Your first big break was working with Halston. How did that come about?
I walked around with my portfolio for 8 months before FIT [The Fashion Institute of Technology] sent me out on a freelance assignment for Halston! I was asked to sketch 85 hats at $1 each within one week. I finished everything on time, but Halston kept adding his ideas to the pile. He made change after change and, in the end, he didn’t want me to finish. So he decided to make a job for me. I started at $85 per week, and that changed the course of my career. Halston opened every door for me. He took me to Europe, took me to parties, introduced me to the famous people of that time—Jackie O, Diana Vreeland, Salvador Dali, Bette Davis—I was young and naive and thought this happened to everyone! All I wanted to do was have fun. It was only later in life that I realized the opportunities he gave me. He was truly my first and most important mentor.
How does the fact that you're also a designer influence your sketches?
When I started my career as an illustrator, I had to learn that there was little room for artistic license when the designer you are working for wants his vision translated. You sketch what is already designed and made. Illustrators interpret the design, but they do not create it. I create the design and then illustrate it. But most importantly, by knowing how to make clothes as well as illustrate them, I know that whatever I put down on paper can be made. I think about whether the design will sell and where someone would wear it. I know how to direct the pattern maker on how to expedite my sketch ideas and make the garment.
Was this what you eventually wanted to do when you attended FIT?
The first time I went to FIT I was training to be a fashion illustrator, not a designer. I started off doing ads for Bergdorf Goodman, but after 8 years the work became scarce. Even though things were tough for illustrators, it wasn’t until I started working with Halston on his very first women’s collection that I started to think more about design than illustration. I started to feel limited as my emphasis on the art did not balance with the mechanics of knowing how to make the garment. So I went back to FIT and took courses in pattern making and draping. That led me to change my focus to design.
Each designer's sketch has a unique flavor—the body positioning, the attitude, the way it's shaded. What's your particular style?
I think of myself as a purist. I can’t accept anything less than an accurate drawing in my sketch. I stress movement in my figure even if it’s standing still … it has to look relaxed in the pose; nothing is forced or over-exaggerated. The pose has to be modern, young and sexy but not overt. Often I will add my signature shadow to add to the drama. It all has to look easy, interesting and visually exciting. Just as you would want the design outcome to be.
What was the collaborative process like working with Ralph Lauren?
The collaborative process with Ralph was excellent. We connected on all the necessary levels, including aesthetics, taste, silhouette, sensuality and color sense. I knew how to design clothes before joining Ralph Lauren, but learning to design clothing in the lifestyle Ralph created pushed me to new limits. Ralph was my lifestyle mentor. I credit him for teaching me to become a complete designer.
The iconic pink dress Gwyneth Paltrow wore at the 1999 Oscars was a collaboration between you and Lauren. What's it like to see one of your creations in such a high-profile setting?
It was like winning the Academy Award! It was so exciting to be a part of that process. It’s nice that the dress is still being discussed today. I have the original sketch and fabric samples framed in my studio.
Learn more about Audrey on her site, AudreySchilt.com.