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Obituary: Designer Jeanne S. Campbell, Prominent in Fifties Fashion

NEW YORK — Jeanne S. Campbell, a designer who played a role in the Fifties sportswear movement in America that included more famous names like Bonnie Cashin and Claire McCardell, died last Wednesday of complications resulting from a stroke. She...

NEW YORK — Jeanne S. Campbell, a designer who played a role in the Fifties sportswear movement in America that included more famous names like Bonnie Cashin and Claire McCardell, died last Wednesday of complications resulting from a stroke. She was 82.

While her career, which spanned more than 30 years, has not had as visible an impact in comparison to the continued name recognition of some of her peers, Campbell’s designs for Sportwhirl, a New York manufacturer, were highly successful on Seventh Avenue and had a marked impact on the mid-century popularization of inexpensive separates. Her designs were featured on the covers of Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and Glamour in the Fifties; she received the 1955 Coty American Fashion Critics’ Award; and, in 1970, she was among 15 American designers included in a WWD ranking of the “Women of the Year.”

That’s partly because Campbell’s theories of design often placed the accent on timeless and fairly nondescript styles with a breezy slant, rather than the trendy look of the moment. As she once said, “It’s a no-age, no-price look, and it’s up to the person who wears it to make the look.”

Campbell, who died at the Oxford, N.Y., home of her daughter, Jean E. Peterson, had grown up in Pittsburgh and wanted to be a fashion designer since she was 10 years old. After studying at the Pittsburgh Art Institute, she opened a small dress shop in Clearwater, Fla., where her family had a summer home. It was there, during World War II, while she worked for the Civil Aeronautics Administration drawing charts and maps, that she met her husband, Edward A. Campbell, a lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force.

After the war, the couple moved to New York and Campbell got a job designing for Loomtogs, where she worked for about five years and was recognized with a Mademoiselle Merit Award in 1951, before being recruited to Sportwhirl. She continued to build collections based on a separates philosophy, with fabrics particularly suited for casual, everyday wear. Her clothes, sold under the “Jeanne Campbell for Sportwhirl” label, turned up on Ava Gardner, Lynda Bird Johnson and Liza Minnelli.

This story first appeared in the July 30, 2002 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

“She always tried to make things classic and timeless, so they didn’t go out of style,” said Petersen, who described Campbell as a stern, but nontraditional mother, whose success was often based on sheer force of will.

“She was strong and ambitious and filled with great ideas,” Petersen said. “Whatever idea she had, she made it happen. Nothing could stop her, whether it was designing or working in the garden, or even putting up a ceiling herself. She never wanted to grow old, and even had her nails and hair done to the end. She had to be like the first Martha Stewart — she always had unique ways of doing things.”

Liesel Boose, who knew Campbell since around 1950, had a similar impression. Boose was working as a fashion illustrator for WWD and met the designer through the paper’s art director, who said Campbell could help her find an apartment in the city. Campbell rented her an apartment directly across from hers on East 48th Street, which had been redecorated when the former tenant moved out.

“It was cold as anything, but beautifully decorated,” Boose said. “Jeanne would come over and try things on me, then ask me to take them into Women’s Wear to promote them a little bit. She once had me wear a burlap outfit — burlap from head to foot — because someone from Paris had done it and it was a big hit. She knew what she wanted and she was determined to get it.”

After divorcing her husband in 1964, Campbell moved to Westhampton, N.Y., where the couple had converted two neighboring shacks into a remarkable house that she operated as a bed-and-breakfast until recently. She continued to commute to work for Sportwhirl until 1977 and remained active as an instructor and judge at Parsons School of Design, which has established a scholarship fund under her name. She also often traveled to Barbados and Peru with the International Executive Service Corp. to consult with fashion industries and instruct young designers.

In addition to her daughter and ex-husband, Campbell is survived by a son, Edward A. Campbell Jr., a graphic designer in New York.