Two sisters stood at the podium, ready to make their remarks at their father’s memorial service. A projected image of their dad gazed down at them, and when the younger sister talked, often through tears, the older sister did what she could to offer support. That evening, both daughters told stories of a man who was a mentor to the design world and who would do anything to make his two girls happy. Sometimes he would sing his daughters’ praises. Sometimes he would just sing. And sometimes — always to the joy of those who happened to be around him — he would dance.
His name was Carlos Falchi. He came to America in the 1960s from Brazil. Once in the U.S., he started working as a bus boy at a restaurant in Fort Lauderdale to finance his life and adventures. A hard worker, Carlos maneuvered his way up the ranks in the kitchen until he heard word of jobs in upstate New York and took a position at a resort in the Catskills. It was a fun spot — like Grossinger’s in “Dirty Dancing.” He stayed there until he found out that Max’s Kansas City in Manhattan was hiring. He packed his bags and moved to New York City.
After some time at Max’s, he eventually became the club’s night manager. He liked it there. The celebrities. The performances. It wasn’t just a job. It meant something. Max’s had a special energy that resonated with him.
Next to the club, located at 213 Park Avenue South, was a fabric shop. The kind that sold all types of leather scraps. Carlos, whose mother had taught him how to sew, would make leather pants, belts, vests and jackets and then wear them to work.
One night at Max’s, Miles Davis’s drummer asked Carlos where he got his pants. “These pants?” replied Carlos. “I made them. And I can make them for you!” Davis’s drummer was surprised, but he said he’d like that. Carlos obliged. (He would soon go on to make clothing and accessories for Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Tina Turner, Mick Jagger and Elvis.)
Through Hancock’s wife, Falchi learned that on the first day of every month Henri Bendel allowed new designers to come into the store and show their pieces. Excited, Carlos stuffed his designs in a bag he created from scratch and headed up to the Fifth Avenue retailer. A woman who worked there at the time examined the clothes and said they were adequate, but was captivated by the bag the clothes were delivered in. She thought it was remarkable and asked him for thirty. And she wanted them in one week.
Carlos, both nervous and excited, said he could deliver. He went home and made 30 bags, dying them in the bathtub of his apartment.
“The point,” his older daughter Kate Falchi will later tell me, “is that he just wanted to be in design. He liked to construct things. He was flexible and willing to do anything.”
When Carlos Falchi passed away, on March 27 of this year, it was reported that Kate would take over the line, which has been in existence for over 40 years. To the excitement of many clients and friends, the Carlos Falchi legacy would continue.
A few days after the service, I track down Kate. She agrees to meet with me so I can learn more about her family and her plans for the future of the Carlos Falchi brand. The showroom, where we will do most of our talking, is located in Manhattan’s Garment District and is a stark art gallery white — apart from the dozens of colorful handbags that sit on rows of shelves throughout the space. Some of the bags have graffiti-like slogans. Many are blends of leather and fur. All appear to be made from exotic, expensive skins. To my surprise, only a mere 10 feet away from where we sit, hidden by an unassuming door, is their factory. This is where all the Carlos Falchi bags are made.
Kate was born Ana Katherine Falchi, but her father liked to call her Bunch. “Nicknames,” she says, nodding her head. Her parents met for the first time in Texas. Her mother, Missy, was a Dallas debutante. She was a fan of Carlos’s work. At the time, she worked for Neiman Marcus. Her job was to coordinate with the store’s designers and help with their personal appearances. One evening she was told that Carlos Falchi was to make an appearance. “That’s when they finally met,” tells Kate. “Right away, they developed a friendship.”
Carlos, head over heels for Missy, would do anything he could to see her. Once a month, Neiman Marcus would host country-specific themed events and then invite notables from that nation to the store to celebrate. Carlos would find out about these parties and attempt to transform his ethnicity. “If the event was for Russia, he’d be Russian that night,” Kate recalls. Carlos and Missy were married in 1983.
