Bill Robinson

A look by Robinson photographed by Steven Meisel circa 1989

Text by Vicki Vasilopoulos

Bill Robinson was a rare breed of designer—articulate, modest, and enormously intuitive. He was one of the few American menswear designers to achieve a worldwide reputation in the 1980s. His clothes had their roots in classic American styles but also reflected a tradition of European design. They were an amalgam of fashion basics and sophisticated, elegant sportswear.

Robinson was inspired mainly by the period of the 1930s through the 1950s, considered the golden age of American sportswear. Yet he always strived to be “up-to-date, contemporary, modern,” in his own words. The innate American character of his philosophy was expressed in a quote in the May 1991 issue of Esquire regarding his spring-summer 1991 collection, “My summer collection tells little stories, from Main to Florida.”

Ironically enough, having once designed uniforms for Avis and TWA, Robinson set his sights on eradicating uniforms for men and opening up the horizons of menswear design. Wearing an unconstructed suit to work is fine, he seemed to say. And rather than donning a runof-the-mill denim shirt and jacket, one could wear an indigo washed silk shirt and blazer—a casual yet eminently sophisticated ensemble that sacrificed nothing to comfort. Taking the classics as his starting point, he designed modern clothes for forward-thinking, creative men who were unafraid of their sensuality.

Robinson’s formative years were spent working on the menswear collection for Calvin Klein. “Somehow, by fate, when I moved into menswear, I really took off,” he said. Robinson made his reputation with sleek leather jackets and body-conscious knits, setting the standard against which other menswear designers were judged in these categories. He himself wore one of his signature looks, a black turtleneck, and managed to look chic yet down-to-earth, setting the tone for his collection.

He put his individual stamp on schoolboy ties, CPO shirts, regatta striped blazers, and mackinaw jackets. Robinson was a master of subtlety and a superb colorist, qualities brilliantly expressed in a seminal show staged at New York’s Plaza Hotel for the fall 1989 season, when he launched his Japanese license with Kindwear. A velvet corduroy suit from the fall 1991 collection is among the best examples of his work, combining the utilitarian quality of a common fabric with the plush and rich color associated with luxury clothing. The collection was also the start of a new direction for the designer, who adopted a softened approach casting aside the excesses and “power looks” of the 1980s.

Having brought American design to a world-class level, Robinson also collaborated on advertising campaigns with such equally renowned figures as photographers Steven Meisel, Kurt Markus, and Guzman, raising the level of fashion photography in the United States. For his fall 1992 collection, Robinson included such classic as pea coats, slim, flat-front pants, a host of knits, short overcoats, and a generally slimmer silhouette. He combined the rugged with the urbane in a mackinaw jacket shown over a one-button business suit and a mock turtleneck. As he had commented, “The lines between work and play are blurring.”

With his backer, Bidermann Industries Corp., Robinson was also forward thinking in his pricing structure, making the collection accessible to a wide range of customers and emphasizing the value-price relationship way before it was in vogue in the post-Ronald Reagan era. The fashion world, however, was robbed of this forward-minded designer in 1993, when Robinson died at the age of 45. Robinson’s modesty was reflected in his designs, clothing separates easily incorporated into any man’s wardrobe. They weren’t block-buster looks with a limited shelf life, but modern classics that would never go out of style. A testament to these qualities and Robinson’s skills came in 1996, three years after the designer’s untimely death, when his longtime companion and business partner, Leo Chiu, as well as other principals of Bill Robinson International, decided to save the floundering company through several new licensing agreements.

Three companies picked up the Robinson mantle: Male Concepts Inc. signed on to relaunch Robinson menswear in spring 1997, with suits, sports coats, full coats, and a range of trousers, from dress to casual; the Dino di Milano Corporation, headquartered in Miami, took the license for Robinson knit, woven, and dress shirts; and the New York-based Roffe Accessories company was slated to release Robinson neckties and socks. Chiu told Miles Socha of the Daily News Record, (19 August 1996), “This is something [Robinson] always wanted. We wanted to find suitable licensees we could trust, and [I] think we’ve found them.” Though Robinson designs had been licensed in the past to backer Bindermann Industries and the Plaid Clothing Group, both companies had gone into bankrupcty proceedings.

 – reposted from


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