New York Get Bradley Bayou talking about Rockefeller Plaza, and you'll understand his unlikely journey from real estate developer to top fashion designer. It's all about architecture.
Bayou, head designer and creative director for Halston, loves the functionality and beauty of a development like Rockefeller Plaza in New York City, which houses office space, retail shops, restaurants and an ice rink and is anchored by a landscaped plaza with plenty of places to sit.
"It's beautiful and impressive, but it also invites you to hang out. I love that. Function is just as important to me as design. And when I design clothes, I really intend people to wear them," he says. "I'm trying to make people look better."
In an industry that often encourages women to adjust their bodies to fit into clothes instead of the other way around, Bayou's attitude is not the norm. An admirer of architects Richard Meier and Michael Graves, with a lifelong passion for painting, Bayou aims to use principles of proportion and scale in his designs.
"I design for runway models because that's the best way to present, but my clothes can be adjusted for anybody. And I'm not embarrassed to say that," says Bayou, who says there is a stigma against designing for larger women.
Bayou is proud of the fact that he has dressed women of all sizes, from Debra Messing and Halle Berry to Oprah Winfrey and Queen Latifah.
"Let's be real; the average size in this country is size 14 now. So who are you dressing if you're only dressing size 2?" Bayou says. "I'm totally not a snob about it. I think everybody has their pluses and minuses. Even the 6-foot models."
Bayou's attitude toward plus-size women is not typical in the fashion world, but neither is the way the developer-turned-designer broke into the business.
Bayou's fashion career began while watching, of all things, an episode of MTV's "House of Style" in the early 1990s. Cindy Crawford was extolling the latest trend, hand-painted vests, and Bayou wasn't impressed. He told his friends that he could do better, and they challenged him to do just that.
Bayou's hand-painted vest was a hit when he wore it to a black tie event, and a friend pitched him to Fred Segal. To his surprise, the Los Angeles retailer ordered a batch of the vests. Bayou was so green that he didn't know how to size the vests, so he bought them big and made them one-size-fits-all. But before long, Neiman Marcus in Dallas and Barneys in New York had made orders as well.
"It all started with that dare," Bayou says. "A month after seeing that 'House of Style,' I was in the top stores in the country."
A few weeks later, Neiman Marcus called Bayou to ask about his spring collection.
"I said, 'What?!' And I was in business," he says.
Bayou eventually created a couture line that caught the eye of actress Geena Davis, who chose a pink ball gown in 1992 when she hosted the first Academy-sanctioned Oscars pre-show. It was Bayou's first big break in a career that has benefited greatly from celebrity clients.
After Davis' appearance at the Oscars, Bayou's creations were red-carpet regulars. Leeza Gibbons, Jenna Elfman, Marie Osmond and Berry were early customers, but Bayou's next huge break came when Winfrey wore a pale yellow, corset gown that wowed the crowd at the 2002 Emmy Awards when the TV queen accepted the Bob Hope Humanitarian Award. Since he joined Halston, Bayou has outfitted Queen Latifah for the 2003 Oscars and Cynthia Nixon and Wanda Sykes for the 2003 Emmys.
Being true to himself
After a career built on celebrity clients and TV appearances on "The View," "Regis & Kelly," "The Other Half" and Lifetime's "Operation Style," Bayou faces new challenges as head designer and creative director at Halston.
To begin with, the label has gone through a string of designers who have never been able to step out of the shadow of the house's founder, Roy Halston Frowick, who died in 1990. Frowick made Halston a fashion force in the 1960s and '70s, epitomized by the pillbox-style hat worn by Jacqueline Kennedy at her husband's presidential inauguration.
"When I look at the work that they've done, it's like they were trying to do what they thought (Halston) would do instead of being true to themselves," Bayou says.
The spring 2004 collection is understated and elegant in true Halston style, but Bayou added whimsical touches, like a striking orchid-print strapless ball gown that started as a negative of a photograph of the flower, and a turquoise minidress with hand-painted fish he says was inspired by an underwater photograph in National Geographic.
"My attitude is, nobody did Halston better than Halston. He did it best," Bayou says. "He's in me somewhere -- his sense of cleanliness, of making women look better, his sense of elegance and simplicity -- they're all in me. I understand that. And that's where it ends."