When Elizabeth Taylor Warner goes to the opening-night party for "The Little Foxes" in London in a couple of months, she'll be wearing a $14,000 glass bugle-beaded dress by Michaele Vollbracht. Vollbracht is making only five of them. "I couldn't afford it, nor could any of my friends. But people come up to it and stroke it. It is pleasure."
The biggest pleasure is when it sells, says the designer. "It is good for me. And good for the five women who spent three weeks to embroider each dress, women who live in the Bronx and take the subway home and who have their paychecks because of it. And it is good for the economy, with the money it puts in circulation . . . It sounds strange, but I'm a capitalist artist."
Vollbracht, who is also a portrait artist, made the two faces for Bloomingdale's that launched 8 million shopping bags. He did a controversial caricature of Mae West with John Lennon titled "Showbiz, 1980." A portrait of Diana Vreeland. And one of Andy Warhol.
Vollbracht turns his fabric paintings into brilliantly printed dresses and boldly patterned coats that such women as Paloma Picasso, Barbara Sinatra, Lenore Annenberg, Polly Bergen, Liz Carpenter and Taylor love to wear.
"My ladies are not shrinking violets," he says. "If you don't have the command, these clothes wear you. And that's deadly."
Vollbracht, 34, looks more the boyish capitalist than artist in his white shirt (once owned by Sen. John Warner), $15 Armani jacket and pants that cost a dollar at his favorite New York thrift shop. "I hate to dress and I hate to pay full price," he says, laughing. "When I hear someone has paid $3,000 for a dress of mine I go . . ." He shrugs and laughs.
He was in Washington recently for an in-store benefit show at Saks Fifth Avenue, a far cry from the Barnum-like extravaganzas he enjoys. Like the one he staged a year ago at a balloon-covered steamship pier on the Hudson, or another in a block-long, marble-walled bank near Rockefeller Center.
But flashy shows and extravagant clothes weren't enough to build a business on. So, a year ago, his partners pushed to put the Vollbracht name on other products, and he rebelled. "I don't make money off my couture dresses, so I know I have to do licensees," he concedes. "But I've seen too many people as talented as I go under by putting their name on shoddy products."
Vollbracht is straddling a desk chair, his arms folded on the back, in the stockroom at Saks. "I have the temperament of an artist. When I get angry I turn into Geoffrey Beene -- I get deadly quiet and don't produce."
When the partnership dissolved, his business continued on a small scale. Elizabeth Taylor Warner bought 15 dresses which, he said, kept him going. Now there is a new company that includes old friend Kathleen Mermey and Joanna Carson, former model and wife of the television personality. Some licensee agreements for accessories are imminent and the business will be close to $3 million this year, according to Mermey.
His first show since regrouping was held last week in a large hotel ballroom, and it was not an elaborate production. "I purposely controlled myself but it was like pulling teeth," he says. "It worked. We are selling more clothes than ever before. But it kills me. The clothes were stronger than the presentation."
He still holds to the Edith Head philosophy, repeating the late costume designer's quip, "If you cannot have fun in fashion, get out. Otherwise it will kill you.
"We were army people," Vollbracht says of his childhood, which jumped all over the country. "My mother got married too young. They were parents who should never have had children." He was born in Quincy, Ill. He added the "e" to his first name at age 13 "just to give my father a boot in the ---."
He says little else of his father, but his mother was "a frustrated genius, a Joan Crawford type with no way to channel her genius." She made extraordinary children's clothes, Vollbracht remembers. "My sister always had two more rows of rickrack than anyone else. I always wore the most beautiful linen shorts. We were bandboxes."
Vollbracht has always painted. "We were poor and got only one present for Christmas. It was a coloring book and I filled in the colors. I still color everyday. I still do everything I did as a child. I still sit on a plane and embroider. It guarantees that the stewardesses will leave me alone." He laughs.
He was a top student at Parsons School of Design, then a sketcher for Geoffrey Beene. His first assignment was sketching the red velvet bridesmaids' dresses for Lynda Bird Johnson.
Next he assisted Donald Brooks on Seventh Avenue. That didn't last long either; Vollbracht always wanted to impose his own style.
"I had worked for the best designers," Vollbracht adds. "I realized I just couldn't put bust darts in mass-produced dresses, so I left the manufacturing business."
He got a job at Henri Bendel as an advertising artist, and two years later went to Bloomingdale's.
He calls the famous faces on the Bloomingdale's shopping bag "a fluke." He had drawn a paisley print bag with Greta Garbo's face that was rejected as too ornate, he says. "I was so damn mad that I scribbled two faces, a famous model Anne Marie Saint from the 1950s on one side and a Judy Garland lookalike on the other. It was so late they forgot to put the store name on the bag that 8 million people carried," he says, gleefully.
Vollbracht's own couture business started in a small way three years ago. He made a few dresses that were bought by Bergdorf Goodman and displayed in its Fifth Avenue windows. They quickly attracted customers and business partners. Soon came the extravagant shows and flamboyant designs and the fashion industry's prestigious Coty Award.
What distinguishes his clothes are his bold fabrics. He draws the patterns first -- "I please myself with painting." Then they are sent to Italy to be made into fabric. In his current collection many of the patterns appear to be inspired by American quilts and Japanese woodcuts. "I'm a great taker of the native," he says.
He's now on the road a lot, 15 cities so far this year, to meet customers, "a lesson I learned from Bill Blass" with whom he crossed paths at La Guardia recently. "I see where the women go and what clothes they need. I'm good with figure problems. Most of my women have figure problems. I can analyze and see and hide." Adds Vollbracht, "We make to size 18. That's where a lot of the money is."
He met Elizabeth Taylor Warner, who had been a subject of one of his portraits, after she had bought several of his dresses from Alice Dineen at Saks-Jandel. He stayed at the Warners' in Georgetown during the inaugural. "She is . . . the tackiest woman on the face of the earth but also has the greatest style. She is bigger than life. I put her into things that are as gregarious as she wants to be. But when she walks into a room you don't know what she is wearing."
From Michaele Vollbracht, that's the biggest compliment.