Parsons Colloquia: Sophie Gimbel, Fashioning American Couture + Afterparty

Curator Beth Dincuff Charleston speaks with Helen O’Hagan of Saks Fifth Avenue, friend and colleague of  Sophie Gimbel

 By Kyera Giannini, Fashion Publishing

This past Friday a few dozen intrepid lecture-goers slushed through the sleet to hear the entire Parsons Colloquia, originally spread over two days, in a matter of hours.  The panel for Sophie Gimbel, the last of the evening, was a refreshingly relaxed affair.  The panel host and curator of the new exhibit, Ms. Charleston, informally chatted with Ms. O’Hagan, the former VP of PR and Special Events for Saks Fifth Avenue, about American couturier Sophie Gimbel.  Charleston briefly explained the inspiration behind the exhibit–namely, that no one knows about Gimbel’s exquisitely crafted work— and then turned the stage over to Ms. O’Hagan.  A stylish woman with perfectly coiffed short white hair and dark eyeglasses above a navy scarf and gold-brooched jacket, O’Hagan knew and worked with Gimbel from the time Gimbel ran the prestigious Salon Moderne at Saks through her death at age 83.  Gimbel’s character, style and personality from the 1920’s to ‘60’s unfolded in a series of off-the-cuff anecdotes, partially guided by questions from Charleston and largely by O’Hagan’s entertaining stories.  I had expected a basic discussion of the exhibit and Gimbel’s contribution to fashion, but instead an unexpectedly intimate portrait of the designer developed. 

Some portions dealt with the public persona, like Gimbel’s landmark achievement as the first American designer on the cover of Time Magazine, but the bulk spoke to the more intimate.  Her “love-match” (O’Hagan) to Adam Gimbel, her adored black-tie dinner parties, lunches at the bridge table, home-grown recipes inspired by nightly cookbook readings.  They spoke of her style: a woman’s knees and shoulders should never be exposed at the same time and, “A woman and her waistline should never be parted”.  As O’Hagan succinctly put it, Gimbel is best described as, “…the most elegant woman I’ve ever known.”  Behind the panelists images of Sophie and her clothes played on three gigantic screens.  The crowd, a mixture of ages but leaning heavily towards students, listened with interest, laughing at the stories and leaning closer to hear when O’Hagan strayed from the microphone.

During the afterparty, as everyone gathered into cliques and sipped glasses of wine to fortify themselves for the brisk walk home, Charleston went into more detail about the three-year exhibit process.  The most difficult part was “…contextualizing the garments…” and trying to express her research through images rather than words in a small amount of space.   When asked why Gimbel and other American couture designers are not recognized, Charleston explained that it happened “…after WWII when the fashion editors went back to Paris and really ignored American couture, American designers…”.

 The exhibit will show at the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center at 66 Fifth Avenue from January 22nd to February 12th.   It includes 16 Gimbel garments, plenty of Gimbel quotes and designs from Parson’s Couture Techniques class.  The Parson’s 560 website also has a button titled “Sophie at Saks” that links to the online archive of Gimbel clothing.