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A private memorial service will be held later this month for Harriet Selwyn, who died Oct. 18 at her Beverly Hills home.
This story first appeared in the October 23, 2012 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Selwyn, 81, died of lung cancer, according to her friend Jennifer Miller.
In the Seventies, the self-taught designer was widely recognized for her interchangeable Fragments sportswear, which was meant to simplify the lives of on-the-go women much like herself. For added versatility, several of the washable, wrinkle-free items could be worn frontward or backward and all seven pieces were merchandised in a tote bag. Her fluid styles were designed to be one size fits all. Selwyn was often spotted sporting one of the bags and wearing a silver cylinder necklace that hid a toothbrush. Miller said of Selwyn’s nomadic-inspired look, “With a collection that fit in a bag and a toothbrush around her neck, she felt that she could go anywhere.”
Born and raised in New York by her mother, a housewife, and her interior designer father, Selwyn was at one time a party girl and a regular at Studio 54. So much so that the disco era’s “Fly Robin Fly” will be the theme song at her memorial. Selwyn also loved throwing parties. “For her, getting dressed for the party was an important part of the party. She was always asking her friends, ‘What will you wear to the party?’” Miller recalled.
In the early Seventies, Selwyn borrowed $50 from a friend and relocated to Los Angeles after a bad relationship ended. Once on the West Coast, she and a partner started beading jewelry and called their company “Fragments,” since they were taking beads and artifacts and putting them together. In a 1977 interview, Selwyn said poor as she was at that time, it was one of the happiest times of her life. “Beginnings are always great: the problem is we always forget to be there at the time. Once you make it, it’s over,” she said.
Selwyn also helped others gets started. She employed Rozae Nichols and Cynthia Vincent, and was a mentor to the late Willi Smith. Selwyn was a source of inspiration to her friend Peter Cohen. She also gave $2,500 to Miller to start Jennifer Miller Jewelry. “We agreed that I would pay her back in installments. After the second installment, she gifted me the rest because she was so happy with my success. Now I have a very successful multimillion dollar jewelry company from the $2,500 she loaned me,” said Miller.
Selwyn helped pioneer in-store videos and “How To” charts, geared for salespeople and shoppers. Both tactics helped her convey her philosophy of “Keep it simple….Keep it comfortable…Make it beautiful.”
Known to be upfront, Selwyn told Miller how she once marched into Gene Pressman’s office at Barneys New York when payments lagged. In addition to Barneys, her collection was sold to Neiman Marcus, Charivari and I. Magnin, among other retailers. In 1995, she closed her company, which had been renamed as a signature label.
The designer also did not cower after overcoming breast cancer in the Seventies. She opted not to have reconstructive surgery after her mastectomy. During an appearance on “The Dinah Shore Show,” Selwyn removed her blouse to show viewers her scars so that they would not be so fearful of cancer.
Selwyn is survived by her brothers Freddie and Steve. In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions can be made to Hospice Partners of Southern California.