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CFDA Award Nominee Spotlight: Jewelry Designer Irene Neuwirth

jewelry designer Irene Neuwirth

"I’m really proud of the collection more than I ever have been: This year I really challenged myself to make it as fine and different and colorful and unusual as it could be, and I feel like that really shows in the pieces.” 

Brilliant colors and bold, sculptural details: That mix is among the reasons Irene Neuwirth’s designs stand out amid the bling and baubles in the jewelry cases at Barneys. The LA-based Neuwirth launched her label in 2003, and in the decade since has garnered plenty of fans both on and off the red carpet: Reese Witherspoon, Amy Adams, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Claire Danes are among those who have worn her richly hued pieces to recent events. It’s little wonder, then, that Neuwirth’s name was called when the Council of Fashion Designers of America announced the nominations for its annual awards, set for Monday, June 2 at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall. She joins fellow designers Jennifer Fisher and Marc Alary, all nominated for the Swarovski Award for Accessories, and likely Neuwirth is hoping the third time’s the charm: She previously was nominated in 2012 and 2013, and here talks about what it means to be recognized by the CFDA.

theFashionSpot: How did you hear you had been nominated for a 2014 CFDA Award?

Irene Neuwirth: I was on an airplane headed to New York, and [CFDA CEO] Steven Kolb sent me an email asking me to call him. I replied back that I was on a plane, so he then told me in the email. It was perfect that I was going to New York, because I was able to attend the nomination announcements.

tFS: This is your third nomination; does it feel any different this time?

IN: It’s such a huge honor, yet I always feel like I haven’t been out and about enough, or I haven’t shown my collection to enough people. So it’s a huge compliment; that feeling never gets old.

tFS: How do you feel this nomination reflects where you are as a designer at present?

IN: I just feel so lucky that my business continues to grow. And I’m really proud of the collection more than I ever have been: This year I really challenged myself to make it as fine and different and colorful and unusual as it could be, and I feel like that really shows in the pieces.

tFS: Jewelry is such a crowded field; how do you define your aesthetic and make it stand out amid all the choices?

IN: I really love the fact that I’m a collection that is ultra-luxurious and refined but also offers both a bohemian and a bit of a whimsical feel. All of that combines to create something totally different from everything else you see out there. The biggest compliment people give to me is when they say they’ve opened up a magazine and see a piece, and before they read who it is, they know it’s mine. It’s a strong identity but one that’s also constantly changing, which I think is one of the hardest things to accomplish.

tFS: You became a CFDA member in 2009; do you feel that’s been integral to the growth of your label?

IN: Oh, 100 percent. I did the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund in 2008, and it was the most valuable experience, but also the most nerve-wracking. You’re presenting your work to 10 of the most influential people in fashion, and that can be pretty intimidating. But it was such a good lesson for me, and it just put things into perspective about how much I had to learn. I had to work really hard, but I also learned so much. And after that you feel like you’re in this cool-kid sorority. And since then, whenever I’ve reached out to the CFDA with problems or questions or needing advice, I’m always quickly led to somebody who can help.

tFS: What inspires you?

IN: It might sound really unromantic, but it’s meeting the women who buy my jewelry. I love meeting my clients, and I’m a total nerd about it. I design every single piece, and I’m involved in every step along the way, and there’s a natural evolution in that. This season I started worked with this amazing gentleman in Germany who hand-carves these beautiful flowers for me, and that had me thinking how to take the work to the next level. I think it just keeps evolving because of how involved I am with everything. By the time I finish a collection, I’m thinking about the next thing, on to something better, how to make it more colorful or feel really unique. I’m always trying to one-up myself.

tFS: Which pieces from the current collection best represent this idea?

IN: I have this really big Mexican fire opal piece—my absolute favorite vacation spot is San Miguel de Allende, in the mountains in Mexico. It’s an old colonial town and is known for all these really beautiful doors in different colors and textures, and that inspired a few beautiful pieces in the collection. And then the flower pieces—they represent ideas of color and luxury, and they’re really fine and bright, and also a bit playful.

tFS: Who inspires you?

IN: I’m inspired by so many aspects of so many different people. My mom [the painter Geraldine Neuwirth] is a brilliant artist; if you saw her work you’d see similarities in our tastes and our love of color. I’m inspired by women who create their own thing and go for it.

tFS: Who would be included in your thank-you speech?

IN: I don’t think I can say; that’s bad luck, isn’t it?

tFS: Point taken; what about what you’re wearing? How close are you in deciding that, and because you’re a jewelry designer, which comes first: the dress or the jewelry?

IN: I’ve thought about it but haven’t made any decisions yet. The jewelry doesn’t necessarily come first—I want something that’s colorful that also works well with the jewelry, and also feels comfortable. And, of course, I just want to feel pretty.

tFS: You've been a past CFDA nominee, but is there anything that feels different about this year?

IN: I feel like the timing is a bit more relaxed; I gave myself a complete nervous breakdown the last two years, mainly about having to walk the red carpet. I get nervous with the social side of our business—but at that event, how could you not? It’s intimidating and exciting being around all of these fashion icons and incredible models. But you’re also surrounded by your friends: I was nominated last year alongside Pamela Love, and she won, and I was so happy for her, her company is really great. This year I’m nominated alongside Marc and Jennifer, and they’re both really great. What’s also really hard is that one category—the Swarovski Award for Womenswear—features all of my friends: I’m really close with Shane [Gabier] and Chris [Peters] of Creatures of the Wind, they’re so eccentric and artistic and do such beautiful work, but I’m also close with Wes Gordon and Rosie Assoulin; I’ve just become obsessed with her. That’s the toughest category for me, no question.