Robert and Rachel Danes have been a couple and design duo for years. I am a huge fan of their gowns and so is Bergdorf Goodman. I had a chance to sit down with them and photograph their designs.
Cannon: Tell us about how you started making these stunning gowns.
Robert Danes: My first love was actually making the clothes. I used to live with a guy in New York when I first moved here who would get Gaultier samples which is when I was starting to think about doing menswear and the samples were really beautiful but they were too big for him so I had to take them down and size them in all different directions. I learned so much from doing that. It’s always been about taking things apart and putting them back together again on my own. It’s always been about the inside.
Rachel Danes: We can breathe, look great but still email, nurse a child, and run around while you’re wearing a gown.
Robert: That’s the advantage of having a partner as a woman that actually can wear the clothes.
C: Your gowns create such an interest and a presence to whomever puts them on! What is your creative process like?
Robert: They’re vessels. It’s an evolutionary process. It’s going from what you were doing a couple of seasons ago and how can we do that different and make that better. They’re motifs that run from one season to the next, signatures of pleating, a lot of the draping, a lot of the sheerness, the fabric, the bias is definitely a huge thing and it’s about continuing to work with it. But, it’s always about construction and then thinking about how we can do that so it’s really wearable. So often we see things that are beautiful and art but not necessarily design, it is not really wearable.
Rachel: The design is led by the construction. It is sort of 3 dimensional, we use the word sculptural a lot now.
C: Your dresses are definitely very sculptural and architectural. How do you come up with the design concepts for your gowns?
Robert: That’s one thing about doing gowns particularly is that they are very distinct. What use is it to have a lot of gowns that look so much alike? You really try and make them very individual. You want them to be very signature within the collection. It doesn’t have that same collection look that you would have in RTW. Do you agree Rachel?
Rachel: Yes, but no.
Robert: There is a certain look to it, I think it’s really important that someone can look at a gown and say that’s a Danes and look at another one and say that’s a Danes too. There is a thread that goes from one to the next, but on the other hand, you still want to make them different enough that they look new and not exact recreations of gowns from previous collections.
Rachel: We have different kinds of collectors. Some of our collectors have several of the same dress and others want them to be all different. More and more we are getting the request to make more short ones to wear jackets over the top.
C: So many designers would kill to have the relationship with Bergdorf Goodman that you do. How have you cultivated this relationship?
Robert: Bergdorf’s has been so supportive. We’ve been working with them for a long time. It’s about the relationship we have with so many people there. It almost feels like family and they have the most amazing people that come through those doors on a daily basis. It’s like this perfect showcase. Getting it to be seen and having women who can make the connection and appreciate the design and can afford the design. It all kind of meets there at Bergdorf’s. It’s really unbelievable and we work hard for that.
C: How long does it take from start to finish to create a gown? What was your longest piece?
Robert: Most of them take one week to start from the cutting to the finishing in terms of just sewing the patterns, but in terms of creating it, sometimes it takes six months to a year to kind of get it right. We spend so much time going back and forth. I have a thing I’m working on at the moment, it’s really beautiful but it’s not quite there. Rachel tells me to keep looking at the drawing because what I’ve made is not quite the same as the drawing. So it’s going back and forth which means sometimes it takes half a year. We had a dress that took a year to really get exactly right. In the last couple of years especially, the process has gotten longer with the challenge of making things that are really unique but there have also been some dresses that came really quickly and it all worked out. It’s great to have a piece that’s fantastic: a gown with amazing treatments with fabric and the draping is really beautiful. On the other hand to make a dress that is very clean and simple and looks so good on different types of women, that convertibility is something that we’re very proud of.
C: Throughout your marriage and continual collaborative effort, has Rachel become your muse?
Robert: This is our 20th anniversary year so we have definitely been doing this a while. Rachel is my muse in the sense that we have learned from each other. I know how to make the things and I’m always learning how to put things together and drape and do all that stuff but beyond that, all of the current issues of, like, what makes something really great for a woman, how that role looks, and the choices that you make in designing—that’s stuff that I learn from her and that’s the way in which we collaborated so much and it’s become even more important in the last couple of years.
C: Do you have a favorite dress that really defines you as a designer?
Robert: You know the story behind the coral dress you’re looking at today, which was kind of accidental how it happened. I was working on another style, on another design and I was trying to get it to fit the way I wanted around the dress form and I kept putting little pleats in it to make that happen and as I was doing that with the first pleat, second pleat, third pleat, I looked at that and thought it could be a whole other dress. The dress as you see it, the whole thing is pleats, it’s one of those moments where it’s all so much fun. Because there is a lot of hard work that goes into this, like anything, moments like that remind me why I do this and remind me that it’s still fun.
C: What is your inspiration for your fabrics and how do you choose them?
