Heiress, artist and fashion designer Gloria Vanderbilt, whose fame had multiple incarnations, died Monday at her New York home at the age of 95.
Her death was announced that morning during an on-air tribute by her son, CNN anchor Anderson Cooper, who cited the cause of death as advanced stomach cancer.
Her gilded lineage to Cornelius Vanderbilt did not deter her from stamping her name on America’s favorite well-worn style — jeans. Fiercely private, despite her international status, Vanderbilt’s later life was more solitary than many might have surmised. Even in her early 90s, Vanderbilt could be found every day at work in her art studio.
Born Gloria Laura Vanderbilt, she was only 15 months old when her father Reginald died. After that loss, her mother, who had been a teenage bride, became a fixture on the European society circuit and Vanderbilt was raised by a doting nurse. At the age of 10, Vanderbilt was part of a contentious custody battle that was known as “the trial of the century.” The standoff pitted her mother on one side and her paternal aunt Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney on the other, prompting the tabloids to label her “poor little rich girl.” Her mother’s absence resulted in the court giving custody to her aunt.
Vanderbilt’s high school education at what is now known as the Wheeler School in Providence was cut short by a vacation to California. In Hollywood, she dated Errol Flynn and turned her attention to modeling. She was later linked to other stars like Ray Milland. Her first marriage, to Pasquale Di Ciccio, ended in 1945 and later that year she wed Leopold Stokowski — the conductor who was 43 years her senior. The couple had two sons, Stan and Chris. After an affair with Frank Sinatra, Vanderbilt and Stokowski squared off in court for custody of their children, a fight Vanderbilt won. A decade later Vanderbilt divorced again and married “12 Angry Men” movie director Sidney Lumet. The couple later divorced and the designer wed Wyatt Emory Cooper, with whom she had her sons Anderson and Carter.
In 1978, Cooper died during heart bypass surgery and 10 years later Vanderbilt’s 23-year-old son Carter leapt to his death from the terrace of her Manhattan penthouse. To some degree, the designer tried to take refuge from that pain through self-expression and art.
Vanderbilt finessed her art skills by enrolling at the Art Students League of New York. She pursued an acting career before getting into fashion full time, making cameos on such shows as “Playhouse 90” and “The Dick Powell Show.”
Reflecting on Vanderbilt, Donna Karan said Monday, “She was an amazing woman on so many levels. She was always an icon of a woman who paved her way.”
Karan added that Vanderbilt’s son Anderson Cooper “is a legacy forever.”
“He is an amazing man who truly makes a difference in this world in every way,” said Karan, noting Cooper carries the torch of all his mother leaves behind.
Stan Herman, the former president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, recalled meeting Vanderbilt in the late Sixties at a Pittsburgh fashion show where she was also previewing her art. “I was completely taken with her, the art and her personality.” Herman said, “She was certainly one of the pioneers of the society celebrity becoming a designer. She will be remembered for the beautiful curve on the back side of her jeans. Women fell in love with her jeans.”
In the “Me Decade” Seventies, the designer had amassed a range of perfumes, sportswear and other licensed products. Known to be an early-to-bed, early-to-rise designer, she didn’t stay up to watch the commercial that launched her jeans line with Murjani USA during the 1978 Academy Awards. But she did have the marketing savvy to show guests at her Studio 54 fall show a taste of the $1 million campaign before the models hit the runway. The jeans’ logo — which was stamped on the right rear pocket — was inspired by Vanderbilt’s acting role in “The Swan.”
Though the designer did appear in her own TV commercials in the late Seventies, she made a habit of stopping people wearing her jeans to ask if they liked them. She told WWD in 1978, “It’s very important to me in my artwork to bring beauty to people. It’s not true that beauty has to cost a lot. It gives me a great deal of satisfaction to be available to a lot of people and to be able to give them a sense of style, quality and beauty at moderate prices.”
Calvin Klein seemed to defer to Vanderbilt, when asked by WWD in 2003, if he started the designer jeans craze. “I think Gloria Vanderbilt was in it before me. She was a woman of great style…”
Ralph Lauren said Monday, “Gloria Vanderbilt was one of those remarkable people who was so clear about who she was and how she wanted to live her life. She was a timeless beauty who poured insatiable creativity into every moment of her 95 years.”
Mohan Murjani, chairman of the Murjani Group, which created the Gloria Vanderbilt Jeans business with the late Warren Hirsh as chief executive officer, said Monday, “We spent an awful lot of time together. She was just an amazing human being. I learned so much from her. I was in my 20s when we first signed up with Gloria. The life she had, the upbringing she had, and the journeys she had already been through, she would share with us. She had an incredible taste level.”
Murjani said Gloria Vanderbilt jeans were “the first designer jeans.”
“It was all about creating a pair of jeans to fit a woman. That was the most important thing to Gloria. That’s what we worked on very, very closely. She really spent a lot of time on the fit, to get a fit that would really fit a woman’s figure, where a woman could walk into a department store, put on a pair of jeans, and the consumer would not have to take the jeans to have it altered and have the waist taken in. There were no jeans that fit women until Gloria Vanderbilt,” said Murjani.
