On the Go with Barbara Cirkva
This charismatic fashion executive loves couture, interior and garden design and her whirl of community commitments.
It can get pretty hectic in Karl Lagerfeld's studio in the days before a major Chanel show in Paris. But if things aren't too crazy, that stylish woman with the straight blond hair and calm smile, quietly watching the master fit his models, would be Barbara Cirkva, the New York-based executive vice president of fashion for Chanel. For her, it's a particularly delicious moment in a busy week.
Given that her executive beat includes overseeing U.S. wholesale and retail -covering Chanel's ready-to-wear, accessories, shoes, watches and fine jewelry - and that she serves on several Chanel global committees as well, Cirkva not only flies to Paris six to eight times a year, she's also likely to be off to California, Tokyo (there's a new Chanel shop on the Ginza) or even Guam.
This is the same Barbara Cirkva who, on some Saturday mornings, can be found at FLEUR, her garden antiques shop in Mt. Kisco, NY (that will relocate to a larger location there in May), explaining to a customer just where in Provence she and her husband turned up a certain lovely old garden bench. As if her day-and night job were not enough, Cirkva and her husband, John Schumacher, formerly chairman of Bonwit Teller and president of I. Magnin in California, started FLEUR three years ago. It's now considered such a fashionable spot for indoor and outdoor furnishings that the majority of their clients are interior and landscape designers. One wonders what impelled this trendset ting pair with a Manhattan address to start the charming Westchester shop.
"After we bought our weekend house in Mt. Kisco in 1995," Cirkva says, "we began looking around Westchester for special garden antiques - without much luck. We figured if we were looking, other people were, too." Of course, years of right-on retailing instinct went into the decision, but there was also the matter of their love for rare and fine things. Couture, at least in the hands of a house like Chanel, is a living art form, and for Cirkva, "interior design and garden design are just a short step away - they're all about personalizing a beautiful look."
FLEUR's one-of-a-kind pieces tend to come from England, Italy and the South of France. What's currently in demand? "Unusual faux bois, also early-to-mid 20th century," says Cirkva. "And we're looking toward Belgium," adds Schumacher, who, given his wife's full calendar, handles much of the shop's business.
It's a rare New York week when two or three charity galas or other social events don't keep this couple on the go. Perhaps it's a gala for the New York City Ballet, where Cirkva is on the Special Events Working Committee. To encourage future marketing talents, she also chairs the Luxury Education Foundation - though this month she'll have to race from its cocktail party to a Breast Cancer Foundation dinner on the same night. Or it could be the opening night of the opera or the Winter Antiques show.
During New York's Fashion Week in January, "there may be three or four parties a night!" she says. It's safe to say that in the social and luxury-industry worlds where she circulates, Cirkva exudes a rare charisma. Says her friend Pamela Gross, "It's not only that she is always chic while maintaining the classic elegance that is her hallmark. It's also her intelligence, thoughtfulness and sparkle. Barbara always has the next idea, the fresh take on what's out there."
How does she manage such a life without becoming dizzy? Smoothly. As Arie Kopelman, the vice chairman of Chanel, told her, "One of your best talents is the ability to keep so many balls in the air without dropping any." Chicago-born Cirkva attributes her even keel to her Midwestern upbringing. Besides, she's clearly enjoying herself.
Ah, but what to wear? If her closet doesn't yield enough gowns, little black dresses or tweed jackets, "I get to borrow new designs from the sample closet. It's the best of all worlds!" This March in Paris, Cirkva was intently scanning the runway for something very special to wear to the May 2 benefit gala for the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute. The Costume Institute will feature the blockbuster Chanel exhibit, which opens to the public on May 5 and will run through August 7. It has been long in the planning, this retrospective of the visionary Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel, who founded her maison couture in 1912. Despite the more than 50 period designs and accessories on display, the exhibit is not simply past tense. In fact, one of its most fascinating elements will be the chance to juxtapose Coco with Karl, and see how Lagerfeld, who joined Chanel in 1983, has interpreted an iconic legacy for women today. "We're always asking ourselves, 'if Coco were alive today, what would she do?' " says Cirkva.
Just a week previous, quite a different show close to Cirkva's heart will find her greeting friends at the New York Botanical Garden's Antique Garden Furniture Show and Sale. Only select vendors, including Bunny Williams (Treillage) and Barbara Israel (Barbara Israel Antiques) and, of course, Fleur, are invited to exhibit. This year Cirkva is a preview party co-chairman; fortunately, the benefit preview on April 28 is one party that happens by daylight, amid the Garden's bursting spring blossoms.
If you could glimpse the landscape around the Schumacher stone house in Mt. Kisco, or see the number of garden books piled by the bedside, you'd realize what strong roots connect this garden to the big one in the Bronx. "If I had lots of free time," says Cirkva, "I'd read all of these books I never get to, improve my Italian and become even more involved with the Botanical Garden."
But retirement isn't even a blip on her screen. Instead, there are the weekends here, "my minivacations," to romp in jeans with her two white standard poodles, drop in on Fleur and perhaps invite friends for some of Schumacher's famous paella. ("He's a fabulous cook!") In between, she's likely to pick up her snippers and have a go at the garden. With her cell phone tucked in a pocket? "Never," says Cirkva firmly. "When I garden, I garden."
Text by Kim Waller
Photos by wireimage and Robert Benson