As news spread of Gloria Vanderbilt’s passing recently at the age of 95, I was filled with nostalgia. As a child growing up in the 70s, even I was aware of Gloria Vanderbilt. That swan stitched onto the coin pocket of the jeans coveted by just about every girl in my class meant “luxury.” Every girl wanted to exude the stylish, chic confidence of the brand’s namesake.
It’s no wonder that Gloria Vanderbilt’s name evokes ideas of luxury, wealth and privilege. She carried the Vanderbilt name, the name of the family that built the railroad network that empowered much of the growth enjoyed by the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries. The Vanderbilts were fabulously wealthy.
Gloria Vanderbilt could have spent her life enjoying her fortune, but instead she turned her considerable creative energy to art, acting, writing, designing and building her own brand. Arguably, she was so successful at building her own brand that she redefined the name “Vanderbilt” and consumers today are more likely to associated it with jeans than with railroads. It takes moxie to do that, and Gloria Vanderbilt had it. Here’s how:
Moxie breaks new ground.
Vanderbilt’s interest in fashion evolved from her interest in art. She discovered her passion for art early in life, during her second marriage to conductor Leopold Stokowski. By the mid 70s, her paintings were being reproduced on scarves. She began building relationships and learning the ins and outs of the fashion industry, and when a business associate mentioned a huge stockpile of denim in a warehouse in Hong Kong, she had an idea: why not make really great fitting jeans for women?
At the time, jeans – a staple of the American wardrobe – tending to be boxy and more suited for the male body. Designing jeans for the curves of a woman’s body was an innovation. Vanderbilt designed high-waisted, slim-fitting jeans that were form-fitting and flattering, and they flew off the shelves. More consumer products followed, and the name “Vanderbilt” began its transformation into a luxury brand.
It takes moxie to take an idea from opportunity to innovation, and Gloria Vanderbilt had it.
Despite being born into riches beyond the imagination of most people, Vanderbilt’s life was far from carefree. Her father, Reginald, died when she was just a toddler. His death was caused by liver disease brought on by alcoholism. Her mother coped by frolicking across Europe in a never-ending series of parties. Young Gloria was often left in the care of her grandmother and a nanny.
Gloria’s aunt stepped in and fought for custody of the little girl. The fight was acrimonious, and in the end the aunt prevailed. While Gloria’s new life in her aunt’s care was more stable, it was also much more rigid, and the loving and devoted nanny who had raised her was dismissed.
But even those early losses could not have prepared Vanderbilt for the tragedy that was to come her way later in life.
In July 1988, Vanderbilt witnessed the suicide of her son Carter Cooper. He fell from the balcony of her 14th floor Manhattan apartment. He was just 23 years old at the time, and had endured a long struggle with depression.
The loss forever changed Vanderbilt’s life. It takes moxie for a parent to survive the loss of a child, and Vanderbilt had it.
Vanderbilt was married four times, divorcing three times and widowed once. Her last husband, the father of both Carter and Anderson, died while undergoing open heart surgery. She never remarried.
Yet even those losses didn’t seem to dim her quest for love. In a tribute to her posted on Instagram on her 95th birthday, Cooper wrote: “Happy 95th Birthday to my mom, Still painting everyday @gloriavanderbiltstudio. Still dreaming and creating, still believing the next great love is right around the corner. Who knows? Maybe she is right? I love you, Mom.”
Vanderbilt shared her own thoughts in Instagram to mark the occasion. “Today I turn 95. It feels like yesterday I was 16 and posing for my first picture of Harper’s Bazaar. There is so much I wish I had known then. I do believe that it is only once you accept that life is a tragedy that you can truly start to live … and, oh, how I have lived! So many lives, so much work, so much love. It is incalculable.”
It takes moxie to endure tragedy and continue to hope, and Vanderbilt had it.
What inspires you about Vanderbilt’s life?