Closet Space II: Carter Smith: The Art of Transformation


(Interviewers: Katherine and Angela Sloan, CS Editors for SPACES)

Carter Smith

Carter Smith wearing his own design (in front of one of his silk tapestry designs)

Carter Smith is a fantastic fashion designer, and his garments are as beautiful as any paintings; his handmade fabrics can be worn or tacked onto the wall as a tapestry. The colors are vibrant and inspired by nature. His pieces are one-of-a-kind and are evocative of fantasy, glamour and whimsy. They are silky-soft to the touch, and will make any woman, especially the women of NYC, feel as if she has soared above the noise, concrete and traffic of urban life, and  transformed into a glittering butterfly. Even looking at Carter’s designs gives one a sense of calm and peace; the colors, fabrics, the way all of his pieces flow together, and their cohesion is something really remarkable. What is also so refreshing and wonderful about Carter Smith, which is apparent in the comfort and femininity of his garments, is how much he really loves real women and their bodies.

Debbie Dickinson, the famed supermodel who graced dozens of fashion magazine covers in the 1970’s and 80’s, is now a public relations guru in NYC, and was kind and generous enough to invite Katherine and I to meet Carter Smith at Dejavu, a very chic women’s clothing boutique on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, which is conveniently located next door to Serendipity (just in case shoppers feel the urge for a frozen hot chocolate while trying on pumps designed by Vivienne Westwood). Debbie is also an actress and will be starring in a production of Charles Dickens’ beloved A Christmas Carol as Mrs. Cratchit at the Theatre for the New City in December. Debbie is one of Carter’s biggest fans, and she wears his clothes beautifully. Once a junior Olympic gymnast, Debbie moves and glides as gracefully as Suzanne Farrell when modeling Carter’s garments. Carter’s new collection is entitled Kale, which is incredibly fitting, as the lines and crevices printed onto his garments are as intricate and naturally symmetrical as a leaf of kale. 


Debbie in Carter Smith

One of the most refreshing things about Carter’s aesthetic is that his clothes aren’t fussy: you put them on and you can go about your day, knowing that you look like a fabulous work of art. You also know that you’re going to be comfortable, without the headache of bothering with countless fasteners, zippers and buttons that are only going to weigh you down and feel like modern torture devices. Fabrics that Carter uses include silk, satin, and silk chiffon. They are all very luxurious flowing fabrics that feel wonderful against the skin, and they show a woman’s shape without being lewd or too vulgarly tight.  

Debbie and Essdea

Debbie Dickinson (right) and Essdea model Carter Smith’s designs

Katherine and Angela: Carter, your garments are some of the most versatile pieces that we have ever seen; they can literally be worn dozens of ways. Why is versatility in your garments such an important factor?

Carter: What first caught my passion in designing was bias. In order to make a bias slip dress that was required to sell a coat, I had to really understand what bias designing was really about. There were no guidelines or patterns to work from and the process of discovery began. The more I discovered about bias the more exciting the process became. I actually started dreaming in bias as bias became the logical answer on how to dress women of all shapes and sizes. I was designing bias dresses, coats, slips, skirts, pants. I filled notebooks with sketches and ideas and then would sit down at the Merrow Machine and start sewing.

The first test for my designs was how the garments looked on the mannequins and once that was perfected, I worked on how the designs looked and moved on real women. The versatility came from designing so many different designs and then finding new and different ways for them to be worn after they were made. Part has also been created by responding to requests of women who wanted a particular item that they could not find, and then I found a way to create it from my own perspective.

Debbie Dickinson plays the role of a living doll while Carter Smith demonstrates the myriad of ways his pieces can be worn.

Debbie Dickinson plays the role of a living doll while Carter Smith demonstrates the myriad of ways his pieces can be worn.

K and A: Carter, your incredible prints are so reminiscent of nature and transformation: why do these elements interest you so much as a designer?

Carter: I believe that clothes can be totally transformative. They are like second skins and, when the energy and colors are right, they can totally alter the way we see the woman wearing the clothes. By placing silk dyed like the wings of butterflies on a woman we can actually see her spirit soar and her physical appearance evolve, very much like a caterpillar as it emerges from its silk cocoon. The more organic the colors and patterns, the more natural the effect of the clothes on the wearer.

