My friend Ginger lost one of her teeth on Oscar de la Renta's showroom floor. In mid century America, only the most serious fashion buyers were invited into the exclusive Manhattan showrooms of the designers who defined the styles of the period. Ginger's childhood was filled with visits to those very showrooms, and as the portrait above, painted of her at the Plaza Hotel suggests, her life paralleled that of the fictional character Eloise.
"I remember the designers, of course, but mostly, I remember the models who would take me in the back when my parents needed to talk business, and offer me a snack. Of course, the only thing they had to offer was TAB."
Ginger's parents, Norwin and Isabell Gerhart, two of the biggest buyers of couture at the time, traveled to New York from Houston, Texas several times a year. The glamorous couple were known as the fashion king and queen of Houston. They took New York by storm with their business savvy, style and Texas sized personalities. Their store, ISABELL GERHART, was a Houston mecca for fashion savvy socialites.
The Gerharts ignited their fashionable reputations when the Shamrock hotel opened in Houston in 1949. It was THE event of the century and is still said to be the biggest social gala ever held in Houston. The Gerharts made the decision to bring the dresses to Houston for the elite who were to attend the event. The fashion houses in New York were filled with speculation about the "chick from Houston buying all those dresses". The event put ISABELL GERHART on the map of exclusivity that skyrocketed the store to success.
The Gerharts hosted spectacular parties in their home with orchestras and guest lists that read like a who's who of important designers of the 20th Century. Ginger, along with her siblings Gary, Greg and Ann, would peek from the top of the stairs and watch their parents hold court with designer greats including Diane von Furstenburg, Diane Freis, Bill Travilla, Michael Novarese, Harve Bernard, Tina Leser, Ceil Chapman, Halston, Adele Simpson, Pauline Trigere, Carolina Herrera, Randolph Duke, Claire McCardell, Oscar de la Renta, and many more fashion icons of the time. As Ginger's childhood collection of pencils illustrates,their parents also knew Christian Dior, Caroline Roehm, Mary McFadden, Geoffrey Beene, Bob Mackie, Leonard, Louis Feraud, Nicole Miller, Pattulo Jo Copeland, Gloria Sachs, Albert Nipon, Victor Costa, Wragge, Reiko, and many other fashion greats.
"These people were like movie stars," remarked Gary Gerhart, "I loved talking to Bill Travilla because he had great stories about celebrities and living in Hollywood. He lived in a compound with wild animals and had pictures of himself with tigers and monkeys." Travilla even held a photo shoot at the Gerhart's private family ranch.
Gary remembers thinking that Samuel Winston looked like Alfred Hitchcock and that Oscar de la Renta, though soft spoken and quiet, always smiled and was particularly kind to them as children.
Ginger remembers Pauline Trigere as the epitome of sophistication and Tina Leser as being especially outgoing and always dressed in bright colored mu-mu's. Leser was a frequent visitor and designed several dresses for Isabell personally. (I only wish they still had those)! The Gerhart siblings all had stories about Michael Novarese and spoke with a special fondness as they recounted several stories of him visiting them and staying in their home.
Isabell and Norwin Gerhart helped define the fashion world in Texas and their couture salon was the ultimate in luxury and service.
"I probably met every couture designer from 1955 until 1993." Ann Gerhart told me. She reminded me that it wasn't only the designers who could lay claim to the title of celebrity as she recounted the story of Isabell sitting next to Farrah Fawcett on the airplane on a trip to New York. "When Farrah found out who she was, she asked her to help her get in to see a designer in New York." Isabell agreed and accompanied Farrah to one of the exclusive designer showrooms.
"It always amazed me how well mom was known. I can't tell you how many times someone would see my name and say, 'Ann Gerhart? Are you related to Isabell?"
Dorie Damuth's story is just one of many who fondly remembers the Gerharts. Dorie, who was "Mrs. Texas" in 1967 said she didn't really have enough money to buy a dress for the "Mrs. America" pagent, but knew exactly where she wanted to buy her gown. “I wanted to go to Isabell Gerhart’s because I thought that was the finest store in Houston,” she said. Dorie said after telling the sales woman her situation, the woman left and returned with Isabell Gerhart herself. Dorie said it was then that Gerhart informed her that she would be their yellow rose of Texas as she showed her a yellow chiffon designer gown. The remainder of the balance on the dress was compliments of Gerhart. “She was wonderful,” she said. “She was like a fairy godmother.” Dorie may not have won Mrs. America, but she did become a finalist and to this day she owns the dress that made her the yellow rose of Texas for an “important” part of her life.
I met Isabell and Norwin in the 1980's. Norwin had a quick, dry wit and still dressed as sharply as I assume he did as a younger man. Isabell reminded me of Gena Rowlings and Zsa Zsa Gabor rolled into a texas beauty queen. I was instantly drawn to her. At the time, she had just returned from Caroline Herrera's showroom and was describing being served tea in mis-matched antique tea cups. I hung on her every word.
I remember asking her why so many stores like hers were starting to close and she said, "One of the things that people used to be willing to pay for was service. I used to send out several dresses to customers on approval, keep a register of who was wearing what to specific events, and serve husbands refreshments while their wives tried on clothing. Now people aren't willing to pay for that." She believed that American women were becoming accustomed to drive through service and disposable fashion.
When interviewed in 1973 by Texas Monthly, Isabell said of customer service at her salon:
"We knew each customer almost like kinfolk, in fact, we sometimes had to remind ourselves not to make it too much like a club and to welcome strangers when they came in. We tell our girls that a customer should feel as though she were in our living room—treat her as a lovely guest, offer her sherry or coffee, try to be honest."
Though they lived a glamorous life and socialized with the rock stars of the fashion industry, their family meant the world to them and as Ginger remembers, "When they were there, we knew they were really there for us."
When preparing to write this little tribute to Isabell, I asked her children about their memories of all of the designers. They probably still don't understand my fascination with something that to them seemed so ordinary. But they kindly shared some of their memories with me, and their recollections had one very important thing in common; It wasn't Ceil Chapman, Claire McCardell or Christian Dior who made the biggest impression, it wasn't the clothing that they remembered or the glamorous couture culture - Isabell and Norwin Gerhart were the stars of their stories. They were the ones who looked the most beautiful, told the funniest jokes, and seemed to draw the attention of everyone around them. The designers faded into the background as they recalled the two people who took center stage in their lives.
Of their many accomplishments, that would be the one that would make Isabell and Norwin beam with pride.