantage because there are lots of brands that are much better known than mine but women come to me because they value the exclusivity,” she said. Tfank plans to take her wonderful designs that include a range of beautiful cocktail coats that can be worn either formally or informally (Sharon Stone teamed hers with jeans) to the Middle East market.
As she explained: “I am working with Niche Arabia which is a wonderful organization. We met at the White House which is an auspicious beginning for an association! I’m hoping to go to the region and expand into that part of the world. I have met a lot of people in Saudi and Dubai. The Middle East is such an important influence — I see the influence in décor and textiles. The culture has such a history of beauty and richness.”
She is planning to visit Saudi soon where she is sure to find a warm welcome from women who appreciate beautifully made clothes which are guaranteed to make the wearer feel and look like a million dollars.
Barbara Tfank is planning to be at Harrods on Sept. 27,28 ,29 and 30 where she will be available to meet and greet customers. Her collection can be seen on the Harrods website.
Email: [email protected]
Barbara Tfank brings her signature look to Harrods
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