Murjani said he met Vanderbilt through singer Lesley Gore’s father, Leo Gore. “I knew Leo and I said I was looking for a designer name to do an apparel line. He gave me a list of names and among the list of names was Gloria Vanderbilt. I was a bit surprised because I didn’t think Gloria Vanderbilt was a designer name like a Ralph Lauren or Calvin Klein, but then when I thought about it, I thought it was so much more. The brand, the name, the heritage, her awareness and her upbringing and what she had to go through. She had an illustrious life. Her life was just incredible,” he said.
According to Murjani, when Gloria Vanderbilt Jeans was launched in 1976, they did $70 million at wholesale company-wide that first year, “which was a lot at that time,” he said. It got to a point where by the early Eighties, it was close to $1 billion at retail, or about $500 million at wholesale. He said Vanderbilt would come to the office from time to time. “Anytime we would have something new coming in, she would want to have a look at it and give her point of view. She always had very valuable input. She had a different point of view from most people. It contributed greatly to our success,” he said.
Murjani said after licensing the name, his company bought the brand in 1978. “Neither of us ever imagined the business would be as big as it was, and grow as quickly. As a result, it made sense for us to buy the license out and buy the brand. We expanded to other categories. We launched fragrances [in the Eighties] with Warner Cosmetics at that time with George Friedman. The Vanderbilt fragrance broke all records at that time,” said Murjani.
To build exposure for the Gloria Vanderbilt brand, Hirsh organized the first concert in Central Park — with James Taylor in 1979 — an unheard-of endeavor at that time. Beyond branding purposes, the event raised money for Central Park. Around that time he also recruited Deborah Harry, the musician better known as Blondie, to wear Gloria Vanderbilt jeans, another new marketing venture, in the early Eighties. At Hirsh’s suggestion, Vanderbilt’s company sponsored the U.S. Open at one point, too.
In 1988, Vanderbilt sold her name to Gitano for a $15 million cash deal that included $12 million for the U.S. rights and $3 million for the Canadian and certain foreign rights. At that time, the company’s namesake stepped away from the business, according to Jack Gross, ceo of One Jeanswear Group, which owns the Gloria Vanderbilt trademark. In 1992, Gitano filed bankruptcy and Gross helped rescue the brand. In 1993, the Gloria Vanderbilt Apparel Co. was formed by Isaac Dabah and a group of private investors. Dabah said Monday, “She was extremely nice, very humble and a down-to-earth person. She was very approachable and easy to work with.”
Dabah, who is now ceo of Delta Galil, said Vanderbilt had many firsts in the market — designer jeans, stretch jeans and black jeans. The Vanderbilt business, which started out with better distribution such as Macy’s and May Co., added midtier retailers such as Kohl’s Corp. and J.C. Penney Co. Inc. to the mix.
In 2002, Vanderbilt was sold to Jones Apparel Group for $138 million, including debt. In 2014, Jones was sold to Sycamore and Jones Jeanswear, which counted Gloria Vanderbilt Apparel Co. as one of its divisions. That division was separated into its own entity and was renamed One Jeanswear Group under the Nine West Holdings umbrella. One Jeanswear Group is currently owned by Premier Brands Group.
“Over the years, I’d spoken to her to see if she wanted to be involved, but she declined,” Gross said. Three years ago, he even asked her son, Anderson Cooper, if she would be interested in working with him on a collaboration. “And Anderson said, ‘Jack, my mother is 92, she’s not looking for a job.’ She was such an iconic person, but she was focusing on her art.”
Gross said that when he did some research into her artwork, he saw that it was the embodiment of her personality. “There were all these subliminal messages and it depicted what she was about.”
Gross believes that the brand has survived all these years because Vanderbilt “was a revolutionary in jeanswear. Back in the Seventies when it was all these hippies, she wanted to make jeans classy, but at an affordable price point.”
She added furs to her design portfolio in 1977 through a deal with Valerie-Schreibman & Raphael Ltd. That same year Vanderbilt took full control of her design operations in what she described at that time as “a complete reorganization of her company.” Vanderbilt also relocated her design studio from United Nations Plaza to 550 Seventh Avenue — the heart of New York City’s Garment District.
Through the years, she added various categories to her design portfolio including handbags, footwear and tops, as well as intimate apparel, swimwear and watches. The business had its share of arcs and tenors, but in 2005 it was reportedly a $500 million wholesale operation. According to The NPD Group’s Retail Tracking Service, Gloria Vanderbilt was the number-one women’s brand in terms of unit sales in North America in 2016. Even though Iman was not a Gloria Vanderbilt jeans wearer in the Seventies, she opted in for the designer’s 2017 campaign, due to its message of inclusion.
As an artist, old and new photographs, lace doilies, decals, fabrics, aluminum foil, postcards, greeting cards and various knick-knacks were part of the arsenal that she used for collages. WWD’s critique of her 1977 collage book noted that her talent “demands more respect than public relations puffery. Her eye is a perfectly beautiful Victorian one; cluttered and composed. The clarity of her colors and the solidity of her expression bring Matisse and Miro to mind, when she has the whim.”
