In the world of jewelry, Robert Lee Morris needs no introduction. The iconic fashion jewelry designer is known for his bold aesthetic, which he cultivated without any formal training. Joined by Lisa Berman, owner of Sculpture to Wear Gallery and West Coast dealer for the Robert Lee Morris archives, Robert was a recent guest on the Jewelry Journey podcast, where he recounted his four-decade career and revealed what’s next for him. Read the transcript below.
Sharon: Welcome to the Jewelry Journey. Today, my guest is renowned fashion jewelry designer Robert Lee Morris. Fashion jewelry designer is just one of the many hats he has worn. He is self-taught and started out going door-to-door to sell his work, and he has since garnered the fashion industry’s most prestigious awards, including the CFDA Lifetime Achievement Award. We’ll hear about his jewelry journey and the factors he sees as contributing to his success today, but first we’ll hear from gallery owner Lisa Berman, no relation, who owns Sculpture to Wear here on the West Coast. She was recently appointed as West Coast dealer for the Robert Lee Morris archives. She’ll tell us how she and Robert started working together. Lisa and Robert, I’m so glad to have you.
Robert: Great to be here.
Lisa: Thank you, Sharon, always great to be here.
Sharon: Delighted to have you. Lisa, you’re up first.
Lisa: Thank you. First of all, I wouldn’t be sitting here speaking to you from the West Coast as proprietor of Sculpture to Wear if it weren’t for Robert Lee Morris. He has given so much to my journey of studio art jewelry and being a collector and educator and a promoter of fashion jewelry and Sculpture to Wear. I acquired the name in 1998 and started in 1999, and it wasn’t until 2003, I think, that I wrote him a letter. I was too afraid to call him. Imagine me; I wrote him a letter. It was completely authentic. I told him how, as a young teenager, his work influenced me. When I first went to New York in 1985 and when I first started working in the fashion industry in Los Angeles, I visited Artwear and I was completely blown away. This was a completely new world. I had no idea. I had seen some of the things in fashion magazines, and to see the work in real life was incredible. It took me until 2003, when I had shown all these other incredible artists and jewelry artists and designers, I wrote a letter and said I would be so honored to show your work at what is now the West Coast version of Sculpture to Wear. I think I hit the send button, crossed my fingers, said a prayer, and then he responded with a very lovely response.
It was a dynamic show in 2005. He came out and it was so fun to see. He brought one-third of the show out of his personal archives that were just from his 35-year retrospective show, another third of the pieces were available, and then some of his newer contemporary pieces. He brought his Dremel. Women were wearing their Robert Lee Morris pieces from the late 70s, 80s and he was signing them. It was fantastic. It was a well-received show. I had to build a tent in the back of my gallery to host his book signing. Then, we brought him to LACMA, L.A. County Museum of Art, and he did his presentation to accompany his book, “The Power of Jewelry.” It is still one of the highlights for me personally in my career, but also for Sculpture to Wear’s West Coast journey. I’m so honored and happy to introduce you, Robert Lee Morris.
Sharon: That’s a great story. Both of you have fabulous stories, inspirational in terms of taking risks and not doubting yourselves, or even if you did, it didn’t stop you. Robert, you’ve covered a lot of ground in your 50-year career. You’ve been a gallerist, a retailer, a sculptor, a manufacturer. Can you give us an overview of your jewelry journey?
Robert: My jewelry journey has been nonstop. Now it’s going into 51 years as I continue into the next chapter, which is going to be even more fun than anything I’ve done yet, I believe. I see a vision in my third eye—let’s put it that way. This is where in my imagination, I envision, I visualize myself doing these things, and it’s almost like magic that if I have the vision of it I can make it come true. I’ll just start with the beginning of my story, which was that I was educated all around the world. My parents were in the Air Force and by the time I was 18 years old, my parents had made 27 major moves, so I was speaking many languages; I had learned many different cultures. The most important of those was my four years growing up in Japan, where I learned all of the Japanese—they’re like Samurai arts. You learned how to make a flute; you learned doll making; you learned ikebana flower arranging; you learned all kinds of aesthetically pure arts, calligraphy, things a normal American child would never even understand what it was about.
