“Mr. Blackwell,” whose annual Worst Dressed List skewered the fashion blunders of movie stars and other celebrities, died Sunday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. He was 86.
The cause of death was an intestinal infection, said his publicist, Harlan Boll.
Blackwell, born Richard Selzer in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, was scathing in his critiques, which was the point of the lists he trumpeted at news conferences in his home in Los Angeles. He suggested Drew Barrymore change her name to “Drew bares more,” and described Bette Midler as “potluck in a laundromat.”
But his own up-by-the-bootstraps life was far from fit for a gilded frame. He was just out of third grade when he ran away from home to escape an abusive stepfather, Boll said.
According to his autobiography, “From Rags to Bitches,” published in 1995, Blackwell stole, hustled as a prostitute and took odd jobs that eventually led to work in the theater.
Blackwell’s first creations, so to speak, were toilet bowl covers. When those didn’t sell, he simply pulled in the drawstrings, added rhinestones for embellishment and sold them to hair salons for women to cover their curlers.
He upgraded that design sensibility and made hats for New York socialites to supplement his theater pay. Blackwell moved to Los Angeles after appearing in the Broadway drama “Dead End” in 1935. He played bit parts in movies, and signed with RKO Pictures, where Howard Hughes changed his name to Blackwell.
He returned to Broadway in 1944 in “Catherine Was Great” with Mae West, but then left acting to work as an talent agent. His duties included designing their stage costumes.
In the late Fifties, the House of Blackwell was launched and he started dressing stars like Jane Russell, Dorothy Lamour and Jayne Mansfield.
But the tipping point in his career came in 1960, when American Weekly, a syndicated Sunday supplement, asked Blackwell to create a “10 Best and Worst Dressed List.” It was the worst-dressed list that got publicity, so much so that publicists, agents and managers routinely sent unsolicited snapshots of their clients not looking their best, Boll said.
“The year that Mr. Blackwell described [TV star] Fran Drescher as ‘an explosion at a paint factory,’ she told Princess Diana [who made the best dressed list that year, but had been on the worst dressed a year before], ‘Honey, you’re on the wrong list,’” Boll said.
Some celebrities sent thank you notes to Blackwell for their worst-dressed rankings and Whoopi Goldberg and Phyllis Diller even got him gifts.
Blackwell was “partially through” this year’s list, but unless he left notes that Boll is unaware of, the list will rest at 2007 with Victoria Beckham holding the dubious worst-dressed honor.
Blackwell is survived by his partner, Robert Spencer. After private services this week, Blackwell will be buried at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. “Cecil B. DeMille, Hitchcock, Douglas Fairbanks and Rudolph Valentino are there,” Boll said. “He will be in good company.”
@tradesy is turning the concept of a showroom upside down with its new space in Santa Monica. Here, the company plans to hold events, art exhibits and a showcase rare fashion pieces like this Louis Vuitton boxing set. Get all the details on Tradesy’s first showroom on WWD.com. #wwdnews
Spotted last night at the @erdem x @hm launch event: Kate Bosworth, Rashida Jones, Kirsten Dunst and Selma Blair. The party, which took place in LA, also marked the opening of their pop-up shop. “I was interested in creating a collection that wasn’t in any way disposable. It was about pieces you’d create and keep forever, things that have a permanence to it,” designer Erdem Moralioglu said. #wwdeye (📷: Katie Jones)
Renee Zellweger in yellow in 2001 and again in 2017. Chosen as one of the 12 @pantone Leading Spring Colors (and dubbed “Meadowlark”), it only makes sense that the bright hue stands the test of time and is making a resurgence this season, seen already on stars like @blakelively and @gigihadid. (📷: Donato Sardello & @rexfeatures) #wwdfashion #tbt
Dior’s 70th anniversary celebration continues with a new exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. “Christian Dior,” which is scheduled to run through March 18, takes a look at the founders tenure from 1947 to 1057 and feature 40 designs. Pictured here is an evening gown from the Ailée, fall 1948-49 haute couture collection. #wwdfashion (📷: Brian Boyle)
As one of the most recognizable models in the world, Christy Turlington Burns has an insider’s view of the fashion industry and the allegations of sexual harassment swirling around it. “I can say that harassment and mistreatment have always been widely known and tolerated in the industry. The industry is surrounded by predators who thrive on the constant rejection and loneliness so many of us have experiences at some point in our careers,” Turlington told WWD, along with her suggestions for how the modeling world should protect younger women and men. Read more on WWD.com. Link in bio. (📷: Tony Palmieri) #wwdnews
@asics America has tapped a new brand ambassador: famed DJ/record producer @steveaoki. This initiative is intended to set the tone for the new brand identity and philosophy and will include partnerships with influencers and in-store and off-line activations that will continue into next year. This is Asics’ most significant marketing effort in two decades, and is expected to attract younger consumers to the brand. #wwdfashion
24-year-old Jean Prounis is redefining the rules of jewelry. Formerly a studio assistant to Jemima Kirke and a design apprentice at Ghuran, she focuses on handcrafted subtleties and ancient goldsmithing techniques. “There was a really sterile feel in the environment and I wanted to have jewelry with character that shapes how you wear it everyday,” Prounis said. Each piece is hand made in New York, either by Prounis or three other jewelers in the district. #wwdfashion
“These collections continue to build on that vision, empowering differently abled adults to express themselves through fashion,” said @tommyhilfiger of his line of adaptive apparel, which launches today. The line consists of 37 men’s and 34 women’s styles based upon the pieces from the spring Tommy Hilfiger sportswear collection. #wwdnews