Debbie Dickinson wearing one of Carter Smith’s designs

Debbie Dickinson wearing one of Carter Smith’s designs

K and A: Carter, tell us about your fashion influences. Who are some of your art and fashion icons?

Carter: I did not grow up in the fashion world; it’s more as if I grew into the fashion world. Never having taken a design class, I had to discover design in my own way. The process started by creating the fabric and then coming to terms with what I was going to do with it. After dyeing silk for several designers I realized that I had to be personally connected to the final garment in order to ever get any recognition: it had to be my label. In school I was a sculptor, which influenced my artistic process. I loved the tactile quality of fabric and, quickly, Fortuni and Issey Miyaki became my two favorite designers/artists. The influence of Fortuni’s pleats and almost architectural quality of Issey’s designs totally ignited my passion.

K and A: Your fabrics are so beautiful; they can literally be tacked to a wall and used as a tapestry or hanged from a window as drapes. Is this something accidental, or do you create fabrics in the hope that they will be worn, and can also be used as a part of decorating?

Carter: For the first twenty years of dyeing, I worked on perfecting three or four techniques which were designed to go on walls either by stretched silks on stretcher bars or banners between dowels. I did hundreds of commissions to adorn the walls and houses of countless clients. It was only in the mid 1980’s when I had oversaturated my market that I turned to women’s clothing to discover a newer, broader market. It was only then that I discovered how exciting it could be to see the silks come alive on the female form.

Young model, Essdea wears a Carter Smith design while lounging in front of Vicky Barranguet’s “Time Flow”

Young model Essdea wears a Carter Smith design while lounging in front of Vicky Barranguet’s “Time Flow”

K and A: How do the places you were born and raised in affect the work you do? Do you feel that you have roots outside of NYC that permeate everything you do?

Carter: Originally, my creative roots came from women that I was connected to that were a big part of my life. My mother was an amazing artist who created an amazing aesthetic environment that not only influenced my taste for beauty but, at the same time, totally inhibited and intimidated me.

She would buy fabric from the fabric store, lay it down on the floor, and cut it out without a pattern. I had no idea that forty years later I would be doing the same thing. Growing up in California and going to college in Santa Cruz was just what I needed to awaken the creative spirit in me. Once it was out, there was no going back.

K and A: Has art and fashion always gone together in your mind?

Carter: Fashion and art were separate in the beginning. The art of the fabric was the initial passion and clothing was left to the designers, just a different venue to get the fabric off the walls and onto the body. I was happy just creating the fabric for the designers to turn into beautiful clothes. But like the artist who signed each wall piece, I desired to have my name on the silk and soon realized the way to have that a reality was for the clothes to come out of my studio. Now in my mind, art and fashion are inseparable.

essdea tapestry

K and A: If you could raid anyone’s wardrobe or play dress-up in anyone’s closet: whose would it be?

Carter: I am not sure I would want to raid anyone’s closet or play dress up, but if I could have the art of fashion on display in my house, I would love a collection that included Fortuni, Issey, Versace and Jean Paul Gaultier. From what I have seen of their creations, they were truly amazing artists first and designers second.

K and A: And, since we all had the pleasure of viewing Vicky Barranguet’s work together (and since your pieces are so much like paintings, Carter): who would you both like to throw red paint on?

Carter: I am not sure what throwing red paint means. I think of Paul Jenkins’ art where he threw red paint among other colors on canvas and by tilting the canvas at different angles let the paint flow together in very organic streams and rivers. Vicky’s painting reminds me somewhat of those masterpieces.

Essdea wears Carter Smith’s designs while standing in front of Vicky Barranguet’s “Somewhere Between my Heart and Ear” (large painting in the center), “Greenscapes” (bottom left) and “Undefined Elements” (bottom right).

Essdea wears Carter Smith’s designs while standing in front of Vicky Barranguet’s “Somewhere Between my Heart and Ear” (large painting in the center), “Greenscapes” (bottom left) and “Undefined Elements” (bottom right).