The Latest Act of a Designer Found, Lost and Found Again

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The Latest Act of a Designer Found, Lost and Found Again

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PARIS — The new name on the Paris Fashion Week schedule was an old name on the Paris Fashion Week schedule.

On Monday afternoon, André Walker, the cultishly beloved but itinerant and intermittent designer, staged a small presentation up and down the steps of the Hall des Maréchaux in the Musée des Arts Decoratifs. There were no seats, though there were pillows on the stairs. Attendance was patchy, though this was in part because Mr. Walker accommodatingly put on several mini-shows to accommodate the packed schedule.

But most important, the clothes were not new. The designs Mr. Walker showed were from the first flush of his career, between 1982 and 1986.

“It started to dawn on me that I didn’t have any record of what I’ve done,” Mr. Walker said backstage. “I just wanted to see it again.”

Mr. Walker, 52, has been designing since much of his audience was in diapers. Self-taught, he arrived on the scene as a teenager; he sold his earliest pieces at his mother’s Brooklyn beauty shop. “Walker, 18, is scheduled to graduate from high school in January,” June Weir wrote in The New York Times Magazine in 1983. “Already his designs, especially his one-of-a-kind coats, are being sold in two of New York’s most avant-garde shops, Patricia Field and Black Market in the East Village.” (He never made it to graduation.)

After a stint with Willi Smith of Williwear, Mr. Walker continued on his own. He quickly became a favorite of a certain kind of Pat Field-shopping, Paper Magazine-reading, Danceteria downtowner, accruing champions (including the photographer Bill Cunningham, then working for Details magazine) and skeptics. In 1984, The Times called him one of New York’s “most promising young designers,” but sniffed that, with clothes that resembled large oven mitts, “the young designer continues to be a mystery.”

Mr. Walker worked for a decade, showing in both New York and Paris, often singled out from the crowd. (The New York Times, 1993: “No one has mastered the effect of the unaffected better than the American designer André Walker. Anyone who leads his program with ‘1. Boring wrap dress’ is worth battling the groupies to see.”)

But that was an earlier, more scattershot era in fashion, before websites cataloged every look to saunter down a runway. It was also a more scattershot period for Mr. Walker, and much of his work had gone undocumented, the pieces lost. He shut down his line in 2001, the year after he won an Andam, the French young designer prize.

Mr. Walker had neither an archive nor patterns: He had designed, cut and sewed his pieces directly on flat-cut lengths of fabric. What he did have was a small group of passionate collectors, who had squirreled away his work over the years or bought it up whenever it appeared.

“I didn’t even want to see it for the longest time,” he said. But he borrowed things back, from people including Ms. Field; Kim Hastreiter, the Paper co-founder; and Kim Jones, the Louis Vuitton men’s wear designer. (Mr. Walker spent several years as a consultant, to Mr. Jones at his own brand and to Marc Jacobs at Louis Vuitton.) He remade the pieces from the originals, this time in fabrics from Pendleton, which teamed up with him on the show.

Asked how the pieces struck him the second time around, he shrugged. “I’ve seen them before,” he said.

But much of his audience hadn’t. Truth be told, they barely show their age. Mr. Walker has sometimes been compared with masters like Charles James and Geoffrey Beene, but his work has always leaned well into the avant-garde. Not for nothing was he for a time coaxed back into business in 2013 by Comme des Garçons, which sold his collection at its Dover Street Market stores.

His coats and jackets eel around the body, wrapping, tying or buttoning. One skirt jutted out stoutly to one side, where it laced to the waist like a boot. A pair of pants frilled into flares at the hems.

Interactive Feature | The Open Thread Fashion Newsletter A look from across The New York Times at the forces that shape the dress codes we share, with Vanessa Friedman as your personal shopper. Sent weekly.

Even 35 years in, Mr. Walker is not a hardened professional. Despite the support of his many fans, he struggled to settle into a smooth business model, and this show was intended, among other things, to establish a new and more solid commercial practice. He is selling the samples, first come first served, but has now created patterns for all of the garments, which are available for stores to order.

But fashion is only part business. “It can also rebuild the heart and the soul and the spirit as well,” Mr. Walker said. (His father died last year, part of the impetus for Mr. Walker to seize the day.) “I’d love to make people feel something. That’s really my mission statement.”

Jimmy Paul a hairstylist who had been doing hair for the Céline show the day before, was attending to models’ curls backstage.

His first fashion show was by Mr. Walker, in the ’80s, when he was still in beauty school; the two had met at the clubs. “When I started this work, this is what I thought it was going to be,” Mr. Paul said. “This is what I’m meant to do.”

Taque Hirakawa, a Japanese journalist with a cane and a gaptoothed grin, made his beaming way backstage to pay his compliments. He had seen Mr. Walker’s Paris shows years before. The models were milling about, getting ready for the next round. So was Mr. Hirakawa.

“May I have another show?” he asked a young publicist. Then he plunked himself down on a pillow on the marble steps and waited to watch it all again.

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