"Y"Y OU SHOULD do anything in life, but never try to design -- you have not the slightest capacity for it," Erte' was told soon after he started his first job, sketching clothes, in Paris almost 70 years ago.
Erte ignored the advice.
And at the age of 89, Erte' is enjoying his own revival. Born Romain de Tirtoff in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1892, he was renowned in the '20s and '30s as a fashion illustrator and fashion and theater designer. Today, he is still making elegant new illustrations, costumes, jewelry and books to more acclaim than ever.
"Can you imagine! There were 5,000 people who turned out for my [recent SoHo] opening. In the rain," he says, clearly delighted. "It's a nice reward."
Erte's drawings have strongly influenced views on feminine beauty. For 22 years, he designed covers for Harper's Bazaar. He made costumes for Mata Hari, Anna Pavlova, Mrs. William Randolph Hearst and Norma Shearer among others, opulent costumes and sets for the Folies-Berge re, Ziegfeld Follies, George White's "Scandals" and the MGM studios. His graphics of lean and lithesome women have become collector's items. New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art owns the largest collection of Erte graphics, and a retrospective exhibit of his works sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution concluded a two-year tour recently. A paper-back volume, "Erte" by Charles Spencer, has just been published. The renewed interest in Erte' began in the 1960s partly because of nostaglia. "The 1920s and 1930s were far enough behind to be considered history," says Stella Blum, curator of the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum. Blum adds that he is worth reviving simply in "recognition of his superb designs and remarkable technical achievments."
"If Michelangelo were to come back from the grave he could hardly have greater or more eulogious publicity than has been accorded to Erte," wrote London art critic John Russell.
"I can't imagine why," Erte says with a twinkle.
He is pixieish, a small, smiling figure in a subtle green plaid cashmere suit and striped shirt, tucked into a stuffed straightback armchair at the Mayfair Regent Hotel in New York. He is a sparkling raconteur, weaving together details of life in St. Petersburg before the Revolution, Paris in the grand era of the Ballet Russe and France today under the Socialist government.
He wears a gold Aztec ring to anchor his necktie; a lorgnette hangs from a gold chain -- "It was my mother's and I've changed the glass to use it for small print." On one hand is an Art Deco ring he designed from a drawing he did for Harper's Bazaar; on the pinky finger of his other is a gold ring with the family coat of arms.
Erte' was completing a brief tour of the United States: A ball was held in his honor in Chicago, and echibitions in Chicago, Pittsburgh and New York. InNew York, he found himself busy signing new editions of serigraphs and jewelry documentation.
"I thank God every time I am signing that my name is os short," he teases. Back in Paris, other projects awaited his return.His paintings of the Seven Deadly Sins are completed, and now graphics will be made of them.He must finish designs for the backs of playing cards, a commission from a cigarette company.The Glyndebourne Opera Company in Susses, England, is reviving the production of "Der Rosenkavalier" with 100 costumes and sets that he designed, so he must be available for that. "The stage has to be like a whole picture," he says. "If I made only the costumes it would be like one did the background in a painting, another the figures."
If others "borrow" his style or copy his ideas, he supposes that is a compliment, but adds, "I feel sorry for them that they have no ideas of their own." He has had his own ideas since he was a child.
The son of an admiral who was chief of the Russian navy school of engineering, Erte spoke Russian with his parents, English with a nurse. More languages followed with a French governess and then a German governess and soon the English was forgotten, to come back only when he started to travel.
He started to draw at age 3 or 4 using colored pencils his mother gave him. His mother had a dress made from one of his first pencil sketches, "and it was a great success," he says. He was about 5 when his mother gave him watercolors "and then I started art painting, very classical."
His mother took him all over Europe starting when he was 6; what he remembers most was a visit to Paris when he was 8. "My mother took me to the World's Fair and I fell in love with Paris. It was wonderful, especially for a child. It was like a fairy tale. It became my dream to live in Paris."
When he moved there in 1912, "before all the events in Russia," he changed his name to Erte', from the French pronunciation of his initials R and T. "I left my family because I wanted to be independent and changed my name because my family did not want me to become an artist." When his father came from Russia to visit him in Paris in 1923 he told his son, "You were right." Says Erte' with a huge smile, clasping his hands, "I was so happy."
He sent drawings home to a Russian fashion magazine and took his first job with the designer known as Caroline -- "she was absolutely second rate," says Erte. It was she who suggested he had no future. When she fired him he asked for some of the drawings he had made for her and she said he was welcome to take them from the waste box. "You can empty it," she told him, and he did. "I was very shy," recalls Erte, "so I made a parcel of them and left the parcel with the porter of Paul Poiret."
The next day Erte received a telegram from Poiret, the high priest of French fashion of that era, and started to work with him right away. Erte became a part of the world not only of fashion but theater, such creators as Diaghilev, Stravinsky and Isadora Duncan who were all Poiret's friends.
The distinctive style he would use in his black-and-white, pen and ink fine-line drawings struck Erte when he was viewing Greek vases. "I was overwhelmed by their beauty and pure stylization of design when I first visited the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. As for my paintings other than fashion, the main influence was that of Persian and Indian miniatures. I had been fascinated by them as a child when I found a book in my father's library."
