When Pittsburgh native Michael Solof was growing up, his father, Charles, a furniture sales representative, would occasionally paint seascapes while the family vacationed at the New Jersey shore.
Once in awhile, Charles would doodle heads and faces while on the telephone.
Beyond those seascapes and doodles, Michael had no clue just how talented his father was.
It was not until about six months ago – immediately prior to Charles’ death from complications from diabetes – that Michael discovered his father’s secret passion: fashion design.
Charles Solof, knowing that his death was imminent, instructed his son to go through his things to see if there was anything he might want. Charles was living in Florida at the time, having retired there after spending most of his adult life in Pittsburgh.
“I went to the back of his closet,” Michael recalled. “He was a pack rat like me. He had kept every postcard everyone had ever sent him, and lots of stuff from high school and college. Then I found a portfolio of about 275 fashion designs. They were just gorgeous. I never knew that he did any of these.”
Michael said that many of the designs seemed to be intended for theater productions, as they were labeled “Act I,” or “Act II.”
“I was amazed at how vivid and wonderful these pictures were,” Michael said. “A lot of them have little slips of paper describing the fabrics and other details …Textures are included on some of these things. There are all sorts of detail on all of these drawings.”
After asking his father about the drawings, Michael learned that Charles had done most of them while in high school and college, and that his ambition had been to move to New York to try his hand at fashion design.
“I talked with him a lot about it,” Michael said. “He did these all through high school, and really wanted to go to New York to give this a whirl. His parents told him this was not the kind of things guys do. ”
So, after graduating from Taylor Allderdice in 1947, Charles attended the University of Pittsburgh. He joined the Air Force after graduating from college in 1951, and rose to the rank of Airman, Second Class.
After returning home from his stint in the service, Charles joined the family business, and spent his career in furniture sales. His portfolio remained packed away, along with his boyhood ambition.
“After I found [the drawings] and talked to Dad,” Michael said, “he said he was hoping that a starlet would someday wear one of his designs to the Oscars. Then he passed away.”
Following his dad’s death March 12, Michael decided to see if the designs were as good as he thought they were, and to see if his dad’s dreams still could be realized.
Michael, a photographer happens to attend many comic book conventions, and did so this past July in San Diego. While there, he noticed a panel of costume designers from film, theater and television. He decided to seize the opportunity and try to get a professional evaluation of his dad’s work.
“I took out the first [drawing], and the first person said ‘Oh my God,’ and called everyone else over. They said, ‘These are incredible. These are master level designs. They need to be seen.’ ”
With their help, Charles’ drawings soon will be published in an international costume design magazine, and will also be entered into the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences archives. In addition, Charles Solof’s story and designs will be featured in an upcoming documentary about the costume industry.
In the meantime, Michael is still looking for that starlet to wear a dress designed by his father on the red carpet. He is trying to connect with either Oprah Winfrey or Tyra Banks, hoping that one of them may be willing to help him realize his father’s dream.
“Designers are looking at this as a great story,” said Michael. “Follow your dreams. Don’t put things off if you have a talent.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)