Joanna Mastroianni has been designing for over fourteen years. Numerous Hollywood starlets have long called on her to design and often walk the red carpet in Joanna’s pieces. This year marked her second appearance at New York Fashion Week and she made the most of her sophomore effort. You only need one word to describe her spring collection – breathtaking. With vibrant colors and stunning pieces that make it feel good to be a woman, Mastroianni wowed the audience in a year of less-than-stellar collections. Though it was fall outside, inside Joanna’s studio spring had arrived.
A graduate of the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City, Joanna began her career on 7th Avenue. In 1987, she started her own label after noticing a void in eveningwear. Her meteoric rise to fame came after designing her first collection when a sexy evening dress designed by Mastroianni was worn by Michele Pfeiffer in the movie Tequila Sunrise. Since then, countless collections with the signature timeless design have come from Joanna’s studio.
Our arrival at her studio was announced by Mastroianni’s dog dressed in big yellow bow. (I believe she is a Pomeranian, but could be mistaken). Natasha, who is as protective of her space as her owner, soon warmed up to us.
PD: After NY Fashion Week ended there were a lot of publications both online and in print saying that they were underwhelmed by what was on display. How do you react to something like that?
JM: As overwhelming as the process is, from running from show to show, you’re looking at 8-10 days of non stop discovery. You have to step out of what is safe and what is expected and known in hopes of finding some new ideas or seeing a new designer you may not be familiar with or may not be a household name yet. They may not have gone to my show, we found that the show was generally well-received.
PD: How do you view today’s consumer when it comes to fashion? What role do consumers play in the way you design?
JM: The consumer is smarter then she is given credit for and the consumer will spend but you have to give her a reason to spend. When she sees something that she loves, she’ll go for it. It is not about volume, it is about getting a great piece or outfit or, if you can afford it, a wardrobe.
I always tell women you can only wear one thing at a time. Have it be the most fabulous thing. When I say fabulous, it’s what makes you feel most fabulous, because when you put something on that you know you look great in, you carry yourself differently and that to me is priceless. It is again about really being clear on what you love, and being passionate about it. We have relationships all the time; we have relationships with garments also. It is not just A&B; you react when you walk into a store and see a color, even before you see a shape, unless it is on a mannequin. It is going to be that color or detail that attracts you and if it is strong enough, you’re going to go over there and find out more about what this garment is about. If not, you’re just going to keep walking by, because there are thousands and millions of garments out there. Who has the time to go through them all?
It is interesting to see someone walking through a store, go into the designer department and watch where they go. There is a reason for it – what attracts your eye at that moment. I think that women are very sophisticated and very young in mind. Young in mind is not about an age, but an attitude – whether she is 19 or 70 years older. She can still be very young, cool and hip; it is how we see ourselves as women.
I find that women are taking better care of themselves, so what’s happening is there is a greater awareness about body and beauty and it all comes together. Women are eating better, exercising more. When you take care of your body, you want to put things on that showcase your body better. I also think that it is an exciting time in fashion because of this.
PD: Where do you find inspiration?
JM: My inspiration comes from all different places. I never really look for inspiration. It is just the way that I live my life. I love books, and I am always researching. I love looking at things, because as a creative person, you have a curious eye so there is always that curiosity and that hunger to see something that is going to move me – that will get a reaction out of me. This last collection I very much was inspired by the exhibits that the Metropolitan [Museum of Art] had on Matisse and his textiles. I have also been to the South of France a few times and seen quite a bit of Matisse’s work; and also other artist that spent time in that area. So there is a lot of energy that came to me and you clearly see it in the collection, especially the colors. The clearness of the yellows and crispness of the turquoises, and corals. I was very much inspired by those things and I took those moments to create something that was very modern, and very clean.
I really like clean lines, because I see clothing like a piece of jewelry — it is something beautiful that you want to collect and you want to hold onto it so you can pull it out again and wear it next year and years down the road. So, for me, my inspiration really comes from different areas. It could be flowers that I worked with and photographed and worked them into the embroidery and the print pieces, but they are also tied in together when you look at all the colors and fabrics. They are all very feminine and very important and you can literally see what happened when you put one transparent color over another, how it creates a whole new color — it was actually kind of fun.
So inspiration comes to me most of the time when I am not looking.
PD: Where did you study?
JM: I went to FIT here in New York. I was invited back a few years ago as a design critic for their eveningwear classes.
PD: What was your first big break?
