Born: New York City, 12 February 1969. Education: Special student, Fashion Institute of Technology, New York, 1986-87; studied fashion design at Parsons School of Design, New York, 1987-88. Family: Married; children: two daughters. Career: Apprentice, later employee, of Koos Van den Akker; produced first small collection in Van den Akker studio, 1988; showed first full collection, 1990; closed couture business, 1995; initated bridge designs with backing of Equal 4 Inc., 1995. Awards: Honoree, Cotton Inc. "Celebration of American Style" show; Council of Fashion Designers of America Perry Ellis award, 1990. Address: 18 East 17th Street, New York, NY 10003, USA.
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In 1990, a week after his first show and at the young age of 21, Christian Francis Roth was heralded by Women's Wear Daily as Seventh Avenue's latest boy wonder. Acclaim came stiflingly early for Roth; Vanity Fair had already photographed Roth with his ingenious dress-form dress (now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art) in August 1989 and in the New Yorker of January 1990, Holly Brubach proclaimed of Roth's designs, "These clothes would look first-rate in Paris or Milan or Timbuktu. It is already too late to call him promising. There is, in his clothes, nothing more to wait for." Such immoderate and unanimous praise could only be withering to many young artists, but Christian Francis Roth earned the adulation and has only gone on to warrant further accolades.
Yet after the last hurrah and congratulations, there is the designer who works as a consummate technician in a tightly circumscribed aesthetic. He reaches not for the gold ring of commercial success and recognition like other designers, but instead for a level of virtuosity and quiet quality in his work. Roth is an artist as evidenced by his vocabulary of forms conversant with such artistic elements as Surrealist trompe l'oeil, used in the dress-form dress (1989) and his wool jersey dress with illusionistic inset collar, cuffs, and belt (1991). Pop Art-derived concepts from consumer culture are represented in the spring 1990 Cartoon collection featuring daffy squiggles and suits with buttons looking as though they were spilled out of M & M candy bags.
Roth's breakfast suit (1990) breaks some eggs and prepares them sunny-side up, while his "Rothola" crayon outfits play with the children's toy for making art, and his scribbles and pencil-shaving skirt and jacket provide the means for artistic delineation. His 1990-91 wrought-iron (or, as he says, "Roth-iron") fence dress (also a jacket and jumpsuit) was partly indebted to the artist Jim Dine, while the dollar bill dress, which wraps the body in oversized bills, owes more than a buck to Andy Warhol. His spring/summer 1991 collection included a suite of brilliantly colored dresses inspired by Matisse's découpages.
While Roth's whimsical and artsy clothing was a hit with women, not everyone was amused with his creative borrowings. In late 1990 Hallmark Cards Inc., which owned Crayola, threatened to sue the designer for trademark infringement. Hallmark's unhappiness was two-fold: not only had Roth appropriated the trademarked Crayola crayon design, but the company had plans for its own clothing line through mail-order giant Speigel. Although the Speigel Crayola clothing was intended for young children, the companies felt Roth's designs were too close to their own intended collection. Roth disfused the imbroglio by agreeing to become a licensee and pay fees for the Caryola/Rothola motifs.
Admitting such debts did not diminish Roth's luster and originality, however, for each artistic enterprise is different, and Roth has scrupulously chosen to take from art only what he accommodates to the construction of clothing. His inlaid panels, sometimes compared to the finest marquetry, are a skilled fabrication in the pattern of the garment. While some fashion designers have sought to poach on art's prestige and to steal some aesthetic thunder, Roth has committed only the most discriminating larceny, flattering both art and fashion. His concern in integrating scribbles into the form of a garment is more integral to his medium than the cartoon appropriations of Pop Art. When he brings Matisse's cutouts to dressmaking, he does so not as surface decoration, but as pattern pieces to create the three-dimensional shape of the garment.
Roth's small collections were likewise developed with the concentration and formal intensity of musical form. His fall 1992 collection studied menswear. The lyrical spring 1992 collections included cocktail dresses that set up a 1950s bar and became the drinks themselves as well as a black cotton sateen dress with a diamond ring homage to Marilyn Monroe. In fall/winter 1991, his principal studies were Amish quilts which Roth translated from the spiral concentricity of flat quilt patterns into the piecing of dresses and circle skirts. Combining some techniques of color blocks with the rich harmonies of American quilts, the collection emphasized Roth's handmade warmth and beauty. Accompanying the quilt patterns, Roth provided a congenial coterie of hoboes in a trickle-up theory of fashion for clients not accustomed to a trackside way of life.
In the 1990s Roth changed his tune, closing his couture business in favor of lower-priced clothing. He told Ken White of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, "I just didn't think it was worth doing anymore." Roth further explained that the high-end couture collections were not a prime moneymaker. "Not that money has ever been my motivation to do what I do, but there comes a time [when] you make a career on what has been a successful craft for you. So, I more or less put the word out that I was interested in a different kind of situation." This new "situation" has been designing bridge clothes for young women and teens with a lower price tag, usually more than half the cost of his previous collections. The sweaters, skirts, pants, and shirts, still colorful and lighthearted, are sold in department stores.
Having matured and reached his 30s in the new century, Roth is still as quirky and fresh in his designs as when he vaulted to the top echelons of fashion barely into his 20s. Though he gave up the couture lifestyle and even settled into fatherhood, he still thinks fashion should be fun and functional. "You're in charge of your own destiny…. You have to make it work for yourself," he told White of the Las Vegas Review-Journal in 1997. "As long as you make great clothes, there's really nothing that can go wrong, particularly. It's always nice to have a good backer, a good situation, good promotion and merchandising. But that all comes from making nice clothes. I believe if you make beautiful things, people are going to want to get behind you."
Like Geoffrey Beene, whom he admires, Roth is an American designer of extravagant gift who has chosen the almost scholastic life of precious technician and exacting artist. Dubbed the "next Franco Moschino"or the "Schiaparelli of the '90s," Roth has worked with the unceasing patience and the quest of an artist to achieve in measure and modesty what others cannot attain in magnitude.
updated by Nelly Rhodes