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A Company Woman

When Linda Allard stepped off a Greyhound bus and onto Seventh Avenue 40 years ago, a woman in her 20s with a suitcase in hand and $200 in her pocket, it wasn’t with stars in her eyes, but a feeling that this was where she...

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When Linda Allard stepped off a Greyhound bus and onto Seventh Avenue 40 years ago, a woman in her 20s with a suitcase in hand and $200 in her pocket, it wasn’t with stars in her eyes, but a feeling that this was where she belonged.

Growing up in Doylestown, Ohio, the oldest of six children, Allard had learned the basics of sewing from her mother, a first grade teacher, and made most of her own clothes throughout her formative years, an interest that she sensed might later lead to a career in fashion. She even picked up a few patternmaking courses at Kent State, where she had won a fine arts scholarship, and interned for a month at Mademoiselle in New York, after winning a guest editor contest.

But her aspiration was not to become a celebrity designer with her name on a label, not to create what would become the definitively signature look of bridge departments, not even to work on Seventh Avenue for four decades, all of which ended up happening, anyway.

“When I came to New York, I thought I’d do this fashion thing for a while, but then I would meet a great man and have six children like my parents had done, and that would be my life,” said Allard, who is 62, but didn’t marry until two years ago, when she and Herbert Gallen, the chairman of Ellen Tracy who also was the person who hired her, extended their working partnership to a personal one.

“It’s hard to believe that it’s 40 years,” Allard said. “Going back to the old books from the Sixties, I look back and it’s quite remarkable. I don’t feel that old.”

Leafing through those books, what’s also remarkable is that Allard hardly appears to have aged at all.

Meanwhile, the look and definition of Ellen Tracy has grown up along with her tastes — from a quality blouse and dress manufacturer, when she was hired, to a powerhouse of junior sportswear, shortly thereafter, then to a contemporary resource in the Seventies, until finally becoming the key player in the bridge market in the Eighties, that it still is today.

Similarly, in dressing that generation of women as they grew up, entered the workforce and eventually established themselves as equivalents to men in powerful, corporate jobs, Allard, too, found that her knowledge, ideals and desires changed quite substantially along the way. “I was very naive back then,” she said, remembering the events that led her to Ellen Tracy’s doorstep. “I came to the Garment Center and went to every building, every floor and every showroom to ask if anyone needed an assistant designer. I had no connections at all, and hundreds of them said, ‘We don’t have an opening.’ It wasn’t long before my $200 was gone.”

Allard’s portfolio did land her several interviews, but none of them successful until she received a call from a sales manager at Ellen Tracy, who set up a meeting with Gallen.

“It was 2 p.m. on Sept. 27, 1962, a fateful day,” Allard said. “I sat across from Mr. Gallen and it happened to be a really lousy, New York, rainy, drenched day. I think he felt I was desperate for a job. He looked at my portfolio and asked, ‘How much money would you like to make?’ Well, I hadn’t even thought about that. So I said, ‘I would like to make $50 a week.’ He said, ‘Sorry, but if you’ll take $60, you can have a job.’”

Allard went to work as an assistant to Dorothy Avazian, working alongside a cutter, a patternmaker and three sample makers in the company’s old offices at 1407 Broadway. It was highly technical work and Allard remembers feeling the same frustration that she still sees today in young designers when they first go to work on Seventh Avenue and get a taste of real manufacturing. It was a challenge, she said, but worth the effort.

“I lived in a women’s residence getting by on yogurt and hard-boiled eggs and the sympathy of these three sample makers who bought me lunch every day,” Allard said. “It really was fun. There’s an energy in New York City that wasn’t in Doylestown, Ohio.”

Gradually, Avazian let Allard do her own thing, and when the elder designer decided to move to California in 1964, Gallen approached Allard about taking over the collection. She was terrified at the prospect, but, of course, accepted.

At that time, Ellen Tracy specialized in quality blouses and shirtwaist dresses — up to $36 for a dozen, wholesale — that reflected the look of New York and its Garment District, which were then very different places then they are today.

There was still a lot of manufacturing done in the area and Seventh Avenue was bustling with bolts of fabrics and rolling racks, while throughout the city women dressed for work in suits, hats, gloves and high heels.

“When women went to the city, they were already dressed,” Allard said. But at the same time, the youth revolution was beginning to take hold of the country, which would portend a major evolution in dress.

“That’s when we started in sportswear,” Allard said. “For a spring collection, we were also doing T-shirts, with navy, white and red stripes, and then I made a white ottoman peacoat with brass buttons and sailor pants. I remember having big discussions with the sales managers because the coat was a real departure for us and it was expensive. It was $10.75 at wholesale. But we sold thousands of them.”

