We look back at the career of late fashion designer Tasha Polizzi, who hitched her star to the meteoric rise of ascending fashion luminaries in the 1970s before shining independently with her eponymous label.
After a courageous battle with cancer, Tasha Polizzi passed away August 9. She will be missed by many as a beloved friend, colleague, mentor, and Western fashion icon. To honor her, we've pulled a profile of the beloved designer from the 2014 archives, in which author Susan L. Ebert recounts time spent with Polizzi, her family, and her top-notch team in their home state of Massachusetts. Read Polizzi's obituary online at The Berkshires Eagle.
The SUV wheels up to the baggage area curb, and cowboy boots-and-jeans-clad father and son Jack and John wave a greeting. John’s a familiar face from numerous years at the Denver WESA and Dallas markets; Jack — tall, rugged and as broad-shouldered as an NFL linebacker — is a new one. The men stow my gear, we strap in, and Jack punches the gas feed to spur the 400-plus horses under the General Motors hood to begin climbing the mountainous roads of ... Massachusetts?
Yes, Massachusetts. We’re headed to the Berkshire Mountain village of Great Barrington, headquarters of Tasha Polizzi Design Studio. Tasha’s husband, Jack , is the company president and son John serves as the director of public relations. Spring is just beginning to grace the Bershires; fuzzy-headed pussy willows and bud-laden forsythia are the first intrepid ones to dare attempt blooming after the unusually harsh winter and subsequent late spring. On our way, we pass through Stockbridge, the quaint hometown of Norman Rockwell, which houses the world’s largest collection of his work, and past the Old Trinity Church — you know, the one where the Alice of Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant” lived — and along the picturesque Housatonic River, burbling and chattering over rocks and under bridges past old, mostly boarded-up, turn-of-the-century red brick textile mills.
It seems an unusual location for one of the Western fashion industry’s most iconic designers. How Tasha and her family came to plant their roots there is even a more unusual story.
Today’s fashionistas might not know the name Geoffrey Beene, but back in the day, Beene reigned as one of New York’s most famous fashion designers. By 1982, Beene had earned his eighth Coty American Fashion Critics’ Award, the most of any fashion designer. In 1984, the Council of Fashion Designers of America created the Geoffrey Beene Lifetime Achievement Award; the list of winners reads like a “Who’s Who” of the fashion world, including Bill Blass, Georgio Armani, Oscar De La Renta, Ralph Lauren, Yves Saint Laurent, Calvin Klein, Karl Lagerfeld, Donna Karan, Tommy Hilfiger, and Vera Wang.
But back in the ’70s, two recent high school grads in Pittsburgh sure knew that name. One of them, Susan, aspired to become a Beene model and was determined to drive to New York to audition. For moral support, she brought along her good friend Tasha. “The New York fashion scene was a world away from what I knew growing up outside Pittsburg,” says Tasha, “where I fished and hunted rabbits and deer with my father. I went to keep Susan company.”
So imagine young Tasha’s surprise when Mr. Beene opened his office door to check out the modeling candidates and pointed at her, saying, “You. Get dressed.” When he offered her a job, Tasha was shocked — and coaxed him into also hiring her friend Susan. Tasha would become Geoffrey Beene’s house model.
“I really got an education on how clothes are made,” says Tasha. “Geoffrey was a fabulous mentor and teacher, and so generous with his knowledge.”
After working with Beene, she signed with a modeling agency — mostly doing runway modeling, both in the U.S. and in fashion shows throughout Europe. “I was known for my ‘chameleon’ look,” she continues. “I could take on the personality of the apparel I was modeling. I loved the ‘story’ of the clothes; I would try to imagine the woman who wore them, and become her.
“Those days, the prominent designers — Perry Ellis, Bill Blass, Ralph Lauren — all traveled in the same circles. Ralph and I had a special synergy and held many lively discussions on fashion design. I had been running around in my dad’s old hunting jacket for years and loved everything Ralph embodied. Ralph saw the designer within me: He told me to come see him when I tired of modeling, and he would teach me everything he knew about design.”
Tasha took him up on it, and for the next 10 years she would be Lauren’s chief of women’s design, followed by several years as director of women’s and men’s design for Calvin Klein.
When Tasha and Jack met and married, the big-city bustle and fast-paced world of New York fashion lost some of its luster and they both began yearning for a simpler life. “Especially after the boys (they have two sons; John and Chris, who is currently a football coach at the University of Iowa) were born,” she says. “I didn’t want my sons to be raised by a nanny. I wanted them to have the same sort of childhood I did, running around in the woods and through the country meadows.”
