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NEW YORK — Chuck Howard, an integral figure to the establishment of the American sportswear movement in post-World War II New York, died on Monday at the age of 75.
Howard was a well-known figure on Seventh Avenue in the Fifties and Sixties, when he worked with Anne Klein at Junior Sophisticates, and eventually designed under his own label from 1968 to 1974. But he will also be remembered for making an important fashion connection by first introducing a young Donna Karan to Klein, as well as for opening a short-lived but successful restaurant in Manhattan’s theater district in the Eighties that was a regular haunt for Bill Blass, Tom Fallon and Bobby Short.
He had since retired with his partner, Edward Vaughan, to the island of Saba in the Caribbean, until he was recently diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Howard was being treated at a hospital in Albuquerque, N.M., where he died, said Sheila Marks, director of licensing at Bill Blass, who also once worked with the designer at Anne Klein.
Howard had come to New York from Georgia after the war, during which he served as a tail-gunner in the Navy Air Corps, and was almost immediately noticed for his good looks. The photographer George Platt Lynes used Howard as a model for several projects and lived with him for more than a year, according to Vaughan, who noted that several pictures of Howard are still shown in galleries and are featured in books about the photographer. After studying design in Paris, Howard began working in fashion in the late Fifties, for David Crystal early in his career, and then at Junior Sophisticates, where he shared the spotlight with Anne Klein. In 1965, he went to work for Townley, the sportswear and dress house where Claire McCardell had worked on-and-off for 20 years, replacing Donald Brooks, who had taken over for McCardell after her death in 1958.
Howard is among a group of American designers, including Pembroke Squires, John Weitz, Frank Adams and John Norman, who brought a sense of humor to American sportswear in the Sixties, lightening up the somber collections that had dominated fashion during the war and for much of the decade that ensued.
By 1968, like McCardell had done earlier, Howard’s success led him to become a partner in Townley, but it was during that year that its longtime manager, Adolphe Klein, handed over the business operations to the designer as well. The company was renamed Chuck Howard Inc., and the designer continued to experiment with proportion and fabric, introducing a red melton midicoat one season, and then castigating dresses to a minor role within the line the next, instead focusing on tunics, pants and jersey shirts, or championing the longuette trench coat or EasyPants later on.
It was also around that time that Donna Karan, then a student at Parsons School of Design, began working for Howard, and he pushed her to see Anne Klein. Karan once recalled wearing a John Anthony pinstripe suit and carrying her portfolio, when Klein ordered her to “walk for me,” thinking Karan was applying for a job as a model. Karan dropped out of school and went to work for Klein and was named to succeed her upon Klein’s death in 1974.
That year, Howard also decided to close his business and joined Anne Klein’s studio as creative coordinator and designer, responsible for coordinating the design of several of its licensed collections.
“He had a hilarious sense of humor,” said Marks. “He designed good dresses and separates with a real American flare. And he used to do wonderful accents. He was as Irish as they come, but he picked up a lot of Yiddish working in the garment center. When people would ask him if Chuck Howard was his real name, he’d say, ‘No, it’s Horowitz.’”
Howard became a close friend to Blass, as well as Jerome Robbins, Geraldine Stutz and Joe Eula, the fashion illustrator.
“He knew a lot of people in show business and the theater,” said Marks. “I used to walk home with him after work, when he lived on Ninth Avenue and 46th Street. I’d sit in his kitchen and by 7 p.m., there was a wonderful dinner and nine other people there, with what seemed like absolutely no effort at all.”
After Howard tired of the fashion business, his friends encouraged him to open a restaurant called Chuck Howard, which he and Vaughan ran for two years until they retired to the Caribbean. “After Seventh Avenue, it is possible to do anything,” he told the Washington Post in 1980. “The big problem here is the bread rising, not the hemline.”
Howard’s legendary skills in the kitchen might also be remembered for creating another fashion milestone, credit for which might be incorrectly noted at the end of Bill Blass’ recently published memoirs: the recipe for Bill Blass Meatloaf. Vaughan claimed that the recipe was originally created by Howard.
“I think it had been Chuck’s,” he said. “Of course, Bill gets a lot of the credit for it.”
Howard is survived by a brother, Ronald Howard, and sister, Nelda Kasper, who also worked at Anne Klein for a while as a switchboard operator. No services are planned.