A couple of months ago someone who had been very important in my life passed away. We had not talked or communicated since 2004 but in the 20 years prior to that, we were in almost daily contact when I worked first as his assistant and later as his pattern-maker.
Sander Witlin was, without doubt, the most difficult person I have ever had the occasion to deal with, and quite possibly the most fascinating. Why else would I have stuck around for 20 years, when after a few years of the Stockholm syndrome of his employ, I came to the conclusion that my most marketable skill was “takes abuse well.”
He was not the most famous designer in New York but you would never know that by talking to him. He kept old-school haute couture alive in the city long after it should have died a long, slow death of nobody gives a crap. But keep it alive he did with sheer artistry, personality and force of will. And I very willingly went along for the ride.
Without him, I would not have great stories to tell about Ladybird Johnson, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Loni Anderson, Dionne Warwick, Princess Firyal of Jordan and the late, great czarina herself Bunny Koppelman. Not to mention a rogues gallery of Park Avenue princesses and the anonymous rich.
And the stories those ladies would tell during a fitting. There’s nothing like seeing a gal in her underwear to get her to spill her secrets. And Sander was an expert at getting to the good stuff. One elderly matron wanted her hem short enough to show off the 5 inch heels of the custom Manolos she had purchased to wear with the gown we were fitting for her 75th wedding anniversary. Do the math. This doll had to be pushing a hundred. Turns out her doctor was going to inject her feet with Novocaine before the party so she could endure the shoes. As Fitzgerald once said, “The rich are different from you and me.”
The next fitting might reveal a seemingly perfect life of privilege and success was marred by a son with a drug problem that knew no bounds because of his bottomless trust fund. To which Hemingway might have replied, “They have more money.”
Some days Fitzgerald was right. Some days, Hemingway was. And sometimes, they both were.
Earlier in his life, Sander had worked with Andy Warhol at The Factory and not long after I went to work for Sander, Andy Warhol took my picture with his famous Polaroid camera. Although, if the truth were known, Andy didn’t so much take my picture as take a picture of Sander’s shop window while I was changing the clothes on one of the mannequins in the window.
But that’s the way it was for those of us who swirled in Sander’s orbit. The fabulous was all around. It was only necessary to step into the frame and grab a piece of it.
Fabulous was especially evident in the clothes that he designed. When I came to work for him, his showroom was chock full of dresses that would have done Rita Hayworth and Ava Gardner proud at the height of their powers. While every other shop in town was full of sad little prairie dresses and granny blouses in toxically boring earth tones, Sander was churning out fantasmagorias of taffeta and tulle in every color of the rainbow. Under his tutelage, I learned the difference between magenta, fuchsia and cerise while assuring almost every customer who came into the showroom that the clothes on offer were indeed clothes and not costumes.
When Christian Lacroix broke in the mid ’80s and magazine editors and store buyers all over New York were suddenly scrambling for clothes with a sense of fantasy, Sander had a shop full, ready and waiting for them. We spent the next few years churning out endless can-can dresses and little cocktail numbers that could easily have served as Queen Victoria’s underwear.
The onset of minimalism in the ’90s was hard on all of us, but especially on Sander. After one especially trying day of having clients bombard him with requests for “simple,” “simple” and more “simple,” he finally broke and told a prospective client that “Evening gowns are like chandeliers. There’s no such thing as a simple one. What you’re looking for is a light fixture. I suggest Calvin Klein.” And he showed her to the door.
And then probably screamed at one of us. Maybe me. Maybe someone else in the workroom. Some of those people are lifelong friends. Nothing cements a relationship like shared abuse.
When that screaming fit subsided, the phone would ring and it might be Dominick Dunne calling to pick Sander’s brain about Porfirio Rubirosa, the Dominican playboy who had left no society matron unbedded in the ’40s and ’50s while feeding his string of polo ponies on the dime of his many successive wives, some of whom were the richest heiresses of the 20th century.
Apparently, Rubirosa was about to make an appearance in Dunne’s next book and I, along with the rest of Sander’s browbeaten staff, got a break from the browbeating to eavesdrop on some seriously scandalous 40-year-old gossip. I would attempt to translate some of the more salacious tidbits into Spanish for the seamstresses whose limited English did not include vocabulary on such tawdry subjects.
Then he’d hang up the phone and yell at somebody else and probably storm out and we’d do it all again the next day. Life with Sander in it was a life that contained much beauty, was often exhilarating and sometimes horrifying, but it was never boring.
He was truly larger than life and the world is smaller without him in it.
Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699.