By Gloria Nicola

Known for his eveningwear, American designer Carmen Marc Valvo enjoys bringing “glamorous dressing to every woman’s life.” He intends to continue this goal with his new eyewear collection, which launched earlier this year under a licensing agreement with Signature Eyewear. “Whether it’s the sparkle of a crystal or recreating a delicate pattern on an eyeglass frame, I’d like to bring a little bit of that evening glamour to everyday,” the designer notes.

Although Valvo, who grew up in a Spanish/Italian family in Westchester County, N.Y., was interested in art and design from an early age—he developed a passion for oil painting and crafted opulent medieval costumes for his sister for a school project—it wasn’t until much later he considered becoming a designer. “I honestly didn’t think it was a real profession,” he admits. In fact, his father, a doctor, wanted his son to use his artistic talent to become a plastic surgeon, but one summer working in an emergency room convinced Valvo the medical field wasn’t for him. He instead pursued a degree in Fine Arts at Manhattanville College in New York. After spending a few years traveling in Europe and becoming proficient in several languages, he was in a car accident, which forced him to return to the United States where, after his recovery, he enrolled in Parsons School of Design in New York. Valvo’s professional career began as a ready-to-wear designer for Nina Ricci in Paris, followed by a stint at Christian Dior. Then in 1989, a shortterm job ended earlier than he had anticipated. “I had just bought my ‘dream house’ in the Hamptons. It was a shack really,” he laughs. “But I was in danger of losing it. I needed a job. So I started my own label with a few thousand dollars and some credit cards two weeks before Market Week. If I had time to think about it I would have been too terrified, but it was a matter of survival.” His debut collection was presented in a borrowed showroom and he personally delivered the first order of 110 black cocktail dresses. His sportswear Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus. His line currently includes couture, sportswear, suits, custom furs, swimwear, shoes, limited-edition jewelry designs and eyewear.

Valvo describes his design philosophy as eveningwear that is modern and sensitive to comfort. His collections have a reputation for superb tailoring, a thorough understanding of fit issues and masterful detailing. To Valvo, fashion has always been evolutionary, not revolutionary. “I’m a classicist at heart. Certain things work for me. I like fashion that is feminine and sensual, not cute or girly. I don’t like daisies. If I use a floral design, it has to be more sophisticated, have more of an aura,” he notes. “The challenge is to keep things new. Our culture is very consumer-oriented, but we don’t really need anything. So people want what’s new and different. My specialty is eveningwear. How many black evening dresses do you need? It’s essential to keep it fresh—perhaps just with a new type of fabric or combinations of fabrics or at least a look that’s new to you. Otherwise, we’re just competing with all the other designers out there and also with ourselves and our customers’ closets.”

A challenge the designer is especially enjoying at the moment is his new eyewear line. “Because I wear glasses I jumped at the opportunity to have my own collection. I mostly design for women, but with eyewear I have a new perspective. I can create some styles with myself in mind,” he explains. With eyewear, as with his clothing, it’s all in the details. “I like working with textures such as chiffon over lace so we integrated this effect into the eyeglass frames, setting lace inlays into the zyl. New challenges are fun. If you’re a creative individual, breaking out is fun. A dress is a dress. There are certain restrictions. Going into a new field gets the brain moving again,” the designer says.

Because Valvo wears glasses himself (with progressive lenses), he has become extremely involved in all aspects of the line— design, materials, colors, shapes, packaging, marketing. “Eyewear is an exciting design challenge and I’m very happy with my license with Signature,” he adds. “For any licensing agreement to work, you need good relationships, mutual respect and good chemistry. Signature has been wonderful. They are genuinely nice people and they have been able to interpret my ideas very successfully into the eyewear. That’s essential. With all my collections, I want my customers to know they are buying original Carmen designs,” he emphasizes. For his next eyewear collection, Valvo is concentrating on men’s sunwear and on frames that are progressive- lens friendly.

Whether it’s eyewear or evening gowns, the designer turns to many sources for his inspiration. “Sometimes it’s a place I’ve traveled; sometimes a color, a fabric or a texture that I just feel I have to do something with. Last season I thought ‘let’s do feathers.’ I had never done that before. Ten years ago I went on a safari and my collection the following season was inspired by animal prints and earth tones. One season it was flapper dresses,” he says. “I need only one good idea and everything starts to fall into place—in a good way.”

A key element in designing, Valvo says, is being true to yourself and whomever you’re dressing. “You shouldn’t put something on the runway just for its shock value. If you’re working with a vision or a concept, you can become egocentric or isolated. It’s one thing to put a dress on a six-foot model with a 22-inch waist, but that has to be able to trickle down to the real world,” he explains. “You need to see how it works on [non-model] women’s bodies.” To keep in touch with the real world, Valvo travels extensively to talk with his customers and meet new customers.

As for the future of fashion, Valvo feels fashion is becoming increasingly about functionality and wearability. “As things get more expensive and quality becomes more important, duality will be a priority. Although my passion is eveningwear, I do realize we live in a dressed-down society,” he notes. “Something like a jacket dress works well. With the jacket, the dress is good for work, lunch, shopping. Without the jacket, it goes easily into the evening. Or the jacket alone can be worn with jeans. Reversible fabrics are also sought out because they provide two different looks. It’s all about saving money and space,” he adds.

If Valvo were not a designer, he would like to be a landscape architect. I love to garden—it’s one of my passions. I garden on weekends at my home in the Hamptons. I could weed or trim trees for three hours at a time. Someone once asked me what I wanted to be and I said ‘the gardener for Central Park.’” But for now the designer will continue to give women beautiful—and wearable—fashions.