Ruth McCarthy Manton, 95, a pioneering executive in fashion licensing and branding, died Dec. 24 at her home in Boca Raton, Fla.
A memorial service will be held at a later date, perhaps in the spring, according to her daughter Kyle McCarthy.
Established as she was in the fashion industry in the Seventies through her business dealings with designer labels like Oscar de la Renta, Valentino, Anne Klein, Isaac Mizrahi, and Perry Ellis, as well as “Charlie’s Angel” star-turned-Kmart-designer Jaclyn Smith, Manton had previously become known through runs at Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue. In fact, her career had even more incarnations. Before becoming a force on Seventh Avenue, she had been a ceiling-breaking journalist.
But it was through her own licensing company that she put all of her skills to use. With a background in marketing and journalism, she came up with the idea to put the designer with a manufacturer and the team that brings them to market under one roof. And, of course, she garnered royalties as a result of that, making her among the first independent entities to do that.
Born Ruth Constad in Brooklyn, she learned about the fashion industry as a youngster since her father, Irving Constad, was a textile broker, while her mother, the former Irene Klein, was a homemaker. After excelling at Erasmus Hall High School, Constad studied journalism and political science at Pennsylvania State University and earned a dual major B.A. During her undergraduate days she volunteered for the Quaker-led American Friends Service Committee, helping a team of physicians treat indigenous people in various parts of Mexico.
After graduating in 1945 Manton started out as “a copy boy” at United Press International, having been one of the few female candidates to apply. She later became a features writer with her own byline, an anomaly at that time. In 1949 she relocated to UPI’s Latin America bureau in Havana, where Francis McCarthy headed up the operation. He had witnessed and, from a phone booth, broken the story of Japanese forces’ attack on Pearl Harbor. McCarthy later served as Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s press attaché for the Pacific Theater during the war.
Constad’s working relationship with McCarthy evolved into a romantic one and the pair married 18 months later. Her career also progressed over time, first as an investigative reporter for UPI in Latin America, and then later becoming publisher and editor in chief of the Havana Herald. She subsequently became an on-air reporter for ABC Radio at a politically charged time. In 1959, Fidel Castro seized control from then-President Fulgencio Batista, who fled Cuba in a private plane. The Havana-based journalist knew both men, as well as Che Guevara. After Castro publicly attacked the McCarthys for their media coverage of the revolution and issued warrants for their arrest, the couple went into hiding in 1960 before fleeing the island for the U.S. in the same private plane that had secured Batista’s escape.
Back in New York in the early Sixties, Harper’s Bazaar and later Vogue sought her investigative skills to rev up their coverage of the fashion industry. By that time she and her first husband had divorced. McCarthy was ahead of the Women’s Liberation Movement since in the six years that she was at Harper’s Bazaar, she was a working single mother with two young children. Her independent spirit also could be seen in her penchant for wearing pantsuits to work in the Sixties, before it was culturally acceptable to do so. Often criticized for doing that, Manton welcomed the arrival of Yves Saint Laurent’s pantsuits, which she favored after they were introduced.
In 1967, Condé Nast titan S.I. Newhouse poached McCarthy by offering to double her salary to join Vogue, her son Keith McCarthy said. Before leaving the magazine as executive marketing director, she traveled the globe, attended runway shows and often commentated on them. As evidenced by her turned-out appearance, Manton valued self-presentation, dressing beautifully and being appropriately made-up. Her style signatures included a Chanel handbag and Louis Vuitton luggage.
During a Vogue holiday party in the mid-Seventies that she hosted in Europe, McCarthy met her future second husband, Welsh-born John Manton. In 1974, she switched career tracks again, at the request of Anne Klein’s widower Chip Rubinstein and Lou Braff, who were looking for someone to create and oversee the designer company’s licensing enterprises. She and Rubinstein helped to increase Anne Klein licenses by 30 percent, according to a WWD article in 1976.
