Camilla Huey lets work speak for her
THESE days, red-carpet cynosures name-check designers like they’re reading a Sears catalog.
But one person remains uncited: Camilla Huey.
In an era when the brow-threader of every actress is demanding her 15 minutes, Huey helps realise other designers’ visions (as well as her own) with her company House of Execution. Among Huey’s more-sensational creations was the black latex bodysuit, complete with nipple ring, that Janet Jackson scowled around in during her Velvet Rope period. And Seventh Avenue regularly relies on Huey when the stars need their hands held.
She fit Cate Blanchett for a Donna Karan ad campaign and, for an ombre effect, painstakingly airbrushed the Zac Posen sequinned ball skirt that Oprah Winfrey wore to the Oscars in 2011. Huey has also dressed Aretha Franklin in collaboration with the stylist Kenny Bonavitacola, Katy Perry via Tommy Hilfiger and worked for Jennifer Lopez when she was Puffy’s girlfriend.
Other clients include Adele, Anna Wintour, Shakira, Sarah Jessica Parker and Tina Brown.
“I’m the ghostwriter, the hired gun,” said Huey (who will only say that she is a “woman of a certain age”) the other day at House of Execution’s headquarters in New York’s garment district. “Even when there’s a designer involved I’m still designing, finding creative solutions.” Huey added that while Posen “has a very talented atelier, they’re not used to size 20.” Huey’s own secret weapon when corralling plus-size personalities like Adele, Aretha and Oprah, she said, is an oldfashioned pitilessly boned corset builtinto the garment.
A new patron of Huey’s, the young and willowy mezzo-soprano Rebecca Ringle, said in a message that “as a fashion-adoring tomboy from New Mexico,” she sought her own concept of concert attire that was “minimalist, modern and a little edgy, while still working in the classical arena. Camilla understood that.” For a birthday party hosted by Lucy Sykes, the former fashion director of Marie Claire, and her husband, investment banker Euan Rellie, Huey confected a poetically moth-eaten bustier laced above a shredded tulle skirt, to be worn by Alexa Wilding, the neo-Stevie Nicks, as she popped out of a wooden cake.
“Camilla and I began thinking about Isadora Duncan and Colette and the whole tradition of private performances,” Wilding said. “Camilla is a fashion historian.
Wearing that costume was like travelling through time. It could have been found in a vault.” Huey grew up along the Mississippi, arriving in New York in 1984 after graduating from the Memphis Academy of Arts.
Her first job was hand-painting kabuki masks on textiles for Sander Witlin, a dressmaker loved by Lady Bird Johnson and the Greenwich-and-Millbrook set.
Huey remembered them as “women who, if there was an eighth of an inch difference from one side of a jacket to the other, they’d notice. I’m talking about things a normal person can’t see.” Huey became Witlin’s first hand (and Jackie O’s designated fitter) before eventually joining Izquierdo Studio, the theatrical crafts house. There she painted costumes for Beauty and the Beast and the scarf that Annette Bening offers Katharine Hepburn in Love Affair.
“I must have done 20 of them,” Huey said with a groan. “Just in case.” Itching to “begin making pretty things again,” she started House of Execution in 1995. Seven years later she married Kurt Thometz, a rare-book dealer who trades out of their 1891 brownstone in the Palladian shadow of the Morris-Jumel Mansion. (Down the hall from the bookshop is a charming self-contained onebedroom garden apartment the couple rent by the night.) Thometz, who specialises in works on the heights as well as in African and black literature, is also a private librarian, having imposed order on Diana Vreeland’s collection of works by her friends the Sitwells, Cecil Beaton and Truman Capote. Thometz has the last-word-butone in the new documentary Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel (an animated version of Vreeland has the last).
He and Huey have long-term book and exhibition projects on the neighbouring mansion’s former mistress, Eliza Jumel, the scandal-tinged 19th-century socialite.
It’s not every designer who carries the measurements of both Jumel and Wendy Williams in her head. Huey has transformed Williams, the combative talk-show host, into Dolly Parton, Lucy Ricardo and a vintage Pan Am stewardess.
“They’re not loose interpretations of a look,” Williams said.
“Camilla wants it dead-on. For me, not so much, I’m looseygoosey.
But if a lapel is 3 inches wide, that’s what she insists on.” Williams is the exception: she knows Huey well enough to say hello on the street. But Huey dresses most celebrities at a fuzzy remove. There’s always such a posse around them, Huey said, “it’s not altogether clear to them who I am or w h e r e I ’ m from.”