Gloria Vanderbilt’s legacy is as complex as was the woman herself: An artist, heiress, writer, and entrepreneur, she died Monday at age 95, having left her stamp on countless facets of culture — including designer denim.
Her son, CNN anchor Anderson Cooper, announced her death in an on-air tribute, citing advanced stomach cancer as the cause of death. “[She] lived her entire life in the public eye,” he said.
In the 1970s and ’80s, Vanderbilt’s name became synonymous with a new crop of jeans that were figure-hugging, upscale, and designed expressly for women — unlike the utilitarian, male-geared Levi’s that until then had dominated the market. Her pitch was simple: The jeans would “really hug your derrière,” a mantle quickly taken up by ’80s mainstays like Calvin Klein and Jordache and passed down to the Spandex-happy skinny jean makers of today.
It wasn’t just the fit that separated Vanderbilt’s styles from the competition, though. The fact that her signature was on the back pocket — branding the behinds of millions of women with a name that evoked elusive, old-money glamour — was also a prelude to the modern era of celebrity-fronted fashion lines.
Not that Vanderbilt was exactly a proto-Kardashian. She was famous almost from infancy, first as a scion of one of the country’s wealthiest families and then, at age 10, as the “poor little rich girl” at the center of an infamous child custody trial between her aunt and mother at the height of the Great Depression. From that point forward, her name was rarely out of the press: She married four times — including once, at age 21, to Leopold Stokowski, the conductor behind Disney’s Fantasia, then more than 40 years her senior — and had a series of high-profile romances with stars like Howard Hughes, Marlon Brando, and Frank Sinatra.
Through it all, she kept up her own creative pursuits, writing memoirs, plays, and novels (including, at 85, one work of erotic fiction), as well as painting, modeling, and acting. Her first theater role, in Ferenc Molnár’s The Swan, eventually inspired her to choose the bird as the logo for her fashion empire; it appeared everywhere from the coin pockets of jeans to fragrance bottles.
While she didn’t have a strict background in fashion design, Vanderbilt had already worked on textiles, housewares, and Hallmark greeting cards when she was approached in the mid-’70s by Mohan Murjani, a New York City Garment District manufacturer. Murjani later told the New York Times that he needed a well-known name to elevate his line of denim to a premium price point — Levi’s at the time cost around $15; Vanderbilt’s jeans cost $32 — and help market it to the masses.
”It was all about creating a pair of jeans to fit a woman. That was the most important thing to Gloria,” Murjani told WWD on Monday. What they were trying to achieve seems obvious now, but at the time it was revolutionary: jeans that a woman could wear straight off the rack from a department store, no alterations required. “There were no jeans that fit women until Gloria Vanderbilt,” he said.
In the coming years, the brand would experiment with other innovations, too — stretch denim and black jeans — both to great success. It opened up a sweet spot in the market for a more refined take on denim, appealing as much to the aspirational as to the actually wealthy. (“They’ve got style and status” was one tagline.) In the ensuing years, the price of designer jeans would continue to creep up, until by the mid-2000s it wasn’t uncommon to see brands charging north of $300 per pair (prices that deflated only somewhat following the recession).
The Vanderbilt label was also pioneering in its marketing efforts in the months and years after it first launched, taking out bus ads, organizing a Central Park fundraiser concert with the musician James Taylor, tapping celebrities like Debbie Harry and Geena Davis for endorsements, and spending $1 million on a television commercial that put Vanderbilt front and center, looking straight into the camera and singing the praises of her jeans.
In its first day on the air, the spot helped Murjani sell out of all 150,000 pairs it had produced.
The style of Vanderbilt’s commercials — informative, conversational, personal — wasn’t common at the time, and according to a 1983 Times article, it “set in motion a new style of apparel ads.” Since then, it has become a tried-and-true formula. The most immediate analogs may be QVC and HSN (both founded in the ’80s), on which smiling hosts try on and hold up garments and tout comfort and fit. Looking at today’s fashion media, haul vloggers on YouTube follow a similar blueprint, relying mostly on their powers of description (and our culture’s insatiable acquisitiveness) to keep viewers entertained.
When it launched in 1976, the Vanderbilt brand did $70 million in wholesale sales, a number that swelled to $200 million by 1980 and around $500 million a few years later. By then, Vanderbilt had sold the rights to her name to Murjani, which expanded beyond jeans into clothing, shoes, and accessories.
”It’s basically three things that matter: the product, the name and the marketing. We created all three in a perfect mix,” Murjani told India Today in 1980. “There was no way we could not succeed.”
Meanwhile, Vanderbilt continued to build her empire, branching into areas like fragrances (her first, called Vanderbilt, did $72 million in sales in its first year) and home decor.
“She was relevant in everything she did,” designer Diane von Furstenberg told the Times. “She got the zeitgeist for almost a century.”
The jeans may be hers in name only these days, but they’ve still got her signature on the back pocket — a reminder that they helped shape fashion history.
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