In the past year Narciso Rodriguez has draped Salma Hayek in rose silk and swathed Sarah Jessica Parker's pregnant curves in scrumptious satin. But the designer, 42, did some of his-most important work circa 1983—in Catholic-school-issue polyester. "Narciso took my uniform apart and fitted it," says his sister Barbara Rodriguez-Socarras, 33, "so I had a pencil skirt with a slit and a tailored jacket." When heads turned at Queen of Peace High in North Arlington, N.J., Barbara bragged, "Well, you don't have a designer for a brother."

That early skill with a seam ripper has paid off. On June 2 Rodriguez, after only six years heading his own line, won the Council of Fashion Designers of America's top women's designer award for a record second year in a row. "To have my work recognized," he says, "is a great feeling." Wearing it feels pretty great too. "In Narciso's clothes, my shoulders seem broader, my waist smaller—he renovates my shape," says his friend Claire Danes. Adds actress Rachel Weisz, his date at the ceremony: "He makes [you] look sexy without looking tarty."

Specializing in sleek lines and fabrics that hug just enough, Rodriguez racked up $20 million in sales last year, a validation of the fame thrust upon him in 1996 when, as a designer for Nino Cerruti, he created the wedding dress of former Calvin Klein colleague Carolyn Bessette. The new Mrs. John Kennedy's silk sheath launched 80,000 knockoffs and made Rodriguez fashion's biggest name without his own label. "I wasn't prepared for the impact," he says. "She warned me. It was overwhelming."

Bessette's death in 1999 left him reeling. "She had an amazing influence on him," says Donna Karan, who worked with Rodriguez at Anne Klein in the '80s. "You can see his love for her in the clean lines." Says Rodriguez, who still finds it hard to talk about Bessette: "She's very present in my life and work."

Yet hardly his sole inspiration. The only son of Cuban immigrants Narciso Sr., 74, a Newark longshoreman, and Rawedia, 68, a homemaker, Rodriguez grew up "surrounded by fabulous women," his sister Barbara says. "My aunt and mother were always talking about their Jackie O dresses."

His parents worried he couldn't make a living as a designer but backed his decision to go to Parsons School of Design in Manhattan, where he now resides with three dogs ("I'm married to my work," he says). Today his family is equally devoted. "I don't have a stitch of clothing that doesn't have his name on it," says Barbara, whose daughter Bianca, 13, "just told me, 'Mom, he's going to do my prom dress.' "

Thanks to a new fitness regime that has helped him shed 35 lbs., he just may have the energy to fulfill his niece's request—despite a hectic schedule producing clothes and a fragrance due out this fall. He wouldn't have it any other way. "There's only ever been one thing I wanted to do," he says.

And his family—including Narciso the elder, a sports fan who now loves the E! channel—couldn't be prouder. "My parents will call me at 3 in the morning," says Barbara, laughing, "and say, 'Your brother's on!' "

Allison Adato
Elizabeth McNeil and Rachel Felder in New York City

  • Contributors:
  • Elizabeth McNeil,
  • Rachel Felder.