A prestigious prep school expects its young men to move on and make a mark in the worlds of higher education or high finance. William Calvert, class of '87, says Gilman gave him a foundation that helped him to excel in the world of high fashion.
On Sunday, Calvert will show his dress designs to buyers and press on the first day of the New York spring designer collections. It's a do-or-die kind of presentation, when a designer's skills and vision are laid open to raves or rejection.
Calvert is entering the season's fashion foray with a slight edge. This month's Vogue says "for low-key, luxurious evening dresses, William Calvert is the one to watch." Women's Wear Daily, the bible of the fashion industry, profiled Calvert in Monday's special edition on Great American Design, a coup for a young designer who is operating his own small company on talent and family backing.
"Of course I'm nervous," says Calvert, "but the response to my invitations has been tremendous. I've had rsvps from Nieman Marcus, Saks, Bergdorf and the top magazines."
This much notice is exhilarating to the designer, but the Calvert family finds the spotlight unsettling.
"I'm not sure what to wear, so Willy will have to help me pick something," says mother Joanne, who is confident doing her son's bookkeeping but not about her look, which she admits runs to conservative Baltimore suburban.
"Willy always marched to a different drum," she says. "At school, he was in trouble for dressing his way. He was always neat, always kept his shirts tucked in, but he was different."
John Schmick, who was dean of students and the dress code enforcer at Gilman when Calvert attended, says, "Willy made my life interesting. He always pushed the limits. Yes, he wore trousers, but his would be balloon bottoms, not exactly what the dress code had in mind."
The dean and the student had many conversations about proper attire. "We eventually came to an understanding," says Schmick. "He was a good student and a good varsity wrestler, but what singled him out was a single-mindedness of purpose. He knew then that he wanted to be a designer and went and did it. We're proud and excited for him."
Calvert's design career started with the right instincts and was polished by serious work and professional training. "Even as teen-ager, I realized that I could never find the clothes I was looking for. I then shopped places like Dreamland or Village Thrift, looking for things that were old, but beautifully made."
Now he's the one creating the beautifully made. "You don't choose to design, it chooses you," he says. His parents understood his drive and supported it. "They steered me away from a fine arts school to the Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science. There I got a B.S. and learned the techniques of fabric manufacture, design, pattern making. It was not a school where you just drew pictures of pretty dresses all day."
In his senior year, he went to Florence to train at the Academia Italiana Moda. "The teachers were professionals who came from great houses like Valentino. Very hands-on. I learned all the high-end details and tricks, like moving side seams to the back to make them much more flattering."
Although he had intended to work in Italy, a weekend trip to Paris in 1990 turned his career. There he met someone he knew who knew someone who worked at Balenciaga, and he was taken on as an assistant in the design studio. He nearly starved.
"You start as an intern for something like $300 a month and then, if you work out, they may hire you. The first month I hardly made enough for bus fare," he says.
But life was good. There was enough money for wine and cheese, he was in love and he had a place at a distinguished Paris fashion house.
"When you're in Paris you don't care that much. You just walk down the street and see some of the most fascinating sights in the world. My fiancee Halla Elias, who I met when we were both students in Philadelphia, was with me."
He moved up the ranks at Balenciaga and on to Rochas, where he worked in the licensing division designing everything from baby sweaters to leather.
A trip back to the United States for a wedding again turned his career. He had a friend who had a friend who knew designer Diane von Furstenberg.
"I got an interview with her hoping she would critique my work and give me some pointers. I showed her my book and she hired me on the spot."
He was assistant designer for von Furstenberg's Casual Chic knitwear line, which was sold on the QVC network.
He was also a consultant for Simonelli, a couture company that makes one-of-a-kind designs. "They had a six-week window when their workrooms were not busy and the owner Carolina Simonelli suggested I take care of the ladies and keep them employed during the down time. She encouraged me to put some designs together and shop them around to see if I could get some action."
Early this year he set out with six sketches, some revolutionary ideas and seasoned seamstresses. "The ladies who work for Simonelli are the best of the best -- the best sample room in New York because they have worked for the greats like Beene and Halston."
They pulled it off. "I designed some dresses cut from one piece of fabric with just one seam holding them together and was amazed at the work they did -- piped seams, chiffon-covered snaps and every dress steamed on the dress form before it was finally put together."
It was the couture quality of the designs and their execution that sold New York's high-end retail powerhouses. Barney's bought the fall collection, Bergdorf is bringing the resort line in within a few days.
Calvert cherishes the ladies who do the fine work that makes his dresses sell from $2,000 to $4,000. He's careful of drafts, their comfort and the workplace courtesies due to women who have more than a century's experience in hand-finishing.
"What relevance does a $3,000 dress have?" Calvert asks himself. "It's state-of-the-art. I push the restrictions of construction as a laboratory. Other people make wonderful T-shirts and jeans and I give them credit, but that's not what I do."
Even though Calvert's approach to design is clean and intellectual, he doesn't lose sight of reality or the women who may wear his clothes. "Halla is my fit model. She's a size 6, but she has hips and a bosom. Not everyone is the right age or shape or whatever to wear extremes. I never cut a dress so dramatically that a woman can't wear a bra or pantyhose. My clothes are meant to be seen up close, not on a runway on too-skinny waifs."
Instead of models, his collection will be shown on borrowed Pucci forms, which are the Rolls-Royces of the mannequin industry. Champagne will be poured courtesy of Veuve Cliquot. Kiehl's cometics will pass out little favors for the guests.
The rest of the expenses are backed by family. "My father can't understand why everything here is such a mad rush and can't be handled ahead of time," Calvert says. Father, G. Davis Calvert, a retired engineer from Whiting-Turner, does understand and handle the nitty-gritty parts of the business like finance and contracts.
The family, who will be there to meet and greet the fashion flock, will get a sense of the fashion whirl at Sunday's presentation at the 57th Street showroom.
"I'll be showing to people who have seen everything there is to see in fashion, and I'm saying this is what little old me thinks. I hope you'll like it."
The family line that goes back to Maryland's Calvert lords obviously carries genes for charm. If William Calvert's show is as graceful as his manner, the line is sure to be a hit.
Pub Date: 10/30/97