Confessions of American Fashion Icon Stan Herman

by Natasha Silva-Jelly
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 20: Stan Herman, Fern Mallis, and Diane Von Furstenberg attend "Fashion Lives" book launch>> at Saks Fifth Avenue on April 20, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Thomas Concordia/Getty Images)

Stan Herman, Fern Mallis, Diane von Furstenberg. Photography by Thomas Concordia/Getty Images.

He’s considered the father of New York Fashion Week and custodian of American fashion history. Meet the formidable Stan Herman, former president of the CFDA, star designer of the Swinging Sixties, and Broadway singer, dancer, and actor by night (you couldn’t make it up). The Daily had the privilege of coming up close and personal with this national treasure, now a spritely 87, as part of the Fashion Icons with Fern Mallis series at 92Y.

On his first gig in fashion…
“My first job was with Fira Benenson who made very stiff-looking dresses that looked like wallpaper. Every day I had to run down 57th St. to 333 to get the chilled martini glasses with lemon ready for the countess [she was married to a Polish count] when she came home—she never offered me one.”

On sketching for Princess Grace…
“I sketched for Oleg [Cassini] during the mid-50s. He was a real ladies man and hardly ever came in. On his desk he had a picture of Princess Grace [Kelly], who he was having an affair with, on the left a pic of his wife Gene Tierney. I’d sketch and say, ‘this is for you Grace, this is for you Gene.'”

Circa 1941, American actress Gene Tierney with her husband, French-born fashion designer Count Oleg Cassini at the El Mocambo nightclub in Hollywood. Photo by Keystone/Getty Images

On the young Marc Jacobs…
“Marc got his first job in fashion with me at 16. I was hiring young kids from the school for—what is it called when you don’t pay them?—internships. But one kid started to fall in love with me so I said, no more they’re too young. Then they sent this group and Marc was one of them and when I saw his sketches, I changed my policy. The talent was there then.”

On a naked Lauren Hutton…
“I had a studio at Bryant Park at 80 West 40th, which is a landmark building you should walk past. Everyone came to that building, including Irving Penn and Lauren Hutton, who walked in and said ‘Boy, was I naked in this studio.'”

On who founded American fashion…
“Anne Klein was the woman who started American fashion as we know it. At the time Anne and I were the hot designers—she didn’t do the most exciting fashion, but she had the most exciting concept. Anne could clink scotch with me better than anyone. Every night we’d drink together at Bills and talk about fashion and the world and one night she looked at me and said: ‘I’ve got it. I know what to do. I’m going to do parts and pieces. Women don’t want to wear dresses, they want to wear tops and bottoms and in different sizes and every season the colors will co-ordinate.'”

On [almost] going into business with Ralph Lauren…
“Someone suggested I meet Ralph and I thought, ‘what do I need him for?’ I was so full of myself. I went to meet Ralph and he was wearing his undershirt. I thought he was going to put his jacket on but we went for lunch and I thought, what the hell am I wearing a tie for? Ralph always knew what he was doing. He showed me his clothes. They were so beautiful, the prints and colors, but they were clunky looking.”

On founding Fashion for AIDS…
“It was November 1990 and our industry was hit really hard. Everyone wanted to do something but we couldn’t agree what. In the end we founded the CFDA Vogue Initiative for HIV and AIDS with Anna Wintour. When we did our first benefit and had no idea what a big deal it was going to be, we raised $5 million and didn’t know what to do with it.”

On dancing with Princess Diana…
“I was at this big CFDA Awards gala at Lincoln Center and they were all there: Yves Saint LaurentDonna Karan, Audrey Hepburn, Gianni Versace, and Princess Diana, who was presenting an award to Liz Tilberis [former editor in chief of Harper’s Bazaar who died of ovarian cancer] who was the most beloved woman. Susanne Bartsch was the host and we were all there dancing up a storm, and Susanne says, ‘Dip me,’ and I said, ‘Are you crazy? I’ll drop you.’ So I dipped her and I dropped her and Bill Cunningham took a picture and it made its way onto the Society Pages of the Times. On Monday I got a call from Donald Trump, and he said, ‘Stan, how was it being on top of Princess Di?’ I said, ‘It was Bartsch, not the Princess.'”

