Ursula Rickenbacher, who sparked the special occasion category with her Ursula of Switzerland label, died Wednesday at her home in Troy, N.Y.
Rickenbacher, who was believed to have been in her 80s, died of natural causes, according to her longtime associate Beth Easly, who served as vice president of merchandising for Ursula of Switzerland for many years. Nicknamed the “queen of lace,” the enterprising designer was also known for her “mother-of-the-bride” dresses, a moniker she eschewed, and other attire for social occasions.
In 1962, the Switzerland-born Rickenbacher traveled solo to the U.S. as a teenager intent on starting her own business. She initially specialized in crocheted hats, making the samples and handling the finishing in New York. Rickenbacher had been trained in Europe as a patternmaker and milliner. The silhouettes varied from chin-strapped helmets to berets.
”She was born in Switzerland and she had always heard that the United States was the land of promise and opportunity. Being a very strong woman, she felt that she would never be able to do that in Switzerland. That’s what drove her to the U.S.,” Easly said.
She formally incorporated Ursula of Switzerland in 1969.
Her breakout opportunity happened after Rickenbacher showed her knitted beanie hats to a Henri Bendel buyer at one of its weekly open calls for designers. But her designs were not immediately picked up by the retailer. It was only after Yves Saint Laurent showed similar beanie hats with little pom-poms on top in one of his collections and the buyer remembered “the little Swiss girl, who was making them in New York City” and thus placed the first order for knitted skull hats. “One of Ursula’s greatest assets was that she was always ahead of her time and always a visionary. She was always making hats and clothes and selling them off her back to make money to go to the next step,” Easly said.
The designer used her married name of Garreau — she married the struggling thespian Richard Garreau, whom she had met in New York — until she and her husband divorced in 1989. She then reverted to her maiden name of Rickenbacher. In a 1966 interview with WWD, she discussed what prompted her millinery business. “I was appalled at what American women put on their heads. I needed a hat for the winter and couldn’t find one, so I made one.”
After starting out as a milliner, Rickenbacher edged into apparel, making jumpsuits, pants, halters, knitwear and other designs with a sexy flare under the label Garreau in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Once the disco era took hold in the mid-’70s, the designer added daytime dresses, especially dance-friendly soft styles. “At the end of the ’70s, being from Switzerland, she said, ‘Let’s put some Swiss lace on our dance dresses.’ And special occasion was born. It really didn’t exist as a category. No one was really doing that,” Easly contended.
Ursula of Switzerland’s soft romantic dresses evolved into even lacier styles and gowns. That prompted Rickenbacher’s nickname as the “queen of lace” and her reputation as the founder of the special occasion category. That element of the business did not exist in the ’70s — and soft romantic dresses were scarce in mainstream America, Easly said. In the 1970s, when the industry executives started referring to her designs as “mother of the bride,” a new term at that time, Rickenbacher was not thrilled. Easly said, “She didn’t even want to be known as mother-of-the-bride. She said, ‘What is that?’ But she created a category not knowing that she was doing such a thing, by putting that Swiss lace on the first dresses and giving them to the market. Thus, she became the ‘Queen of Lace.’ That category evolved into mother of bride.”
“For a young woman, that was something that made her sound old,” Easly explained. “She was always, like, ‘Can’t they call it something else?’”
Throughout her career, Rickenbacher was motivated by “her passion and love of the United States and fashion and design,” Easly said. “She was all-consumed by it, always. It was her baby. We talked about not having children because Ursula of Switzerland was her baby.”
After becoming an American citizen in 1984, Rickenbacher vowed to make all of her products in the U.S. — in New York State. She lived up to that commitment until the company closed.
Soft-spoken, organized, never showy and always elegant, Rickenbacher distinguished herself by getting her message across in a more understated way than many of the brasher executives in the Garment District at that time. “But don’t let that quietness make you think that she was not thinking or doing [things], or was not going to get things done. People were surprised that she would dig her feet in and get it done,” said Easly, adding that the Ursula of Switzerland business was “in the many millions,” declining to be more specific.
Rickenbacher’s affinity for the color white was evident throughout the corporate headquarters, which was adorned in white from ceiling to floor — furniture, filing cabinets, walls, duct systems, tables and more. “She thought everything should be plain and fresh and modern. White was her favorite color,” Easly said.
Although her work ethic was unwavering, Rickenbacher practiced a work-hard, play-hard way of life. Known for her entertaining and giftgiving, Rickenbacher indulged friends and employees in over-the-top parties, providing not only entertainment and food but accommodations, too. She would rent out the expansive Sagamore Hotel for a party and cover the overnight stays for guests. At the Saratoga Racetrack, Rickenbacher hosted parties under large tents, never one to spare expenses for entertaining or taking care of customers, salespeople or employees, Easly said. “She believed her employees were her best assets and she treated us so wonderfully, which is why many of us stayed for many years. She was loyal to us and we were loyal back to her.”
Partially beleaguered by the toll of the pandemic shutdown, the designer revealed in August 2020 that she planned to close her business and the company closed its doors for good two months later. At that stage, the employee base about was 20 people.
However, in the 1980s and early ’90s, Ursula of Switzerland was a powerhouse brand in the special occasion business. Although the founder always maintained production in New York City and a showroom in the Garment District — first at 1400 Broadway and later at 530 Seventh Avenue — Rickenbacher moved her company’s corporate headquarters in the late ’70s to Waterford, N.Y. There the company occupied five floors of a building with about 20,000 square feet on each floor.
in 1993, Ursula of Switzerland added eveningwear and employed about 100 people in the Waterford factory where sample production, patternmaking and administrative functions were handled. The company relied on outside contractors in mill towns, too. Addressing the generational need for the launch of eveningwear, Rickenbacher said, “From mother of the bride, I only had to reach for a little more design.”
Shortly before the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Ursula of Switzerland had decided to pivot from department store distribution to mom-and-pop ones so the company closed its Seventh Avenue showroom and handled all operations from its corporate headquarters upstate. Recognizing the increasing dominance of major players like Federated, Rickenbacher felt that hundreds of independent stores would be more loyal to the brand and pay their bills on time. “The volume dropped tremendously. But she became more profitable because she didn’t have to give markdown money to department stores at the end of the year,” Easly said.
A tribute may be held at a later date, when pandemic-related travel restrictions ease and Rickenbacher’s relatives in Europe can attend.
There are no immediate survivors.