07/14/1980 at 01:00 AM EDT
It was a hot Manhattan evening, and 900 guests in an ornate Rockefeller Center bank were dunking California strawberries in their champagne and waiting for designer Michaele Vollbracht's latest collection—and outrage. In 1978 he had Brooke Shields
, then 13, modeling a bridal gown. This time his boosters went wild as an Adonis-shaped dancer—wearing nothing but white tights and a black codpiece—shouldered a 75-pound plaster horse's head across the marble lobby, sinking repeatedly to his knees in feigned ecstasy.
Mixing such camp theatrics with splashy high fashion is the trademark of Michaele Vollbracht, a 1980 Coty Award contender and, at 32, the newest razzle-dazzle darling of Seventh Avenue. Launched in his own business two years ago, he is already dressing Paloma Picasso, Barbara Sinatra, Angie Dickinson and Elizabeth Taylor in flamboyant silk prints based on his original paintings. He has won accounts coast to coast with Neiman-Marcus, Saks, I. Magnin and Giorgio's of Beverly Hills—not bad for a former fashion illustrator who established his name in 1975 creating Bloomingdale's designer-signature shopping bag. Says Bill Blass: "Michaele is flamboyant, courageous, jazzy and enormously talented. He's what the American market needs at this moment."
Or at least Hollywood, the inspiration for his line, which runs from $300 to $5,000. The star-struck Vollbracht, who faithfully visited friend Joan Crawford during the last three years of her life ("We drank enough vodka to sink a ship"), now worships client Liz Taylor as "the last of that dying breed of real movie stars." Michaele often dyes her gowns violet to match her eyes. Motifs for the hand-screened silk gowns in this fall's collection include "the Senator's Wife's Palm" in her honor, plus a clutch of Canada geese, a Japanese tattooist and a nude discus thrower. His own alley cat Ruth Auschwitz (so named because of the number tattooed in her ear by a pound) has also starred in many of his prints. "I see the '80s as a snake shedding its skin," Vollbracht proclaims. "It's time for a new direction, and I think I'm that direction."
Fashion's new direction was born in Quincy, III. and grew up on Army bases from Kansas to Puerto Rico. During the Korean war his lieutenant colonel father was wounded in the face and left the service. "He survived but became a totally different person," says Michaele. When he was 10 his mother, who designed her own clothes, gave him a batch of theatrical costumes, including bumblebee outfits he used to dress his friends in. "I understood Joan Crawford," he notes, "because I was an abused child too. My mother was so frustrated from being pent up and poor that she was often wild with rage. But her abuse made me flourish."
After high school in Kansas, Michaele (he added the "e" at 13 because his mother was named Bettye) went to study at New York's Parsons School of Design. "The first day there I saw two boys in the men's room putting on makeup. I had dressed bumblebees, but believe me, I'd never seen anything like this in my life. I thought I'd die." While working part-time for Geoffrey Beene after school, it dawned on him halfway through one hush-hush project that he was sketching the wedding gown for Lynda Bird Johnson. Over the years Vollbracht also apprenticed with Ben Shaw and Donald Brooks, and worked with then ailing Norman Norell on his 1972 retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Vollbracht recalls, "Norell said to me, 'Michaele, don't take any of this stuff seriously. It's all bullshit.' "
Right now Vollbracht and his three cats are looking for a new apartment because his landlord, Gore Vidal, has doubled the rent. Eager for his own museum show, Michaele is at work on his celebrity portraits and has completed Bette Midler (for whom he also did a record album), Dolly Parton, Greta Garbo, Lillian Hellman and Françoise de la Renta holding Oscar in her lap. To relax, Vollbracht takes walks, often rummaging through thrift shops for shirts and Bermuda shorts selling for under a dollar. "I'm addicted to old and comfortable," he says. "I could never wear anything new. Besides," he adds, "I think the prices of my own clothes are outrageous."