Remembering Gloria Vanderbilt: The Broadsheet

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Good-bye to a denim doyenneYesterday morning, news broke that Gloria Vanderbilt had died in her home in Manhattan. She was 95.

While the passing of a cultural touchstone is always a sad occasion, it’s also an opportunity to remind yourself of the life the person led—and in Vanderbilt’s case, what a life it was! I recommend taking the time to read the New York Times’s obit in full; even at more than 3,000 words, it struggles to contain the novelesque sweep of her nine-plus decades.

Her story includes family betrayals, a high-profile custody battle, famous lovers, the possession and loss of vast wealth, a quartet of marriages, the death of a child, a run as a fashion icon, a literary legacy, and much, much more.

I was particularly struck by Vanderbilt’s time promoting her namesake denim line in the 1970s. While she didn’t design the jeans herself, her decision to put herself out there as the face and name of the brand was a bold one—the NYT reports that she was the “first American to exploit a famous family name” to sell her wares. It was a move that paved the way for Jessica Simpson, Serena Williams, Victoria Beckham, and of course, myriad Kardashians/Jenners.

The gamble paid off, and Gloria Vanderbilt jeans grew into a $100 million-a-year business. Despite having come from a wealthy family, it was a big moment for Vanderbilt, reports the Times:

“After years of living on inherited money, Ms. Vanderbilt had a share of the profits and a burgeoning income of her own—$10 million in 1980 alone—and it felt good.

‘I’m not knocking inherited money,’ she told The New York Times in 1985, ‘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.’’”

So while it’s fair to remember Vanderbilt as the society heiress that she very much was, let’s not forget that she was also a fashion marketing force and risk-taking entrepreneur.
New York Times

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