Services will be held Sunday for designer Heidi Weisel at Mount Sinai Simi Valley.
Weisel died Thursday at age 59 at a relative’s home in Los Angeles, according to Tom Handley, a Parsons School of Design professor at The New School, who previously worked with Weisel.
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The cause of death was not specified.
Born in San Francisco, Weisel grew up in New York City, where she continued to be based until last spring when the pandemic prompted her to relocate to the West Coast. Her parents Rachel and Shlomo were both Holocaust survivors. As a youngster, Weisel learned to sew from a neighbor, who lived downstairs.
At age five, Weisel got her first dose of designing by making basic wraps for her doll “Skipper.” The designer considered that the starting point for what would be a lifelong interest in fashion and Manhattan remained an inspiration source throughout her life.
Having met Weisel while working in “the deep-end of fashion” at KCD, brand strategist Pam Seidman described the designer as having an “incredible blend of old-school elegance and modern minimalism…she designed specifically for women. She truly understood the form. The dress was secondary to the person. She allowed the person to show up first. That’s why really intellectual, interesting and artistic women were wearing her gowns. Even designers (like Adrienne Vittadini) were wearing her gowns, if they designed daywear, for instance.”
Effervescent, direct and straight-talking, Weisel was a mainstay New York designer in the 1990s and Aughts. After graduating from the Fashion Institute of Technology in 1984, she started her career by working as an assistant designer for Agatha Brown. She later worked for Occhio Coldo in Italy before starting her own signature line in 1990. As an up-and-coming designer, she was recognizable for her all-black ensembles and oversized black doctor’s bag. The heft of the carry-all suited the designer, who liked to keep a measuring tape and collapsible cigar-cutting scissors on hand for any swatches.
In 1990, her collection caught the eye of buyers at Henri Bendel, Linda Dresner and Martha’s. A chiffon tent dress with a fitted dress underneath was among her designs. The original fabric was purchased from Geoffrey Beene, who had more than he needed, according to Handley. But some retailers, like Lynn Manulis of Martha’s, needed a little convincing to buy the six-piece black chiffon collection. Uncertain about the all-black choices of dresses, the retailer had a change of heart after Weisel explained she chose one color to save money. “That’s when we knew we would want to work with her,” Manulis said at that time.
Manulis’ son Andrew Burnstine, who worked at Martha’s, recalled Sunday how Weisel did something that others designers did not do at that time – ask for their opinion of the collection and any potential tweaks that might be done.
Her experience in Europe led to Weisel choosing fabrics from France, Italy and Germany for such looks as a bell-sleeve dress, and velvet pants with a vest and a chiffon blouse. Participating in a Cotton Inc.-sponsored fashion show in 1995 helped to further catapult her career. She also introduced a diffusion line made of matte jersey. But it was her combination of cashmere and other fabrics — a sporty, elegant twist — that set her apart from what was happening in the industry, Handley said.
The New York-based designer came of age in the 1990s with contemporaries like Eric Gaskins, Orazio Fortuno, Donald Deal, Bradley Bayou, Badgley Mischka’s Mark Badgley and James Mischka, Sylvia Heisel and Emo Pandelli. Over time she ventured into new categories such as eveningwear, although with a modern sensibility like luxurious knits.
After nine years in business, she staged her first runway show in 1999. Duchess satin ball gown skirts, body conscious cashmere dresses and tiny bags in leather and mink contributed to her conservative chic.
Weisel developed such a following that a Barneys New York trunk show she hosted in 1997 in Beverly Hills rang up sales of nearly $80,000, thanks to fans like Natasha Richardson. That year, she added a bridal collection and dressed such celebrity brides as Faith Hill and Brooke Shields.
By 2002, she had come full circle, expanding her eveningwear-centered company to offer sportswear again with two to four-ply cashmere and quilted nylon parkas. While the eveningwear was made in the U.S., the sportswear was produced in Scotland, Italy and Hong Kong.
WWD’s former senior fashion editor Barbara Queen described Weisel as being “very refined and elegant” in her designs, and always using beautiful fabrics. “She was a very serious designer and her clothes were very serious, but not heavy-handed,” Queen said. “She was more refined than most designers at that time. There was a great attention to detail.”
Weisel was also an early believer in celebrity dressing, taking a suite before the Golden Globe awards in 1997 and then again at The Mondrian Hotel before the Oscars in 2000. Barbara Hershey, Debra Messing, Oprah Winfrey and Emily Watson were a few of the celebrities who she dressed for the red carpet. Weisel grasped the global reach celebrities could have before the practice of celebrity dressing became a cost of doing business and in some instances a pay-for-play opportunity. Weisel was most proud of outfitting Vanessa Williams for her appearance with Luciano Pavarotti on “Saturday Night Live,” Handley said.
Recalling how the first go-round led to dressing more nominees than Armani, Weisel told WWD how stylists, actors and musicians wandered through. In 2000, Julianne Moore and Salma Hayek were on her wish list. “But who knows? It’s hard for these girls to stay loyal to a designer the way that Audrey Hepburn was to Givenchy. Coming out for the Oscars for us is like an athlete going out for the Olympics. But it is always worth it,” she told WWD at that time.
In 2015, Weisel was among the designers who created collaborative lines with Dress Barn to offer more affordable options under the Mixt by Weisel label. In a video for the program, Weisel spoke of her inspiration: “I love New York. It’s this great big city. It has everything you could possibly want in terms of culture. There is such diversity, photography, the arts, architecture. Everything inspires me — great food, great music, great people.”
Weisel said she loved designing dresses because it involved creating an experience or a memory for a woman. “Every woman deserves to have clothes that she feels great in and at the price that she can afford,” she said.
The designer continued to sell custom clothes and sportswear under her label. in late August 2020 Weisel started an initiative to help women and families dealing with breast cancer and ovarian cancer in the U.S. Through a partnership with Standard Textile, Weisel gifted her company “Rachel” robe to members of Sharsheret’s “Embrace” community. Her philanthropic efforts included a collaboration with Neiman Marcus to support the Susan G. Komen Foundation.
In recent years, Weisel and Handley reached out to colleges and universities to donate pieces from her collections. The designer wanted students to see beautiful product and to see her “amazing” ability to combine cashmere, satin, chiffon or organza, Handley said. The aim “was to place the entire archives so that others could really learn from it.”
Seidman, a friend of Weisel’s for 28 years, noted how the designer was a committed member of the Council of Fashion Designers of America. “She truly understood the need for the organization and the way that it nurtured the next generation,” Seidman said.
Referring to Weisel’s personal code, Seidman said, “She wasn’t in it to race through life. She was in it with a soul and a lot of character.”
Weisel is survived by a brother Jack. Sunday’s service will be a virtual one.
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