Designer Sylvia Robinson Jordan brings her far-out visions to vibrant life
ALBANY For Lady Gaga, when it comes to fashion, anything goes.
The daring diva has wrapped her body in plastic bubbles and Kermit the Frog puppets. On her head, we’ve seen spikes of crystal, white feathers and red lace. Remember the silver lobster?
“I would love to design something for her,” says Sylvia Robinson Jordan of Albany, a fashion designer who specializes in avant-garde couture.
“It’s clothing that entertains on the runway,” says Jordan. “With avant-garde, a woman’s body is a canvas, and it allows me to be creative. I’m a fashion entertainer.”
While Jordan’s fashions are far-out, they begin in the most humble, down-home way. She cuts and sews them in her Bleeker Terrace apartment after she gets home from her job working with disabled adults at New Visions in Slingerlands.
But the real magic happens when a tall, beautiful model puts Jordan’s creations on her body and sashays down a runway. She worked hard on her designs for years and then showed them on Facebook and MySpace. Jordan’s designs are now hitting runways in New York City and Baltimore.
Two years ago, Jordan’s Dor-Elaine Fashions was invited to Baltimore Fashion Week, and this August, she’ll be traveling to Baltimore again for the 2011 show.
‘Things are going good’
Last month, at a fashion show in New York’s Donald Trump Plaza, three of her outfits took first, second and third place.
Next month, Jordan and a Brooklyn photographer are launching “Fashion Express,” a traveling show with dates in New York City and Philadelphia.
“I’m stepping out on faith. Things are going so good for me now,” she says.
A few weeks ago, on a snowy Thursday night, Jordan’s small apartment was buzzing, as she and two girlfriends were packing clothes for yet another weekend of fashion shows in New York City. The following day, 10 women and 50 outfits in three cars motored caravan-style to the Alhambra Ballroom in Harlem, where Jordan was one of two designers featured at a fundraiser for the Wright House women’s shelter.
“This is a hat. I revamped a wedding dress,” says Jordan, showing off her “Rags to Riches” collection as her friends ironed big skirts and rustled through garment bags.
Flat-topped and 4 feet in diameter, encrusted with white satin, lace and hanging crystals, it looks more like a chandelier or an ornate coffee table than a hat, until, of course, a model puts it on her head. A matching gown, also re-imagined from the same bridal gown, has a halter top and a cape.
In addition to over-the-top headgear, Jordan makes sexy dresses with unbelievably long trains. A gown in her “Stone Collection” has a 15-foot-long train made from a patchwork of round, earth-colored fabric shapes accented with netting and beads.
Named for mom and aunts
Jordan’s home studio has taken over her dining room and living room. A sewing machine rests on a table heaped with bolts of fabric. Hundreds of outfits hang from racks; a manikin with a silvery gown pinned to its torso stands next to her television; and, below a wall decorated with African masks, giraffe-patterned fabric covers a card table.
Jordan and her sister, Jackie Robinson, sew and design the clothing for Dor-Elaine, which is named for their mother, Doris, and their aunts Estelle and Laine. Jordan also designs ready-to-wear fashions — gowns, swimwear and pantsuits — and over the years, many Albany women have called her up and asked her to make a one-of-a-kind gown or dress.
The sisters’ other fashion foray is an organization that recruits and trains young women as models: Four Queens. It’s run with the help of three friends: Gloria Mallory, Penny Branch and Vanessa Ward.
“We help young ladies, give them runway experience. Teach them how to walk. It gives them confidence, keeps them off the streets,” says the 48-year-old Jordan, who, at 5-foot-11-inches tall did a little nonprofessional modeling herself as a teen.
In the past 10 years, more than 80 young women, ages 16 to 25 and hailing from Albany, Troy and Schenectady, have modeled Dor-Elaine fashions at local fundraisers for nonprofit groups, including Albany’s Summer Love basketball team. The models also traveled to the Bronx for a Haiti aid event and appeared in a show at the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass.
Always fascinated with sewing
Jordan’s own passion for fashion began when she was a little girl and learned sewing from her mom and aunt.
“My aunt would make patterns from newspaper,” she says.
When Jordan got a little older, there was more sewing in home economics and at 4-H Club, and lessons from the Catholic nuns that used to live in downtown Albany.
An Albany High School grad, Jordan is a self-taught fashion designer who is inspired by the late British designer Alexander McQueen, LaQuan Smith and Yves St. Laurent.
“She definitely has a vision,” says Gloria Mallory, one of the Four Queens. “She’s a one-of-a-kind designer. . . . She can do nails, hair, flowers. She’s very crafty with her hands.”
Horace Robinson met Jordan at a fashion shoot in New York. A photographer who operates Naturally U Photography in Brooklyn, Robinson became her supporter and mentor, and will be her partner in “Fashion Express,” a traveling show that showcases Jordan’s fashions as well as models and designers from the city they are visiting.
“Slyvia’s clothing is very unique. It’s a breath of fresh air,” says Robinson. “Some of it, you look at it and you say: How do you think of this? Her hats are amazing. I’m surprised the girls can hold them on top of their heads. They are huge. And the long trains. They are amazing, too.”
Jordan says her ideas come from dreams or just pop into her head.
“I get these visions. And I just run with it. I sketch it out. I make patterns out of the newspaper,” she says.
For Baltimore Fashion Week, she plans to make all-pink outfits to raise awareness of breast cancer and honor her Aunt Laine, who died of the disease at age 60.
Her vision for the Stone Collection happened when she was on an outing with her clients from New Visions.
“I saw all the different types of rocks, the colors. It just came to me,” she says.
Jordan has worked for 10 years at New Visions, teaching life skills to adults with mental and physical disabilities.
She loves her job, but finding time to do fashion design after work and on weekends can be a challenge, she says. It’s financially difficult, too, with the cost of traveling, fabric and other supplies.
But when she sees her creations come down the runway, it’s all worth it, she says.
“God gave me a gift. And I’ve got to express myself.”