On Trump’s attempts to take over Fashion Week…
“Mr. Trump was always offering space. We were very polite and enjoyed the negotiations but always said I don’t think our industry wants to go to Trump Pavilion or Trump anything. One night he took me up to a penthouse that wasn’t even finished and said ‘Stan, I’ll give you the whole park.’”

On the CFDA, now and then…
“When the CFDA was looking for a president I was told I wasn’t to the manor-born, but then Fern [Mallis, who served as executive director of the CFDA] got the job I thought, I am in with a chance. [Ed note: Herman was president from 1992  – 2006.] It was an extraordinary time. My partner, Gene, died, so the CFDA became my lover and we started 7th on Sixth [now known as New York Fashion Week]. But we were small and beginning to lose money, and as president I knew if we didn’t sell it we’d be in deep shit. So we spoke with Chuck [Bennett the CEO of IMG, who acquired New York Fashion Week in 2001]. He said, ‘How much do you want for it?’ And we sold it. When the time came for me to leave—I wasn’t sure it was time but everyone thought it—and we were choosing a new president, I made a lot of strategic phone calls. If we built the pedestal Dianne [von Furstenberg, who succeeded Herman as president, a title she held for a decade before being named chairman] took the CFDA to the next generation and beyond.

On the future of fashion and fashion week…
I hope the Hudson Yards will become the one venue and heart of Fashion Week. I have sympathy and pity for new designers as the business is so sharp-edged, and when you become successful so quickly I don’t believe you can develop. I spent years as a second, third, and fourth designer. If you can nurture the creative spirit in fashion instead of force-feeding, that will define the direction. You must also have an alter ego, someone that takes the business off what you do. I might have been the biggest thing ever if I’d had that. Power is the big name of the 21st century. If you have power, things work for you.”

On his favorite design…
“At Mr Mort [Ed note: The Stan Herman for Mr Mort collection enjoyed 10 years at the height of fashion in the Sixties] I was known for pleats, but the dress that haunts me is a brown linen wrap dress that I cut on the bias. It was the best dress I ever did…it sold and sold.”

Design by Mr Mort as seen in Harpers Bazaar, March 1968.

On designing for Henri Bendel…
Geraldine [Stutz, who transformed Henri Bendel into a high-end fashion store and helmed it for 29 years] loved my clothes and approached me to create a collection that was produced by Bendel’s, which sold so well. I found out later they were selling to all the hookers on 57th Street.”

On switching from ready to wear to uniforms…
“In the early ’70s I got a call from the president of Avis who wanted a new uniform and I thought, what a fun idea. They were red from head to toe…could anything be worse? I put them in red and gray, and everyone thought I was a genius. I remember designing a uniform for TWA and we created this stripe that was light beige on dark beige that was meant to look like haberdashery and spelt out TWA over and over. We printed 36,000 yards and when we got them back they hadn’t left a space between the A and the T.”

On becoming a QVC star…
“I was back door fashion, doing lounge wear and uniforms, and someone said, there’s a lot of women that stay at home and watch TV and wear their bathrobes. So I went down to QVC and fell in love. When I first started I sold 100 pieces a day. Now on prime time I sell 20 to 25K a minute. Oh, and I love the camera.”

On preserving the history of American fashion…
“I go to the CFDA to talk to the new designers about the history, because if you are going to be in the business you should know about the business. There are so many designers that no one remembers, like Anne Fogarty, Chester Weinberg, Gayle Kirkpatrick, and Donald Brooks, and those people should be part of our history.”

On the future…
“I still work and still have the fear of failure that most creative people have. I don’t know what I would do if I stop. I have the longest written memoir that’s not published.”

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2 comments

Christine Harris September 7, 2018 - 5:56 PM

So full of himself it’s a joke. Ungrateful for those who helped him make most his money in the loungewear business and got him on QVC.

Reply
Lucy Cortez Arrojo September 7, 2018 - 5:58 PM

Well said Christine. Stan is full of himself and never gave credit where it was due. Egomaniac !!

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