Gloria Vanderbilt posing with models for her line of denim.

How Gloria Vanderbilt Built a Legacy Out of Denim

Gloria Vanderbilt–the heiress, socialite, consummate interior designer, artist, and fashion icon–has died at the age of 95. She passed away on Monday morning at her home in Manhattan. “Gloria Vanderbilt was an extraordinary woman who loved life and lived it on her own terms,” her son Anderson Cooper said when confirming her death on CNN. “What an extraordinary life. What an extraordinary mom. What an incredible woman.”

Vanderbilt’s life was indeed extraordinary. Her early life was marked by floods of gossip and rows of tabloid columns–they covered everything from her father’s death and a subsequent custody battle (Vanderbilt had a deeply traumatizing childhood) to her grand Hollywood affairs (her alleged lovers included the likes of Errol Flynn, Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly, Howard Hughes and Marlon Brando). "I’ve never been someone who has spent a great deal of time paying attention to what other people are saying about me," she told W in 2017, for an interview about her legendary Instagram account. "From the time I was a child, when I was the subject of a vicious custody battle that was making headlines every day for months, I just decided not to read what people wrote about me."

An heiress born into extraordinary privilege, the woman lived large. As the writer Rachel Syme put it, “RIP Gloria Vanderbilt, who lived almost a century and had more stories than most people could accrue in three lifetimes.”

But the jeans! The jeans were the thing. Vanderbilt started life off with $2.5 million trust fund, equivalent to $37 million today. She built a $100 million fashion empire, creating what could arguably be called the first line of designer denim. As Vanderbilt often said, the pants were designed to “really hug your derrière.”

Vanderbilt had a small design business in New York’s garment district for a few years, making home goods and then dresses. But she began life as a denim impresario in the mid-70s, after the clothing manufacturer Mohan Murjani signed her to a design deal.

“So, I went from my own designing dress business on Seventh Avenue to designing blouses for Murjani,” she told People in 2016. “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?’”

The jeans each featured a small gold swan embroidered on the front. Vanderbilt’s signature was sewn on the back right pocket. It was the first line of It denim, elevating a classic American basic.

Gloria Vanderbilt with a pair of her signature denim.

South China Morning Post

The jeans were widely promoted, advertised heavily on television and on bus ads. In the same interview, Cooper said that he found the line inescapable. “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,” he said. “I mean, I always knew she was sort of well-known. But, it sort of took it to a whole other level.”

The jeans were such a massive hit that Vanderbilt was able to expand her business into more product lines: skirts, sweaters, jackets, linens, perfumes. It became a $100 million-dollar empire. Vanderbilt, a famed heiress, started making her own real money. “I’m not knocking inherited money,” she told The New York Times, “but the money I’ve made has a reality to me that inherited money doesn’t have. As the Billie Holiday song goes, ‘Mama may have and Papa may have, but God bless the child that’s got his own.’ ”

“She took the most democratic of all American basics and married it to a story seemingly lived entirely behind a velvet rope, and the combination altered everyone’s closet,” Vanessa Friedman wrote for The New York Times. “If you think your clothes have nothing to do with Gloria Vanderbilt, think again.”