What do Michelle Obama at Buckingham Palace, Kate Winslet on the pages of Vogue and Adele at the Grammy’s have in common? On each occasion, a woman wowed in Barbara Tfank designs. It’s no surprise that these style leaders selected Tfank. The Los Angeles-based designer collections exude sophisticated tailoring, divine details and luxury. Since 2001, when she seamlessly transitioned from costume design to creating her namesake collection, Tfank has maintained her brand integrity, loyalty to American craftsmanship and impeccable eye for style. All the while, catering to her loyal customer base from the ladies at Neiman Marcus to FLOTUS.
You launched in 2001 and have stayed true to your vision. Is it challenging to do this and create a relevant collection each season?
I listen to my clients and factor in their feedback. My customer wants beautiful, well made clothes in true luxury fabrics. Since the recession I’ve noticed many brands cut back on fabric quality in order to offer better pricing and customers are frustrated. Since my designs are made in the USA, I put extra money into using the finest fabrics available. I explain to my stores that other designers increase their prices 30% for duty, while my extra costs are incurred from fabric upgrades.
No matter what the trend or pressure for reduced price points I offer excellent quality fabrics and fine workmanship. Little by little I see that my savvy customer knows the difference and appreciates my standards. I believe this helps to keep me relevant.
Your design and brand are so strong and consistent while still evolving. How do you maintain this?
Each season I review what pieces have been successful and use that to build upon. Most innovation comes via textiles. I develop many of my fabrics each season, and try to offer a range of color and texture. The silhouettes evolve too. Recently I’ve expanded my evening segment, which features a lot of internal work, such as boning and bustier, which allow a woman to be both comfortable and glamorous.
You have become renowned for using the most luxurious, unique fabrics. How do you select and source them?
I develop most of my fabrics so they are exclusive. When I started out, my collection was made of mostly couture quality vintage fabrics from the illustrious French mill Bianchini Ferier. Working with these fabrics educated my eye. The colors, textures and motifs were of such high quality that my personal standard of excellence was forever set. A few years in I was fortunate to meet an extraordinary gentleman named Marcel Banziger who introduced me to many of the premier European mills. Marcel appreciated my love of beautiful fabrics and really tutored me to the next stage.
Your husband heads the directing department at the American Film Institute Conservancy and you’ve been involved in film as a costume designer. Does historical film play a part in your approach each season?
I adore historical films. Films help me unwind as well as educate my eye. My husband Peter Markham is know for his encyclopedic knowledge of film as well as for mentoring an entire new generation of filmmakers. I’m fortunate to be able to see films, which keeps me in touch. My work as a costume designer was enjoyable for a period of time. Once the epic of blockbuster arrived I knew I wanted to express myself in a more personal manner, which led me to create my namesake collection.
The Lauren Bacall moment for Spring 2015 was memorable. Can you tell us about the show styling and those glorious barrette?
I worked for many years as a stylist and had the great privilege of working with the photographers Richard Avedon and Bill King. It offered me such amazing training. For me, less is more powerful and it’s always important to tell a story. For this reason, I have always styled my own shows.
I’d seen a screen test photo of Lauren Bacall for ” To Have and to Have Not” where she is wearing a barrette. Suddenly the side part with a soft wave and firmly place barrette looked fresh again. Serendipitously, I met Natasha Cornstein of CIRCA at a dinner hosted by my friend Alice Ryan. We were chatting about vintage jewelry and I mentioned how much I would love to find diamond hair ornaments to use as barrettes. Natasha loved the idea and offered to transform antique brooches into proper barrettes for the show! They are available on the PORTERO website.
Has the approach changed since the 1995 Academy Awards when you created the lilac gown for Uma Thurman with Prada?
Yes, indeed! It’s all very corporate now with very little personal expression.
Michelle Obama has worn your designs on many occasions. How did she discover them? Do you know ahead of time that she is going to wear something?
I met with Ikram in Paris who was introduced to me by Christophe Desmaison who was consulting with my company. Ikram selected two dresses for Mrs. Obama. These dresses, in addition to others, have been worn and re-worn over the years. For the 2012 State of the Union address I found out Mrs. Obama was wearing the sapphire blue dress while I was watching it happen, live on TV. I never know in advance which is actually quite fun!
What is your favorite Michelle Obama-in-Barbara Tfank moment?
I still love the photo of Mrs. Obama surrounded by the Wounded Warriors photographed in The White House on April 28, 2010 with a portrait of George Washington in the background. Needless to say, having the great honor of actually meeting Mrs. Obama for the first time at the home of Ambassador James Costos and Michael Smith was the most memorable moment of all!
What are your 3 top business mantras?
Follow my intuition.Beauty is the opposite of violence; I choose beauty. Enjoy each day.
Who are your top three dream customers?
Elizabeth Taylor, Marie Antoinette, and all the wonderful, inspiring women I meet at my trunk shows throughout the U.S.