We were all doing it, and it was an abrupt change when we were transferred to Charleston, South Carolina, where I was the only person who had even been out of the state by the time I was 15 years old. It was difficult being surrounded by a lot of—basically, I have to say they were rednecks—in this little town I was in, and I was seen as a freak. I ended up becoming a little star of the school in the art department, which in that world was not a good thing to be. I was getting very depressed there in the Charleston area when we were suddenly transferred to Rio de Janeiro, where I finished high school. In Rio de Janeiro, I learned all the opposite things I learned in Japan. While Japan was all about this aesthetic purity, Rio was all about sensuality and rhythm and sexual energy.
When I graduated, I went to a very liberal arts school in Wisconsin called Beloit College. At that time, it was very progressive. It had an incredibly progressive program of going to school on campus and then going out into the world and getting a job, and then coming and then going back out in the world. I was having an amazing education. I went in as premed, if you can believe it, thinking I wanted to be a doctor or a healer of some kind. I remember when I was little boy around five years old, I would sit on the steps of our porch and sing Jesus loves me songs. I was completely convinced that I wanted to be either a preacher or a doctor. Years later, as I found myself on QVC speaking live to hundreds of thousands of people around the country, I was actually being somewhat of a preacher and somewhat of a healer, as I got so many testimonial telephone calls live on air about how women felt when they wore my jewelry and how it soothed their spirit and spoke to their soul. I was gratified that I was following the vision I had when I was five years old.
Sharon: Wow! I wanted to mention that we will be posting images of your work with our show notes when we post this on the Jewelry Journey website. We’ll also have a video of your presentation that you gave—I think it was at Pratt—which gives a fabulous overview of your whole career, and you couldn’t say it in 25 words or less. If anybody has a chance and wants to hear the whole story, it was very inspirational to me. It’s interesting, because I didn’t know how you grew up. Now I see the pieces fitting together.
Robert: And there are great visuals in that presentation, so many big blowups of the jewelry I’m showing on the slides, and Pratt did a beautiful job of editing that video. I’m so glad we got our hands on it and that you can add to this Jewelry Journey podcast.
Sharon: It was fabulous. If you Google your name, you come up in many different ways, but this put the pieces all together. You’ve had many successful collaborations throughout your career. Do you usually initiate those, or do people normally approach you like Lisa did?
Robert: No, I didn’t initiate any of them. I decided to teach myself jewelry after I graduated college. I taught myself jewelry in a craft commune that I put together with eight or 10 of my friends. We became a real hippy farm, the ultimate hippy farm. I was discovered first through the craft farm. Someone started to buy my work and sell it for $10, $12, $15, and I was starting to get a sense of, “Wow, I can make a living here as a hippy.” Then, the farm accidentally burned down and I was forced to leave. I was forced to move to the East Coast and shelter with a friend until I could figure out what to do. When the horrible winter I waded through was over, I taught him everything I knew about jewelry making and the two of us opened a shop in Bellows Falls, Vermont. It was there that I was discovered by a very famous person, Joan Sonnabend, who had just opened Sculpture to Wear in the Plaza Hotel.
Sharon: In New York.
Robert: In the Plaza Hotel, right. Anyway, Joan saw my work. She invited me to come to Boston and show everything I had, and when I did that, she basically said, “Oh my god, you have to let us represent you exclusively. We are going to make you famous. There’s something going on with you and it’s major.” Within a year, I had a one-man show in New York City at Sculpture to Wear. The fashion editors came and they went crazy, because the work I was doing was exactly the kind of thing fashion needed at that time, and they didn’t know it. I started having editorial coverage. I had just barely begun in jewelry, and what I was doing was out of a background of understanding culture, anthropology, sociology, psychology, even biology, everything together informed my work. But the most important thing, Sharon, was that through the sociology classes I was taking, through the work of Marshall McLuhan, I understood that artists are the antenna of society. It is the artist’s job, his duty, to be the conduit for the rest of the people to that mysterious, ineffable land of imagination. It is the job of the artist to reach up and pull down everything that is so unmaterial and bring it into the material.
