“It truly was by fluke,” says Debbie Dickinson of her entry into the modeling industry in the mid-70s. She had moved to NYC with the goal of becoming an actor, her mind filled with dreams of Broadway, but that all changed when scouts visiting from a Paris model agency spotted her and offered to fly her to France.
“The day I landed I worked with Louis Féraud who was considered one of the best couturiers in 1975,” says Dickinson. “I walked in wearing shorts from Les Puces flea market and I had 600 dollars to my name at that point.”
She lived in Paris for 7 years, became a muse of Karl Lagerfeld and Saint Laurent, a house model for Chanel, was Issey Miyake’s first model and the first American contract model for Giorgio Armani. “I worked with just about everyone at that time,” she says.Prêt-à-porter was just emerging from the shadow of haute couture and Dickinson found herself at the center of a magnetic creative circle uniting culture, art and fashion. “I didn’t realize it at the time but it truly was one of the greatest epic eras in fashion.”
She identifies similarities between then and the present day. “This is a really creative time and it is a period when the great artists in fashion are starting to emerge. we are starting to see the pendulum swing back into a classic and refined moment,” says Dickinson. “The Paris collections are starting to evolve into something extremely elegant and beautiful again which I’m really happy about. Fashion is coming back. Fashion for me means when someone can throw things together from their wardrobe but look like they’re really put thought into their dressing.”
Dickinson, like fashion itself, is adept at reinvention. When she put modeling on a back burner in the 90s, she moved into PR, then ended up “falling organically into curation.” She says, “I’ve always had an appreciation for the arts.” Years of traveling the world, experiencing the scenes in Paris, Milan, Tokyo, London, allowed her to expand her social circle, or her “cluster of creatives,” as she she refers to them, and in May she opened her first pop-up gallery. “I wanted to focus on artists who struggle to get their name out there but are premier talents. They are just not getting recognized.”
“Ombre, Awakening and Reinvention” is the title of her current Manhattan exhibit, a marriage of fashion and art. Through sculpture, photography and canvas, featuring the works of 11 artists, the show is a reflection on how creatives travel from dark to light, and a response to the past two years of global and national unrest, climate disasters, and the pandemic.
Large-scale abstract florals by Megan Heekin Triantafillou executed in acrylic and oils manage to evoke the most decadent of luxury textiles yet Dickinson also has a soft spot for illustration art. She references Erté, Warhol, even Picasso as pioneers in the field. “Traditionally the art world turned their nose up at illustration but I think it’s time that should end,” she says. “Illustration is an absolute fine art.”
Fashion illustration takes center stage at Manhattan art exhibit
Underlining this point, Audrey Schilt, former sketch artist for Halston at Bergdorf Goodman, and longtime in-house illustrator at Ralph Lauren has twenty works on display. Of note is “Putting it Together,” a large canvas depicting the archetypal designer at work fitting looks on models, scrutinizing the drape and styling before the collection makes its runway debut. In a case of art imitating a past life, it recalls Dickinson’s previous role of model and the intimate process of bringing the designer’s vision to life.
Tehran-born Iran Issa Khan is another artist whose large scale photographs of natural forms are notable for their inclusion not least because she photographed Dickinson for the covers of Vogue and Harpers Bazaar back in the 80s. “She was precise, spectacular, a perfectionist,” says Dickinson of Issa Khan. “You would sit for hours because she was the best for beauty photography.” Moving on from capturing exquisite faces, the photographer spent four years shooting flowers that bloom for one night only. “How fashionable is a giant yellow coral?” says Dickinson pointing to the sunshine-hued archival hand print entitled “Golden Pleasure” that could indeed pass for a blown up swatch of Issey Miyake’s famed plissé fabric.“I always have my toe in fashion,” says Dickinson. “It’s really a home base for me even though I’m fully committed to the art world right now.” She says the design teams of Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan, Michael Kors, Maggie Norris, and Nicole Miller have been among the exhibit’s visitors so far, and other fashion luminaries are expected on October 6th when the space will host an art talks moderated by Anthony Haden-Guest during which attendees can hear from the artists of Ombre. “It’s becoming designer central,” says Dickinson who, with a major NYC show in the works for next May, shows no sign of slowing down her reinvention.
"Ombre, Awakening and Reinvention" is on show until October 14 in Manhattan at Debbie Dickinson Gallery, 7 East 14th Street.