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She was a supermodel long before that term existed. When Gillis MacGil Addison, known in the fashion world by her maiden name, MacGil, strode down a runway, it was with plenty of attitude — elegant, with just a touch of arrogance. Her arresting beauty and catwalk manner set a high standard.
This story first appeared in the December 18, 2013 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
MacGil, who died Monday of cancer in Manhattan at age 85, built a successful career of glamour tempered by hard work, not only with modeling, but also by creating a unique modeling agency; winning numerous fashion awards, and achieving an enviable social status as a hostess in New York and the Hamptons.
“My life began at Bergdorf Goodman,” MacGil, who was born in New York City on Sept. 2, 1928, recalled in a recent interview with WWD. “Everything wonderful happened there.” She started at the store as a stock girl in the lingerie department, a part-time job she held while attending Hunter College. Before long, however, she became an in-store model showing customers the latest tea gowns and robes. Soon she had dropped out of school and was caught up in a whirlwind life of parties, private clubs and an extraordinary modeling career that spanned two decades. “The world was my oyster,” MacGil said.
At one of those Bergdorf Goodman shows, designer Nettie Rosenstein spotted MacGil and hired her as one of her in-house models, who would tour the country presenting the newest fashions at major retail stores. She worked for many other New York designers, including Norman Norell, Bill Blass, Geoffrey Beene, Pauline Trigère, James Galanos and Arnold Scaasi.
She also walked the runways for top French and Italian creators, appeared on many TV shows and even modeled on PanAm’s first promotional jet flight — a round-trip between New York and Washington.
Fashion publicist Eleanor Lambert used MacGil in most of the group shows she staged and, along with Rosenstein, urged her to try photographic modeling. Almost immediately, MacGil landed a Vogue cover. Her distinctive style, knowledge, beauty and, yes, brains caught the attention of educators at Pratt Institute, Drexel and the Fashion Institute of Technology, who invited her to lecture at those schools.
She was a vice president and member of the board of governors at the Fashion Group; was elected to the International Best Dressed List in 1972 and 1973; participated in an episode on the world of the model in Barbara Walters’ “Not for Women Only” series in 1972, and was an honoree at the Fashion Group’s 1981 gala tribute, “50 Years of American Women in Fashion.” Small wonder that Andrew Goodman, then president of Bergdorf Goodman and son of its founder, said, “Gillis MacGil is our most illustrious alumna.”
She formed close relationships with prominent designers, whose admiration for her went beyond her modeling skills; they considered her a confidante and counselor. “I loved Norman Norell so much,” MacGil said. “He was a sweet, gentle man, so droll and modest. Geoffrey Beene was brilliant — weird, but brilliant. As for cutting and draping, Pauline [Trigère] and Scaasi were terrific.” Yet, it was a French designer — Coco Chanel — who inspired the way MacGil dressed. “I preferred a tailored look, but always with something soft — a pleated skirt with a soft jacket or nubby wool sweater, perhaps,” she said. “I love white shirts and could wear one every day.” Her signature look, in fact, was a black sweater with a starched white collar and cuffs peeking out from beneath.
Early in her career, Gillis met the man who was to become her first husband — fashion photographer Philip Stearns, who hailed from Grosse Pointe, Mich., but grew up in Paris. “We met on a blind date, and by the second or third date, I fell madly in love with him,” said MacGil. “He was so continental, spoke French fluently and encouraged me to seriously pursue modeling.” They married in 1949, and he presented Gillis with a three-strand necklace of Asian pearls that had belonged to his mother. But the six-year marriage ended in divorce.
In 1960, MacGil created Mannequin, a modeling agency specifically for runway models. When she attempted to move away from the catwalk and turn to management, however, designers weren’t receptive. So it was double duty for the tireless entrepreneur, who started her agency working from an office at Henri Bendel rented to her by president Geraldine Stutz for $100 a month, with a dozen models that MacGil built into a stable of 75. MacGil organized workshops to train them, offering advice on makeup and hair, how to move in the clothes, how to maneuver a narrow runway and how to cope with stairs. She also found time to write a book, “Your Future in Modeling,” published by Richard Rosen Press in 1964.
“A model must be tenacious, ambitious and a self-starter,” MacGil advised. “She must have a wonderful personality, an indomitable spirit, intelligence and a good sense of self-identity and presence.” She added, “Looking glamorous is hard work and very little play. It’s early to bed for bright eyes, no drinking for clear skin, no rich foods for a wasp waist. And there are grueling hours for fittings and dashing madly from one show to another.”
Sharing those early career experiences was her life-long friend Missy Bancroft, a socialite/actress/model. They became best friends — two young beauties, one blonde, one brunette, who were as popular on the social scene as they were on the runway. “We were thick as thieves,” said MacGil.
At one of the many dinner parties they attended, the hostess, playing matchmaker, had planned to introduce Missy to Bruce Addison, a handsome ad executive. But by the end of the evening, it was Gillis and Bruce who connected. They were married in 1961.
MacGil recalled that their marriage was “like entering the Emerald City. It’s what I truly wanted. I grew up going to movies and always came away from them thinking that’s a wonderful way to live.” For the Addisons, this meant enjoying a wide circle of friends, gracious entertaining, weekends and summers in the Hamptons. “Life with Bruce was fabulous, exciting, lots of fun in those early years,” she said. But the Addisons also enjoyed a solid business partnership, mutually investing in real estate and other projects. “I always carried my own weight,” she liked to say.
Southampton in the Sixties demanded a rigorous weekend social schedule with two or three black-tie parties a night held in tents pitched on big patches of pristine lawn. The Addisons’ parties were very popular and offered an added attraction — their twin sons, Anthony and Blake, starting when they were seven or eight years old, often helped serve the dinner. The guests ate it up.
MacGil also made time to do some fund-raising for the Parrish Art Museum, located in Southampton at that time. She and two friends created a Thanksgiving weekend event — a combination flea market, auction and bazaar that over the years became one of the most popular and successful holiday attractions.
After she stopped modeling, gave up her agency and ended her 20-year marriage to Addison, MacGil devoted more time to her family — her twin sons, stepsons Bruce and Matthew, and two young granddaughters, Anabelle and Carolina.
When asked which of her many accomplishments gave her the most satisfaction, MacGil replied without hesitation, “Getting out of the Bronx.”
Funeral arrangements will be private. In lieu of flowers, contributions can be made to the Parrish Art Museum or to the East End Hospice in Westhampton Beach, N.Y.