Sharon: That’s interesting, wow!
Robert: Everyone has a job in society; everyone has a duty, but the artist’s job, because he’s got this gift, is to share the ineffable with the public. That gave me a very strong model, like a code. This was my way of being. I always said, “Does this match up with my code of honor? Am I making jewelry that truly reflects the society around me?” Then I saw myself making jewelry that would be dug up in the future by archaeologists. I was under the understanding, by studying anthropology, that everything you dug up from the past revealed how that culture worked, so I wanted everything I made to reflect the world around me. I was driven to be very focused on the ethics of what I was doing. I was so motivated to be a pure artist. I had no interest in jewelry. I had zero interest in setting stones. I didn’t even like to look at jewelry much. I was interested in how to make things wearable that were out of my imagination, out of the books of history, like the ancient Romans or the ancient Celts, what the armor was like, or the mechanisms, or how they made horse bits, the metalwork and the beauty of the repoussé that was done by the early Celts in gold or bronze. That made me crazy. I loved it. I was more directed by the ancients, but at the same time, I had a foot in the future. I felt like I was standing with my left foot in the past, my right foot in the future, and it was my job to bring these two realms together for today.
My work had an immediate iconic look. It was simple; it was clean; it was bold, and it was exactly the finishing touch for what fashion designers like to use on their clothes and on the catwalk. Sculpture to Wear closed, unfortunately, because they sold the hotel, and they didn’t feel like going on anymore. My sales from Sculpture to Wear was more than all the other parts put together every year, so that was a problem. The Picassos, when they sold, were very expensive, but my work sold every day, and I kept getting editorial coverage and requests for exhibitions. Something wonderful was happening, so when it closed, I had no choice but to open my own gallery, and that was because none of the stores knew what to do with my work. They had a fine jewelry department and an estate jewelry department. They had costume jewelry, but what I was making was completely different, and they didn’t know what do with it. They loved it. I had already been on the cover of Vogue. They knew who I was, but they didn’t know what to do with what I was making. I had no other choice but to be an entrepreneur.
Three years after I moved to New York City, I opened Artwear on the Upper East Side, right around the corner from the Whitney Museum. It was across the street from where Andy Warhol was going to open the Andy-Mat Restaurant, which never opened, but I thought it would have been a good location for me. The only people that came in and bought things were very wealthy billionaires from Park Avenue. They would come in and buy the most fanciful pieces and take them out and wear them at Studio 54 and get publicized. The other thing, Sharon, that’s important is that because of my merchandising direction, how I showed the jewelry and how I built the gallery was completely revolutionary for the jewelry world. I created what looked like something out of the Museum of Natural History, like a diorama. I created these tall, room-like cases with sliding glass walls. I would create these full-blown, four-feet, five-feet, six-feet high displays using my secret weapon, which was the body cast. I made life casts, body casts, using two or three different people whose bodies were amazing, and they were the attraction. People would see the body casts with the jewelry on it and it was a double whammy. It created an environment so when they walked off the sidewalk into Artwear, they couldn’t tell if they were in a museum or if they were in a store. It was a whole new thing, so that created an enormous amount of publicity, not just from the fashion magazines, but with New York Magazine, with the New York Times, the New York Post, Washington Post. All the newspapers around the country wanted to do stories about me and about Artwear. It was a sensational time for us.
