Gloria Vanderbilt's Lasting Impact on American Fashion
She arguably created the first designer jeans for women and made her glamorous, aspirational style accessible to all.
Gloria Vanderbilt, who died Monday at 95, sold a piece of the American dream through her eponymous fashion brand, which launched in the 1970s. The actress, socialite, artist and heiress (who was the great-great granddaughter of 19th century railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt) was one of the first fashion designers to offer shoppers an aspirational brand based on her glamorous image.
“Vanderbilt was among the first East Coast blue blood beauties to wear made-to-measure finery by Hollywood costume and fashion designer Howard Greer, who created her wedding dress for her marriage to agent Pat DiCicco,” said fashion expert Bronwyn Cosgrave. “At places like L.A.’s Ciro’s and the Cocoanut Grove, Vanderbilt donned Greer’s so-called ‘table top’ dresses — gowns designed to look glamorous from the waist up while photographed sitting at nightclub tables — which made Vogue and Harpers Bazaar take note and look to Hollywood.”
Vanderbilt made her mark on American fashion by debuting what was arguably the first designer denim brand. In a WWD interview that touched on designer jeans in 2003, Calvin Klein said, "I think Gloria Vanderbilt was in it before me."
After working as an actress, starting in the '50s, moving from theater productions to television dramas, Vanderbilt experimented with textile and home design in the '70s, also designing some dresses. This ultimately led to a partnership with Mohan Murjani of the Murjani Group to design blouses and then to launch her eponymous Gloria Vanderbilt jeans brand in 1976 with a line of name-brand women’s jeans, identified by her handwritten name embroidered on the back and a signature swan logo on the inner front pocket that winked at her first theater role in The Swan.
Vanderbilt, who began modeling when she was a teenager, served as the face of the label. The jeans were marketed with a $1 million television ad campaign in 1978 (the same year that Murjani bought the brand), touting their perfect tapered fit that catered to women’s curves, making sleek designer denim a chic wardrobe staple. Gloria Vanderbilt Jeans were also showcased by female stars such as Debbie Harry of Blondie (who made an ad for the brand) and on the sitcoms Three’s Company and Mork and Mindy and the '80s soap opera Dynasty.
Gitano purchased the Gloria Vanderbilt name from the heiress in 1988 for $15 million cash; after the company went into bankruptcy, the Gloria Vanderbilt Apparel Co. was formed in 1993 by a group of private investors. The line ultimately expanded to include additional women’s apparel, footwear, jewelry, fragrance and home accessories. In 2002, the Jones Apparel Group acquired the rights to the company (Jones was later sold to Sycamore and Jones Jeanswear). In 2005, Gloria Vanderbilt jeans (now under the One Jeanswear Group division of Nine West Holdings) issued a reboot of the original '70s designs with an ad campaign featuring supermodels Gisele Bundchen, Kate Moss and Daria Webowy.
“Gloria was an icon,” fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger told The Hollywood Reporter. “I met her in the early '80s through the Murjani family, who owned the Gloria Vanderbilt Jeans business. We were launching the Tommy Hilfiger business with Murjani around the same time. She was a lovely, sophisticated woman with warmth and kindness.”
Fashion designer and former chairman of the Council of Fashion Designers of America Diane Von Furstenberg, who was a close friend of Vanderbilt's, told THR: "Gloria was the most glamorous, youthful, talented, optimistic woman I ever met! In the public eye for almost a century, she managed to be in charge of her own life as an artist and a designer. In spite of the tragedies of her life, she remained positive with an amazing love for life. She remained relevant to the zeitgeist her entire life!"
In 2017, Vanderbilt joined Instagram (telling W magazine in an interview on the topic: “I love following Mia Farrow, DVF, Aurelia Thiérree is lovely and fascinating, Andy Cohen of course, and Kelly Ripa, Sarah Jessica Parker…”).
Following her death on Monday, many stars offered tributes on Instagram. Ripa called her "a true lady and pioneer who lived life to its fullest," while actress Debi Mazar posted: “R.I.P. to the amazing #GloriaVanderbilt. I admired her since I was a teenager….from her jeans (which I wore in high school), to Gloria’s beauty, strength &wit. She was one of my favorite style icons. What an incredible life!”