NEW YORK — Sixty-plus years into a multitiered fashion career, Stan Herman understandably had a lot to say during a 92Y question-and-answer session Tuesday night.
The designer, who headed up the Council of Fashion Designers of America from 1991 to 2006, offered an historical perspective that few could match. And he couldn’t have been more relaxed with Fern Mallis, who first interviewed him in 1969 after she won a Mademoiselle magazine contest to be a guest editor. Diane von Furstenberg, Reed Krakoff, Yeohlee Teng, Steven Kolb and Bernadette Peters were among those who attended.
While designing uniforms for brands like McDonald’s, Avis, JetBlue and FedEx involved more of a low profile, Herman may be more recognizable with Middle America for the signature loungewear he has sold on QVC for 23 years. And Herman isn’t easing up on the gas pedal in his own life. Longevity is a family trait — his father, who had a chain of silk shops, lived until the age of 105, and only stopped working at 100 and gave up horseback riding at 93.
Having once had a summer job at Vogue Patterns and having lived in an 86th Street rooming house for $38 a month, Herman brought to life an era that is pretty much alien to today’s aspiring designers. Bill Blass, Donald Brooks, Geoffrey Beene, Liz Claiborne and Bill Robinson were acquaintances. An early gig at John Fredericks “was the opening of the key to my life in fashion. At that time, the fashion business was so tiny that you could find a keyhole and find your entrance. If you didn’t find that keyhole, you didn’t make it.”
He also witnessed a breakthrough of a different kind, after being drafted into the Army during the Korean War. When the troops were integrated at Fort Dix, he said he was assigned to do the cadence call for a group of black soldiers. Asked if he saw much combat, Herman said, “I saw lots of beer in Germany,” referring to being stationed there. “That proved to be an extraordinary part of my life. I’d never seen mountains like that…I actually forced my way into staying in the intelligence there and I stayed in the Alps for almost a year.”
Herman, who freelanced for several companies before venturing out on his own, crossed paths with many designers long before he landed at the CFDA. Recalling a meeting in the early Seventies with Ralph Lauren, who wore “an undershirt,” Herman said, “His clothes were so beautiful, the colors were beautiful. Ralph really always knew what he was doing. Some of us don’t, we think we do, but Ralph always knew what he was doing.”
Recalling first meeting and looking at the sketches of Marc Jacobs, when the designer was only 16, Herman said, “Even then, the talent was there.” Another sportswear force, Anne Klein, whom Herman “clinked Scotch with every night at Bill’s Restaurant,” tried to steer him in that same direction. “One night she told me she was going to do pants and pieces instead of dresses, and I should, too,” Herman said. “I never did. Boy, was I wrong. I think she was the woman who started American fashion as we know it. I’m not saying it was the most exciting fashion, but it was the most exciting concept.”
Working for Oleg Cassini in the designer’s East 61st Street apartment, Cassini’s mother would stop by every morning to see what time Herman arrived. Cassini, “a very famous ladies’ man at the time,” kept a photograph of Grace Kelly on one desk and another of his wife Gene Tierney on the other. As for his own paramour of 39 years, Gene Horowitz, Herman said that the couple “never hid who they were.”
Herman said it was at his family’s home during a post-Passover game of Scrabble in the Fifties that his aunt suggested Arnold Scaasi change his last name from Isaacs to “Scaasi.” At that time, Scaasi was in a quandary because General Motors wouldn’t use a Jewish name in a Cadillac ad, Herman said.
Pauline Trigère became a friend, but her only payment for his freelance work for her was a mannequin, which he still has in his 40th Street office. Telling the crowd the location was at one time Irving Penn’s studio, Herman said, “The first time Lauren Hutton came up she said, ‘Oh my God, was I nude in this studio.'”
Reached Wednesday, Herman said the crowd’s enthusiasm made him feel as though “all the years he has spent in the industry have had some effect.” So much so that he is now planning to finish his memoir ,”Uncross Your Legs,” (a reference to runway show photographers’ refrain before the lights go down). “I will finish that,” he vowed. “My life is limited at this point, but that is one of the things I’ll do.”