Adolfo, the designer who dressed Nancy Reagan, dies at 98

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Adolfo, who gained international fame in fashion as one of Nancy Reagan’s favorite designers during her years as First Lady and who has dressed many of society’s most prominent women for nearly three decades , died Saturday at his Manhattan home. He was 98 years old.

The death was confirmed by Joann Palumbo, his lawyer. She also confirmed her age, although many sources give her year of birth as 1933, which would have made her 88.

The designer’s last name was Sardiña, but he never used it professionally and was always known simply as Adolfo. Although he was a major presence on the fashion scene, he is best known as the designer of the branded red suits worn by Ms. Reagan. They first met in 1967 and she wore her clothes in Sacramento when Ronald Reagan was governor of California.

For President Reagan’s inauguration in 1981, Adolfo created an ensemble for her consisting of a red wool crepe dress and a red cavalry twill coat. For the second grand opening, in 1985, he designed an electric blue melton coat with a gold chain belt, which Ms Reagan wore over a matching wool crepe dress and with a low-cut Breton hat.

Throughout her years in the White House, Ms Reagan was often photographed in Chanel-influenced Adolfo suits, her silk dresses with knit jackets and, to a lesser extent, her evening wear.

Ms Reagan came under fire during her freshman year in the White House when it was revealed that she used to accept designer clothes as gifts and later donate them to museums. She then announced that she would no longer accept them on this basis. Adolfo has always maintained that Ms Reagan paid for the designs she ordered from him, but received a special price, as did several other clients.

Ms. Reagan in 1986 was the honorary godmother of a Hispanic fashion show and designer benefit, primarily because an award was given to Cuba-born Adolfo.

Adolfo arrived in New York in the early 1950s and began his career designing hats.

He apprenticed at Bragaard, a hat designer, at age 17, then went to Bergdorf Goodman as a hat maker. When he asked for his name to appear on the hat labels and was refused, he left to join Emme, one of the most famous milliners of his time. (Halston succeeded him at Bergdorf.)

Adolfo opened his own salon in 1963 with a loan of $ 10,000 from his friend Bill Blass. The business was so successful that he was able to repay Mr. Blass in less than six months. The salon, on East 57th Street in Manbattan, evolved into a clothing company that would become one of the most prestigious in the 1970s and 1980s.

As a milliner, Adolfo was one of the first to show off planter hats and huge fur berets, and he received a Coty Award in 1955 for his innovative way of cutting hats into shape and building them. without wiring or padding. He made four hats for Lady Bird Johnson for the 1965 presidential inaugural festivities, but he was becoming increasingly aware that hats were no longer a necessary part of a woman’s wardrobe.

“I never liked making hats,” he later admitted. Still, the experience served a purpose, as he became the milliner of choice for many women who would later be his loyal customers in dress. After studying tailoring four evenings a week with Ana Maria Borrero, a Cuban designer who had worked in Paris with Paul Poiret and Jean Patou in the 1920s, Adolfo began making the dresses worn by his hat models. One of his first private clients was Gloria Vanderbilt. “She was my inspiration,” he often said.

In 1965 he was making a black lace dress and other clothing for the Duchess of Windsor, who in turn introduced him to women in society like Betsy Bloomingdale, wife of Alfred S. Bloomingdale, the descendant of the department store and founder of what has become the Diners. Club, and Babe Paley, a perennial on the best dressed lists and the wife of William S. Paley, the founder of modern CBS.

“The dresses started to sell very well, and little by little the dresses turned into Chanel inspired suits,” Adolfo said.

He gradually abandoned his hat-making activity to focus on knitted dresses and luxurious evening wear that became his trademark. He won a second Coty Award, in 1969, this time for his ready-to-wear.

In addition to selling to the most prestigious stores, its twice-yearly fashion shows, usually held at the St. Regis Hotel in Manhattan, have become a must-see event for its image-conscious shoppers. Each August and January, many worshipers left their retreats in the Hamptons and Cape Cod and their ski lodges in Vermont and Colorado to return to Manhattan for a single day to attend the shows.

And while fashion-conscious women rarely appreciate being seen in identical dresses, the Adolfo show was an exception. Often, more than half a dozen women wore the same design from the previous season, posing happily for photographers.

“Almost every woman at an Adolfo vernissage feels the designer is a close friend,” fashion writer Bernadine Morris wrote in The New York Times in 1985. “This is one of the reasons why the designer is number of women wearing Adolfo clothes during its parades is higher. than the opening of any other creator. Another is that they implicitly trust him.

While Adolfo’s “beauties,” as he called his clients, appreciated his warmth and modesty, they also approved of the way he made them appear. “It’s the same thing that once made us loyal to Chanel,” explained Phyllis Cerf Wagner. “You know you’re not overdressed, and you know you’re not underdressed – and you still feel comfortable.”

In an interview with The Times in 1968, Adolfo said: “Chic and decent clothes are not enough. Clothes should be fun. Believing that fantasy was important in fashion, he created imaginary looks that gained popularity with romantic patterns in organdy and gingham, balloon harem pants, Spanish shawl dresses and patchwork skirts.

Adolfo Sardiña was born on February 15, 1923 in Havana. His father, Waldo Sardiña, was a lawyer. His mother, Marina Gonzales, died in childbirth and Adolfo was raised by an aunt, María López, a fashionable woman with a taste for Parisian couture.

He studied at a Jesuit school in Havana, and when he was 16 his aunt started taking him to fashion shows in Paris. There he met Coco Chanel on several occasions but was too shy to speak to her. Yet his influence stuck with him throughout his career, evident first in the Chanel-type jackets he designed and shown on silk dresses, and later in his Chanel-inspired knit suits.

He left no survivors. Edward C. Perry, a financial advisor who was his companion for over 40 years, died in 1994.

Over the years, Adolfo has become a prominent designer for a number of retail stores, including the Saks Fifth Avenue chain. He usually claimed he didn’t know his sales volume, but in 1993 a knowledgeable estimate put him at $ 12 million roughly (around $ 23 million today). The same year, in a gesture that surprised both his clients and the fashion industry, he closed his tailor-made and ready-to-wear activities as well as his salon.

“The business was very trying and it is better to close when you are doing well,” he said at the time. He decided to focus on his licensing deals, he said, in which manufacturers were allowed to use his name in exchange for royalties.

Its licensees, under the umbrella of Adolfo Enterprises, included manufacturers of men’s clothing, handbags, umbrellas, shoes, tracksuits, furs, sportswear, hats and perfumes for men and women. said to represent more than $ 5 million per year roughly. The products have been sold at outlets ranging from Bloomingdale’s to Kmart.

After shutting down his activities, Adolfo was largely retired, although he retained an active interest in his licensed businesses. Living in Manhattan, he attended mass daily and read history.

Although he attracted a devoted following, Adolfo stayed on the sidelines. Many of his contemporaries mingled with their clients at private parties and in the limelight at high-profile events, but he firmly refused to be part of the social whirlwind. His only concession was a Christmas party at the “21” Club for employees and customers he felt particularly close to.

He considered his salon, in mirrored crystal and gold, a club and his clients as members, but he usually addressed them by their last names. “I’m not a buddy,” he once explained.

Alex traub contributed reports.


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