The designer returns with a brand-new collection that brings his aesthetic to a wider audience
Robert Lee Morris is right back where he started. A pioneer of the art jewelry movement who rose to prominence in the 1970s, the 65-year-old designer has had a storied career over the course of which he’s earned two Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) awards and a Coty American Fashion Critics award. He’s had high-profile collaborations with Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen (for their Elizabeth and James label), Calvin Klein, and Donna Karan (for whom he created 36 collections), and a successful retail store in New York City’s SoHo district since 1978. After stints as a Warner Bros. licensee and a presenter on QVC, plus 12 years in the rarefied world of fine jewelry, Morris was approached in 2011 by Haskell Jewels, the parent company of couture costume jeweler Miriam Haskell, who scooped up his brand for an undisclosed sum.
Butterfly ring in gold-plated brass; $250
This fall, Haskell is recasting the brand as an affordable jewelry collection that will debut at retailers like Bergdorf Goodman, Kirna Zabête, and Henri Bendel. “I was not born for [fine jewelry],” says Morris. “I was born to be more available than that.” Settling down with a glass of homemade lemonade at his Fifth Avenue studio to discuss the relaunch, Morris says Haskell has given him significant financial backing, a first-ever national advertising campaign to be rolled out in magazines like Vogue and InStyle this month, and resource and design support. What that’s given Morris is an enormous amount of freedom to do what he loves—design. “I’ve managed to remold myself to accommodate the zeitgeist of the world and the economic challenges by doing always what I do best,” he says. “And by having this amazing signature style, it’s just kept me moving over each wave as it comes. And this is the last wave.”
Peter Pan Collar in gold-plated brass; $725; Robert Lee Morris, NYC; 212-764-3332; robertleemorris.com
Morris’ signature style—specifically his work in the ’70s that included bubble collars, African breastplates, knuckle rings, and body armor fashioned from beaded strands—served as inspiration for the new collection. The look of those pieces made fans of the Haskell family long ago and has stood the test of time, placing Morris among the few jewelry designers still relevant from the disco age, like Angela Cummings and Elsa Peretti. Haskell’s aim—to introduce new generations to the Morris aesthetic—was a sure thing from the start.
“We were familiar with his work and, as a company, we were looking to acquire a brand with a very strong identity that we could get behind and grow,” says Gabrielle Fialkoff, president and chief operating officer of Haskell Jewels. “When the opportunity presented itself, all the pieces fit together.”
Morris’ bubble collar on the cover of a 1976 Vogue
Fialkoff says Haskell is setting up a blueprint for a Robert Lee Morris expansion through collaborations, a watch line, and greater retail distribution. Although specific details have yet to be ironed out, “the sky’s the limit,” she says. For now, however, all eyes will be on the reception to the new collection. “There are reoccurring themes from the ’70s, but there’s a balance, always a balance,” says Morris, as he explains each group in the line, including the futuristic Galactic series and the Static series, whose geometric symmetry is achieved by overlapping contrasting metals.
“There has to be the architectural side, the clean, sleek, aerodynamic,” he says. “Then there’s the tribal, which is passionate, bold, and is more fantasy. I’m always toying with the two. I want it to be soothing to the eyes and to the senses as well as tickle you and pinch you and give you a little startle.”
|Static double cuff in silver and hematite-plated brass; $1,250|
|Split cuff in hematite-plated brass; $375|
|Static necklace in silver and hematite-plated brass; $1,195|
In all, there are some 40 pieces ranging from ’70s-inspired black-lacquered bubble cuffs to more avant-garde pieces like rings that look like they’re melting on the wearer’s finger, block-like links that fit together to make geometric bracelets, and cuffs, rings, and two-finger rings that appear to freeze-frame numerous stages of an insect’s wings in midflight.
Morris (with Donna Karan and Calvin Klein) received a lifetime achievement award from the CFDA in 2007.
Unlike many designers of his day, Morris’ primary inspirations aren’t the street, flea market finds, or fashion magazines. Rather, movies like Iron Man, superheroes, and science fiction stir his creative juices. “I can be making the things that future archaeologists are going to find and be able to know what this culture was all about,” Morris says.
The design sensibility is bold and somewhat out of this world, while the brass foundations plated in gold, silver, and gunmetal keep the prices down to earth. Most hangtags at retail will range from $125 to $1,200 with the sweet spot falling between $200 and $700.
In many ways, the current boom in the costume jewelry business mirrors the climate Morris faced in the ’70s. Then, like now, the economy was touch-and-go. But disco balls twirled throughout the land and there was a taste for big, bold jewelry. The designer cut his teeth on metals like brass and sterling silver, which was as affordable as brass at the time, and thus captured the mood. Haskell is betting he can do it again.
|Galactic necklace in gold-plated brass; $1,250|
|Block bracelet in gold-plated brass; $795|
|Galactic double finger ring in gold-plated brass; $395|
Most important to Morris and Haskell is to avoid fine jewelry. “There aren’t very many people with money left,” says Morris. “And [the price of] silver and gold—it can only go up. So why play in that garden?”
Morris learned how to adapt to his environment as a kid and those lessons have paid off. Born in Germany to a father in the U.S. Air Force, he moved 23 times during his childhood before landing in a commune in Wisconsin in the 1960s, where he discovered he could make money through jewelry making. The following decade, he arrived in New York City, where he showed a collection of hammered cuffs and breastplates in sculpted metal. The pieces caught the eye of an art dealer who started selling the jewelry in her Sculpture to Wear gallery in the Plaza Hotel. In 1976, a gladiator bubble collar landed Morris on the cover of Vogue, and his Studio 54–era jewelry would subsequently land him in every issue for the next seven years.
“I think that the life of adjusting is what has given me that flexibility, the ability to bend with the times and still survive,” Morris says, pausing to reflect on the enduring quality of his designs. “The bubble collar—it’s so crazy because that’s exactly what we’re doing right now, the thing we’re making right now.”