Then, we were invited to move to Soho, because we were a hot thing and we didn’t like being on the Upper East Side. It wasn’t very busy there. We opened on West Broadway at Spring Street, which is the heart of Soho, at a time when Soho was just starting to become known for its art galleries. When we opened, I had five dollars left to my name. It was either that or move back up to Vermont. The next I knew, hundreds and hundreds of people were coming in a day. Our business skyrocketed, and then because of the publicity and the buzz—let’s just say the word “buzz” is major. In New York City, the buzz going on in the world of art and artists and fashion, we were the buzz. All of the fashion designers started coming by to check it out. The first fashion designer that grabbed me was Scott Berry. Scott Berry was a black fashion designer who was very good with sensualist jerseys—
Sharon: Robert, can you back up a minute. Scott Perry was a black designer who—
Robert: Scott Berry with a B.
Robert: Scott Berry and I worked together a little bit, and I understood what this was all about. Then, when I finished with him, I was asked by Bill Kaiserman, who was also a major name, up and coming. I worked with him, and then Geoffrey Beene came into the gallery and asked me to work with him. He was known as the god of fashion at that time, Geoffrey Beene, literally one of the most respected fashion designers in the world and an ego to match. I did work for him and I worked my ass off. I had to work night after night and take things to him and I said, “Now, you’re going to give me credit in the program, of course,” because he wasn’t buying any of this; he would give it all back to me after the show, and I said, “But at least you’ll give me credit.” He’s notorious for not doing that, and he said, “Absolutely, absolutely.” Well, he did not give me credit in the show, and the next day in the Daily News, Priscilla Tucker, who is the fashion editor of the Daily News said, “The Geoffrey Beene show came alive when the Robert Lee Morris jewelry started to come out on the runway, but Beene did not give him any credit.” That kind of launched me. Everyone suddenly turned around and paid attention to what I was doing, and he, of course, banned her from any more shows.
The next major thing that happened was Calvin Klein came to me, and the two of us concocted the most amazing fashion collection. From that, I won my Coty Award. This was 1981, and there’ll be lots of pictures of that. It was one of the most sensational collections he ever did. He was very young, of course, at that time, and he was with Brooke Shields and Steve Rubell and we were all hanging out together. I was getting involved in this world of the high-end glitterati. Then I started with Kansai Yamamoto almost simultaneously, and Kansai was one of the most flamboyant Japanese designers. He’s the one who did all the clothing for David Bowie. He fell in love with what I was doing and asked me to work with him. For the next three years, I did jewelry for his runway shows, which often were shown up to 50 thousand people at a time. They were extravaganza shows like they have in Paris; we don’t have that in New York, but in Paris, they went all out with sets and crazy drama. I learned on-the-job training and I hung out with all those fashion designers, like Claude Montana and Thierry Mugler and Christian LaCroix and Lagerfeld. We were all partying together. We would sometimes go to Venice together after the show schedule.
It was a fabulous time, and I was learning so much on the job. It was shortly thereafter that Donna Karan called me and said, “I need you to come and work with me. Give me some jewelry for this collection at Anne Klein,” so I went to her. Anne Klein had started to work with her and Louis Dell’Olio, and two years later, she was so successful that they fired her. She went on to start the Donna Karan Company and she said to me, “Do you want to come with me as I start my new company, or do you want to stay at Anne Klein with Louis?” and I said, “Well, since you asked first, I’ll go with you,” and history was made at that point. For the next seven years—
Sharon: Can you repeat that? I think we lost the audio for a minute.
Robert: For the next seven years—that’s 28 collections in a row, because—
Sharon: Oh my gosh!
Robert: Yeah, it’s spring, summer, fall and winter or a resort, and I had a design contract with it. It was Robert Lee Morris for Donna Karan for a couple of years, but after that, it was just Donna Karan Jewelry, and everybody knew it was me doing it. For that I received a nice amount of money, and, of course, I had the manufacturing rights. We created and made everything that Donna sold all over the world. So, here I am, with suddenly a new million-dollar business with Donna Karan, and at the same time, I’m doing my own collections. I would say by about 1988, 89, things were sizzling. My brand had become so well-known, not only in New York and the major fashion cities of the world, that I became kind of a household name for people interested in fashion. There are so many reporters who wanted to tell my story. It would go into syndicated columns in the newspapers, Associated Press, and it would spread all over the country in every little newspaper. It was fun. I enjoyed the notoriety and the glamour, and I enjoyed the pressure of working nonstop like that.
