How Gloria Vanderbilt Built a Legacy Out of Denim

“I’m not knocking inherited money, but the money I’ve made has a reality to me that inherited money doesn’t have.”

Gloria Vanderbilt Jeans
Photo by Evelyn Floret/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images

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.”

A Look Back at Gloria Vanderbilt’s Heiress Style Through the Years

Gloria Vanderbilt with her aunt, Gertrude Vanderbilt-Whitney, who was granted custody of the young heiress after the case was made that her mother was unfit to parent.

Keystone-France/Getty Images

Gloria Vanderbilt Whitney rides on horseback in 1937 wearing a traditional suit and tie. She lived in her aunt Gertrude’s mansion in Old Westbury, Long Island.

Keystone-France/Getty Images

Gloria Vanderbilt sits on a Louis Vuitton trunk suitcase with her aunt Gertrud Vanderbilt-Whitney after returning to New York from Cuba in 1939.

Keystone-France/Getty Images

Gloria Vanderbilt and her mother, Gloria Morgan-Vanderbilt, take a stroll in Los Angeles in 1939. Gloria wears a polka dot dress with a white collar.

Keystone-France/Getty Images

Gloria Vanderbilt married the agent and alleged mobster, Pat DiCicco at the age of 17 in her mother’s Beverly Hills home. They divorced four years later.

Keystone/Getty Images

Gloria Vanderbilt poses for an issue of Vogue magazine in 1944 wearing a striped dress with her hair in a coiled braid.

Frances McLaughlin-Gill/Getty Images

Gloria Vanderbilt poses by the pool in a one piece bathing suit and hat. This was just a year before her divorce from her second husband, the conductor Leopold Stokowski.

Getty Images

Gloria Vanderbilt poses in her kitchen wearing pearls and a floral dress covered in roses circa 1950. Her son, Christopher Stokowski, was born in 1952.

FPG/Getty Images

Gloria Vanderbilt photographed by Cecil Beaton for Vogue in 1953 while wearing a polka dot dress with a lifting collar.

Cecil Beaton/Getty Images

Gloria Vanderbilt wed her third husband, the director Sidney Lumet, in 1956. They divorced in August 1963 and had no children together.

Getty Images

Gloria Vanderbilt wearing a fur sweater, dress, and diamond choker necklace while in the lobby of hotel Gladstone in 1955.

New York Post Archives/Getty Images

Gloria Vanderbilt poses for photographers outside the Astor Theater before the premiere of Elia Kazan’s “East of Eden” in 1955.

Pictorial Parade/Getty Images

Frank Sinatra wears an overcoat and hat while on a date with Gloria Vanderbilt, who wears a jacket trimmed with fur, in the late 1950s.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Gloria Vanderbilt poses in a mod jumper dress, bangles, and a striped handbag in the late 1960s in New York City.

Jack Robinson/Getty Images

Gloria Vanderbilt Cooper wears a gingham dress and necktie with Gucci loafers while sitting with her fourth husband, Wyatt Cooper.

New York Post Archives/Getty Images

Gloria Vanderbilt photographed by Horst P. Horst for Vogue while at home wearing a white lace dress designed by Mainbocher.

Horst P. Horst/Getty Images

Gloria Vanderbilt poses for a 1968 Vogue magazine issue against a wallpaper of violets while wearing a high-collar purple top.

Gianni Penati/Getty Images

Gloria Vanderbilt attends the premiere of Trilogy in 1968 at the Art Theater in New York City wearing a polka dot dress.

Ron Galella/Getty Images

Gloria Vanderbilt attends a premiere at the Ziegfeld Theatre with her husband Wyatt Cooper in 1968 wearing a black and white dress and enormous diamond costume necklace.

Ron Galella/Getty Images

Gloria Vanderbilt attends a gallery opening in 1969 in New York City wearing tulle-trimmed top with bell sleeves and a high-collar.

Ron Galella/Getty Images

Gloria Vanderbilt poses with her husband, Wyatt Cooper at the Nine O’clocks Winter Ball in honor of Colonel Serge Obolensky’s 80th birthday at the Plaza Hotel.

Santi Visalli Inc./Getty Images

Gloria Vanderbilt is photographed by Horst P. Horst for Vogue on the patchwork floor in her apartment wearing Japonoiserie-styled patchwork, silk caftan with ruffled collar, hair pulled back into her usual classic chignon.

Horst P. Horst/Getty Images

American author and actor Wyatt Emory Cooper and wife Gloria Vanderbilt Cooper sit with their sons, Carter (1965 – 1988) and Anderson Cooper in Southampton home in 1972.

Jack Robinson/Getty Images

Gloria Vanderbilt poses at home with her sons Anderson and Carter Cooper (1965 – 1988) in Southampton, New York in 1972.

Jack Robinson/Getty Images

Gloria Vanderbilt leaves a party in a tight white lace dress with ribbon trim and bell sleeves alongside her husband, Wyatt Cooper.

Ron Galella/Getty Images

Gloria Vanderbilt photographed by Horst P. Horst for Vogue while in her studio with pantings on the walls and floor.

Horst P. Horst/Getty Images

Gloria Vanderbilt photographed by Horst P. Horst for Vogue while culred up on a couch with flowered printed pillows she designed.

Horst P. Horst/Getty Images

Gloria Vanderbilt attends the “Fashions of The Hapsburg Era” Costume Institute Gala at Metropolitan Museum of Art wearing a fuzzy purple jacket in 1979.

Ron Galella/Getty Images

Gloria Vanderbilt is photographed by Horst P. Horst for Vanity Fair while wearing a pleated dress most likely by Fortuny while posing in front of a large portrait of her mother in her penthouse in Gracie Square in New York City.

Horst P. Horst/Getty Images