When Poiret closed his shop at the beginning of World War I, Erte continued to design for other exclusive shops in Paris, and Henri Bendel and B. Altman in New York.
He tossed a coin to decide whether to submit sketches to Vogue or Harper's Bazaar magazine, and two weeks later a check arrived from Harper's and a request for more drawings. Vogue learned of the sketches, prompting William Randolph Hearst to offer Erte' a 10-year contract with Harper's Bazaar, then another, extending the relationship to 22 years.
Under the contract with the magazine, Erte' was free to work in other media, and he created sets and costumes for music hall spectaculars, opera and theater in both New York and Paris. His sets for one Ziegfeld Follies' production reportedly used 6 1/2 miles of gold lame.
He was devoted to jewels, fringes, tassels, braid, feathers and furs, says Stella Blum. "At times models had to cope with head-to-floor headdresses, ear-to-elbow earrings and mountains of fur; at other times they had little more than a few pearls," she says.
Erte was so intrigued by his own work that he occasionally wore one of his more spectacular designs to a gala event -- he dressed as Clair de Lune at the Monte Carlo Sporting Club gala in 1922. At home in his villa in Monte Carlo, he is said to have worn ermine lounging pajamas.
The day before the opening of an exhibition in 1967, Erte' found that all of the paintings had red dots stuck to the frames. "What does that mean?" he asked the exhibition director and was told the Metropolititan Museum of Art had bought the whole collection -- about 180 pictures. It now owns about 220.
Currently, Erte' exhibits in New York can be seen at the Circle Gallery and at the Jack Gallery. Locally, Erte' works can sometimes be found at Art of the Centuries, Bethesda, Time and Time Again, Georgetown; and Ken Forster, Alexandria.
When he is in Paris, where he spends half the year, Erte' starts his day with a seven-kilometer walk in the Bois de Boulogne and exercises with dumbbells. Away from Paris he makes sure there is enough space in his hotel room to do exercises on the floor. "I'm eating everything and drinking everything and smoking just two cigarettes a day," he says. "I love everything but everything has to be moderate."
This reminds him that he has forgotten to smoke after lunch. He takes out a gold Faberge' case that had belonged to his father, and offers others a gold-tipped Black Russian cigarette and smokes one himself.
He works best on sunny days, which is why his calendar always includes two months in Barbados and two months in Majorca. "The best ideas come when I am walking, either in the woods or on the beach," says Erte'. "I must be relaxed. So sometimes they come when I am shaving, or having my bath." After lunch he starts to work.
"I need solitude. I can't draw a line when there is somebody around me. I like familiar things around me," he says. Although he needs nine hours of sleep and never naps, "not even in Majorca where everyone siestas," he will often work at night because it is so quiet. "I work slowly, and at night I feel there is an endless time in front of me."
He makes no sketches, no trial run. "I can never start to work if the idea is not absolutely clear in my mind with all the details." And the finished picture "is never different than I imagined it the first time."
His alphabet designs, perhaps his best-known works, occurred to him in 1925, and he started on them in 1927. "When I was a child, I designed before I could read and write and I loved the alphabet; it was like a design." Later he made studies for classical dancing. "Then I had the idea of the combination of the alphabet and the human body," recalls Erte'. He had a successful exhibition in Paris in 1927, and when he was asked to have another, he plotted the alphabet for his next show. "As usual I was too optimistic." He was occupied full time with the Harper's Bazaar covers and only completed three letters in the year before the exhibit.
He doesn't remember which three, but remembers clearly that when his London gallery wanted to exhibit them in 1967, he discovered he was missing two letters, the letter "L," which sold out immediately after he did it, and the letter "C." The alphabet took almost 40 years to create, but he completed his number graphics in just a year.
He slides easily from one project to the next. In fact, what he loves most is jumping from one kind of project to another. "I hate monotony."
On the table in his hotel room is a motion picture script. "I can't tell you anything about it. It's a secret," he says. "I'm never telling about things which are not completely settled."
Erte admires the designs of Madame Gres and Yves Saint Laurent, but is not a big fan of modern clothing, particularly for men. He claps his hands and laughs at the idea that after Erte playing cards there might be Erte' jeans. "I hate blue jeans because it is a uniform. I hate uniforms unless they are spectacular like the Hussars'. I love individuality in dressing. It is so important."
He deplores the absence of individuality in men's clothes. "In every period of history, there was a harmony between men's clothes and women's clothes. During the Renaissance, women were in brocades, furs, feathers, plenty of jewelry, embroidery, lace and everything. And the only difference was that women had skirts and men had trousers."
Then along came Beau Brummel, the English dandy, who spoiled the whole thing, Erte' says. "Men became dull and women remained splendid and brilliant. Nothing can be worse than the whole side of a big party where all the men are like waiters and the ladies are fabulous."
Erte' designs his own suits, and has them made by a tailor in Barcelona. Once he picks the fabrics he starts at once "to look for the details," the shirt, the pocket handkerchief, the socks that go well with it.
He thinks there is a sign of hope as men incorporate a bit of color into their sports clothing. "Change must come little by little," he says. "What is marvelous in the actual fashion today is the variety, that everybody can wear something they select in the way of their personality."