By Tim Groen
“This is my life’” says Koos. “Could I have made more money? Absolutely. But that would have happened at the expense of what I wanted.” What Koos wanted was to travel, to be around glamour, and have an all-round fabulous life. Talking to Koos is fun; he curses like a sailor and, being in his early 70’s now, he has no patience for false modesty—which I love.
As a handsome gay young man in New York in the 1970’s, Koos had the right age, in the right place, at the right time. Not everyone got what he was doing, but once Koos set up shop, it didn’t take long for the celebrities (of the caliber he obsessed on as a kid) to take note. When times changed business sizzled out a bit, but within two decades a new generation of fashion designers, including Marc Jacobs and Nicholas Ghesquiere, rediscovered Koos and cited him as a major source of inspiration. There is so much to talk about with Koos that I feel like I’m leaving too much out, like the celebrities, the amazing apartments he has lived in in New York. Or how much fun Koos has had with the love of his life. Recapping seven decades in less then 2000 words just isn’t feasible; here are some of the things we did talk about.
TG: Let’s start at the very beginning, and let’s compare where you moved from, and where you moved to. They were polar opposites, especially at the time. Was that a choice?
KVDA: Absolutely. I‘m from a Christian Reformed family. Very strict, very church going and all that. So movies, Hollywood, anything glamorous became my secret world. From my early teens on I was fascinated with America, and movies became the very basic reason I wanted to be here. It’s also at that age that I told my parents that I was gay; I was in love with my teacher. My father’s response was that that was OK as long as I didn’t wear corsets (laughs). To this day I have no idea where the fuck he got that from. As conservative as my parents were, they never put anything in my way.
TG: So you went to the States as soon as you could?
KVDA: Not right away; I went to Paris first, where I worked in the fabric department of Galeries Lafayette, to learn the language—which didn’t go so well.
One day I came across an ad for draping classes, and that was something I had never learned; draping fabric directly on a dress form. So I went to that school and I made a deal: they allowed for me to just take the draping classes, so that I could keep my day job.
The school happened to be in the same building as Dior’s atelier, which, each year, picked the best students to come work for them. And that’s how I ended up working in the Christian Dior ‘suits and coats’ atelier. This is when Marc Bohan—whom I never met—was the Creative Director. It was very professional and serious, we all had to wear white lab coats. It didn’t pay a penny, but I learned a lot.
TG: And that’s when you left for New York…
KVDA: No, actually, after five years in Paris I went back to Holland. My father was very sweet, he had saved some money so that he could give me the equivalent of what he had given my two sisters when they got married. I wanted to open up Koos van den Akker Couture; my very own Salon in The Hague.
It was in a prime location, everything was high end, beautiful window displays, chic, chic, chic! But it was a just pretty little apple that was rotten on the inside. There were no customers. Dutch women were cows; they had no idea what they were looking at. The American Embassy, which was around the corner, basically kept me going—those American ladies knew about good clothing. It lasted for three years.
TG: So the American ladies were kind of an omen, perhaps.
KVDA: Well, I can pinpoint what led to my departure. My father, who was a handyman, fell from a ladder one day, while he was installing a dressing room and I was watching him. He had a heart attack, fell, and died on the spot. Which, in a weird way, liberated me, because he was the only reason I was still in Holland.
TG: That must have been so bizarre, besides sad. But it cut you loose, obviously. So there you are, a wildly handsome gay young man, without money but who knows how to sew. It’s the late sixties, your one-way ticket’s booked, and now what?
KVDA: With $200 in my pocket and a portable sewing machine under my arm I got on the boat. A flight would not take long enough to change my life around, so I opted for a longer trip. I still have the suitcase I brought.
The first thing I did when the ship arrived in the city, was walk to the Empire State Building, because that, and Macy’s were the only places I knew about. I went up to the top, and looking out over the city I said to myself: “I’m home.” Without a doubt in my mind I thought: “This is where I belong.”
TG: When you arrived you were still thinking in that fairly conventional Dior/couture mindset, I’m sure. But we’re talking Summer of Love now. And to me it seems that with the changing of your style, you really found yourself. What was that change, that evolution, like?
KVDA: The summer of Love was bullshit, that was San Francisco, and had nothing to do with me.
