Adolfo Sardinia, a New York-based designer whose first name was intrinsically linked to former first lady Nancy Reagan for decades, has died at the age of 98.
The designer, who was known simply as “Adolfo,” died in Manhattan on Saturday. Private funeral services will be held on Dec. 9 at St. Vincent Ferrer Roman Catholic Church, followed by a burial at Restland Memorial Park in East Hanover, N.J., according to Thomas Valek of the John Krtil Funeral Home.
Throughout Adolfo’s career, he dressed his well-heeled loyalists smartly, often favoring suits, precisely fitted dresses and gowns in striking solid shades. Despite having internationally known clients like Reagan, Babe Paley, C.Z. Guest, Nan Kempner and Pat Buckley, Adolfo was unimpressed by his fame. In 2014, he told WWD, “I can’t imagine that you would be interested in anything that I have to say.”
Adolfo, a diminutive but sprightly man, was born in Cuba on Feb. 15, 1933. After working in Paris as an apprentice to Cristobal Balenciaga, he came to New York and began a career as an assistant milliner, then went to work for the hat house Emme. He was successful, winning a Coty Award in 1953, but he also began designing a few pieces of ready-to-wear for special clients, and he, like Halston, realized that the heyday of hats was over.
Fellow designer Bill Blass had encouraged him to venture out on his own, so Adolfo followed that advice. With a $10,000 loan from Blass and $25,000 from other friends and clients, he started a rtw business in 1961. Creating Chanel-like suits that were knitted and very packable, along with jacket dresses, caftans and evening dresses with bow-tied necks, he was an almost immediate success and repaid Blass’ seed money six months later. The Duchess of Windsor Wallis Simpson, who was a close friend of his aunt’s and someone whom Sardinia first met in Havana, also helped to set him on his way.
He spoke of the duchess of liking her “immensely. Like everyone that you meet, you have your own opinion about how you feel about them them. I loved her. She was really the best.”
Simpson often frequented his little shop at 22 East 56th Street and asked if he would like to make dresses for her. “I said yes, of course. They were, of course, successful. She used to always say, ‘Now look here Adolfo’…then she introduced me to Mrs. Paley, who became one of my friends. And Mrs. Paley introduced me to Mrs. [Betsy] Bloomingdale.”
For Gloria Vanderbilt, he said, “I started to make her some capes and minidresses…to go with the hats she bought.”
Before long, his client list read like a socialite who’s who — Paley, Jackie Kennedy, Buckley, Annette Reed, Jane Engelhard, Guest, Kempner, Mica Ertegun, Barbara Hutton, Isabel Eberstadt, Evangeline Bruce, Lee Annenberg, Noreen Drexel, Bloomingdale, Ethel Scull, Louise Melhado, Buffy Cafritz, Robin Duke, Edna Morris and Barbara Walters. Guest was another Havana-made connection. The designer’s aunt and uncle hosted a luncheon for Guest and Ernest Hemingway after they were married in Cuba.
The designer and Reagan became fast friends after meeting in 1966. Reagan wore his designs to both of her husband presidential inaugurations in 1981 and 1985. The bright red dress, coat and hat that the first lady sported in 1981 was a particular favorite. It helped to establish that color as “Nancy Reagan Red.” Reagan once remarked that his clothes were made with such precision that they could be worn inside out.
Stan Herman described Sardinia as “the [Greta] Garbo of our designers.” He said, “I don’t think many people understand how important he was as a designer. He was on a level with people like Bill [Blass,] Oscar [de la Renta,] and Pauline [Trigere.] They we’re definitely the designers to reach for for people like myself.”
Herman and Sardinia had worked together briefly, when they were both associated with Henri Bendel. Herman recalled being backstage at the Coty awards in 1969 with fellow winners Sardinia and Halston. “There he was dressing everyone in his tableau himself. There wasn’t a helper. I had to go over and help him, because I felt so sorry for him.” he said.
Sardinia’s do-it-yourself approach stemmed from a sense of privacy, Herman said. “He never became a part of the scene. I respected him. He never felt that he was a part of the upper crust. He was a worker.”
The designer was so private that he had requested that his funeral not have a eulogy other than a few words be delivered by the priest, who says the mass, according to Joann Palumbo, a spokesperson for Sardinia. His estate is not expected to be settled for a few years, she said. Although Adolfo closed his namesake collection in 1993, his licensing business and will continue to do so.
