Fashion icon, heiress, socialite, artist, writer, designer, entrepreneur, Gloria Vanderbilt was much more than just a pretty face. Vanderbilt lived an incredible life before she died last week at the age of 95.
She traversed the highs and lows of life, from creating an iconic fashion brand bearing her family name through to losing one of her children to suicide. She was creative, in touch with fashion and the arts, but also shrewd enough to recognise opportunity when it presented, as she did when she launched the designer denim jeans that would catapult her to iconic fashion status.
Her death last week was announced by her son, CNN news anchor Anderson Cooper. Cooper spoke about his mother’s tumultuous and colourful life with great tenderness and love.
“Gloria Vanderbilt was an extraordinary woman, who loved life, and lived it on her own terms,” Cooper said in a statement. “She was a painter, a writer and designer but also a remarkable mother, wife, and friend.”
“She was 95 years old, but ask anyone close to her, and they'd tell you: She was the youngest person they knew – the coolest and most modern.”
From birth, she was in the public eye. She was an heiress to the Vanderbilt family fortune, which was originally amassed by her great-great grandfather Cornelius Vanderbilt, who built his wealth in railroads and shipping in the America of the 1800s. As a daughter of one of America’s wealthiest families, her childhood became a news spectacle, especially when her mother and aunt fought a bitter custody battle over her when she not yet even a teenager. That family dispute led to her being dubbed by the press as “the poor little rich girl”.
By the age of 40, she had been married three times, including to film director Sidney Lumet, and had dated several of the most famous men in show business, such as Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando. Her fourth marriage to Wyatt Emory Cooper lasted 15 years until his death during open heart surgery in 1978.
Vanderbilt’s business career didn’t really kick off until she was in her mid-forties. In 1969, her fashion designs received the prestigious Neiman Marcus Fashion Award seal of approval, putting her in the company of contemporaries like Bill Blass and Oscar De La Renta. Vanderbilt, who had been a fashion model in her teens, had an instinctual grasp for visual design and modern aesthetics.
Over the next few years, her reputation as a designer burgeoned. However, it was in 1976 when she teamed up with her Hong Kong based production partner, Mohan Murjani, that the Vanderbilt name would become known for posterity on the posteriors of American women, or as comedian Gilda Radner said, Vanderbilt “had taken her good family name and put it on the asses of America.”
Murjani was a smart and ambitious clothing and textiles manufacturer who had the idea of teaming with Vanderbilt to create a whole new category of fashion apparel: branded designer jeans. Up until ‘Gloria Vanderbilt for Murjani’, the denim clothing market had been dominated by Levi’s and jeans were still really only worn by younger people or working men. Denim jeans had yet to cross over into high-end designer fashion. Vanderbilt and Murjani would change all that with what Vanderbilt famously referred to as the stretch jeans that “really hug your derrière.”
The celebrity cachet that came with Vanderbilt’s image and name, combined with the manufacturing and marketing nous of Murjani, was a game changer in global fashion. Propelled by Vanderbilt and advertised by the likes of Blondie singer Deborah Harry, Vanderbilt’s tight fit jeans became a must-have item for fashionable American women in the late 1970s and early 80s. Soon enough, designers like Calvin Klein and Elio Fiorucci got in on the act too, opening the floodgates to many other brands. Vanderbilt licensed her name to a host of other fashion and cosmetic products, creating a $100 million business in the process.
There was a certain irony in Vanderbilt using the family name that had often hung around her neck like an albatross to make her own fortune. “I’m not knocking inherited money,” she told The New York Times, “but the money I’ve made has a reality to me that inherited money doesn’t have. As the Billie Holiday song goes, ‘Mama may have and Papa may have, but God bless the child that’s got his own.’ ”
In 1988, Vanderbilt experienced the stuff of nightmares for any parent: She witnessed the suicide death of one of her sons, Carter Vanderbilt Cooper, who at the age of 23 jumped from the family's 14th-floor apartment following what was thought to have been a psychotic episode possibly brought on by his medication.
She would also experience some nasty legal fallouts in relation to her business and some tax issues. But she was a woman who knew her own mind. She had taken the gifts she was born with and made something of them. In her 95 years, she lived more life than most mere mortals.
“If you were around in the early 1980s it was pretty hard to miss the jeans she helped create, but that was her public face – the one she learned to hide behind as a child,” Anderson Cooper said of his mother. “Her private self, her real self – that was more fascinating and more lovely than anything she showed the public.”
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