Robert: We really just try to find the best fabric we can. It’s mostly from Europe. We’ll use a fabric that costs $105/yard or something crazy like that and not many people do that in this country and not many Europeans actually do that. We start with these really luxe fabrics and then try to use them in a way that they haven’t been used before. Chiffon, which people think should be used one way, we try to use in a different way. The gazaar on the coral gown, most people were doing poufs and we’re putting it between pieces of paper and pleating it. I love to use really luxurious fabrics and designing against the grain.
Rachel: Which doesn’t always work. Sometime there’s an idea and we have to find the right fabric for it. Sometimes it starts with the idea first and then what’s the fabric and how it’s going to make the idea work. Other times it starts with the fabric and then the answers flow from the fabric.
Robert: It’s a continual tension. I’ll have a drawing and it’s so beautiful and Rachel will be like, what’s the fabric and I don’t know…I didn’t get that far. It’s better now though, when we started it was like I would design the stuff and Rachel would ask me, “Who’s gonna wear this Robert?” Those kinds of questions that I didn’t want to think about but are really important. If it’s not worn, it’s not any good, so you have to think about these things.
C: Do you see any design potential in your children?
Rachel: They’re definitely creative! They are absolutely both creative.
Robert: For me, the biggest thing is the excitement they get in putting things together and the fashion part of that, getting dressed, a new look, getting ready for school. The older one who is really trying to get a new outfit that somebody else doesn’t have or hasn’t thought of in her class or in her yard. The younger one is kind of wacky, but seeing that because as a guy you don’t get that personally. I’m making the clothes but that is an element I’m not so connected with. Rachel is more there as a partner who is able to get that.
Rachel: What we do sometimes when we are working on something new and one of us doesn’t like it, we’ll say, “Would you want your daughter to wear that?” We try to decide who we see wearing a design if we are having trouble. We dress a wide variety of women from 18-80, which is fun and challenging.
C: Who is the woman you design for?
Robert: The kind of exciting thing is that when we were kids and we started and we were down in this basement on Henry Street down in Chinatown and everyone was so much older than we were. We were making clothes for people that were 15-20 years older than we were. As we have gotten older, they kind of gradually become us which I find really interesting and much more fun because I feel like I’m designing for women who are my contemporary. We have something to talk about when I meet people in stores, there’s a conversation that I can have with them that I wasn’t able to have with them when I was 25 or 30 and can’t have with someone now who is 18 or 19. There is different kind of life experience. Women tend to be very accomplished I’ve found. A lot of them are working women. A lot of women who are maybe not the biggest fashion people in the world, they are thinking more about design and they are looking for something more unique, they’re not gravitating towards something they saw on the cover of Vogue necessarily. They are looking for something different. They aren’t followers so much, they tend to be outliers in a way.
Rachel: Women from all over the world. Every country, many different ages, curves look really great in the collection.
C: Do you remember the first dress you sold?
Robert: I remember the first dress we sold at Bergdorf’s.
Rachel: It was terrible; I wore it to the CFDA awards in 1992 or 1993. We got in a BIG fight that night and then we got good.
Robert: We didn’t know you had to line the dresses. It was beautiful. It was very much an art piece and everything but it was completely sheer and we kind of thought it was very cool because we had seen it in editorial and stuff but nobody bought it so we didn’t know what to do because at the end of the season we had all these dresses that nobody bought and nobody can wear.
Rachel: There were other issues with it: the grain lines were going in different directions, you couldn’t move really well, so we spent so much time trying on clothes and so much time in production fittings.
Robert: The mistakes are the places you really learn, it’s where it all comes from. Having to figure out why something didn’t work. We are getting into this area where there aren’t really that many people that know how to do stuff, it’s not in a book, it's not on YouTube.
Rachel: Draping, pattern-making, Robert can sew…he can do it A-Z.
C: What’s your favorite thing about designing?
Robert: When I was studying architecture and I got out of that and realized it wasn’t for me. One of the things I didn’t like was that there were so many other people involved with it and it wasn’t very hands on. The process was enormously long and there was a lot of stuff that was difficult to control and I couldn’t handle that. What I love about designing for ourselves is that we can control almost every aspect and so you can come up with an idea, you can go with it, you can make it, design it, drape it, and then look at it and say it’s not quite right and be able to figure out what needs to be fixed. That is a process that works really well for me—to be able to continually improve. When I look at buildings, I am always amazed and I think about wanting to change one little thing up there and that not being able to edit and correct would kill me. One of the fun things for me is that I am still learning so much and I can constantly change and do better even though we can be our own worst critics.
C: What would you tell a young designer starting today in this economic climate?
Robert: You know there was a terrible economic climate when we started; I think that you just have to go do it.
Rachel: Intern! Get a lot of experience. Just do it.
Robert: When I came to New York and wanted to be a designer and figured that it wouldn’t be hard and you just do it because when you’re young, you have that drive, you can’t lose that! You have to hold on to that as long as possible.
Photography by Jayme Thornton.
Makeup by Quinn Murphy at www.Quinnmurphy.com
Hair by Bryce Scarlett for Leonor Greyl
Model : Alden Hoyt at Major
Assistants: Michelle Solomon; Carey Baldwin