As Allard worked more elements into the collection, Ellen Tracy became a major player in the junior sportswear arena, competing with a then unknown designer named Liz Claiborne, who was working for Youth Guild. “We were very comparable in what we were doing,” Allard said, and although she and Claiborne were social professionally and belonged to many of the same industry organizations, they were not close friends.

“We’re a competitive lot,” Allard said. “We tend not to socialize too much with the competition. I prefer to have my friends outside of the business. It’s much easier.”

With a degree of irony, it was Liz Claiborne Inc., the company that bears her retired competitor’s name, that bought Ellen Tracy last month, and also owns bridge rival Dana Buchman, a designer whose first job in fashion was working for Allard.

The look of Ellen Tracy was much different in the Sixties and Seventies, with bell-bottom pants and flower-printed dresses — Allard described the collection then as “youthful, sweet and ladylike.” But she also used two words that have stuck with her through the decades: “Sportif and sophisticated,” a description that remains the hallmark of Allard’s design sensibility, mostly because they also describe not only her own active lifestyle, but also the typical mindset of the women she has dressed.

As women started to go into the workforce in large numbers in the late Seventies and early Eighties, they also learned to juggle obligations of family with those of career, and they needed a wardrobe that could accommodate both.

“Women needed to have more serious clothes,” Allard said. “That’s when bridge began. At that time, I was designing navy blazers and gray flannel suits with shirts with little ties. At the beginning, we were emulating what men wore. Women felt that in order to be taken seriously, they had to dress like men. We’ve come a long way from that — they were assistants and secretaries then and now there are women ceo’s and women running businesses.

“The role of women in the workforce has changed dramatically, but that masculine/feminine look has always continued to intrigue me. I consider myself a serious business woman and I designed for what I needed. In many ways, Ellen Tracy reflects how I have changed in my life.”

To a large extent, Allard matured along with the American fashion industry. She credits her entire fashion business education to Gallen, whom she still refers to in an interview as “Mr. Gallen,” but that distinction reflects more of Ellen Tracy’s internal corporate attitude than her own. The company’s core customers are women in the professional world who are looking for distinctive, high-quality clothes that have a reliable fit, a reasonable price tag and, most importantly, a smartness to their design that makes them stylish but not so extravagant that they would ever feel inappropriate in front of the boss.

Allard, too, maintains a respectable outward appearance, with remarkable posture that would almost seem severe if it were not softened by her natural smile. She has always worn business attire to work and industry functions, even to trunk shows around the country, and reserves her casualwear for her weekend life at home in Washington, Conn.

“I’m shocked when I go to an opening at the ballet and I see how people are dressed,” she said. “I recently sat next to a man in a T-shirt, sneakers and ratty shorts. He grew up in the same country we’re all living in. I really don’t get it. I don’t believe in dressing that way. For the kind of women we dress, they don’t either.”

While Allard has not been one to grab the spotlight over the years, she has become well known to American consumers since her name went on the label in 1984. Last year, the logo was redesigned to reflect a more modern attitude to the collection, while also putting Allard’s name on equal footing with that of Ellen Tracy.

When Allard got into the business, designers weren’t celebrities. She recalled, “It wasn’t about Bill, Anne, Linda, anybody. It was about the brand names. There was a different feeling in this industry that women didn’t have an interest in who was designing the label, but that changed, very gradually.”

Allard has noticed that her customers’ sophistication level has also evolved organically, from bell bottoms to power suits to more subtle details and silhouettes.

“This company has done something remarkable in its 53 years in that it has been able to change with the times,” Allard said. “We’ve been fortunate to be able to anticipate the needs of the country and where it’s going.”

Allard has also found a family by association at Ellen Tracy. From the day Gallen hired her, she knew she liked him. When they married, his two daughters by his former marriage became part of her extended family, and they are all included in Allard’s elaborate Fourth of July parties at her home in Connecticut. Christmases are spent in Doylestown, in the home Allard grew up in, where one of her sisters now resides.

“I love cooking and entertaining for friends,” said Allard, who also published a 300-page cookbook in 1994 called “Absolutely Delicious!” It includes her own paintings and recipes for some of her favorite family dishes. It’s a combination of these corporate and casual lifestyle elements that often make their way into Allard’s love for design and her ability to sense a seismic shift in the way women will dress before the earthquake hits.

But for once, as Ellen Tracy enters the next chapter of its existence, Allard isn’t exactly sure what’s coming next, despite the troubling way casual, unkempt dressing has become more pervasive in society, or the alternate universe of the runways of Paris and Milan, where overtly sexual clothes have replaced anything that a career girl could ever take seriously.

“Right now, I don’t see any dramatic change coming,” Allard said. “Women are established in the workplace. That’s a given. The kind of clothes they need to function in that lifestyle isn’t going to change, and as for those microminis, I can’t see our customer wearing that.”

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