Norisol Ferrari and the back of one of her hooded coatsIn the middle of a massive heat wave in New York I sat with Norisol Ferrari in her un-airconditioned studio and talked about –and even tried on– heavy leather coats. Each one a custom creation, they were also so exquisite that I quickly forgot the heat and was utterly intrigued. I
Like all great American originals, Norisol Ferrari is a master of re-invention in the best sense of the word. She has gone from a childhood in group homes and orphanages to teen years in NYC nightlife to emerging as an elegant, articulate and sharply intelligent designer of one-of-a-kind coats that debuted in 2009. Read my interview with her below.
How did you get into fashion?
The truth is I had no education and it was the only thing that I could do. I really loved couture and I lied about my age and had the opportunity to be a showroom slave and did a series of internships at button companies on Seventh Avenue – that sort of thing – and just sort of was an office slave. And this was at a time, 1987, when there were no stylists. When Elektra Records would call and say we need an outfit for Anita Baker’s new album cover no one cared!
It is crazy, but it wasn’t a store order so they didn’t care. Give them a store order they’d care…so it fell to the office assistant and me, the office slave, to put it together. A lot of the stuff that is fun and has titles now is how I began.
What was your inspiration for your current collection? It looks old fashioned and timeless at the same time…
This is exactly what I wanted. I fought for this timeless quality in myself, with the seamstresses, by the material I’ve chosen…I’ve never agreed with the fashion cycle of delivery six times a year and something new every season. I strive to create heirlooms. I want people to say “This is my winter coat and I don’t need another coat. It’s not about what’s in or out of fashion but what will become part of my style. The idea is that I don’t want you to know it’s Norisol 2010. More that it’s an amazing piece –so of course it’s a Norisol! (laughter)
I am betting that in 5 years or 10 years your work won’t even look dated. And I am insane about knowing what year’s things are from to the point that I can look at a period movie set in 1925 and be able to tell you if it was made in 1976 or 86 from the styling and make up–
Yes, I’m the same way! Doesn’t it drive you crazy? I find it distracting –I’ll look and think why are there zippers? There weren’t zippers back then!
Exactly! Which brings me to what’s so intriguing about your collection: while it clearly references the past it doesn’t feel costume-y or like a period piece yet there is nothing trendy about it either.
I mix 17th, 18th 19th and 20th century. And I reference English, French Italian and even a little Japanese kimono sleeve…I try to take the best of everything and create something you won’t get sick of.
Inspiration and Materials at her workspaceHow does your experience of New York and it's history inform your work?
New York City and all it’s older buildings, and how it gives you a time machine into the last few centuries is something I have romanticized and fantasized about as long as I can remember. When I was young in Grand Central Station? You couldn’t get me to walk in a straight line I was so busy looking up and around at everything. The Post Office? That era is so alive in my collection, in my aesthetic, in my home…and New York educated me on that. I asked questions and learned the history…that it was a major port and built so long ago has given me a healthy respect and a desire to learn more about the past.
I know you’ve been in NYC for a long time and I know there is a tendency for those of us who have been around for awhile to get cynical about changes in the city, so I want to ask you what you think are positive changes that you’ve seen recently?
That’s a tricky question for me! This is my hometown and someone messed with my main street (Broadway – specifically at Times Square) and I don’t like it! I am nostalgic for my youth! But…I think art is coming back. I think there is more street art and murals happening again and I really like it.
So you feel like street life/art is coming back? Because there has been an attitude that it got really commercialized…
I think it did. Definitely…but there is always a pendulum and I think it’s slowly swinging back…
I hope you're right! Okay, let's get back to your work. What do you like most about what you do?
With every single new skin, meaning the same skin new delivery of it…my passion for it and understanding of it grows. Each skin is different and how you have to work with it is different and I find this exciting. I use skins because they are biodegradable and natural. I will never use synthetic material. The idea of producing something that will sit in a landfill and never go away disturbs me to no end. Even if it’s the easier choice, to use a synthetic material, I absolutely will not do it.
And what do you find most challenging in your process?
The most challenging thing is to find organic materials that are beautiful and workable. Also finding people who really care and take pride in the work they’re doing is really hard. –this is universal– it doesn’t matter the culture or place, there are too many people just working for money and not caring about what they do.
Sade’s new album. Is the best ever. I’m working on a fashion film and I call myself Your Armor. When you have that piece that you put on and it’s like it protects you, it’s your armor and her music plays into that.
And finally, what’s the best advice you’ve ever given or received?
The best advice I’ve ever given –I put on a piece of one of my accessories, and if you Google it you’ll get various attributions– so I think it’s just an old bit of wisdom which is “Go within or go without”. When people ask me for an answer to something they are questioning about themselves I generally tell them "I don’t have your answer, you do and you have to figure that out. To listen, to hear it. And if you can’t hear it you need to spend more time listening because it is within you."
And the best advice I’ve ever received was that my scars would never go away. They would simply stop hurting. And be easier to live with. And it was the realest thing that was ever said to me as a child and made me able to move forward and be a good human being.
Norisol Ferrari's collection can be found at Maxfield in LA and by appointment in NYC
Norisol and Jones
large version of coat photo