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Designer Luis Estevez died at 85 on Friday in Miami.

This story first appeared in the December 3, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Estevez was born in Havana, Cuba, the son of Gloria and Luis Estevez Sr. and the grandson of sugar tycoon Santiago Estevez. The young Estevez’s talent, personality and charm made him popular among the social sets of New York, Los Angeles and Palm Beach. He also dressed First Lady Betty Ford when her husband, Gerald Ford, was President from 1974 to 1977.

Estevez grew up in Havana, then attended Sanford Prep in Wilmington, Del. He went on to study architecture in college in Havana, but a summer job in the display department at Lord & Taylor after his freshman year started him on a fashion career, and he didn’t finish the degree. A family friend, the Countess of Revilla de Camargo, set him up with a job at Jean Patou in Paris. After a year-and-a-half, he returned to New York. There, with Fred and Robert Greenberg and Ben Papell, he founded Grenelle and launched the Estevez label. He also married an English woman named Betty Dew Menzies whom he had met in the Bahamas when they were children. Hubert de Givenchy was his best man.

“The women I’ve known have brought excitement, glamour, love and constructive friendship to my life,” the designer told WWD in 1976. “I was born rich and social. And my two grandmothers, different as they were, jointly had all the things I admire in a woman: beauty, glamour, position, gentleness, strength and reckless individuality. My mother was all of that plus. When she visited me at school, all of my friends loved her and envied me.

“I like women that have ‘it,’ and ‘it’ is a lot of things to me — class without stuffiness, discipline with an ability to let go. I hate women who drink too much or who take fashion too seriously, but I love style. And I love ladies with sex appeal.”

Estevez designed everything, including shoes, hats, jewelry and sometimes fabrics. The designer received Burdines’ Sunshine Award and Chicago’s first Gold Coast Award as top designer of the year.

His business took off, and he and his wife soon had an apartment in New York, one in Paris and were building La Cumbre, a house on a hill that overlooked the ocean in Acapulco, Mexico. They also rented a house in Beverly Hills in the summer. WWD wrote in March of 1964, quoting the designer, “Everyone says, ‘Luis Estevez has a car and a chauffeur…He’s trying to impress people.’ To me a car and a chauffeur are a necessity in New York. Why wait until I get old?”

Asked what he thought of American designers, he said, “[Norman] Norell is the only American designer.…He understands construction and proportion. He just knows. He’s with it! The market is full of people who call themselves designers. Most of them are just stylists or good tailors.…Bill Blass, who is one of my best friends, has a fabulous flair. He, like me, lives a social life, understands women and puts his stamp on clothes…Geoffrey Beene, I think, will be a tremendous designer. He has so much talent and will show it more and more.

“We have no great eccentrics like Jacques Fath, Balenciaga or Chanel. No great personality who is outrageous, who designs outrageously…no one who dares to be hated, to be envied or who contributes to our social scene…In Europe, a designer does what he pleases.”

Estevez said he considered certain aspects of his career to be a cautionary tale. “Success came too quickly for me,” he said. “Receiving the Coty Award on your second year in business is the worst thing that can happen. It’s taken me years to come down to earth, and it’s cost me a bloody fortune.”

He went on to add, “I like complete diversity in my life, can be a beatnik in the Village or be entertained by the Agnellis or Princess Aga Khan. I give the biggest parties in Paris, the smallest in New York, and the wildest in Acapulco.”

In 1967, Estevez moved his firm to L.A., and he and his wife separated. He became known for his sexy, body-conscious looks, fluid, California-inflected dresses and sportswear, sometimes midriff-baring or with cutouts, in materials like cotton, silk jersey or silk lace. Simple, color-blocked dresses and bright caftans were also signature styles.

Estevez designed La Vista, a hilltop house in L.A. Princess Grace of Monaco, Dina Merrill, Fran Stark, Natalie Wood, Betsy Bloomingdale, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Merle Oberon wore his clothes; Rock Hudson was a friend.

“I associate fashion with the reality of the people I know that wear fashion, and where and how they wear it,” he said in 1976. He said that he found it “‘very flattering’ to dress the First Lady. She is a dream to fit and is interested in promoting the American fashion industry by caring about fashion, but not being a slave to it.’’

He also added, “Designing clothes for Betty Ford has helped me a great deal. Many of the things I design now have her in mind, and they’re selling like crazy. [That’s] because they’re wearable, pretty, uncluttered, feminine, realistic clothes — just like the First Lady.” The article in May 1976, also showed and described some of Ford’s choices for French, Spanish and English state dinners. There was an aqua crepe look with inverted pleats; a shrimp chiffon dress with silver bugle beads; an aqua floral chiffon dress with panel sleeves, and a short coral chiffon dinner dress with a fluted neck.

“I met Luis Estevez when I first came to New York,” said Diane von Furstenberg. “He was a glamorous Cuban with great talent and an amazing joie de vivre. [In] late January 1976, he asked me to be his date to go to the White House a few weeks later, because he dressed Betty Ford. I was very excited to go to the White House.…It turned out that when the day came, in March, [I] was on the cover of Newsweek. All of a sudden, everyone knew who I was, and I was at the table of the President….It was an incredible souvenir!”

“I am not traveling to California as much as I used to, but when I go, I would always visit him,” said Givenchy. “He is a great friend of mine; we met through a friend in New York. I was best man at his wedding, and I still keep in touch with his wife, who lives in the South of France. We laughed a lot together. He was very amusing, very funny. A charming man.”

In 1990, Estevez received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Hispanic Designers Fashion Gala in Washington. When he was in his 70s, he became semi-retired and moved to Montecito, outside Santa Barbara, and opened a small made-to-order design business. A few years later, he retired.

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