For more than forty years, Agostino, a Philadelphia-based designer, has designed couture creations and seasonal collections that embody timeless elegance and distinctive style. The exhibition features a range of day suit, dress and evening gown designs focusing on the fundamental elements of line, color, shape and form in Agostino’s couture constructs.Organized by The Galleries at Moore and curated by Lorie Mertes

Philadelphia Inquirer reviews Agostino Exhibit

By Kathy Boccella
Inquirer Staff Writer

The couture creations in a new exhibit at Moore College of Art and Design look as though they belong to a certain kind of Main Line woman, one who wants a little something special for her daughter’s wedding, a timeless suit for corporate meetings, a stunning cocktail dress for a charity ball.

Nothing too out there or trendy, just beautiful, elegant, classy.

For all that, she goes to Frank Agostino, a native New Yorker who designs sumptuous made-to-order pieces and ready-to-wear collections from his jewelbox of a store in Bryn Mawr – a designer/stylist who makes sure his clients look their best.

The Moore exhibit showcases 40 years of his work with 35 original designs, including evening gowns, cocktail dresses, opera coats, pantsuits, and day wear, many of them culled from the closet of his wife, Grace Ann. The show, which opened Thursday night, runs through Dec. 11.

Agostino’s work has graced society events and red carpets nationwide, including the 2000 Academy Awards, for which he designed a gown for M. Night Shyamalan’s wife, Bhavana.

“This is the first dress I ever made,” Agostino said, standing in front of a pale-blue silk cocktail dress from 1966 with a hand-beaded pearl and rhinestone yoke, as curators put finishing touches on the exhibit.

“I made it for my wife when we were dating.”

Every woman should have such a boyfriend. Those who don’t can acquire – buy sounds too gauche – the high-end, sophisticated pieces that Tracy Lord from High Society – or Grace Kelly herself for that matter – might have worn.

Regulars know to enter his shop through a side door and go upstairs, where a team of Italian ladies sew all his designs. They also know Agostino won’t sell the same dress twice for a big event.

“These are wealthy Main Line ladies who . . . don’t want to take a chance and buy the Yves Saint Laurent at Saks, because someone else might have it,” said Janice Lewis, chairwoman of Moore’s fashion design department. “He’s the go-to guy to have an original, custom design.”

The gilded threads running throughout Agostino’s work are elegance, top-notch workmanship, and timelessness, say the 68-year-old designer’s admirers.

“His work is extraordinary,” said Jane Carton, former fashion director at Saks Fifth Avenue. “Many, many times, when I see a lady socially and say, ‘Oh my God, that looks fantastic,’ – it’s Frank.”

The courtly Agostino grew up in Brooklyn and learned to sew from his Aunt Rosie, who made couture in Italy. Learning that trade was as much a part of his youth as playing stickball and kick the can.

“I was fascinated with glamour from the movies,” he said, dressed casually in running shoes and black pants and jacket. “I loved the way fabric draped, the way my aunt matched stripes and plaids, overlapped lace.”

Because he had to make a living, he went to work at Xerox while attending college at night, thinking he would be a math teacher. On the side he directed and designed costumes for Off-Broadway shows. Because the sets were so small, the costumes had to tell the story, he said.

He spent years in retail as a buyer and merchandiser while doing freelance custom work. In 1974, he moved his family to this area to work at Gimbel’s Market East, then John Wanamaker and the Gloria Vanderbilt Dress Division.

In 1981, tired of running other people’s businesses, he opened his own on the third floor of his Victorian house in Merion. He wanted to do knit dresses and beaded sweaters, so he contacted a church looking for women who could knit. He’d lay out the design and they would knit the beads into the pieces, up to 1,000 for a full-length dress.

Because it was the ’80s, he also used a lot of leather and suede, such as a pair of black, tucked, glove-leather pants that are as soft and creamy as a debutante’s cheek. In the show, he pairs it with a black-and-cream mohair and cotton knitted sweater, another of his wife’s pieces.

For years, he made all her clothes, including her satin and lace wedding dress and lace-appliqued veil. He designed and cut the pattern and his aunt sewed it.

“I could wear it all now,” said Grace Ann Agostino, who designs high-end handbags. “I had the most gorgeous maternity clothes you’ve ever seen . . .. I loved everything Frank made.”

The show’s most eye-catching creations are the gowns – many accented with lace or beads or paired with knits – that have been lent to Agostino for the show by clients. But they are also light and airy and look as comfortable as a pair of sweats – at a cost of upwards of $10,000.

“My philosophy has always been to make beautiful clothes. That’s the bottom line,” Agostino said of his style.

Rochelle “Cissie” Levy, an artist and Moore board member, has a closetful of Agostinos, from evening gowns to three-piece suits she wears to the races at Saratoga.

“They never go out of style,” she said.

His wife’s last Agostino creation was for their son’s wedding four years ago. Agostino also made the bride’s dress, which has become something of a subspeciality. “It was beyond gorgeous,” Grace Ann Agostino said.

Asked whether there was a woman he dreamed of dressing, the designer thought a few seconds, then said he has a thing for a certain middle-aged movie star who would look at home on the Main Line.

“Michelle Pfeiffer,” he said.