JM: My first break was my first season in business having windows with Bergdorf Goodman. I say that because I had just started the company and it was really like a tiny, tiny company, and at the same time that I had my windows at Bergdorf’s, LVMH, which at the time had spent mega millions and had launched Christian Lacroix, also had windows on the other side of the store — so for me it was a big break, but also the epitome of the American Dream. If you really believe in something and you work really hard there are possibilities of it happening. So here I was, this little unknown, and yet I ended up in the same place as this much bigger designer whose company put millions into it and we literally started out with a few bucks.
PD: Who do you dress? Who wears your clothes well?
JM: I have a lot of different clients across the country. These are the women who appreciate what I do and it is exciting for me when I walk into a room at a black tie event or without even knowing I open up a magazine like I did the October issue of Town & Country and one of my clients is photographed in one of my ensembles. It’s great to see how different women carry the clothes.
PD: A lot of designers have people who they love to dress, is there one particular person you feel wears your clothes really well?
JM: No. You know what? When I go out and do trunk shows and make appearances for stores, the most important thing for me is to put the right garment on that body, to pick the right silhouette. That garment that is going to be most appealing, and make this woman look great.
There are two things I try to do when I design — I look to make her look taller and I try to make her look thinner. So when I accomplish that I’ve done what I set out to do.
PD: There is no difference between her and a celebrity.
JM: No, the only difference is the celebrity will in most cases achieve greater recognition. That’s a whole other conversation in the sense of the power of the celebrity dressing — and it is so important, and it brings more recognition to me as a designer.
PD: So what celebrities have you dressed?
JM: I have dressed Jane Seymour, Sela Ward, Michelle Pfeiffer, Tara Reid, Paula Abdul, Angela Bassett, Sharon Stone, Ann Margaret, Adrianne Lenox, Soledad O’Brian, Deborah Norville, Carol Alt and Christian Ricci. (Just to name a few)
PD: When did you know you made it?
JM: I never think that. Everything I do is always raising the bar at the moment, so I never feel like I really made it. It is about creating something that is still going to excite and surprise me, and that to me is the greatest challenge as a creative person because you do x-amount of collections a year and each collection has 100 some odd garments, and after so many years you feel like “been there done that.” So for me it is so exciting that I can still create something and still get that rush. We all get highs, and my high comes from when I create something that I feel like is different and new and I can step back and know that I am still challenging myself and accomplished it.
PD: If you could work with anybody living or dead, actress, famous person or historical figure, who would they be?
JM: You know I think one of the greatest designers who really understood the body so well was Edith Head. She did a lot of costumes so I would have loved to have had the opportunity to run behind and picked up the pins literally [as the old expression goes] off the floor, because her eye was so phenomenal. I also would have loved to had the opportunity to have been in the same time period as somebody like a Balenciaga who to me was another creative genius. Charles James — these are like the masters in my world that I really think were quite wonderful, innovative and creative with what they did.
PD: Who would you have liked to dress?
JM: Living, I would say Nicole Kidman. Wow, if I could go back I’d like to dress Audrey Hepburn. Woman’s Wear Daily has refered my black dress in my previous collection as “The Breakfast at Tiffany’s dress.” I would also dress Katherine Hepburn, I thought she was so chic, an original woman who brought so much to the scene. Josephine Baker I would have loved to work with. In fact I call one of the skirts in the collection my Josephine Baker because it moved so well. It is an embroidered skirt with embroidered fringes and it is all about movement. So she is somebody I definitely would have, because she brought so much into anything and everything she touched.
PD: Walk us through a day with Joanna.
JM: So I am up supposedly at six-thirty am, but most of the time I am up at five, and this is without an alarm clock. My mind is going through all the things I have to get done for the day. It’s not just necessarily about the creation of the garments. It is about everything else because you have to follow up on so many things. So I am up, and in the studio by eight o’clock in the morning. I am the first one in and the last one out. So, normally I start my day at eight and if it is collection time seven. I am in here running around. This is probably one of the only times you will see me sitting down at all.
I don’t do sitting down well at all. I am constantly running around, always on the go. Here, there are always things to do in all areas from design to production. I have a real strong philosophy about my production, my actual garments should look if not as good as, better than my samples. Therefore, I am very hands-on, with the garments that we produce here. I am constantly running from one area to the next, and then will spend a little time and respond to whatever communication I have to respond to. Whenever I am in here it is not unusual to find me here until ten o’clock — that is when the building closes, otherwise I would probably still be here.
Most of the time I am in here, but I could be in Paris doing my fabrics, Palm Beach making an appearance, those are only a few time you will not find me in the office per se. I do not do vacations — most of the time I work. I get bored on vacation, unless they are work-related or tied into my work.
