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NEW YORK — Herbert Gallen and Linda Allard, the dynamic Seventh Avenue couple who dressed America’s first generation of female executives in working clothes that grew up — along with their customers — from innocent 1950s sportswear to the sophisticated bridge apparel of today, have reached another career milestone.
They are retiring, leaving the next phase of Ellen Tracy in the hands of its new owner of 11 months, Liz Claiborne Inc. Gallen and Allard built the company from a manufacturer of unremarkable blouses with a made-up name into a $171 million business that is now the leading department store vendor for the bridge category, and they fell in love along the way. Gallen, who founded Ellen Tracy in 1949, and Allard, who was hired as a designer in 1962, have often referred to their lives as a long story, one with many chapters and each of those reflective of the evolving careers of the customers they dressed.
“This has been an amazing story for us, yet all good stories do come to an end,” Allard said in a statement on Monday.
Gallen, who is 87, had indicated he would retire as chairman in the near future following the sale of the company to Claiborne for $180 million in September 2002, although Allard, 63, had been less specific about her plans as design director. On Monday, the company said both had retired, and the couple had already left en route to their 163-foot yacht, The Mystique, and could not be reached for comment.
“Herb and Linda pioneered the idea that a designer label could also be a sizeable commercial success,” Paul Charron, chairman and chief executive officer of Claiborne, said in the statement. “We will miss them greatly, but they leave us with a terrifically talented team, many of whom have worked alongside of them for the past 20 years.”
Allard fostered an unusual loyalty and dedication among her design staff, although not universally. Charles Nolan designed for the label for more than a decade before joining bridge rival Anne Klein in 2001, where he worked for two years, and Karen Harman, once the well-known designing partner of Dana Buchman, was recruited to the company recently but only lasted a short time.
In June, two longtime members of Ellen Tracy’s design teams were promoted to oversee the collections and the coordination of design teams for its separate labels, and are expected to lead the design going forward. Joni Storgion-Knight, an 18-year veteran of the company, was named vice president of design/product development for the Linda Allard Ellen Tracy collection, and Donna McKenzie, who worked there for 17 years, was named vice president of design/product development for Company Ellen Tracy, the more sportif collection.
Claiborne’s plans to incorporate and leverage the brands in its existing portfolio are already well under way. Glenn McMahon, who was president of Claiborne’s Kenneth Cole women’s sportswear line, was named president of Ellen Tracy shortly after the acquisition, and Gail Cook oversees Ellen Tracy as group president of bridge brands. The company is looking for additional licensing opportunities, expanding the casual apparel line, opening Ellen Tracy stores and expanding internationally. One of the first projects Claiborne has launched for Ellen Tracy is a line of jewelry and handbags that will debut for fall, continuing the momentum of the business where Gallen left off.
Gallen’s dedication to the brand, and the hiring of Allard, is one of the most romantic tales of Seventh Avenue lore.
Although his grandfather owned a silk mill and his father was a fabric manufacturer, Gallen had no intentions of entering the apparel business. After graduating from high school in Paterson, N.J., he went to work for an uncle who owned 27 R&S Auto Supply stores in the state, before joining the army and marrying Betty Barr, who worked in a small retail shop nearby.
During World War II, when fabrics were difficult to come by for apparel manufacturers, Gallen then decided to capitalize on his family resources and put together a line of blouses under his first wife’s name. In 1949, he established Ellen Tracy as a new firm with a made-up name, making printed blouses with a basic shape and no designers involved.
“As long as you had fabric, you designed them,” Gallen said in a recent interview. “We took prints and made blouses out of them. When we got a designer, they got pretty.”
Dorothy Avazian was among the first designers there, but she often aggravated Gallen with designs he didn’t like. It was after one argument that Gallen suddenly became receptive to a young design applicant who had been knocking on hundreds of doors, looking for any job she could find in the garment center.
After graduating from Kent State University, Allard had come to New York with only $200 and no connections, and was about to give up when 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 in an interview last year. “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 assisted Avazian for a little over a year when the elder designer decided to move to California, and Gallen promoted her to take over the collection. She was young, but she was also the personification of the market that Ellen Tracy was looking to address — an independent, strong-spirited woman looking to make it in the corporate world.
After much convincing, Allard introduced sportswear into the collection with T-shirts and peacoats, which were so successful that the brand moved quickly into the junior sportswear arena, competing with Youth Guild, then designed by Liz Claiborne, in the growing market for less formal apparel thanks to the burgeoning youth revolution. They were sweet and ladylike clothes, but also more sportif than the strict uniform of suits, gloves and hats that women wore in the Fifties.
As more lifestyle elements were introduced to Ellen Tracy, and as women started to go into the workforce in large numbers in the late Seventies and early Eighties, the look of the collection similarly adapted to the need for a wardrobe that accommodated the changing roles of women in society and were accessibly priced.
“Women needed to have more serious clothes,” Allard said last year. “That’s when bridge began. 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.”
Sharing the ideals of many of her customers, Allard took the same dedicated approach to her job as would any man, including Gallen, himself famous for an intense involvement in all aspects of the company. Gallen taught Allard about the commercial side of the apparel industry, helping her to formulate designs that would sell. They traveled to trunk shows together and both were frequently involved in the formulation of ad campaigns, being on-site for the shoots. Gallen had a reputation for being a tough boss, but he and Allard worked together so closely that they considered their company a family.
Three years ago, Gallen, then a widow, proposed to Allard, who married him after working together for nearly 40 years.
In recent years, he had floated the idea of a public offering or a sale of the company many times, but his notoriously tight control prevented any deals, including a near sale to Bain & Co. eight years ago, from coming to fruition, until Claiborne was able to construct a lucrative package last year. The couple appeared to be winding down their involvement in the brand then, looking to spend their retirements traveling, cooking and gardening — the passions of Allard, who published a cookbook, “Absolutely Delicious!” in 1994. Gallen and Allard have homes in Washington, Conn., and Demarest, N.J., as well as The Mystique, the fourth in a series of increasingly big boats he has commanded since 1970.