Gloria Vanderbilt, who passed away on June 17, was a woman of many titles. The socialite, actress, designer, and mother lived a fascinating life that was publicized from a young age. Tabloids featured her traumatic childhood and alleged Hollywood lovers. As the daughter of railroad millionaire Reginald Vanderbilt, the heiress became a household name. After a modeling career that began at 15 years old and working as a stage actress in her 30s, Vanderbilt put a pause on life as a socialite to rewrite her narrative and launch her own line of designer jeans in the 1970s, becoming a fashion icon who forever changed the world of denim.
Gloria Vanderbilt behind a portrait of her painted by Karin Van Leyden
Vanderbilt began her career in the fashion world with a business on New York City’s Seventh Avenue in the early ’70s. With a background in the arts, she applied her eye to designing home products and dresses. Her store, however, found little success. It wasn’t until she met and signed a denim deal with the clothing manufacturer Mohan Murjani that she became known as the queen of jeans.
Vanderbilt carries a painting in her studio at her home in New York.
While designing blouses for Murjani, Vanderbilt was asked by “merchandising genius” and manager Warren Hersch to create a “really great fit jean,” out of excess denim fabric in Hong Kong. From this conversation grew Vanderbilt’s idea for her signature form-fitting designs. The dark skinny jeans included an embroidery of a gold swan on the front, referencing her first acting role in the Pennsylvania Pocono Playhouse’s 1954 version of “The Swan.” Vanderbilt notably also featured her signature on the back right pocket. Although a designer’s name stitched onto clothing is commonplace now, Vanderbilt was a pioneer in this regard. She was arguably the creator of designer denim–the first to elevate the popular staple with her name.
Vanderbilt wearing her third act costume after her performance in “The Swan”
When Vanderbilt officially launched her denim line in 1976, it was met with enormous success. The flattering jeans were a hit with American women, launching Vanderbilt to a new level of celebrity status. When she starred in her own advertisements on buses and television screens, she became one of the most recognizable women in America.
Warren Hirsch, Gloria Vanderbilt, James Taylor, and Mohan Murjani around 1979 in New York
“I remember my brother and I had a game that throughout the day, we would try to count how many women we saw with our mom’s names on their jeans,” said Anderson Cooper, journalist and Vanderbilt’s son.”I mean, I always knew she was sort of well-known. But, it sort of took it to a whole other level.”
Vanderbilt with her sons Anderson and Carter
The day her $1 million television commercial aired in 1978, every single pair of jeans her company had produced–150,000 pairs–sold out. In the iconic advertisement, a model famously described the denim as fitting “like the skin on a grape,” and Vanderbilt quipped that they “feel as fantastic as they fit.”
In 1979, Gloria Vanderbilt became the bestselling line, beating rivals such as Calvin Klein and Jordache. In 1980, her line brought in more than $200 million in sales. Her jeans were so popular that she expanded her company to sell additional clothing, perfume, and shoes. Vanderbilt had officially cemented her icon status in the fashion industry and built a denim empire that generated her own, uninherited wealth.
Vanderbilt sitting among models bending over to show off their designer Vanderbilt jeans
Although Vanderbilt’s company still exists, she sold her fashion empire in 2002 and the rights to her name were sold 20 years prior. She spent her final years exploring her other creative talents, including painting and writing over a dozen books.
While life both began and ended in the spotlight for Vanderbilt, she will forever be remembered for her impeccable fashion sense, creativity, and as the greatest female denim entrepreneur of the 20th century.
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