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The Arts

Project Runway

Designer Vincent Licari’s Fantastic Couture is on the Verge of Becoming a Reality

Sam Holden

By Bret McCabe | Posted 1/4/2006

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“With this show I wanted to play up more fantasy,” says Harford County designer Vincent Licari about his debut fashion show Jan. 7 in downtown Baltimore. “One of the things that I noticed with fashion is, with everything being so commercial, there’s no play on fantasy. There’s no playing up the cuts. So the theme I picked for this is ‘The Garden of the 16th-century Temptress.’ That’s kind of the little title I’ve given myself to work with. It has a lot of details—embroideries, appliqués—from the 16th century made modern. Old-style hair, more about costume I guess you could say. Taking the cocktail dress and dressing it up as if it were someone from that era—but it could also be someone from this era, maybe.”

Sitting in the Fallston basement living room he’s turned into an impromptu workspace, Licari moves through his design ideas, budding career, and future plans. Clad in a textured white oxford shit and striped pants—“I didn’t know if you were bringing a photographer today,” he later jokes, “so I dressed with energy”—Licari’s laid-back, lean 24-year-old frame puts up a calm mask that hides a mind always thinking about 101 different things. His black hair swirls in playful tousles atop his head, his full eyebrows exude enough moody charisma to make Frida Kahlo jealous. And he smiles only enough to make each one a mini-drama, like a window illuminating in Andy Warhol’s Empire.

Just beneath that placid cool is the designer fine-tuning every stitch, seam, fabric combination, color hue choice, manufacturing finish, production schedules at the Italian factory he uses, deliveries, hand detailing—and that’s just for a single idea. He has learned how to negotiate all these steps on the proverbial fly, finding out how things are done over the more than four years he’s pursued designing after an initial interest in fashion photography. It’s an unconventional career path—trying to break into high price point, made-to-order women’s couture rather than apprenticing under a designer or aiming for ready-to-wear garments—but it’s the one he’s chosen for himself, how he wants to establish his name.

“I think designing the whole couture first instead of the ready-to-wear, that’s where people see how you’re creative, and that’s what sets you apart from everyone,” Licari says. “And I think by doing that I will establish a name, then people might be able to appreciate it, and it might help my name get out there. I’m sure there will be people who will say I probably shouldn’t be there yet, I should be apprenticing. But I like to do my own goals on my own time. That’s how I learn.”

Four mannequins line the room outfitted with designs to be included in the show, but it’s a little difficult to visualize the full intricacies of his work. Licari favors an understated elegance with his cocktail dresses, his designs shaped by seamless wraps, layers that hide stitching, and fine details that are hard to discern when not brought to life by the body to which they’re cut.

“Yes, these are a few previews of what’s going to be in the show,” he says, looking over his work like an editor and seeing only what he still needs to do to make the ideas complete. “These are more of the basic pieces, I guess you could say. There are a some things I might change at the last minute. I have to work with a makeup artist there. There’s more fantasy to come. We’re going to work with their hair and makeup a little bit, give it more of an old flair. We’re going to drape fabrics and jewelry. There’s still a lot to go on.”

He’s investing a great deal of time, money, and hopes in this show. He staged two previous shows just for family, friends, and a few customers just to get the hang of it, and this Baltimore show is the test run for his plans to debut a fall/winter line in Europe next year. And his lively fantasy theme runs through the entire enterprise.

“There’s a little bit more role-play in this than walking down the runway against a strategic white background with pop music,” he says. “It’s definitely work, I can tell you that. But I think some people don’t always appreciate the fantasy side of fashion. They see it as, ‘Who’s going to wear that,’ rather than, ‘Wow, that’s a piece of art.’”

Flipping through his design book, Licari notes the evolution of his current ideas in his designs. He points to a few dresses where he feels the fantasy elements were starting to come alive. And then he turns to two full-color photo spreads. “That’s Miss Italy,” he says, and finishes with quick splash of pride. “This past summer we did a photo shoot with some of my clothing.”

An Italian-American who only learned, by necessity, to speak Italian in the past four years from traveling over there multiple times each year, Licari admits to being drawn to the stately, old-world allure of European fashion. He appreciates its image of sumptuousness and glamour.

“There’s the art part, which I think is very much different,” he says of European couture. “And I don’t know if that’s because Europe’s been around longer and America’s still being established or if we just have a different take on fashion, but I do appreciate European fashion more. Even when things are frayed or distressed, they’re done very well. I like what’s going on over here, but it’s just not to my taste.”

Quality is the elusive mark with which Licari wants to be associated. It’s the reason that his designs are made in Italy, the reason that he works with high-end fabrics from France and Switzerland, and that many of the details are hand-sewn. And it’s the reason he was drawn to high-end women’s fashions.

“Unlike men there’s more delicate fabrics to work with,” he says. “The techniques are—not to say that there’s not a lot of work that goes into a men’s jacket—but when you start working with chiffons and layering them, and sometimes you can take six layers of sheer fabric and stitch them together, and there’s a lot of work in that. And that’s stuff that you really can’t do with guys. I think now people being on the go all the time and having everything mass-produced and running up to the store for convenience, I think a lot of the tailoring isn’t there like it used to be. You hear people say, ‘I want something unique,’ but they don’t want to wait for it. I think it’s something within the last 40-50 years, things have changed—even couture is not the same.”

Licari would like to see that exhilarating rush of exotic glamour return to couture, and he’d especially like to be on the forward fringe leading that charge. One of his 2006 goals is to debut his fall/winter line in Europe—he’s picked the city, he’s just not saying where yet, just as he doesn’t want to jinx the “two major photographers” who want to use his designs for shoots in “two major magazines” by saying their names out loud—taking his Baltimore show to a much larger scale. First, though, he still needs to get through his debut.

“Fittings, odds and ends,” he notes of tasks that still need to be done. “Things that—like feathers, feathers that we’re getting sewn on. I decided not to have them sewn on at the factory but rather here, just in case they got smushed in the packaging. When you’re working with one or two, that’s fine, but when you’re working with tons, shipping gets to be a problem in and of itself. So I decided to do some of the delicate details here. Organizing with everyone. Sets. Now if I could only get the music finalized . . .”

He trails off and looks momentarily overwhelmed by the scale of what he’s orchestrating, but only for a barely perceptible second. His penguin-chill demeanor returns with a blink. “So, no worrying yet,” he sighs, lips curling back to reveal one of those rare smiles. “That comes later.”

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