Gloria Vanderbilt was an “intrepid heiress, artist, designer, and romantic, who began her extraordinary life as the ‘poor little rich girl’ of the Great Depression,” thanks to her starring role in a salacious custody battle between her mother and her aunt. Having survived family tragedy, multiple marriages, and a few divorces, the Associated Press reports, she died Monday at the age of 95. More than merely a designer known for her wildly popular – and still enduring – denim collection, Ms. Vanderbilt has been tied to the rise of design denim, a trend that got its roots back in the 1970s and ’80s, and for which she was a pioneer.
The late designer did not set out to transform the world of denim. “I had a career doing [home design products] for a few years, traveling all over to different stores to introduce each collection,” Vanderbilt told People in 2016. She followed that up with “a dress-designing business,” which she said ultimately faced financial problems and “was going bust” when she decided to start over with the help of Murjani, the New York-based group now known for helping to build her brand, as well as Tommy Hilfiger’s.
“I went from my own dress designing business to designing blouses for Murjani,” she told People. “There was a merchandising genius called Warren Hersch. We were talking one day and he said, ‘Murjani’s got all this denim fabric stored away in Hong Kong.’ So I said, ‘Why don’t we make jeans, a really great fit jean?’“ And that is exactly what Vanderbilt did.
The result was nothing short of game-changing: dark denim skinny jeans complete with a small embroidered swan logo and a rectangle bearing her name rapidly became some of the most sought-after denim on the market. The jeans, with their stretchy fabric and slim fit, were deemed a novel addition to the market.
It didn’t hurt sales that the collection was introduced by way of a $1 million advertising campaign in 1978 – complete with city buses wrapped in branded imagery, billboards and television commercials. The expansive campaign “turned the Gloria Vanderbilt brand with its signature white swan label into a sensation,” according to the Associated Press. Ms. Vanderbilt, herself, appeared in many of those ads, something of a celebrity in her own right.
Her well-to-do, socialite status was certainly played up in the brand’s campaigns. One television commercial in 1980, which depicted a uber-glamourous Vanderbilt, declared, “They’re the jeans with the social status. Girls with private jets and fancy pets think they’re tops!” Other TV ads enlisted the likes of Geena Davis and Blondie frontwoman Debbie Harry for added star power, and it worked.
Within two years, the brand was generating over $200 million in sales, and Vanderbilt set out to build a sprawling lifestyle brand, adding shoes, scarves, and homewares into the mix. In 1988, she joined the lucrative designer fragrance market with her signature scent, “Glorious.”
By the late 1980s, Ms. Vanderbilt sold off the rights in her brand name and various licenses associated with it to the Gitano Group, one of the largest apparel merchandisers in the U.S., which subsequently sold it to a group of investors in 1993. More recently, the AP notes, Vanderbilt-brand "stretch jeans “have been licensed through Jones Apparel Group Inc., which acquired Gloria Vanderbilt Apparel Corp. in 2002 for $138 million.”
At the time of her death, Ms. Vanderbilt had not been at the helm of her namesake brand for almost 30 years, and yet, her “famous-name designer jeans – dressed up or down, remain a wardrobe staple,” the WSJ asserts. Alongside Calvin Klein and Jordache, the Gloria Vanderbilt brand gave rise to countless upscale followers, who sought to replicate the seemingly newfound success of designer denim brands. More than that, she ultimately paved the way for the likes of 7 for all Mankind, Citizens of Humanity and Hudson Jeans, among others, which became household names by turning fashion-focused denim into premium offerings with the price tags to match, and still yet, countless newer names building big businesses by way denim.