There are two patterns that emerge when Kate talks about her father. First, whenever she quotes him, she does so in an endearing accent that sounds a bit like Desi Arnaz playing Ricky Ricardo in “I Love Lucy.” Second, she often ends her statements with one-word affirmations that seem to satisfy her. “Yeah,” she’ll say after a comment about her dad, confirming its validity. “Definitely.”
Some of her earliest memories are of her father’s flashy outfits and colorful artworks. “I immediately knew Daddy was different,” she recalls. “First of all, he wore bracelets up to here,” she says as she points to her upper forearm. “He would always be painting, always be doodling. Being creative — that was how he rested.”
Later, Kate will tell me about the first time she drew a handbag. She was eight. “I drew a Dallas bag and a Brazilian bag in honor of both my parents,” she says. “When [my sister and I] were little, we were drawing all the time. It was either drawing or putting on performances.”
When Kate talks about her childhood she can make it sound as though she grew up in a New York City that is not like the New York City you or I may know or imagine. “We had a backyard,” she beams. “Growing up in the West Village — or ‘the Willage,’ as we called it — was different. People could run around. We even had a tree house.”
I ask her about school, and she says that she attended Saint Ann’s, then Hewitt, then Poly Prep. So did her younger sister, Juliet. Kate did her undergraduate studies at Trinity College in Hartford, where she majored in English literature and fine arts. At first, she had little interest in going to Trinity. She wanted to attend the Rhode Island School of Design or Parsons. But her parents insisted that she first get a liberal arts education. If she wanted to go to an art-specific school later, they’d gladly allow it.
After she graduated college, Kate had to follow another Falchi family rule: Everyone must work for two years outside the family business. She decided to pursue politics, interning for John McCain as a researcher on immigration and campaign finance reform. She seemed to find it exciting in the way a physics major may get a thrill from taking a Japanese film class for fun. “I knew that it wasn’t ultimately what I was going to do,” she says.
What she wanted to do was work for her father. She was going to be a designer. But just like she did on the Hill, she was going to have to start at her father’s company from the bottom of the totem pole.
While she was learning the ropes of the handbag business, she also attended Parsons for graduate school. There, she studied fashion and clothing. She figured she’d get the accessories education from her dad.
When I ask her what she learned at Parsons, she tells me that she figured out how to be very efficient with her time. She also says that she learned a lot about Photoshop, which she still uses to help with many of her designs. “At Parsons, I found that you were either a draper — and you were a great drawer — or you were a great pattern maker — and great with a computer. There were students you knew were going to go drape for Zac Posen and tech students who were going to work for Victoria’s Secret.”
After we talk about Parsons, she wants to show me some of the bags in the showroom. There is one I recognize immediately: the Buffalo bag. When she hands it to me I am surprised by its weight. It is significantly lighter than most bags I have picked up.
“The beauty of the Buffalo satchel,” says Kate, “is that it is one piece of leather. One piece! My father took it, cut out a shape, gathered it, draped it…and that was it. And yet, it’s so iconic. At the time, they called it the most copied bag — ever.”
Curious about the brand’s relevance in today’s saturated market, I ask Kate how she plans to get the attention of the millennial customer.
“Historically,” she says, “the Falchi customer has always been the grandmother and the mother and daughter. It’s all about making a statement bag, not so much trying to make it work for certain niche age groups. I think that limits you. We had this one client who sent me a picture of a Falchi bag that her mom gave her when she was 20 — she’s now 40 — and it had this military look with fringe. That bag is still hip now. ”
I lob a few more questions about where the Carlos Falchi brand stands today. And, oddly enough, that’s when I ask the first question that appears to stump her: "And your title is?"
When I say this she let’s out a long “Ummmm…” and then responds with, “That’s a good question. President and head designer?” she asks, her voice rising in tandem with her shoulders. She considers this for a moment, agrees that it might be true. “President and head designer,” she repeats, this time with the Kate confidence I am accustom to.
