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A Designer Who Wore His City on His Sleeve

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 10, 2004; Page C02

Designer Miguel Adrover has decided to pack up the remnants of his fashion business and leave New York. Most people will greet such news with a shrug, if they are willing to expend even that much energy acknowledging the demise of yet another cash-strapped fashion business. The fact that Adrover could not develop his business in Manhattan can be attributed to many of the usual causes: no money, misguided investors, too much artistic defiance and a fuzzy understanding that there is a difference between a garment that the industry declares "genius" and a piece of clothing that someone will actually buy and wear.

But the departure of Adrover also says something about the nature of the American fashion industry -- and it is not particularly complimentary.

A flowing, multi-hued gown from Adrover's 2002 collection, presented two days before 9/11. (Maria Valentino For The Washington Post)

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Adrover, who grew up on the Spanish island of Majorca, unveiled his first collection in 1999 to great acclaim. Because he lacked money to buy expensive fabrics, he scavenged material. He deconstructed an old Burberry trench coat and he famously crafted a frock from mattress ticking that once belonged to the actor and writer Quentin Crisp. Before he leaves town, he will donate the coat to the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

While Adrover was praised for his ingenuity in turning castoffs into ready-to-wear, the most compelling aspect of his work was his enthusiastic embrace of the multicultural spirit of his adopted city. Attending one of his presentations, whether under the fashion industry's tents in Bryant Park or in the middle of a Lower East Side park with half of the neighborhood looking on, was like watching the city unfold on his runway. Older women dressed in tailored pantsuits glided past. Women who looked as though they might be West African immigrants in head wraps and a cacophony of prints would march proudly by. Young men in jeans and do-rags, who looked as though they'd just taken a break from their street vending up on 125th street in Harlem, walked alongside women in long Middle Eastern robes and veils.

One of Adrover's most memorable shows was in 2001 and was inspired by Islam and North Africa. He filled his runway, under the stars on a school playground, with djellabas, veils, the mosaic patterns of a mosque, and women with tawny skin. It was a mesmerizing collection, but it could not have been more poorly timed. Two days later the World Trade Center fell. Adrover's tiny business collapsed. But even in hindsight, he doesn't regret the collection.

"I had visited countries that I'd never visited before. I was coming back and bringing what you see," he says. "I don't have any regret for opening eyes to other cultures."

The models in a Miguel Adrover show were more a reflection of the city than could be seen on any other runway around town. And there is no one waiting in the wings who appears to be as willing to put as varied a mix of people on the runway.

"I think we created here a special way to speak to New York," he says. "It's like it's almost taboo to put more than two black girls on the catwalk, and this is a city known for multiculturalism. For this, I'm kind of disappointed."

To be sure, Adrover created clothes that often were more ethnic costume than contemporary sportswear. But there were also spectacular moments -- from his beautifully tailored suits to a dress made entirely of woven do-rags.

"I love the rap music. With my work I try to get closer to the rap," Adrover says. "I tried to get some of [the rappers] to be my customers, but when they make it, they forget the ghetto and want the diamonds, the Versace and Gucci, instead of embracing something that embraces them."

Adrover plans to reestablish his business in Spain and to start showing his collections in Paris. It may be the best thing. In New York his work was seen mostly by American editors and retailers. In Paris his audience will be filled with people from around the world: Europe, North America, Japan, Australia. There will be a broader range of customers and sensibilities that might be more comfortable with his point of view.

He also will be surrounded by a host of designers whose work challenges the very definition of clothing. In that context, he will look positively conservative. He will become part of a broader, more compelling dialogue about clothes and their power, instead of being a lone man on a soapbox. And perhaps, with luck, he will win a few deep-pocket fans.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company