A Fashion Reverie Exclusive: Fashion Illustrator Robert Richards

orig_tn_photo-46533-848668Robert Richards is …

One word can’t describe one individual, because people live to tell many stories. Robert Richards is known as an illustrator, to try and summarize his profession, but Robert’s magnetic character and innate wisdom express more than just that one word, illustrator.

Louboutin ShoeRobert Richards recently curated a show of sexy erotic illustrations from gay mags from 1950 to 1990 at the Leslie Lohman Museum, America’s only gay museum, brilliantly entitled Stroke: From Under the Mattress to the Museum Walls. One rainy weekday Robert invited me into his fascinating New York City Soho apartment, decorated with works of art, hundreds of books and mounds of fashion magazines, to discuss music and its influence on fashion, culture and the nitty-gritty in between. Afterwards, we traveled uptown to Below 54, the redesign of the infamous Studio 54 and in a NYC basement our conversation was reactivated by Broadway star Vivian Reed, another magnetic example of music, NYC fashion history and legendary attitude.

Fashion Reverie: Well, let’s jump right into it! Why is music so important to people?

Robert Richards: Well, to start with a cliché—music does soothe the savage beast. But, also fires up the savage beast. For women soothing the beast is probably better. For men firing up the beast is more accepted.

FR: More accepted. Hmm. Do you think someone like Justin Beiber fires up his beast as a musician?

Robert Richards:  No, I think he is playing up to girls who don’t know what the beast is just yet. Beiber is a product.

Images courtesy of Robert Richards

Images courtesy of Robert Richards

FR: Let’s talk about products in music.

Robert Richards:  Well, I think probably the most outstanding product out now is Lana del Rey. Who seems to be the girl of the moment—who also seems to be well glued together with other pieces of other times, other looks, other sounds.

FR: So Lana del Rey is manufactured from the (build-a-star) factory and has a good gig going on for the next 2 to 3 years?

Robert Richards:  What could probably save her is that if people perceive her work as adult.

FR: OK, so her fan base grows with her and then the “idea” of her reputation precedes her?

Robert Richards:  When she first came out, she was heavily derided. She was a joke. Now it’s not a joke.  However, if she’s not perceived as dealing with silliness and childhood crushes—if she is perceived as a woman—and her emotions are perceived as being those of a woman, she will have a longer career.

FR: I can see that. The emotion of her music is more mature, even though it can be deathly and depressing as hell at times.

Robert Richards:  Yes, every woman is about to die; she is still a product.

FR: I think the brilliance of her marketing is that they have psyched everyone into thinking that she is Not a Product. When she is similar to the promotion of the trucker cap in 2004. It’s the resale of Middle American luxe.

Robert Richards:  Now, there is an interesting concept.

Illustration of Suzanne Bartsch in kimono

Illustration of Suzanne Bartsch in kimono

FR: It’s amazing if you keep feeding the masses, eventually they do overeat.

Robert Richards:  Well, I hate to disappoint the masses even Donatella, but Lady Gaga has no connection to fashion, other than being the face of Versace this year.

FR: Wow! Lady Gaga! She did outrageous fashion this year, but nobody paid attention. What’s the next gimmick?

Robert Richards: A Peter Pan collar, capri pants and ballet flats.

FR: What was your initial introduction into fashion? Was it through music, art, and family?

Robert Richards:  I was always into fashion. I always had an inclination towards style. I lived in Maine in a desolate place, and all I wanted was Vogue. So I don’t know where it comes from. Genetics? Maybe the nurse pulled me out of the womb and had on red lipstick.  I know I always wanted nice clothes, and they weren’t always available. Times back then were very tough. I grew up in a factory town. My mother always knew if you have a pair of grey slacks and a little navy blue jacket, that you’re OK, but of course I wanted a pink one!

FR: We should’ve known!

Robert Richards:  Fashion was always something I wanted to be fun. It wasn’t about dressing anyone. I liked the satisfaction of creating something fun, artistic on myself.

Robert Richard’s illustration of Lena Horne

FR: Did the discovery of your own personal style lead you to realize you were an artist?

