narciso rodriguez THERE IS A four-letter word that American designer Narciso Rodriguez uses with uncensored frequency. None of the usual suspects, of course. Despite his jet lag and demanding press schedule, the diminutive designer is a perfect gentleman - charming, polite, easy to talk to, obviously talented. Negativity, it seems, is simply not part of his vocabulary.
And why should it be? In the two years since he made headlines by designing that wedding dress for his close friend and former Calvin Klein colleague, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, Rodriguez has been the darling of fashion editors and celebrities alike. So when the 'L' word leaves his lips yet again, one forgives him because there is no doubt that the man truly, emphatically, loves what he does. Right down to those little details that make all the difference.
'I love shoes, I love bags, I love belts. I'm really into gloves right now - I love a glove,' proclaims the smitten 36-year-old. And that's just accessories. For himself: 'I love a sweater, I love a great coat and I love a great jacket, whether it's junk or it's Yohji. I love to put it on under a T-shirt or a great cashmere sweater. That's how I live. It's very real,' he says, before correcting himself, 'Actually, I don't like to say 'real' anymore. I just say practical - it's practical.' Curled up on the couch of his Peninsula suite, the designer - dressed practically in a white V-neck, khakis and trainers - cannot contain his enthusiasm. He has spent the day antique-hunting on Hollywood Road, having lunch at The China Club, and then, so the trip has some redeeming cultural value, visiting the historic Man Mo temple. This last stop, he says, impressed him the most: 'I was so awed going to that temple today. The colours, the smell, the women, the atmosphere: it was moving.' Sightseeing aside, Rodriguez also made sure that everything was running smoothly at his first signature boutique, which was opened last April in the Landmark. While this is the primary reason for his stopover, the designer also claims, unsurprisingly, to have special affection for Hong Kong: 'Some cities I travel to for business and have no desire to return, but I always wish I could spend more time here. The pace, the heat, the energy, the water,' he says, gesturing towards the panorama outside his window, 'I'm never far from my camera, taking pictures of things I love, of people on the street, or sketching in my little sketch pad with all of my coloured pencils.' As he tells it, the young Narciso started sketching as a child growing up in New Jersey - a state better known for its distinctive drawl and big hair than fostering fashion foundlings. Which is probably why, as a teenager, he escaped to the Big Apple to study at the prestigious Parson's School of Design. Asked if, at any point in his life, he ever pictured himself as something other than a fashion person, Rodriguez laughs. 'I would be really, really sad if I couldn't be what I am,' he says, with mock drama. Since this is a hypothetical question, he gives it a go, listing musician, photographer and architect as alternate career possibilities before conceding, this time seriously, 'Forget it. I could never imagine not being a designer.' Initially, such conviction did not go over well with Rodriguez's new immigrant parents, who would have preferred their first-born son become what so many first-generation Americans aspire to: a doctor or lawyer. 'My parents came to the United States from Cuba in their 20s, didn't speak the language, and then their son wants to become a fashion designer? I think it was a bit hard to take,' he says with understatement. And what do they think now he has been honoured with so many accolades and awards, not least of which is Designer of the Year from the Hispanic Society of Washington? 'They're thrilled. My father, the jock, who only ever used to watch boxing and baseball, now knows every fashion television show. He lives for it. It's really cute.' In addition to his well-received signature line, which is just two seasons old, Mum and Dad can also be proud of their son's much-publicised debut collection for Loewe, the 150-year-old Spanish label he was recruited to revive following a two-year stint as womenswear designer at Cerruti. Discussion of the latter, which ended under less-than-ideal circumstances, has been a delicate subject with Rodriguez in the past. Indeed, it is telling that the position is not even mentioned by name in the chronology provided in his press kit - an omission which, considering the excitement it generated at the time, must be intentional.
Surprisingly, the designer is quite forthcoming about his Cerruti experience. 'To be honest, it never made me think twice about working for another design house. I mean, just because he couldn't get his act together ...' he says, referring to former employer Nino Cerruti, who is rumoured to have resented the younger designer's growing fame. 'I feel bad because I really think that in the two years I was there I [reached a] point where it could have really evolved into something great for him. Also, it cost me a great deal of money because I wasn't paid, so it ended up being a very petty experience,' he continues, with the slightest tinge of bitterness. 'But things happen and I try not to look back. You move on. You learn.' At this point, the PR, who has been sitting in on our interview due to time constraints or, more likely, taboo territory, starts to look nervous. Taking his cue, Rodriguez chides her amicably, as he has done on a few occasions during the interview, before telling me, 'She's smiling and pacing, she's looking at her watch, I think she's rushing us ...' Playfully defiant, Rodriguez leaves me with one more thought before getting ready for his next engagement, 'I don't mean this in an obnoxious way, but when you put that much love into everything and you see it there, all that love, one after another on the rack, it keeps making you wanting to go on and do more, and keep going and going and going.'