PD: This is a great space (speaking of her offices); does it reflect your personality?
JM: I think so. This is a space that we moved into a little over two years ago. This was a warehouse prior to us moving in and so this is the space we designed in creating our new home. We wanted the feeling of a loft — where the loft meets Madison Ave. That is really what I was hoping to achieve. I wanted to keep it very simple, very clean, it was about the natural light coming in, and about being able to see each garment as is; giving and allowing its integrity and the space that it needs. I am also a photography collector, so when you walk in you see a photography gallery. To me it is about what inspires, what is a big part of my life.
PD: Is style something that comes naturally or is it nurtured?
JM: I think certain women are born with a great sense of style. I think that because of the media and other outlets of communication, I think on some level style can be introduced in one’s life. I believe that it is something you are very passionate about before you are even born, almost naturally ingrained and it can be cultivated. I don’t think that it can be created from scratch.
PD: what are some of your interest outside of fashion?
JM: Photography, the arts, I love nature, so for me I would be really happy if you put me in a garden. I really love just looking at trees and plants, with the different textures. There is something energizing and soothing even nurturing about nature. Something about simplicity that I find refreshing and when I go back to nature it simplifies things for me. I find that I am really happy working in the garden, it is like my therapy. I can definitely handle that.
PD: who is your favorite artist?
JM: I love Matisse, I love Picasso, I am not as knowledgeable about the modern contempery artist, which is something I would like to become, but even as a child I was always fascinated by Matisse’s colors and his shapes. When looking at Picasso’s work over the years and studying it, he is also one who fascinated me. I like Giacometti, both brothers; one of them that did those incredible, exaggerated sculptures of the super long bodies and Diego who did this incredible furniture that to me is so amazing, yet still so simple.
PD: You have such huge windows looking out at the industrial landscape; do you get inspiration from the view?
JM: No, I get light from it. I don’t look out the window at these buildings; I actually find the view pretty pathetic. They are like these unattractive, strange boxes, so I can’t say my inspiration comes from looking out the window at the architecture. My inspiration comes when I walk in and this incredible light shines through. Although I will tell you there are certain areas where I look out and there are some of these old buildings that have great architectural details and you will find that in those days a lot of those great details were placed on top of the building. Which makes it very strange as a pedestrian, as you’re walking around to see them. Sometimes I go out on the ledge, where I am not supposed to, and look at some of those really cool details.
PD: When we came upstairs, the elevator guy asked who we were going to see, and when we said Joanna his face lit up and he smiled. You must be really warm for people to have such a reaction to you?
JM: Well, I like people, I have respect for people, and I really appreciate whatever each one
of us does in this world; and that we have integrity about what it is that each of us does. I am really clear that this is what I do, but the guy that takes care of the lobby is just as important. There is a spot for all of us and we are all important players in the big picture.
PD: Do you ever get tired?
JM: No. I never get tired — I get sick and that tells me that I have to pull back and sleep, because I am going too much. This is all natural, these twenty-hour days, and I just keep going. I have gone weeks and months without any rest.
Prior to this collection we basically worked seven weeks, seven days without a break. We would leave here, and had them keep the building open for us, until some nights at one in the morning. I would be back in here at seven. So my body tells me when it is time to re-energize, or when I am tired. I am never tired of this, I mean I have had total clarity for as long as I can remember — ever since I was three and picked up my first pair of scissors, and I was so excited. To me, creating a garment is just like energizing like the engineers that build buildings. I do it through garments and there is always a new challenge to discover some other way of doing it.
PD: What were your first garments?
JM: Barbie doll dresses; I used to sell them out of my house in Queens when I was a little girl on Saturdays. My cocktail dresses were $.25 and gowns $.50 in those days. So we lived in one of these two story houses in Astoria, and every Saturday the girls would come in, the staircase was like my little shop and each step had a garment on it, and the girls would bring their dolls and go shopping. That was actually my first business transaction.
PD: What do you think about trends?
JM: I do not believe in trends, they are just of the passing moment.
PD: What is one thing in fashion you abhor?
JM: One of the things that I find disappointing is that women have stopped dressing. [As opposed to a time were people dressed well to do most of their daily activities, and took pride in how they were dressed]. Save those big sloppy t-shirts for the beach. Women should take a minute to look in the mirror before they leave the house. Find the silhouettes that are right for your body.
PD: Is there a Mr. Mastroianni?
JM: (smiling) Yes, his name is Gideon Lewin, and he is a photographer. I am very lucky to have found a great partner in business and also a soul mate.