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One On 1: Fashion Designer Narciso Rodriguez

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NY1’s Budd Mishkin continues his series, “One On 1,” with a profile of one of the most popular designers in the fashion industry, Narciso Rodriguez.

It's Fashion Week, moments before show time, the fashion world is watching and waiting, and Narciso Rodriguez is....calm.

Calm seems to be the order in his showroom, too, in the days leading up to Fashion Week. After the show it’s the same story.

“We're not so focused on the press or the glamour or the fabulousness or the frenzy of staying up all night and making things for a show,” says Rodriguez. "Especially at show time, people come together and start throwing stuff together to make some kind of crazy show that’s going to create some controversy and make them a little trashier looking than the next, and that's just sort of the antithesis of why I do what I do.”

Not that there isn't some anxiety in the preparation for Rodriguez, one of fashion's top designers. There are fittings and budgets and music meetings and hundreds of other details.

But after years working for Calvin Klein and Anne Klein, and then out on his own, Rodriguez has steeled himself to the slings and arrows that occasionally come in the industry.

“There isn't a panic feeling. It's just like, ÎOK, this is what I did,’ and now I share it with everyone to either love it, or take a pot shot at it, or hate it, whatever," he says.

Rodriguez's work is first anticipated, and then worn by women around the world. Some are famous, but most are not, and those are the reviews about which Rodriguez is most concerned.

"That's so much more interesting and so much more real, and addresses a woman's needs today so much more than just, ÎI’m going to make a red carpet dress and getting my name out there,’” he says. “That's sort of banal at this point.”

A walk through his showroom opens a small window into Narciso Rodriguez. There’s an eclectic mix of influences, from Victorian to Sarah Jessica Parker to motorcycles.

So what inspires Rodriguez? All sorts of things, which he'll record in his ever-present sketchbook or with his camera. And he says the next great idea could be just around the corner.

"You could walk down the street and just see the most amazing three-piece suit from 1972 on some man who is now 68, and it was so perfectly pressed and dry cleaned through the years that it's become something else in how it looks on his body,” he says.

So how does the very private Narciso Rodriguez, who most consider to be shy, succeed in the very public, high profile world of fashion?

“I let my work do the talking,” he says. "I'm not in this game for the celebrity of it or, you know, money is not the driving force. I mean, it's my work, it's what I love. You know, if those things come with that over time, it's fine, it's great."

Backstage before his show during Fashion Week is a time for Narciso Rodriguez to greet friends and family.

Rodriguez's parents emigrated here from Cuba in 1956. Narciso was born five years later. His sisters recently sent him a collection of pictures of generations of the family in their homeland.

“People were very wealthy, people were landowners, and they came here and basically started from nothing, to create new empires,” he says. “I don't think any child can, you know, escape without being touched by that sort of drive.”

Rodriguez grew up in the Ironbound section of Newark, New Jersey, in a neighborhood with other immigrant families, including Spaniards, Portugese and Italians. When his family left for suburban Kearney, Rodriguez found a different type of neighborhood.

“Moving to a suburb where you're the only Latino and you're house is being egged every day and everybody's blonde and blue-eyed, it was really scary," he says.

There was an early interest in sketching and painting that evolved into a love of fashion illustration. But Rodriguez says you just don't tell your Cuban parents, "I'm going to be a fashion designer.”

“They thought I was taking an illustration class,” he says. “I came home and I said I need money to buy pins, scissors and muslin, and they were like, ÎWhat? For what?’ And I came up with some kind of crazy story where if I built the clothes then I would know how to sketch the clothes. And I think they bought that for about half a minute."

Rodriguez would eventually graduate from Parsons School of Design, and work behind the scenes for such fashion heavyweights as Anne Klein, Calvin Klein and Nino Cerruti. That's where he was working in Italy in 1996 when he designed a wedding dress for his good friend Carolyn Bessette.

“I was very happy that my best friend was getting married, and I was going to make her a dress,” he says. “It was two innocents saying, ÎOK, let's make a dress for my wedding.’”

Rodriguez never anticipated how much the dress would change his life.

“She was more conscious of it than I was,” he says. “She sort of said, ÎDo you know what's going to happen? Are you prepared for this?’ Unfortunately, it was a little bit too late in the game, and no, I was not prepared. When I got back home to get back to Paris, I wasn’t allowed to leave because I couldn't even get into my apartment, there were so many people parked outside the building. It was crazy, really crazy. I'm a very private person, and I went sort of from that to public scrutiny in a flash, and that took its toll in itself. It was so scary. It was so, ÎWhy are these people calling me all the time?’”

But three years later, he had to endure his overwhelming personal pain in a very public setting; the plane crash that killed his friend Carolyn Bessette and her husband John F. Kennedy Jr. It was a story that played out incessantly in the media.

“Wherever I went to, it would be like seas of photographers throughout Europe, and there I was with dark glasses on, weighing maybe a pound, and people were screaming at you things about your loss,” he says. “I know what I lost. I know what the relationship meant to my life. I can certainly tune out the trash because it's just not a reality.”

The reality now for Narciso Rodriguez is his collection, the shows, the worldwide recognition, the design, the style. It is an industry that is inherently about style, but Rodriguez seems consumed with the substance of the work, making clothes for people to wear.

“I get so much back from my career because I give so much to it,” he says. “It's the thing that I love most, that loves me back the most too. I wouldn't change anything."

- Budd Mishkin

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