Zack Carr De-Kleined Calvin to Sew Up His Own Success in Italy

updated 10/06/1986 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/06/1986 01:00AM

He wears white socks with dark shoes, a limp six-year-old blazer, chino pants and pale pink owlish glasses that play up the cherubic quality of his face. His warm smile and thick Texas accent ring true. "The incredible thing about Zack Carr," says fashion designer Michaele Vollbracht, "is that when you meet him you think he's straight off the farm. Then you see his work and your teeth fall out."

After nearly 10 years as Calvin Klein's chief assistant, the 40-year-old, silver-haired Carr dodged his master's shadow, fled to Italy and now is the talk of the fashion world. His first fall collection was a smash in the U.S. and the fussy New York Times quickly hailed him as a rising star. His sleek inspirations have made him a darling of Women's Wear Daily and inspired loyalty from such opposites as Isabella Rossellini and the Eurythmics' Annie Lennox. "Zack Carr represents the Audrey Hepburn-Breakfast at Tiffany's simplicity," enthuses Ellin Saltzman, fashion director of Saks Fifth Avenue. "It's fantastic understated chic."

Carr, who now lives in Turin, had been expected to challenge Klein, Ralph Lauren, Perry Ellis and Donna Karan with just another expensive line. Instead, he pulled a fast one: He unveiled the first couture-quality sportswear collection by an American designer. More surprising, he manufactured it in the stitcheries of Europe, brashly confronting the reigning kings of fashion on their own turf. "I thought it was time to create clothes that would exhibit the quality of a designer collection but that would be comfortable and mass-produced," Carr says. "The pink jacket with the sapphire blue blouse and black skirt is okay on Dynasty, but not the American working woman." Still, Carr's clothes (knits and leathers are his specialty) are hardly destined for the typical working stiff. The average outfit retails for $700, and some go for as much as $2,300.

It was in May 1984 that Carr left his $50,000-a-year job with Klein. "I had to do something on my own," he says. When word got out he was leaving, Carr rebuffed fast-talking promoters who wanted to make him the "next Calvin Klein." Says Carr testily: "There is only one Calvin Klein, and I'm not him."

Parting with his longtime mentor was bittersweet. "It was a very emotional thing," says pal John Calcagno, 35, a former Klein designer who is now Carr's partner and roommate. "Zack felt he had given everything he had to give to Calvin." If Klein felt betrayed by the defection, he didn't say so publicly. "He's been only supportive of Zack," says one Klein insider.

Carr and Calcagno sold their possessions, pooled their funds and, without any career plans, set off to visit friends in Milan. Within nine months, Carr was working again, having been wooed into a partnership with GruppoGft, the Turin-based manufacturer that licenses the ready-to-wear of Emanuel Ungaro, Giorgio Armani and Valentino.

Carr's passion for designing was apparent as a child. Growing up in Kerrville, Texas, eldest son of a real estate developer and homemaker, he loved drawing and architecture. Frank Lloyd Wright was an early idol. Embarrassed to be seen buying fashion magazines, he memorized the pictures at newsstands and then drew them at home. "There were real cowboys where I went to school," he says. "Emotionally, I knew I was different." He graduated from the University of Texas at Austin in 1969 (Farrah Fawcett sat next to him in art history) and moved to New York. His mother had died of leukemia when he was 9, and with her inheritance he later attended Parsons School of Design in New York. After that he worked briefly for designer Donald Brooks, moved to Morocco in 1975 and then returned to work for Klein as a $250-a-week sketch artist.

Serious, sincere and a bit long-winded on the subject of style, Carr goes to great lengths for quality. He took the swatches for his fall collection to Cannes so that he could match colors by the dusk of the same light that inspired Picasso and Matisse. The result comes not just with his promising new label but with philosophy as well. "I want that one customer who says, 'I want that one dress and I don't care what it costs,' " he says. "A woman needs a dress she can put on and say 'I can take on the world.' "

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