Before Paris & Kim, Fashion Icon Gloria Vanderbilt Was The Original Influencer
Artist, socialite and jean queen Gloria Vanderbilt invented a new kind of career with her pioneering denim line
Jeans have become such an essential part of a woman’s life, it’s hard for many of us to imagine a time without them. But it wasn’t until Gloria Laura Vanderbilt, the one-time society beauty who died in New York last week at the age of 95, came along that they were transformed from stiff work wear.
As an artist, Vanderbilt had always been creative. Thanks to a combination of genuine talent and society fame, her collages and paintings were turned into everything from Hallmark cards to silk scarves.
Denim had been growing in popularity as casual wear for men thanks to the influence of James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause and the success of brands like Lee and Levi’s, but even by the mid-Seventies, options for women were very limited.
Vanderbilt, who had modelled for Harper’s Bazaar as a teenager and, as a socialite, had been much admired for her style, had been designing dresses for the Murjani group (which would go on to help launch Tommy Hilfiger) when a colleague presented her with a few rolls of denim with the suggestion she design some jeans for women.
Taking up the challenge, Vanderbilt insisted on a slim cut to skim and hug a woman’s body, and that the denim contain a little stretch for comfort — features that are de rigueur in women’s jeans today. Little did she know she was about to launch a fashion revolution. Launching her namesake jeans line in 1976, her figure-flattering designs would go on to pioneer the concept of designer denim.
Her initials were embroidered on the back of each pair, and her signature double swan motif on the coin pocket at the front, pre-empting the kind of logos that are now synonymous with must-have labels.
She brought stretch versions with figure-enhancing cuts to the masses, giving women a magically flattering new staple and the response was phenomenal. In its first year alone, the Gloria Vanderbilt brand had made $70 million (£55 million). She sold the rights to her name to the Murjani Group in 1978, which expanded the brand into clothing, accessories and fragrance.
Vanderbilt needed the funds from the sale of her name. Though the heiress had been left a share of a $5 million (equivalent to $73 million today) fortune in a trust fund by her father after he died of liver failure when she was just 18 months old, she lived well and enjoyed entertaining famous friends such as Charlie Chaplin and Truman Capote. As a result, she had been on a spending spree ever since she gained access to it at 21.
“I do spend money. I like to spend money, on houses — on furnishing houses,” she told The Telegraph in 2004. “And I love to give presents to people. It’s just in my nature to be that way. I always spent money I had. And I always spent what I made. I’m not stingy.”
As she reached her 50s, Vanderbilt’s licensing deals with the Murjani Group proved a lucrative source of income that would far exceed what her father had left her — in 1980 alone, she made $10 million.
Her model looks and brief career as an actress made her a natural spokesmodel for her denim line, and she appeared in television advertisements telling viewers: “They’re the jeans with the social status. Girls with private jets and fancy pets think they’re tops!”
But when sales started to flounder in the Eighties, it emerged that Vanderbilt’s fortune had been decimated by her psychiatrist Dr Christ Zois and lawyer Thomas Andrews, to whom she’d handed control of her finances. Vanderbilt was forced to sell both her home in the Hamptons as well as her Manhattan town house to cover unpaid taxes, and moved in to her son Anderson’s two-bedroom flat.
Even though she was broke, Vanderbilt still had looks, fame, style and charisma — all the ingredients required to rebuild a very modern career. Much like the influencers and celebrities that populate our social media feeds today, women aspired to be like her and she leveraged those assets to restore her former fortune.
Several book deals followed, including a romantic memoir that recounted her four marriages, as well as liaisons with Frank Sinatra, Marlon Brando and Howard Hughes.
She wrote another with her CNN anchor son Anderson Cooper, The Rainbow Comes and Goes: A Mother and Son On Life, Love, and Loss, which discussed the trauma of losing her last husband, Wyatt Cooper, to a heart attack in 1978, and son Carter, who took his own life at the age of 23 in 1988.
She even turned her hand to erotic fiction, with Obsession: An Erotic Tale, which was published in 2009.
Still driven to create and work well into her 80s and 90s, she embraced social media and built up a dedicated following on Instagram, where she shared photographs of her family, her art and pictures of her younger self. “From the time I was very young, I used to love wearing men’s ties. It became quite popular in the Sixties and Seventies. Who can forget Annie Hall and the divine Diane Keaton?” she wrote beneath a black and white shot of herself looking exquisite in a checked shirt and spotted tie.
Against the odds, Vanderbilt died as a wealthy woman, her estate having a reported net-worth of $200 million. However, son Anderson, now 52, has said he will not inherit anything from his mother. “My mom’s made clear to me that there’s no trust fund. There’s none of that,” he told Howard Stern. ”[And] I don’t believe in inheriting money... If I felt that there was some pot of gold waiting for me, I don’t know that I would’ve been so motivated.”
Vanderbilt’s impact on the world of fashion is undeniable, and as a society personality, she invented a new kind of career that paved the way for the likes of Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian.
But it could be argued that her greatest legacy is in her indefatigable optimism. “I like the idea of showing that you can go through a lot and still be on your feet, still be working, and still be positive about life,” she told Interview magazine in 2014.
“And that you can still think that the best thing is around the corner, which I really do. I think something wonderful is going to happen to me. Maybe tomorrow. The phone can ring and your whole life can change. There’s a saying I read recently; I painted it on the fireplace and in my studio: ‘Be kind to everyone you meet, for everyone is fighting a great battle.’ We all are. Everyone.”
— The Sunday Telegraph