At one point, I was asked to be the keynote speaker at SNAG, the Society for North American Goldsmiths. They had their annual convention in Atlanta one year, and I was asked to be the speaker. My subject was how I do 18 collections a year, and that included my four for Donna, my four for myself, my handbag collection, my scarf collection, the fragrance collection I was working on, the Swid Powell Collection for dinnerware, and then there was the men’s collection. At that point, Donna Karan started asking me to do things for DKNY and her men’s collection, and it was just overwhelming how much work I was trying to do. Anyway, when I finished this talk in Atlanta, three-quarters of the crowd stood up with a standing ovation. The other quarter booed because I was seen by so many of these academic jewelers as a sellout, that I had given into the pressure of the high-glamour world of fashion magazines. The other three quarters of the crowd turned on them and the day went into these wild debates.
The fact is that I’ve been published over and over, and so many of these academic jewelry artists, jewelry designers, jewelry design students had never been published in anything, or if anything at all, it would be a local newspaper. They were curious to know how they get to the point where they can be published like I was being published, and I never thought about it before. Before that lecture, I had never thought about how fortunate and amazing it was that I had been so well-covered, and it was because I never stopped and I was always breaking new ground in Artwear itself. I became known as the father of the designer jewelry movement, who created this bridge between costume jewelry and fine art. It was called bridge jewelry, also known as designer jewelry, and all of these stores opened new departments for what I was doing. They would have exhibitions of Artwear with all the people I had, along with other people in New York City whom I didn’t represent because they had their own businesses, like Janis Savitt and many others. I created this new industry for the high-end stores and boutiques and fashion shops who sold high-end clothing and accessories. They all wanted Artwear; they all wanted the designers I sold at Artwear; they wanted my work. I didn’t know anything about wholesale and manufacturing. I had to learn step by step. I remember in the Calvin Klein show alone, that created such pandemonium that Saks Fifth Avenue wanted to be the launching store, and they wanted to put it in all 50 of their stores. You should have seen me sitting in my workshop, trying to hammer out all these pieces. I finally hired someone to help me, and all they did was sit there and hammer collars all day. I would come in to see them, and they’d be stoned on weed because they were so bored hammering collars all day. I realized, “Wow, this is really turning it.” It was almost like I didn’t have control over this runaway train.
Like I said in the video you’re attaching to this, when I received the Lifetime Achievement Award, I said my career was like a bottle rocket on the Fourth of July. It exploded and went straight up and just kept going straight up. It wasn’t until the early 90s, when we had a recession, when we had the Gulf War, all off a sudden there was this reaction against the excess of the 80s. The 80s were a time of tremendous excess in everything. The dotcom business was out of control; the fashion world was so overblown, and I was part of the reason for that as well—big, bold, crazy jewelry, big shoulders. Channel went crazy with pearls. Everything was dripping with pearls. There was Christian LaCroix and the poufs, do you remember that? It was almost like the golden age of fashion on speed. It was crazy. Then, when the Gulf War hit and then the recession, everybody got quiet. Suddenly, there were no accessories shown in the magazines. Women stopped wearing makeup. They stopped getting their nails done. They stopped wearing belts. Everybody went plain, plain, plain as this statement of penitence. This was the mood of fashion, and it put a lot of people out of business. Rhode Island was the center of the accessory world in many ways, and factories closed right up. Leading fashion stores all over the country went out of business.
