NEW YORK — Teal Traina once pointed to the entrance of his Seventh Avenue showroom and said: “It should say ‘school’ over the door.”
A Seventh Avenue legend who inherited both the business started by his uncle, Anthony Traina — the financial partner of Norman Norell — and his knack for discovering young talent, he gave a diverse group of designers their first jobs, including Geoffrey Beene, Dominic Rompallo, Chester Weinberg, Rodriguez and Kay Unger. He died on March 22, following a brief hospitalization at the North Shore University Hospital near his home in Bayville, N.Y., a hospital spokeswoman said. He was 85.
The Traina name was already well known on Seventh Avenue after World War II when Teal Traina joined his father and uncle’s business, Traina-Norell, started as a partnership in 1941 with Norman Norell as designer following his 14-year career with Hattie Carnegie. Traina started his own company, Traina Inc., in 1959, coinciding with the closing of Traina-Norell, with a similar business model. Beene was the first designer behind the Traina labels until 1963, when he left to start his own company.
“Traina was one of my original boosters,” Beene said on Friday. “He left me alone and made it possible for me to do my own things. He had a great sense of humor.I shall forever be humbled to him.”
Alexandra De Paulis, Jeanette Valls, Rodriguez and Weinberg also found their first jobs under Traina’s direction, but they were designing anonymously for dress labels like Teal Today, Traina Sport and Traina Boutique. That was at a time when designers were just starting to come out of the back rooms, establishing names for themselves and getting their own labels, like Oscar de la Renta from Elizabeth Arden and Bill Blass from Maurice Rentner did in the mid-Sixties. Dominic Rompallo worked for Traina from 1966-70, then left to start his own label and made a name for himself by designing Rosalynn Carter’s 1977 inaugural wardrobe. Traina described his hires as “plain luck,” but he often mused about how they seemed to get away so quickly.
“I always gave them recognition, but I didn’t want their names on the label,” he said in 1972. “Maybe it was my Sicilian pride, maybe Ben Shaw [who later backed and promoted de la Renta and some designers who left Traina] has the right idea. I felt the name Traina was well known, and I didn’t want to disturb the label. Maybe it was a mistake, but I’m not sorry.”
Kay Unger recalled Norell and Traina coming to act as critics at the Parsons School of Design competitions that motivated many students to look for work there. “Actually, what you would do was start out at Jo Copeland and then go to Traina,” Unger said. “It was phenomenal. He had a real flair for training designers, probably because of his connection with Norell. It was the best training a designer could have.
“When I was there, I was a young designer, practically out of school and he hired me to do my own collection — Traina Sportswear and Traina Boutique,” Unger said. “I was 24 years old, and he made me a boss of people. I couldn’t believe it.”
Traina’s business generated sales of $5 million annually until the 1972 recession, when he reacted to a tough market with lower prices by reorganizing Teal Traina Ltd., but he couldn’t turn things around with enough volume to make up for the damaged business.
He retired in 1978, traveling extensively and licensing his name for a better priced sportswear line that never came to fruition. He then started again in 1987, when he was 60, with a showroom at 550 Seventh Avenue as an evening dress house, but that did not match his earlier success, either.
Traina was in failing health for the past couple of years, according to Christian Ruperto, a longtime friend, who added that Traina was survived by a daughter, Camille, and two brothers, Emile and John.