Commentary

Gloria Vanderbilt, Socialite Who Reshaped Blue Jeans, Dies At 95

As a child in the middle of a custody battle between her widowed mother and father’s sister during the Great Depression, she was dubbed  “the poor little rich girl.” But among other headline-grabbing escapades, tragedies and achievements as an adult, Gloria Vanderbilt created a fashion empire in the 1970s and ’80s and helped to reshape the image of blue jeans from something worn by cowpokes and rambunctious kids into fashion fit for a night on the town.

Vanderbilt died yesterday at 95 of stomach cancer, her son, CNN journalist Anderson Cooper, announced.

“To millions of women (and men) who wore her jeans, blouses, scarves, shoes, jewelry and perfumes, who saw her alabaster face, jet-black hair and slim figure in magazines, and who watched her move across a television screen and proclaim that her svelte jeans ‘really hug your derrière,’ Ms. Vanderbilt was an alluring, faintly naughty fashion diva in the 1970s,” the always pitch-perfect  Robert D. McFadden writes  for the New York Times in an obit worth reading in its entirety.

Loves, scandals, triumphs and heartbreaks aside, the great-great-granddaughter of tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt  proved to be not only a talented painter, writer and actress but also an astute businesswoman and trendy designer in touch with the zeitgeist of the Studio 54 era.

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“Alongside the likes of Calvin Klein, Jordache, Sasson, and Sergio Valente, Ms. Vanderbilt helped turn jeans from a utilitarian wardrobe workhorse into a higher-priced fashion item, boosted by splashy ad campaigns,” write  Ray A. Smith and Fleming Smith for the Wall Street Journal.

“The brands ‘created a perfect storm,’ as consumers began to perceive jeans as stylish, said Valerie Steele, director and curator for the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Ms. Steele said Ms. Vanderbilt’s ‘impeccable social credentials’ and chic image helped to make high-fashion jeans popular,” they continue.

“It didn’t hurt sales that the collection was introduced by way of a $1 million advertising campaign in 1978 -- complete with city buses wrapped in branded imagery, billboards and television commercials. The expansive campaign ‘turned the Gloria Vanderbilt brand with its signature white swan label into a sensation,’ according to the Associated Press. Ms. Vanderbilt, herself, appeared in many of those ads, something of a celebrity in her own right,” according to a post  on Julie Zerbo’s The Fashion Lawblog.

But that wasn’t her first attempt to commercialize her breeding and aesthetic.

“I really became a designer quite by accident,” she told [the Los Angeles Times] in 1987 during an  interview  while promoting her autobiographical book, “Black Knight, White Knight.” “How I got into fashion is Glentex produced scarfs done from paintings of mine. That was the beginning,’” writes  the LAT’s Marques Harper.

“A couture line, she said back then, ‘flopped,’” Harper adds. “‘We had manufacturing problems,’ she told the Times. ‘We had two collections. Then I started having a lot of licenses for various things. You know, blouses and so forth and so on, and that’s how the jeans came in.’”

“After her success in designer jeans, Vanderbilt branched out into other areas, including shoes, scarves, table and bed linens, and china, through her company, Gloria Concepts. In 1988 Vanderbilt joined the designer fragrance market with her signature ‘Glorious,’” writes  Ula Ilnytzky for Fortune.

“By the late 1980s, Vanderbilt sold the name and licenses for the brand name ‘Gloria Vanderbilt’ to Gitano, who transferred it to a group of private investors in 1993. More recently, her stretch jeans have been licensed through Jones Apparel Group Inc., which acquired Gloria Vanderbilt Apparel Corp. in 2002 for $138 million,” Ilnytzky adds.

“Naturally, having an eye for style for other people meant having one for herself  -- and her family, too. As a result, there’s a wealth of photos of Vanderbilt with her sister, her sons and her husbands that are as much a gift to fashion as her clothing line,” HuffPost’s Jamie Feldman writes in introducing a montage of pictures of Vanderbilt out and about, as well as in her various fashionable digs, always dressed to the nines.

“That was her public face, the one she learned to hide behind as a child. Her private self, her real self, that was more fascinating and more lovely than anything she showed the public. I always thought of her as a visitor from another world, a traveler stranded here who’d come from a distant star that had burned out long ago,” Cooper says in a 6:54 video remembrance. “What an extraordinary life. What an extraordinary mom. And what an incredible woman,” he ends, voice cracking. Bring tissues.

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