The Berkshires — Jack and Tasha’s favorite weekend getaway, about two hours’ drive from the city — offered that environment, but no viable employment prospects. “More and more New Yorkers were buying second homes in the Berkshires,” says Tasha, “ but there really wasn’t any place to shop.” The couple decided to open a store in Great Barrington; one with the home furnishings, home décor and apparel to suit the mountain cabin lifestyle. The plan was for Jack to leave his job as a corporate headhunter to “test the waters” for a year while Tasha and the boys stayed in the city and came up on weekends. They procured a corner building smack-dab in the middle of the idyllic village and set about merchandising their store.
“Americans love change,” says Jack. “It’s in our nature. We want new, fresh things. A lot of New Yorkers were buying second homes up here at that time and had to shop for cabin décor in the city and bring it up here with them. We wanted to give them a reason to buy it here, to support the community, to revitalize Main Street.”
As Tasha and Jack projected, the store, T.P. Saddleblanket, filled an unmet need: When the doors opened the first day, the line wound around the block. Twenty-five years later, the store’s still going strong, testament to the charmingly curated goods Tasha selects and her laser-like focus on eye-catching merchandising displays, lighting, music, traffic patterns and the eclectic collection of vintage items used to display goods.
And although Tasha kept designing for others for a brief period — primarily Cambridge Dry Goods — we have Jack, her businessman husband, to thank for nudging her into launching her eponymous label shortly after the Polizzi family made their permanent move to Great Barrington. As Tasha started designing with her own unique vision, unfettered by her desire to dovetail into the vision of one of her beloved mentors, the stunning collections followed fast on the heels of each other.
Today, Jack and John bring me to meet Tasha and the rest of the crew at Tasha Polizzi Design Studio, housed on two floors of a charmingly renovated, `high-ceilinged building catty-corner across Main Street from T.P. Saddleblanket. The sunlight simply pours through the bank of large arched windows on two sides. (A third building, their warehouse, is outside of town along the Housatonic River.) Sumptuous fabrics, sketches and artwork adorn most surfaces. It’s a vibrant, young staff: Ashley Polizzi (John’s wife), merchandise manager; Audrey Downer, design director; Jane Wright, director of sales; Maria Spraat, production manager; Karman Wu, sample maker; and Joe Salzano, head of operations. The other two staffers are Dave Miller, warehouse manager; and Colorado-based Penny Holt, Western U.S. sales manager.
Tasha bounds from behind her desk; she’s as lithe as a gazelle; elegant in tall boots, jeggings, a sweater, knotted scarf and her signature big glasses. She introduces me to the rest of her team, and I’m struck by their youthfulness and exuberance.
“I learned so much from others — Geoffrey, Ralphie —who were such fabulous mentors to me,” says Tasha. “This reflects in the design process as Audrey and I collaborate with each other, building stories for our collections. I believe in surrounding myself with younger, smarter, hipper people and giving them the tools to help them succeed. My goal is to build a bridge of giving back through teaching and mentoring the next generation, as was done for me.”
One of Tasha’s trademarks is that the collections themselves have many varied components, with items to delight women of every age and of every size. “Some garments may skew a little older, some a bit younger ... still, a timeless, classic look ... we know no age, no size. For example, Claire — my friend and sometimes-model — loves this look, but her daughter and her mother want it, too.”
Layering — with cashmere, silk, suede and other sumptuous fabrics — is another Tasha Polizzi signature. “I think we elevate ourselves with the quality of the product,” says Tasha. “We build on our creed of being classic in appeal.”
Tasha’s American Sporting Woman Collection fits that description: It’s a bit Western, a bit English, all wrapped up in a country gentlewoman fly-fisher/upland wingshooter look — right on trend, as Census Bureau research shows a whopping 25 percent increase in women’s participation in hunting from 2006 to 2011.
Tasha came to this intuitively, drawing upon her youthful days afield with her father, designing a classic tweedy jacket and matching vest, trimmed in hunter orange and accompanied by a long-fringed hunter orange suede cape. Jeggings styled like English jodphurs, in both black and brown, shown with a Western-inspired cotton nightshirt and accented with turquoise jewelry are other components of the collection — all fresh, unexpected and timeless.
As Kate and Claire strike poses by the elegant Bugati carriage, I think they could well be descendants of the wealthy English cattle barons who settled in Wyoming in the late 1800s ... part British, part Old West; still having afternoon high tea on great-great grandmother’s English bone china after long hours working cattle.
The look’s pure Tasha.
From the Late Spring 2014 issue of C&I's sister publication, Western & English Today.