There is a fairytale aspect to fashion as every fresh Fashion Week spotlights bevies of new, young designers hoping, as is proper, for fortune and fame in return for their genius and hard work. This year, the charming proliferation of long, comfy, hand-made looking sweaters over dresses and tights reminded me of the “rags to riches’ story of an old friend who pioneered similar styles thirty years ago and died last month on January 9th.
It was the late Seventies. I was, perhaps, 20, just out of Bryn Mawr
and the surreal experience of living in Katherine Hepburn
’s old suite in Pembroke East on the second floor next to the dining room. Nothing had prepared me for my first job in the New York fashion office of Neiman Marcus
, or life in the Big Apple at that time of Studio 54
defining American fashion, de Kooning
defining art as seen through the eyes of the Met’s Henry Geldzahler
and China just opening up for the first time in memory.
, Neiman Marcus’ almost scarily chic and cultured fashion director, as well as a great collector of Paul Klee
, did not want to go all the way to SoHo one day. Instead, she sent me to see, who she characterized as, “this woman”, who had been recommended to her by a friend at the “New York Times
I had never been that far south, so I took a cab (using my own money) to the Mercer Street address Miss Kerr had given me. Heart in mouth, panting, I climbed several flights of slanting, hollowed, slippery and splintery wooden stairs until I reached the floor on my itinerary. I was greeted by the surprising and delicious aroma of homemade borscht wafting through the air. Stirring the pot all alone in a vast, open loft kitchen was an extraordinarily intelligent-looking dark-haired, black-eyed; very big-nosed woman- Une Jolie Laide- singing Billie Holiday
to herself in a loud and melancholy way. I was instantly, totally, tongue-tied, shy.
It turned out that all “this woman” had to show me were three edgy, irregularly hand-knit tunics (we named them “Not for Dallas”, “Not for Houston” and “Not for North Park”, deciding Henry Bendel
was her better bet) and that she badly needed money. We somehow, inexplicably, became fast friends. And when I discovered Joan Vass
(“this woman’s” real name) was a philosophy major, recently a curator at the Museum of Modern Art
in Manhattan and was just starting a cottage industry selling sweaters and other knits handmade by old people who needed the work (the expressly lower case ‘joan vass new york’ labels were the same parents sewed in children’s clothes for going to camp), I bought “Not for Dallas” for three hundred dollars, a huge sum for me then.
A fast five years later and Ali MacGraw
was featured on the cover of “Women’s Wear Daily
” in “Not for Dallas”. Bendel sold Joan’s designs regularly on its exclusive third floor. “The clothes”, as she called them, appeared in Bloomingdales
’ windows. In addition, Joan won a coveted Coty Award
, which she accepted controversially-costumed all in black with impenetrable dark ‘shades’ à la Ray Charles
. Jackie O
and Bunny Mellon
became habitual private customers. Ira Neimark
, Bergdorf Goodman’s famous president, became famously trapped in the jam-packed elevator to her new loft where she held her increasingly crowded shows featuring celebrity model friends, such as Brooke Hayward
and Mrs. Sydney Poitier
In the midst of all this glamour, Joan suffered terribly from horrible migraines. There weren’t enough skilled hand laborers to make all the designs the fashion world demanded of her now. Joan said it made her sick. She was emphatically artiste, not entrepreneur.
I was an editor at Tobé Associates
by that time and, one afternoon, when I’d just been offered five thousand dollars for “Not for Houston” by a Seventh Avenue sort who wanted to copy the pattern, I was leafing through “Women’s Wear Daily” and noticed an article entitled “Mary McFadden
and Fast Jack Mulqueen
sign licensing pact for life”. The piece elaborately detailed how very, very much money this deal would create. I telephoned Joan instantly. “This is what you need!” I said.” Let’s do a license!” Joan just as immediately refused. And, although she allowed me to introduce her to Jack, there was no charisma. “Awful” is the word I think she used.
A year later, after I had run the Lavin
licenses in the United States and learned the Coudert Brothers
’ licensing contract by heart, she finally changed her mind.
Joan gave me a contract of my own and clothes which she hand picked so I could “look polite” when I represented her to various potential licensees,all of whom she then delighted in horrifying with her outspoken opinions (“We are all black and all lesbians” was a favorite and “Have you not read Kierkegaard
?” was a pet rhetorical question, always guaranteed to go over like a lead balloon). She also stubbornly refused to keep her bitingly intelligent criticisms of the way they ran their businesses to herself. Joan was a small fiftyish woman with short grayish hair, a squint and a grin, but she could be so blunt, the macho honchos of the garment industry cringed when she walked in a room. I was near tears.
Then I remembered a childhood friend who owned a majority-share in a public company with old knitting machines in the Carolinas that used to make men’s underwear for JC Penny’s and for Sears
. George Clairemont
came from a different way of thinking and, when I showed him Joan’s design book, it was a love at first sight and one that lasted over sixteen years. We signed the deal with Heritage
) in a record three weeks. Soon the new label (I named it joan vass U.S.A.
) was sold in four hundred stores, generating at its height perhaps sixty million a year. Joan was rich! The migraines disappeared! And the cotton knit, once used for men’s briefs, had a new name-on Seventh Avenue: They called it “cotton cashmere”.
Who said fairytales can never be real?
and Diane von Furstenberg
at the CFDA New Members Party Hosted by ELIE and RORY TAHARI at The Tahari Residence in NYC
Michèle Gerber Klein