My early story is one of lots of lucky experiences. Some people I had met on the boat had told me that the fountain of Lincoln Center was a good place to meet people. So on the very first Sunday—all dressed up in suit and tie and everything—I sat at the fountain, and smoked a cigarette. And this man chatted me up—picking me up, I knew—and he asked me whether I’d like to go to the theatre because he had two tickets to Boys in the Band, which had just opened up. I had had a totally miserable, barely-existent sex life in Holland, but I knew enough to know that this was it; this was the beginning of my new beginning.
We went to the theater and afterward we went to the Plaza Hotel, where he stayed. I remember every moment. “Make yourself comfortable,” he said, and he went to the bathroom, to resurface in his underwear. All I had done in the meantime was loosen my tie and open the top button. “Fuck. This goes faaast,” I thought, “ this is amazing.” So we did whatever, and that was nice. And I stayed the night—I didn’t know about having sex and walking out.
But it was through his sister that I got set up here. He had told me that his sister lives in New York and loves fashion, “’Here’s her number, give her a call”. Which I did, and she became my first client in town.
TG: Do you remember what you made for her?
KVDA: It was very easy for me, because at that time it was all about Courreges; little sleeveless shift dresses that I could make in a couple of hours. So I made my first $30 on her first dress, and then more orders came in through word-of-mouth, and before I knew it I had my own apartment. Soon after that I opened my first little store, on Columbus Avenue and 76th Street, and I worked and worked and worked. And evolved my way to something totally different from what I had done in Holland.
TG: Don’t you think you can say that at that point your entire life was totally different from what it was in Holland? From your style, to the customers, to the success?
KVDA: For every three people in Holland who like what you’re doing, you have a hundred here, so it was really the volume that made it all work. But yes, I had a career now, and I met tons of people.
The other day I was reminiscing with one of my first salesgirls of the Madison Avenue boutique. “Remember when you made that robe for Elton John?” she asked. “Remember When Aretha Franklin saw my coat, and I sold it right off my back?” And I have to admit that I don’t remember it at all (laughs). So many celebrities, so many people; there’s lots and lots of stories like that.
But that said, I was Dutch, I basically sneaked in to success through the back door. Even though I was a member of the CFDA I was kind of an outsider, I did everything myself. And the stuff I made in the seventies, people didn’t know what the fuck to make of it. It was like weird home-sewing, they didn’t know whether it was really good or really bad.
TG: But that attitude changed, right?
KVDA: That attitude changed only after Marc Jacobs started copying me and gave me credit in a New York Times interview in the early 2000’s. And ditto with Nicholas Ghesquiere for Balenciaga.
I treasure all the professional acknowledgement; at home I still have a framed letter that Geoffrey Beene sent me with these lovely, lovely big compliments on my window and my clothes. His following spring collection was all Koos; it referenced all the stuff I was doing myself right at that time. I loved it. That was in the ‘80’s when I still had my first store on Madison. And even earlier than that, I remember Andy Warhol, who was forever walking up and down Madison Avenue with his Interview magazines. “Great windows!” he’d say. I lived for that, you know?
TG: Are you ever tempted to mine your own archive? I mean, have you ever thought about re-issueing the pieces that are now sought-after in the vintage market?
KVDA: No. We actually sell a lot of vintage Koos at the Madison Avenue store, so it passes through my hands for alterations and stuff—and I get to see once again how beautifully it was made. But I’m not going to recreate what I made already all these years ago.
It sounds pretty arrogant, but I’m the real thing. What I’m trying to say is that I’m good at what I do, I’m sincere, my work comes from the heart. As an old man sitting at his sewing machine I’m going through a major development, and whether people like it or not isn’t that important anymore, at this point. I’m returning to much cleaner and more minimalist lines, but the ‘80’s style pieces are still available through the store, and anything else you’ll just have to find vintage.
TG: As we’re sitting here and talking, you’re literally still sewing so I guess it’s safe to assume that you aren’t really slowing down. What’s next?
KVDA: What I would like to do is give master classes in Paris and Tokyo, repeating a concept I developed two years ago for the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. Out of the blue, I had received an honorary doctorate from them, so I proposed a two-month class, and we made it happen. It was just me sitting in a recreation of my studio, making clothes for the store— because the production had to keep going—with students around me. It was delightful. That’s when I got my tattoo, when I turned 70. Everybody there looked so cute with their tattoos, I thought: ”Fuck it, if I don’t get one now it’ll never happen.” Of course I was the coolest kid in school after that (laughs).
I once sat in the windows of Bendels on Madison Avenue for four days, with my sewing machine making clothes; I love stuff like that. I think the need to be seen still has to do with movies and glamour early in my life; I’m the star of my own story, you know?