Robert Richards:  Yes, but music was also such a major influence just as much as visual art. Music helped me to develop an interest in the arts, because if you were interested in one art you are mostly interested in all of them. If you like music you will like theater, you like to go to the movies and so on. One thing has to inspire you and then it opens up the world to you.

FR: So music was a window? Hearing a song is like taking a journey.

Robert Richards:  Music helped me to see other possibilities. I wasn’t necessarily living in a cultural whirlpool in Maine. I was from the ghetto; I didn’t speak English until I was about 7 years old. I spoke “Canadian” French.  It was hideous. Then one day a neighbor’s son invited me over and he played Sarah Vaughn’s “Black Coffee” and I thought, “wow, I am sure people told her she shouldn’t do this.”

FR: Why? Was Black Coffee too sultry?

Robert Richards:  Yes, and before I had never heard anything like that, so that became my inspiration.

FR: Did you ever get a chance to meet Sarah Vaughn?

RR: We became good friends. Once I became interested in her I discovered she had a body of work. I would hitchhike into town to purchase her records for 89 cents and hitchhike back just in time for dinner.

When I first came to NYC I read that she was going to be at the Rainbow Grill. (Live shows happened in those days.) My friend and I went to see her. After the show was over, my friend and I sat at the bar. I had also bought her flowers. When I purchased the flowers they asked if I wanted to write a note and I thought No, because she will not know it’s from me. Well later, after the show while we were seated at the bar to relive what we had just experienced and Sarah walked in and over to me and said, “Did you send me flowers?”  I said, “Yes.” She asked, “Why didn’t you put your name?” I said, “Well, I thought you won’t know my name,” and she said, “You know what, that’s true!”

FR: Wow! How did she know it was you?

RR: Afterwards, she invited me to her table and we became friends. We were friends for 27 yrs until the day she died.

FR: I want to talk about Abbey Lincoln, because you’ve introduced me to her and she is such an inspiration. She is an amazing poet, and I love the strength of her Black Power style.

Robert Richards:  Yes I have so much more Abbey Lincoln to share with you. Abbey was pre-Black Panther Party, because she was freedom Now!!

151FR: I love that era of fashion going into the 70’s.  So Abbey’s early sixties? What was going on Uptown in Harlem at this time in relationship to the Beatniks in the Greenwich Village? Were you there? Were people mixing?

Robert Richards:  There was enormous rebellion in the air. White people emotionally were very constricted at this time. There were few choices and a lot of privilege.

So, jazz clubs had to mix, because the music was black. When you began to mix it offered more choices. Also, Black men were the first men beyond Louis XIV to understand the “peacock.” Black Men always understood the power of clothes and dressing up. Even as despicable as it is, the pimp culture of that time had a definite style. It was a style and you would adhere to it. No pimp went around town in a Brooks Brothers suit. Black women in the era were much more connected to allure than white women. White women were very frozen. Black women were giving body; they were giving curves.

I just curated a fashion illustration show at the Leslie Lohman gallery in Soho. Many people gravitated towards the works of artist Antonio Lopez who was the first fashion illustrator to blend black models into high fashion.  He drew Yves Saint Laurent on black girls and those black models did not have Babe Paley’s little body; they had curvaceous bodies. During the Stroke show, I was at the gallery as much as possible; I had something to say and wanted to be there to say it. I had a lot of tour groups and visitors come in, many diverse, swirly groups and immediately all of the black kids would gravitate towards Antonio Lopez, they understood the message and it didn’t have to be spoken. They got it. The art is for and about them.

FR: What is your favorite fashion decade?

RR: The 70’s!  Platform shoes, color, Vidal Sassoon, Afros, fond memories of sketching fashion couture from the runway in Paris and Rome and Western Union; the sketches back to the US papers at night.

RICHARDS by Glen Hanson

RICHARDS by Glen Hanson

FR: Oh the freedom, they shut that down, and brought us into the 80’s with Jeri curls; how wack!

Robert Richards: Nothing is worse than having to reactivate!

 

—Kelly L. Mills

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