Our business plummeted, and eventually I had to sell my company to a giant diamond firm called M. Fabrikant. They wanted to buy a designer jewelry company because they knew that was the future. I left the fashion business completely and went into the world of fine jewelry, gold, diamonds, platinum. Shortly thereafter, I was starting to show my work at the Couture Show in Scottsdale, where every year they have the crème de la crème of jewelry store retailers and the crème de la crème of jewelers. I’m talking Tiffany and Van Cleef and the biggest diamond companies like Graff. There I am in my booth, with all of this really big jewelry, big silver cuffs, and the retailers would come by and say, “Well, who in the world would ever wear any of that stuff?” My scale was so beyond anything. Their cases couldn’t even hold my jewelry. I couldn’t take it anymore. It just wasn’t me, and I finally ended up moving to a different company, a costume jewelry company called Miriam Haskell. Miriam Haskell was the largest costume jewelry company in the country, and they’d been wanting Robert Lee Morris all along. They had been stealing my designs and copying them for years anyway. They bought the company from Fabrikant, and then a couple of years later—I’m talking from 2013 to about 2015, 2016—that whole business collapsed. The costume jewelry business collapsed. Retail collapsed. Brick and mortar started to collapse, and poor Haskell was starting to go bankrupt. They had to sell themselves to this mega company called Centric Brands, which was a $3 billion fashion brand company, and that’s who I’ve been with all this time. They own the brand, the trademarks, but they have just filed for bankruptcy, too. This jewelry journey is really not over yet, Sharon.
My next plan is, I have the rights to use the name Robert Lee Morris Gallery, and I’m going to start my own website, RobertLeeMorrisGallery.com, which will show not only all of my archives and all of the work I still own that I can sell, but all the jewelry that I purchased from my Artwear artists over the years. It’ll be like I’m starting Artwear all over again.
Robert: That’s where we are today.
Sharon: That’s very interesting. You haven’t really been online yourself until now, haven’t you? It’s like a Robert Lee Morris website.
Robert: No, Fabrikant never did a website. Miriam Haskell actually did a website, RobertLeeMorris.com, but they didn’t do a very good job, and they weren’t using it to sell products because the products were in the stores. They just used it as an image thing. Being online, this is going to be a first for me. What’s cool is that I was on QVC for about 21 years. I started in 1999, and somewhere around 2003, 2004, we were doing $15 million a year just with QVC. I couldn’t go anywhere—bus stops, malls, anywhere in the country, and women would recognize me and come up and tell me what the jewelry meant to them. It was so wonderful to hear what people have to say about my pieces they’ve lived with and worn over and over. It also gave me quite an enormous span of potential collectors and customers. My work has been [unintelligible] from the museum pieces, like the pieces I’m showing now at the Brooklyn Museum of Art that are part of the Studio 54 exhibition and the pieces from QVC. If you Google my name, you’ll see page after page of news stories that are out there, along with different sites that are selling the current fashion collection, which is called RLM Studio—what is it called? It’s called Robert Lee Morris Soho, I think. That’s it. It’s Robert Lee Morris Soho. That’s the line that’s being produced by Centric Brands, and they make that iconic look. I don’t have anything to do with it anymore.
Sharon: Robert, could you back up, because we lost sound for a minute there. Centric Brands is doing the Robert Lee Morris Soho line?
Robert: The Robert Lee Morris Soho line is produced by Centric Brands. It’s my parent company, at this point, and they have a team of designers that fulfill the needs for designing new things for their market. I don’t have anything to do with that anymore. They just follow the iconic look of Robert Lee that they have so many examples of.
Sharon: Robert, that’s quite a story. You’ve covered so much ground, and I know we’ve only heard a small piece of it. There’s a lot more in your video. We’d love to have you back, maybe when you launch your website. We’d love to hear about your journey from brick and mortar to online. Thank you so much for being here today, and Lisa, thank you so much. We greatly appreciate it.
Robert: I would love to come back in the next chapter.
Sharon: Many chapters it sounds like, and we’d love to have you. To everybody listening, that’s it for the Jewelry Journey today. Thank you so much for listening, and don’t forget we’ll have images and the video posted along with the show notes on the website. Join us for the next episode of the Jewelry Journey podcast, when we’ll have another jewelry industry professional sharing their experience. You can find us wherever you download your podcasts, and please rate us. Thank you so much. Thank you everybody.
Lisa: Thank you, Sharon.
Robert: Thank you, Sharon.
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