Your role as head designer, I interject, must be different from your role as the president?
“It is,” she says. “I don’t think you have a choice. No longer can you be the artist in the castle. I like traveling and being connected to the customer directly, cultivating those relationships. But I also like coming up with new shapes and experimenting.”
One of Kate’s earlier contributions to the Carlos Falchi line was the graffiti bag. She had just broken up with her boyfriend at the time and decided to write her feelings on a scrap of animal skin. Her dad spotted the scribbles and mentioned that they looked good. Kate wasn’t so sure. “Don’t be so afraid,” he pressed. “Go for it.” Once she completed a few bags and was happy with the outcome, the line launched at Bergdorf Goodman.
“I know how lucky I am,” she concedes. “Having him as my father and then having that opportunity — not many designers starting out get that.”
The graffiti bag is still a major part of the Carlos Falchi collection. According to Kate, it is actually one of the more popular models. “I made one for a lady who was 90 and I made it for a 23-year-old,” she proudly announces. “It’s edgy but classic, and I don’t practice before [I do the graffiti]. If you practice, you lose the spontaneity.” The depth of this statement is amplified by her choice of canvases. The words are painted on exotic skins worth hundreds of dollars. Mistakes can be very costly.
What sort of mindset, I ask, do you get in before you do one of these?
“I put on a little rock and roll music or whatever and then I just sit down and do it. It sounds crazy, right? Some people get nervous for me.” But Kate isn’t nervous. Not even slightly. “I’m not going to make a mistake. Or if there is a mistake I have to allow it to become a thing.”
“Yeah. And that’s okay. It ends up having more of that grittier, cooler, bathroom-wall kind of thing. You don’t let it get too precious. If it’s too neat then it almost looks like a cartoon.”
After an hour or so in the showroom, we take a walk through the factory. Inside, there are two rooms divided by a wall with a small doorway — about 350 square feet of combined space. Just as it was for her father, making the bags in New York is a point of pride for Kate. She will not have it any other way. As we walk around the space, she introduces me to some of the workers, many of whom she has known since she was little, and shows me a few of her father’s paintings and drawings that hang on the walls. Curious about their relationship in the studio, I ask her if her father was ever stubborn to any of her design ideas. “Oh, we would battle it out sometimes,” she replies, “but I think that makes for a better creative process.”
In the last few minutes, as we prepare to leave, she tells me that it feels comforting for her to be at work right now. “Call me a workaholic, whatever,” she mutters. “It’s important to mourn, obviously, but as these things go, there has been a brand resurgence.” Eventually, she tells me, she will take some time off to grieve her dad’s passing. But today, watching her stand where she and her father worked together for so many years, I see a rather cheerful Kate. It seems partly to be the joy she gets from talking about her dad, and partly that she feels happy keeping his business alive, and partly the lingering effects of Carlos Falchi’s eternal presence in the factory. Whatever the cause, I notice that she is fixated on something and then I realize that she is looking at one of her father’s paintings. “I feel he is always in my head,” she tells me, “that I have him right here as my little angel giving me guidance. I hope that lasts forever.”
As she says this, Kate smiles at me, solidly grounded, perfectly graceful and infinitely grateful. “I’m surrounded by his work and legacy — and I feel that like a warm blanket.”
Before we say our goodbyes, I take another glance at three photographs of Carlos Falchi that hang in the main showroom space, the same images that gazed down at the stage during his memorial service. Somehow the frames have all swayed in different directions. One even appears to be swinging. Kate suggests that it’s probably from the work going on behind the showroom wall. Perhaps she is right. It seems a logical explanation. A moment later, however, her close family friend and current publicist Julia Flynn offers another solution as to why the pictures of Carlos may be crooked. Flynn’s suggestion is highly implausible, but it is not meant to be about feasibility. It is a simple gesture of faith.
“Oh, come on,” she assures with a smile, “that’s just him dancing.”