Adolfo began dressing Reagan before she was in the White House, and she was shown on the cover of W in his clothes. She had several suits, he noted at the time, that she had bought from him seven years before her husband became president and she made them look new as she continued to wear them.
Unlike many of his ilk, Adolfo wasn’t a “walker” or a talker, guarding his clients’ privacy. “I don’t like to gossip. I don’t think that’s necessary,” he said in the 2014 interview with WWD. (Nor did he discuss anything astrological with Reagan.)
Over time, Adolfo’s star was illuminated but that never sparked any self glory. The designer said he “just enjoyed” the strong-minded women who he worked for. “I never felt in my whole career that I was an important person. I have always felt that you are more important. I am not important. I never had a competition with the person whom I was with, because sincerely I wasn’t [important].”
The classic fashion faux pas — when two or more women show up at a party in the same dress — and the usual reaction is mortification wasn’t the case at an Adolfo show. Twice a year, his faithful clients gathered for his show at the St. Regis, and it often turned out that many of them had picked the same favorite suit or frock to wear. It was all part of the fun.
The apogee of this may have been the presentation on July 14, 1983, to which many of his acolytes wore the same leaf-detailed white cardigan and silk dress. WWD’s headline on the story in the next day’s paper was: “Love ‘Em and Leaf ‘Em.”
As Jean Remmel put it, “I don’t mind. It’s a very good way to look.” Barbara Davis said, “I remember when I would show up at a party and Harriet [Deutsch], Marian [Jorgensen] and myself were all wearing the same look. Instead of being embarrassed, we loved it.”
Once he flew into California to deliver a dress to Reagan for a big event. At the airport he somehow missed the chauffeur who had the outfit and ended up being badly delayed. “There was Mrs. Reagan all ready to get dressed,” he said. “She’d been waiting for three hours. I thought I was going to cry. I’m never late. But she was so nice, so understanding. Another woman would have been on the edge of hysterics. But she was perfectly collected, perfectly calm.
“Mrs. Reagan brought to me a popularity with women whom I don’t know and who might not even know me,” he noted. “My basic ideas for my clothes usually come from my clients. It’s based on the person that exists and that I know quite well. It’s all done in a very real way thinking about the customer.”
His clean-cut soigné black dresses, Reagan-ruffled silk blouses, subtle nautical knit suits and entrance-makers like a one-shouldered black velvet gown with a taffeta dinosaur sleeve won over a moneyed crowd. He knew what his ladies wanted and gave it to them with inspiration from overseas. In the early ’80s, Sardinia was described by a Saks Fifth Avenue executive as “the designer, who has captured the mood and times of America. This is his moment.”
In 1981, the designer’s ties to Reagan led to criticism of his company’s use of the contractor Ruth Fashions, which the New York State attorney general’s office claimed had violated industrial homework laws. Sardinia soldiered on quietly though for the majority of his expansive career. Hinting at his retirement in 1993, the designer told WWD, “Everyone has a time they stop.”
Adolfo was an avid reader who led a very quiet life, spending many post-career days in his Upper East Side art-adorned home and pitching in regularly at his parish St. Vincent Ferrer. “If I still lived in Cuba, I would probably live in the house where I was born. I like roots,” Sardinia once said. (PBS’ “Downton Abbey” was a favorite show of the designer’s later in life.)
Instead of recreating his boyhood house, he brought the style he grew up with to his residences, with English paintings of dogs, an 18th-century portrait, neoclassical busts, Empire-style furniture and Aubusson pillows. His Fifth Avenue apartment was adorned with Old Masters paintings and drawings and 19th- and early 20th-century furniture as well as Roman basalt portrait head of a woman circa 1st century A.D.
Despite the influence of his customers, in March 1993 he closed his rtw business to focus on his licensees and to help a terminally ill friend, Edward Perry. “We’re going to be hard-pressed to find a replacement for him,” then-vice chairman and chief executive officer of Saks Fifth Avenue Philip Miller said at the time.
With outposts in select Saks stores for his custom designs, Adolfo would travel semiannually to each location for special appearances. Shortly before his retirement, six of his trunk shows racked up $2 million in sales for the retailer.
And the designer’s customers were bereft. “You know when ladies say, ‘Oh, I just don’t know what I’m going to wear?’” asked Jean Tailer. “With Adolfo, you always have the right thing to wear.”