December 24, 1979 12:00 PM

They’re the tops I They’re the upper stratas/ They’re the jeans with social status/…the jeans that fit I when you stand or sit/ They don’t stop/ because Gloria Vanderbilt bottoms/ are the tops!

That’s Bobby Short, troubadour to the tony, riffing Cole Porter in a TV spot. The other performers are just as ultrachic, including two Russian borzoi hounds and, at the climax, Gloria Vanderbilt herself, flashing that slightly tortured, million-dollar smile. Or, rather, a $ 120 million-dollar smile, which is what her signature jeans will gross for Murjani in 1979.

In the year that Seventh Avenue went cowboy, the Vanderbilt line beat the pants off all other designer jeans, outselling second-place Calvin Klein by 20 percent and leaving Charlotte Ford hors de combat. Why? “Fashion is very mysterious,” muses Vanderbilt. “Things get to be in the air. It’s all timing.” Of course Murjani (an Indian company operating out of Hong Kong and run by Warren Hirsh) spent $6 million on promotion. This is not to deny that the product offered a slightly roomier fit (and sizes up to 40), top-quality denim and prices that were not too outlandish (starting at about $36). The artful merchandising of the Vanderbilt name—Murjani had also considered Lee Radziwill and Charlotte Ford—didn’t hurt.

The 55-year-old great-great-granddaughter of the Commodore did seem a little shy about riding her dollhouse float in Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. Otherwise she revels in seeing her plutocratic name plastered across six million hip pockets of the hoi polloi. “All that shyness is hung on a framework of steel,” says the heiress. “Besides, what other name should I use? I’m not Mrs. Vanderbilt. I am Gloria Vanderbilt, the name I was born with.”

Or, it seemed at first, cursed with. Her sportsman father died when she was 19 months old. At age 10, when she was the object of an ugly headline-making custody battle, the tabloids dubbed Gloria “the Poor Little Rich Girl.” She was the glamor deb of the 1940s, courted by Howard Hughes (“I panicked”) and married at 17 to Hollywood agent Pat DiCicco (“an act of defiance”). Next came maestro Leopold Stokowski (42 years her senior and father of her first two sons). Her third was director Sidney Lumet, a steady escort after the death last year of husband No. 4, writer Wyatt Cooper.

While on the outside Gloria seemed like just another character in the “Suzy” society column, on the inside a creative spirit struggled to express itself. She tried acting (her logo comes from her first stage vehicle, The Swan) and painting, and designed everything from sheets and towels to Hallmark cards. Her palette is cheery and distinctive, but in 10 years she never had a commercial success equivalent to the jeans. Even now, though her insights are welcome and she has veto power, it’s Murjani who’s clearly in charge. Her response: “My track record as a designer speaks for itself. The operation wouldn’t exist without Gloria Vanderbilt, and I know it.”

She’s awake at 5 a.m. to have some “dreaming, thinking and planning” time before breakfast with her sons by Cooper, Anderson, 12, and Carter, 14—”That is what is really important to me.” But so is success. “I’ve worked hard for it,” she. says. As for happiness, Gloria Vanderbilt turns on her TV smile. “Well, you know,” she shrugs, “the rainbow comes and goes.”

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