Entering what was at the time relatively uncharted territory in fashion, Manton joined Anne Klein Studios as president at the end of 1974. Gracious, smart and well-educated as she was, above all else Manton was tough. “She stood up for herself when there weren’t many women in any business, never mind the fashion business. She didn’t take no for an answer. I guess journalism is what makes you tough. You have to ask some hard questions and put up with people slamming [down] phones on you, yelling at you or whatever. She was very tough in a very gracious way. You wouldn’t know it the first time that you met her,” her son said.
Three years later she ventured out on her own by starting Aries Design Management to link up designers with manufacturers for an expansive range of products, from apparel to accessories and home decor. She also supported young designers who worked for large conglomerates. With a robust marketing and journalism background, Manton grasped how exposure was essential to a licensing deal. “There is nothing worse for a designer than to license his name to a company that goes out of business in a couple of years,” she told WWD in 1985. “A designer is not just looking for extra money anymore — a $150,000 minimum guaranteed order doesn’t mean anything alone. Companies have to be willing to spend additional money for advertising and promoting that person’s name.”
That was around the time that Stan Herman got to know Manton through her husband, who had headed up the car rental business Avis and who had tapped the designer to create the company’s uniforms. “A very powerful woman at a time when there weren’t many powerful women,” Manton was “a big information seeker and a connector. She wanted to know who was hot at the moment, who she could talk to and what the trends were. She was a businesswoman from top to bottom,” Herman said.
Having the foresight to understand that mainstream America would relish affordable designer products, Manton knew that reaching the mass market would require enlisting TV and movie types and celebrities. After Manton mentioned her idea to create fashionable and affordable clothing with a celebrity to her film producer friend David Gil, he suggested Smith, whom he had recently worked with in the film “Nightkill.” Creating Smith’s line with Kmart in 1985 helped to solidify Manton’s licensing might.
Smith said Thursday, “Ruth Morton played a very important role in the beginning of my career in branding. In 1985, I launched my sportswear line at Kmart and Ruth was an integral part of the team. Since that launch, we have sold more than 100 million products at Kmart. She had an innate sense of style and knew exactly what the customer wanted. It was a pleasure to work alongside her. I have such fond memories of Ruth.”
Manton’s son recalled going to Smith’s launch event at a Long Island shopping mall, where Martha Stewart was also making an appearance for a book. “It was a wonderful education in political oneupmanship, because they made sure Martha Stewart was at one end of the store and Jaclyn Smith was at the other end. Neither one of them knew that they were going to have to share the stage with the other,” said Keith McCarthy, adding that Stewart had a line of about 20 women and Smith had a much younger, multiracial crowd of 200. “It gave me a quick understanding of what marketing is all about.”
Another coup that year involved Manton pairing the legendary Elizabeth Taylor with Parfums International to create her “Passion” fragrance. Six years later, Taylor unveiled her “White Diamonds” scent, which revolutionized celebrity fragrances and which is said to still generate $80 million in revenue annually. Those cash cows allowed Manton to have a little largesse and easiness in her life, Herman said. “She was a bright woman. She knew her frailties and she used her strengths very well,” he said.
Manton’s portfolio also included Hardy Amies, Jill St. John and Adrienne Vittadini, among others. De la Renta, Valentino and Smith were among her favorites, according to her daughter, Kyle McCarthy. “When she started, people like Valentino weren’t doing sheets, sunglasses and shoes. She got all of those designers into that aspect of licensing. She would work amongst her colleagues on Seventh Avenue and manufacturers to try to pair people in those fields, who did quality work,” her daughter said. “She did a lot of home goods, only a few were clothing like the Anne Klein ready-to-wear. A lot of it was plates, sheets, swimwear, casual shoes and things like that.”
But the Taylor fragrance deal was the jewel in her crown, according to Herman, who also knew Manton from the Hamptons. “The last time I saw her was in between the cucumbers and peppers at Schmidts, our grocery store out here [in the Hamptons]. She was always talking about new projects,” he said.
In addition to her son and daughter, Manton is survived by her sister, Francine Riley.