The four-times-married Vanderbilt was also ahead of the women’s movement, telling WWD in 1967, “It’s a terrific time for women. They have more freedom. It’s because of the pill. Women have a choice of what they want to do and be.”
She also was unabashed about a certain sense of thrift at that time, saying, “I’m spending much, much less money on clothes this fall and having much more fun with fashion….I adore the dark look — it’s mysterious…and I love big hats and high collars — they make me feel protected.”
The designer described how much she valued her privacy in an interview with WWD. “I find living in a private house a delicious experience. I love the idea of having a key to your front door, going in to your own home, and not being bothered by doormen. There’s something psychological about having a house in New York…you have a whole different feeling,” she said.
Vanderbilt was not enslaved to New York City’s social scene, telling WWD, “Really one does what one wants to do. [Wyatt and I] don’t go to large parties because we just say no…and I have no guilt about it. I don’t believe in committees. I loathe charity balls and I don’t follow the luncheon circuit.”
Vanderbilt also could be the consummate hostess — albeit on her own terms. Following Truman Capote’s 1967 reading of “In Cold Blood” at Town Hall, she welcomed a group of 50 to her Upper East Side home for a lobster Newburg, Krug Champagne-fueled dinner in the author’s honor. Years into their then friendship, Vanderbilt was confident Capote would be “marvelous.”
Capote encouraged Vanderbilt’s artistic and playwriting pursuits. After reading her play “Cinamee,” Capote suggested she pen another, telling her in a 1959 letter, “You have real talent; and just as important, great discipline.”
Friendly as she was with Capote, Vanderbilt was not among what he called his “swans” — an inner circle of well-heeled women consisting of Babe Paley, Slim Keith, Lee Radziwill, C.Z. Guest, Gloria Guinness and Marella Agnelli.
Even later in life, she was stirring up discussion with the publication of her prurient book “Obsession: An Erotic Tale.” Hosting a book party in her honor, Diane von Furstenberg said, “I was actually floored. It truly reminded me of when I was a little girl and I read the ‘Story of O,’ which is a book that I adored. [‘Obsession’] is not a book for guys. It’s very much of a woman’s fantasy, but it’s brilliant.”
Von Furstenberg said Monday, “Gloria was the most youthful and most glamorous woman I ever met. She lived the century as a public person, managed to always be relevant and her love for beauty and life was unique. She went through tragedies, but always kept going.”
Author William Norwich posted on Instagram Monday, “I think what would please Gloria Vanderbilt Cooper is if people remembered her for her art and her writing as much as for her great good looks and social provenance.”
He also noted how Vanderbilt once said, “Walking into the room, smelling that scent of turpentine and paint, it is home.”
Ken Downing, chief creative officer of The Triple Five Group and the former senior vice president of Neiman Marcus, said, “When I was a young boy, my fascination with fashion was inexplicable, all of my mother’s favorite magazines were filled with mesmerizing and arresting images of the glamorous Gloria Vanderbilt, her impeccable fashion sense, her stunning interiors, her love of art. My fascination with fashion soon became an obsession with a determination to work in the industry.
“Gloria as an artist, her daring, personal style, and unique interiors, continued to inspire me through my youth,” he continued. “In the late Seventies, my high school years, I had the great honor of meeting Ms. Vanderbilt at a launch event for her jean collection. Gloria, gracious, kind and inquisitive was even more inspiring in person than her glamorous images that had fueled my imagination. That small interaction, kind conversation, and interest in my desire to work in fashion, encouraged me to follow my dreams.”
In addition to the “Obsession: An Erotic Tale,” Vanderbilt wrote “Without Prejudice,” “A Mother’s Story,” “Never Say Good-Bye,” “It Seemed Important at the Time: A Romance Memoir” and “The Memory Book of Starr Faithfull.”
Three years ago, the HBO documentary “Nothing Left Unsaid: Gloria Vanderbilt and Anderson Cooper,” explored their fractured family history. Filmmaker Liz Garbus said at that time, “When I first met her and walked into her studio, I thought, ‘Ah, this is how you want to tell this story. You want to use the artwork as a flashlight kind of into her past history,’” Garbus said. “As a businesswoman, she was incredibly successful. Look, she wasn’t bred as a Vanderbilt young woman to be a career woman. But she did have some strong female influences, her aunt Gertrude Whitney being one of them. Gloria found a path forward and clearly work is a big part of her identity and what sustains her.”
Sheila Nevins, former president of HBO Documentary Films who now heads MTV Documentary Films, described working with Vanderbilt on that documentary and their friendship. “She was magic, gracious and charming always,” said Nevins. “We had tea together many times. She was hot, she was beautiful, she was timeless. I will miss her presence. Yet I feel her still, her disruptive silence.”
Isaac Mizrahi recalled her succinctly on Monday, “For one of the most beautiful women, what was even more inspiring was her bravery and wit.”