By  on March 29, 1994

NEW YORK -- Chatting leisurely with Helen O'Hagan in her bustling office at Saks Fifth Avenue Monday, one would not have been able to tell that a troupe of Indian dancers and elephants and Madonna were slated to appear at the store for a circus-size launch of Casmir perfume only a few hours later.

One would also not necessarily have known that O'Hagan was about to end a 39-year career as one of the most visible -- and well-liked -- public relations people in retailing.

On April 16, Saks announced Monday, O'Hagan will retire as vice president of corporate public relations.

O'Hagan, 63, opted for the early retirement package that the company offered to its employees over 62. She plans to be here two weeks a month, as a consultant to Saks, and will continue to go to Europe for the designer collections. Her successor is expected to be named shortly.

She said retirement will give her more time to spend in Barbados, with her friend of more than 30 years, Claudette Colbert, and to cook (mostly desserts), read books (biographies and Dick Francis mysteries), swim (off Barbados) and dabble in gardening (especially orchids).

"I have to see if I can really step back," said O'Hagan, who has worked since she was a teenager in Charleston, S.C. During the nearly four decades that O'Hagan has been at Saks, she has seen 47 stores open -- all but the Manhattan flagship and the Beverly Hills store.

Store openings and the relationships she developed with designers have been among the best elements of the job, she said.

They have also provided some of the near disasters, like the time in 1981 when the elevators stopped functioning for the reopening of the San Francisco store -- the first five-level branch -- and O'Hagan orchestrated a brigade of people to run food up and down, with different cuisines headed for different levels.

During the first SFA USA event, a designer show under tents on Park Avenue here, after torrential rains burdened the tent tops with water, she ordered some dumpsters from the store, poked holes in the tent and emptied the water into the dumpsters.O'Hagan has had her own office since she was 15 and the business manager of her high school newspaper in Charleston. She also worked summers for a local photographer ("One-Shot Riley"), from whom she learned the craft of photography. She shot collections for the store for many years, and, often in an Adolfo suit and her signature glasses with red frames, would fight her way to the top of the photo stand at the ready-to-wear shows amid a gang of photographers in T-shirts and jeans.

"I was known as the mother of the photographers' mafia at the shows in Europe," she said.

As a girl, O'Hagan dreamed of being an actress, and worked backstage at the Box Street Community Theater in Charleston. She attended drama school there after high school.

"It was the best thing my parents let me do, because it showed me how lousy I was," she said. "But it taught me all about lighting, set design and production."

She came to New York in 1955. Another rejection proved to be a blessing, said O'Hagan, when Eileen Ford turned her down as a model.

"I am only 5 foot 3," she said. "But Eileen and I became great friends anyway."

Through a family friend, O'Hagan got a job as the assistant to Countess Grace De Mun, then publicity director at Saks. O'Hagan worked under her for three years before being named publicity director and, in 1975, was named a vice president.

A petite, even-tempered woman who rarely raises her voice, she commands intense loyalty from her staff in the publicity department, and for many of them, she became a sort of surrogate mother.

"You never go hungry in Helen's employ," said Jacqueline Lividini, who has been with the company since 1981.

O'Hagan never married.

"I could never have been married. No one would ever have put up with me," she said Monday, implying that she devoted much of her time and energy to the job.

"Helen is always there for us, no matter what the situation," said Marguerita LaCorte, who started 29 years ago as O'Hagan's secretary and is now special events director for the New York flagship.LaCorte recalled that during the blackout of 1965, O'Hagan -- who was out of the office when the lights went out -- called and invited the staff to her apartment. She whipped up pork chops and ratatouille for 10 people.

Susan O'Shea, who started 12 years ago as a model and is now a stylist in the department, said, "Once you get here, you don't want to leave. We all have so much respect for Helen -- she never asks us to do anything she's not doing or hasn't done. And she makes sure we eat."

Ellin Saltzman, who worked with O'Hagan for the bulk of her career in retailing as Saks' fashion director, said, "Helen is not only one of my closest friends, but to many people, she represents Saks Fifth Avenue, and she's been a terrific leader for Saks. I'm delighted she's not leaving Saks entirely."

