Renowned for her incredibly photogenic designs, it’s no wonder Barbara Tfank is a go-to for America’s First Lady, Michelle Obama. Starting her career as a costume designer, the New York native eschews trends in favour of timeless silhouettes that are as at home on red carpets as they are at lunch dates. “I don’t do what everybody does,” she says, “that’s sort of been my mantra since day one.” We caught up with the designer to find out more…
You launched your eponymous label in 2001, but prior to that you were a costume designer and a stylist. Was it always your aim to have your own label?
I trained in fashion in New York at 550 Seventh Avenue, which was the epicentre of high-end fashion; I rode the elevator with Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass and Pauline Trigère. I was there for five and a half years and during that time I was very fortunate to start working with photographers and I remember thinking, “I love the camera.” Years later I ended up working with Richard Avedon as a stylist and when he did his first commercial for Calvin Klein perfume he brought in a team of the best Hollywood cinematographers and designers and they got me thinking that would be something I’d love to try. So I was, miraculously, offered a movie a couple of years later and I absolutely loved it.
After several years of doing films and attending a lot of parties in Hollywood I just had this idea that I should try to make evening coats because everybody was freezing and no one quite knew what to wear.
“[The Barbara Tfank woman] wants something that’s different, that isn’t just following trends, that’s beyond trends, that’s timeless and that they will still wear in five years.”
Were there any particular learnings from your previous roles that have come in useful since?
I learned a lot, like how the camera works with clothing and lighting. For example, when someone at the Oscars says they’re wearing a daffodil yellow dress and it looks like its white, that shows they haven’t been camera testing. The beauty of having been a costume designer is that you know what works on camera. My clothes are very photogenic. Looking through the eye of a camera never goes away; once you’ve been trained by masters like Richard Avedon, it’s a skill set that really serves.
You designed the Prada dress Uma Thurman wore to the 1995 Academy Awards; was that your first taste of red carpet dressing?
Absolutely, I was working as a design consultant for Prada. It was very hectic but really great fun. Uma ended up on the cover of Women’s Wear Daily and no one was more surprised than I was! So many people told me I should do my own collection. I was being offered positions at Alberta Ferretti and Valentino, and I was saying, “I’m not a stylist, I’m a costume designer!” I guess I could’ve gone down that path but really I am a designer and I was trained as a designer so what you saw there was an accumulation of skills coming together.
Since then you’ve dressed a number of celebrities, most notably Michelle Obama. How does it feel to dress America’s First Lady?
It’s such an honour to dress her because she is such a wonderful public figure. She needs to represent what’s best of America and so it’s wonderful to be of assistance to someone like that. I’m so fortunate to have gotten to know her personally and I have to say she’s the most delightful person. She treats everyone equally. I’ve been dressing her for quite some time now and it’s always a wonderful experience.
How would you describe your signature aesthetic?
I very often describe my signature aesthetic as ‘practical glamour’. So, for example, Sharon Stone wore the Windblown Poppy Coat [available in-store at Harrods] with a pair of jeans on The Graham Norton Show. I like to say not to take things too seriously. I use luxury fabrics that can go from day to evening. If somebody has a very playful and not too serious way of dressing, there’s a way to dress quite eclectically with my clothes, but there’s also a way to dress quite classically with my clothes, too. One of the things I try to do is give everyone the opportunity to make the clothes their own.
You once said: “I look at all of the brilliant things that have been done in the past and I bring them to the present.” Which era do you find that you look back to most often?
I absolutely love classic cinema so I certainly look to those periods; I would say from the Forties through to the Seventies were my favourite times. I also do a lot of studying. I’m from Manhattan and lived across the street from the Metropolitan Museum for many years and I’ve spent hours in the Costume Institute, studying vintage garments and magazines. I think that what’s truly modern is to bring something forward that has regard for the past but is truly in the present, moving it to the future.
What direction do you see the future of fashion going in?
I do a lot of personal appearance so I have a lot of interaction with my clients and I see that more and more women want clothes that are beautifully made out of excellent fabrics. They also want something that’s different, that isn’t just following trends, that’s beyond trends, that’s timeless and that they will wear in five years. The greatest compliment for me is to be doing a store appearance and to have a client who bought something five years ago come in wearing that same piece.
What were your inspirations for the Autumn/Winter 2015 collection?
Well I moved to a new studio and I have the most extraordinary, panoramic view of the Hollywood sign and every night we see the sunset and it’s just glorious. One night I was just sitting in my studio and I looked at my fabric board of things that I was considering and all of a sudden the sun started setting and I saw the reflection of the light on these fabrics and I thought, “This is it! I can make my choice.” So a lot of the collection was built around the sunset.
And what can we look forward to for Spring/Summer 2016?
I was visiting England back in late July and the collection is about my summer journey; London, visiting the House of Lords, the New Forest. I wasn’t planning on this to be honest, I was in pre-planning stages when I came over, but when I came home it was all there for me. There’s quite a bit of green in the collection! It was a beautiful time to visit England.
What were your London highlights?
I loved the Serpentine Gallery, I loved seeing the Sonia Delaunay exhibit at the Tate Modern; those were the highlights.
You’re a New York native, what would be your idea of a perfect day in the city?
A perfect day in New York, for me, would be spending time at the Costume Institute. I’d also enjoy taking a walk, which I miss terribly living in LA. I would walk down Madison Avenue, look through all the shop windows and just see people go by, stopping at Sant Ambroeus for a coffee and seeing what people are wearing. I love the theatre, too. New York is so easy because really all you have to do is walk outside and it’s all there for you.
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