This is how Trigere starts many a tale, recounting the decades she spent as a Seventh Avenue designer and how she and the industry changed along the way, how they parted ways and then came full circle to a moment today, when hers is a name being referenced once again in party circles, at award ceremonies and by designers mining the depths of vintage for modern inspiration.
And Trigere is a legend who’s still around, presenting awards at Cooper-Hewitt’s National Design Awards one week, receiving the insignia of the Chevalier of the Legion of Honor the next and always ready to sit down for lunch to catch up.
“I’ll tell you a funny story,” she started again, but was interrupted by a waiter, checking for drinks. Diet coke? By the look of her arched eyebrow, Trigere was not pleased with the selection.
“Perhaps the gentleman would wish to order something else,” Trigere intoned, agreeing with her eyebrow. Suggestions?
“Claude,” she barked at the waiter. “What will I have?”
Gin martini. Olives and a glass of ice on the side. She’s 93, so it’s probably best to defer. Now back to that story.
“I went to see my doctor the other day,” Trigere said. “He asked ‘Do you smoke? Do you drink?’ I said, ‘I have one martini at lunch and maybe a scotch or two at night.’ He said, ‘Keep it up! Keep it up!”‘
There are no secrets or vitamins behind Trigere’s longevity. She used to be an expert at yoga, but now she just stretches, works in her garden upstate, makes lists of things to do each day and crosses off about half of them on a good one. Although content, anyone who knows her could report that it’s not enough for Trigere, who closed her company almost 10 years ago.
“I miss designing,” she said. Trigere mostly wears her own old clothes, most of them red, some of which have been around for more than 50 years. She walks down the street and is often disgusted by the way New Yorkers dress now, so she feels vindicated by the sudden interest in her career by contemporary designers. She confided that a friend who runs a vintage shop in Los Angeles called her recently to report that a designer from Versace — or “Verchase” as Trigere pronounced it — recently bought dozens of her pieces, and she was particularly flattered by Tom Ford’s reference to her work in a story last month in the New York Times Magazine.
“I may write to him and ask him to come to see the fantastic collection of books in my attic,” Trigere said. “I think he would be surprised by the wearability of the clothes. Today the chic word is vintage. It’s not that I think women should wear old clothes, but my designs have held up very well.”
So has Trigere, but, as she said, “at a certain age, time flies.” On this particular day, she awoke in her Park Avenue apartment to discover a major leak from the floor above into her guest bathroom that ruined a very expensive wallpaper. She spent most of the morning arguing on the phone about who would be responsible to replace it.
“There are two words I do not know how to spell,” Trigere said. “They are relax and retire. What I really love to do is planting and working in the garden. I want to become a landscape architect, but since I don’t know the names of the flowers in English, [she refers to the Latin variations] I don’t think it would work.”
Last year, Trigere launched a line of accessories for older people with Red Violin, an online retailer, that includes canes, walker bags, travel pill cases and hearing-aid and eyeglass cases, which is a project she would like to expand, working with local hospitals and gift shops. “I just made a little bed jacket for them,” she said. “I sleep in the nude, but sometimes I need a jacket, and this is washable. It’s adorable.”
It’s not the same as the days when Trigere was an integral part of the American designer collections, selling to Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus, but it’s a different business now. When Trigere started out, there was only one Saks and one Neiman Marcus store, each with one buyer who had been there for years. She saw the specialty stores develop into chains, helping her own business to grow over the years, but when the retail landscape began to shift in the Eighties and as chargebacks became standard fare, Trigere’s business was doomed.
“Today, the salesgirl doesn’t know the customer or what she’s selling,” Trigere said. “She knows Bill Blass and Oscar, but she doesn’t even know my name anymore. The actual big business of Seventh Avenue declined, and I say that with regret. Young designers now rent a room at the Marmont in Hollywood for a week before the Oscars. They put their clothes on all those fabulous actresses, and I think that’s terrible. The name of the designer is in the paper, but he hasn’t even sold the dress.”
It was a different story in 1947, when she started her company. Trigere showed a set number of dresses, suits and coats each season in her showroom, with the simple goal of designing a collection that was as good as the one before it, punctuated with unexpected moments of triumph. There were design successes — her double-face reversible coats, the backless jumpsuit, the thin wool fabric she called Trigeen that was a staple of her dresses for 50 years. But other moments stand out as well, like in 1961, when Trigere was among the first to hire a black model. When a customer refused to order the style that model wore, Trigere turned her out of the showroom.
The industry was also a smaller world, where designers and buyers spent days together, traveling to Europe by ship. “My first trip back to Paris was in 1947,” Trigere said. “I wore one of my jumpsuits, and I met more guys in five days+and the food, the caviar and champagne.”
There are few regrets, but Trigere would have rather kept going than close up shop in 1993. As her major accounts filed for bankruptcy, there were not enough customers left to buy her collection. Trigere herself could have filed for Chapter 11, but she paid out her debts and was left with assets considerably less than one might imagine, considering the career she had.
“My big mistake and regret was not to have put my name on whatever — eyeglasses, suits, jockstraps if they would have done it,” Trigere said. “People came to me with deals, but I didn’t like them very much. That’s my big mistake and it was a big one.”
No matter. Trigere is full of ideas. Writing her memoirs does not appeal to her, but a cookbook might be fun. There’s always that career in landscape design, but she’d also like to offer her services in making speeches to women’s clubs.
“I’m not Giuliani and I’m not Mr. Clinton,” Trigere said. “But that’s what I would love to do. First, I would tell them about my life, and then, I would tell them how I’ve done it — how difficult it was and how rewarding it was — and I’ve also got a few other ideas I will tell them.”
“I have a phobia of women over 45 who have long hair,” Trigere said. “They should not have hair to the shoulder. Cut it. And don’t buy too tight clothes. Buy a little large, and that way, you look thin.”
If the changes of fashion have come to her as a surprise, Trigere knows that some things will never change.
“It’s not so bad,” she said. “As long as I can buy my red lipstick, I’ll be fine.”