Of traveling with O'Hagan through the U.S. and Europe, Saltzman said, "She used to cook soup in her room and bring it to me."

Cooking has long been a passion and a therapy for O'Hagan, who said she used to cook -- usually chicken -- in her office for Sophie Gimbel, who was the store's custom designer and the wife of president Adam Gimbel, of the founding Gimbel family.

"The Gimbels taught me everything about gracious living," she said. "It was a wonderful experience for me to be with her, and sometimes with Tatiana Liberman [the store's millinery designer and the wife of Alexander Liberman]. I learned so much."

O'Hagan's office walls are full of framed photographs of friends, celebrities and designers. She counts the Ferragamos and the Missonis among her "second families."

"She has been a good friend for 35 years," said Wanda Ferragamo, chairwoman of Ferragamo. "Her great dedication is wonderful. She remained always faithful to Saks Fifth Avenue, despite the many changes."

O'Hagan recalled trips to book stores in Paris with Bill Blass and travels to Florida with Carolina Herrera, or Los Angeles with Karl Lagerfeld, who was launched in the U.S. by Saks.

Adolfo credits O'Hagan for helping him get his ready-to-wear business started in 1967, when she arranged a show for him at Saks and he received his first order from Gloria Vanderbilt."Helen O'Hagan is a friend for life," Adolfo said. "With Helen, the first thing on her mind was always Saks, and then second, she was your friend. Helen has seen a lot of changes at the store, and she's always coped very well. They will miss her at Saks. She is a very special person."

Carolina Herrera has known O'Hagan for about 13 years, and said she "felt like crying" when she heard she was going to retire.

"Helen is always up," Herrera said. "She tells you everything is to be sold in five minutes, even if the clothes haven't arrived in the stores yet. Helen has a great sense of humor and at the same time is very honest. With Helen, what you see is what you get."

"She is the best in the PR business, and very respected," said Oscar de la Renta, who has known O'Hagan for 29 years. "Helen, like me, is very Catholic. I remember when she came to my first show in Paris slightly late because she had to go to church to light a candle. She said that she was praying for me."

Mary McFadden said, "Helen is like a great mother hen, who always made me feel like Saks Fifth Avenue was my home. I will miss her, and remember her support."

O'Hagan also has made a mark with young designer firms.

Mary Ann Wheaton, co-owner of Byron Lars, said, "The most memorable thing about Helen is that for the Byron launch at Saks, we had one meeting to discuss what we were going to do. It was one and a half hours long, and because it was Byron, everything -- the sets, the invitations, the food -- was very involved and detailed. Helen never took one note in that meeting and I walked out of there wondering how it would all get done. Well, it was 100 percent done, exactly as we wanted it and as she said it would be. And of course, on the night of the event, when I was zooming up the escalator to get there, I saw Helen. And she was perfectly calm, not one hair out of place. Now, this was not a typical Saks event, but there was not one excess bit of energy wasted on it, because it was Helen O'Hagan."Tony Longoria, a partner in Todd Oldham, said, "Oh, she's been a great fan. She's always been curious to know what we're doing -- not just for Collection but for Times 7 -- and has responded positively. She's really one of those people who embrace creativity and applaud it. It's been so refreshing to have someone like that around the industry." O'Hagan has survived seven regimes of senior management at Saks, and ownership from the Gimbel brothers to BATUS to Investcorp.

"The excitement is different today," she said. "We didn't used to work weekends back then [when the Gimbels were in charge], and we had more time for lunch. Today, something is happening every hour, and the pressure is tremendous."

Still, she has many vivid memories. In 1962, she attended Yves Saint Laurent's first collection under his own name.

"I don't remember any of the clothes," she said, "because I spent my time looking at the Duchess of Windsor and her jewelry."

O'Hagan attributes the longevity of her career to working well under extreme pressure and loving what she does.

"Adam [Gimbel] asked me to go into the buying office at one time, but I declined. I knew where I belonged -- in publicity," she said. "This is the best retailer in America. What more could anyone ask for?"

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