As a fledgling fashion designer at the age of 14, Jeffrey Banks used to make the crosstown trek from his far Southeast Washington home to the special art program at McKinley High School. There were 8 a.m. art classes and after-school art club meetings, with algebra, English and history classes sandwiched in between.
That was almost 15 years ago. Two weeks ago, Banks received the coveted Coty Award, the fashion industry's Oscar.
Banks, 28, is now a top name designer in the fashion industry: his goose-down jackets and natural fiber sweaters hang on clothes racks beside the Bill Blass and Oscar de la Renta sportswear at Bloomingdale's, I. Magnin and Saks Fifth Avenue.
For this Washington-born designer and self-described workaholic, the critics' bestowal came at time when his reputation in the fashion industry already has been well-established.
"I knew I'd get the Coty eventually," said Banks, who teaches part time at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. "I just didn't know 'eventually' would come so soon."
Designed for a number of companies, including Banks' own Manhattan-based Jeffrey Banks Ltd., his menswear can be easily spotted by the muted colors, natural shoulders and imported fabrics that have become his trademark.
"I didn't really make a conscious effort to fill any type of gap in the market," said Banks. "I just concentrated on the style that reflected me. Fortunately there were enough people around who felt the same way I did."
Although he says there are few blacks in his position, he maintains that the industry, for the most part, is colorblind.
"Saks Fifth Avenue is only interested in the bottom line," he said. "They don't care if I'm black, white or Chinese as long as I'm making money for them. And customers don't care as long as they can afford the garment they like."
Banks says he has led a "charmed" life of sorts, one in which honors, big breaks and success seem to fall his way naturally.
At 15, Banks landed a job at Britches of Georgetown. While there, he got the chance to meet designer Ralph Lauren, whose popularity had not yet reached heavyweight status in 1969.
"I wore all Polo that day," said Banks, who recalled specifically that the day he met Lauren he happened to be wearing a camel hair blazer, brown Harris tweed trousers and a raincoat, all bearing Lauren's trademark, the polo player. "I was terrifically excited. Ralph wasn't as known as he is now, but I was a big fan of his even back then."
The two hit it off and Lauren later asked Banks to come to New York to serve as his apprentice. The designer-hopeful promptly took Lauren up on the offer and spent the summers in between high school learning the trade under his idol's tutelage.
When it came time for college, Banks chose Pratt Institute over a scholarship offer at Georgetown University and found himself shuttling between his Pratt dormitory in Brooklyn and Lauren's office in midtown Manhattan.
"It got to the point where Ralph wanted him to quit school and work for him full time," said the designer's mother, Eleanor Banks, a retired contract compliance officer at the General Services Administration. "Of course, his father and I didn't go for that at all."
Banks had to quit his job when he transferred to Parsons School of Design, where, in 1975, he won first place in the jacket division of the Scandinavian Mink Association's contest for his hooded mink duffle coat with horn-anchored toggles.
That year, Banks landed his second prestigious part-time job, this time working for Calvin Klein. "I did everything from the proverbial picking up pens to going on shootings and selling entire collections," he said.
After two years with Klein and a degree from Parsons, Banks moved on to his first solo effort: a commission to design the Nik Nik menswear collection, for which he got his first Coty nomination in 1977.
By the age of 22, Banks was forming his own company, Jeffrey Banks Ltd., and later began designing collections for Merona Sportswear and Alixandre, refining his fashion signature.
His fast-track success has won him considerable exposure: fashion spreads in GQ magazine, pieces modeled in the Ebony Fashion Fair, a special "Salute to Jeffrey Banks" in last month's Congressional Black Caucus fashion show and substantial fame.
"People now recognize me on the streets," he said. "I might be eating dinner in a restaurant and someone comes up to me and says, 'Aren't you Jeffrey Banks?' I can't say I'm entirely happy about that. I'm somewhat shy and I don't know what to say to them. I'm not particularly fond of standing out in a crowd."
Banks is admittedly more at ease in his Manhattan office on the 31st floor of Rockefeller Plaza, selecting fabric, approving sketches, and putting the finishing touches on hundreds of pieces for next fall's collection.
"I don't relish having someone else doing my work," said Banks. "I'm not like other people who don't actually design, but just lend their name out. I couldn't sleep at night if I did that."
This is not to suggest that he has no intentions of expanding. "My next step is to increase staff so I can get into shoes and socks and accessories," he said, alluding to his interest in a licensing arrangement with the Japanese market.
Banks said he's never had much time for the leisure side of life. "Succeeding has been simply a given," he said. Even after the emotional whirl of Coty Award night, he headed for work the next day and shuttled to the West Coast that weekend to participate in a Los Angeles trade show. This week, he flew to Europe to pick out the natural wools and tweeds he wants for his next collection.
He now lives in an apartment on Fifth Avenue between Chelsea and Greenwich Village, miles and years away from the semi-detached red brick row house he grew up in on 55th Street SE just off East Capitol Street. But he says that the Coty, his industry's official nod of approval, has not really changed things for him.
"It's like validation for what I've always been doing," he said. "Beyond that it's not a lot more. Life has already been so good to me. It's like another cherry on top of all the whipped cream."