How the Late Gloria Vanderbilt Built Her Iconic Denim Empire
The socialite, fashion designer and mother of journalist Anderson Cooper died at age 95 on Monday
Gloria Vanderbilt, born into one of the most storied families in American history in 1924, became a pioneer of the fashion industry by creating her “Perfect Fit” denim jeans, which made her a household name in the ’70s.
The daughter of railroad heir Reginald Vanderbilt and his second wife, Gloria Morgan, Vanderbilt lived in the public eye from a young age and gained notoriety for the $4.5 million she inherited when she turned 21. But by the mid-1970s, she decided to pursue a career outside of her life as a socialite, and landed on the fashion industry.
“I had a career doing [home design products] for about three years, traveling all over to different stores to introduce each collection,” Vanderbilt told PEOPLE in 2016. “Then, I had my own business on [N.Y.C.’s] Seventh Avenue for two years, a dress-designing business. We had problems and that was going bust.”
It took an encounter with fellow Seventh Avenue businessman Mohan Murjani to help steer her towards the denim that would become her signature.
“So, I went from my own dress designing business on Seventh Avenue to designing blouses for Murjani,” she said. “And, there was a merchandising genius called Warren Hersch, and he had to manage the company. We were talking one day and he said, ’Murjani’s, they’ve got all this denim fabric stored away in Hong Kong.’ So I said, ‘Why don’t we make jeans, a really great fit jean?’“
That conversation sparked the idea for Vanderbilt’s game-changing skinny jeans, made from a dark denim that perfectly hugged women’s curves, tapered in just the right place and featured an embroidered swan logo that became iconic. She appeared in ads for the jeans herself, rapidly becoming one of the most recognizable women in the industry.
“I remember my brother and I had a game that throughout the day, we would try to count how many women we saw with our mom’s names on their jeans,” Vanderbilt’s son, journalist Anderson Cooper, told PEOPLE in 2016, adding that he learned to love growing up with an “interesting and unconventional” mother: “Few people’s moms take them to Studio 54 when they’re 11!”
Thanks to the booming success of her denim empire, which she sold in 1978, Vanderbilt expanded into shoes, fragrance, blouses and linens. However, in 1993, she won a settlement against a former lawyer, whom she claimed had stolen much of her fortune.
Despite some financial turmoil, the success of the brand was undeniable. Cooper, 52, recalled noticing the success of his mom’s designs at a young age. “She was on television commercials and walking down the street, people would stop her all the time and compliment the jeans and talk to her,” he told PEOPLE.
The CNN journalist announced Vanderbilt’s death on Monday as he aired an obituary for her on the news network. She was 95.
Vanderbilt had cancer, her son confirmed, explaining in the CNN obituary, “Earlier this month, we had to take her to the hospital. That’s where we learned she had very advanced cancer in her stomach and that it had spread. When the doctor told her she had cancer, she was silent for a while, and then she said, ‘Well, it’s like that old song: Show me the way to get out of this world, because that’s where everything is.’“
“Love is what she believed in more than anything,” Cooper said. He continued, “Gloria Vanderbilt died as she lived: on her own terms.”
Vanderbilt’s death comes just three years after she and Cooper penned a joint memoir called The Rainbow Comes and Goes: A Mother and Son Talk About Life, Love, and Loss, which offers a rare glimpse into their special relationship via a collection of intimate email exchanges.