Decades after most people would have called it quits in the working world, Stan Herman is still in the game.
The 95-year-old designer will celebrate the release of his memoir, “Uncross Your Legs, a Life in Fashion,” Tuesday night at Rizzoli’s New York City store. A compilation of collages, sketches, photographs and sometimes dishy details about the American fashion industry, the Pointed Leaf-published tome is an encyclopedia of sorts, albeit from one man’s point of view.
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Aside from being the industry’s unofficial historian, Herman served as the president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America for a record 16 years. The judiciousness required to keep that post is hinted at as soon as readers open the book. The end sheets at the very front of the book feature hundreds of names of designers, who were CFDA members during his reign. That two-page spread is followed by a page with Herman’s portrait.
Herman may not be a household name like other giants in American fashion, but he’s certainly dressed a lot of U.S. shoppers.
After working for a series of manufacturers and designers, he started his own label, which QVC has been selling for 30 years. Herman also has a robust uniform business that dates back to the ’70s, having suited up workers at TWA, McDonald’s, Avis, JetBlue, FedEx, Sandals Resorts and other companies. He continues to design for the latter two, among others like the Central Park Conservancy, and suits up 300,000 FedEx employees alone. Tall order that that is, Herman credited his longtime assistant and potential successor Michael Schwarz for keeping everything in check. “We do it easily. They rope me in, when they need me. Remember, I’m a designer not a manufacturer.”
In some ways, Herman’s career trajectory mirrors the evolution of fashion from an elitist, closed-door society into a more democratic, broad-sweeping view. “I’m very much about what has happened in fashion. I never thought about it in those terms,“ he said. “I never wanted to dress the Vogue ladies. I wanted to dress the Mademoiselle and Glamour ladies, who were younger, vibrant and more interested in life.”
Despite having been beaned in the left eye with a tennis ball during one of his twice-weekly matches, Herman was raring to go to Monday’s CFDA gala. He had gone to every last one since 1962. Why stop now?
Showing up is very Herman-esque, whether that is for CFDA board meetings, the Bryant Park Business Improvement District or the Garment District Alliance. His favorite CFDA gala was the first (and widely bashed) one at Lincoln Center, which included some Pratt and Parsons students and was thought to have diminished the organization’s panache.
“My life is a very collective life. How extraordinary to be here at 95, to have walked into Seventh Avenue [in the ’50s], when you used to wait for the sun to be high above so that the street was warm and the tailors could come down from their workplaces and ‘yenta’ before going back upstairs,” he said.
His early Seventh Avenue jobs included runs at Martini Design under Jerry Silverman, a stint working for Herbert Sondheim (father of the Broadway composer Stephen), Bill Blass, Oleg Cassini, Fira Benenson, and Mr. Mort, which is where he established himself. Onboarded in 1960, he took on the president role in 1965. When the company bottomed out, he lined up a financial backer, but the company faltered again in 1971. That led him to team up with Geraldine Stutz at Henri Bendel and to venture into loungewear, and then eventually, the wide world of uniforms.
Mention of any designer pretty much guarantees a story. The book is laced with them, including his monthlong trip to Japan with Rudi Gernreich. “I touched so many people, and I am here to say it. Basically, I should have been dead 10 years ago, but I am still here to talk about these people,” he said. “My life sort of represents the change. I was never called high fashion, but I knew those people. They were my friends.”
From his viewpoint, one of the most important things that has happened in fashion is the establishment of the lifestyle designer led by Ralph Lauren, as well as Giorgio Armani to a certain degree. Herman singled out Thom Browne, who he said looked at the world and smiled, and everybody smiled back at him. All of a sudden, he is a lifestyle designer. “But there are few like that,” Herman said. “Michael [Kors] is carving out his niche.”
Less enthusiastic about any young designers hitting the mark yet, Herman said, Lauren, Donna Karan and Calvin Klein “captured the marquis of design for America in a way that nobody else did in the ’80s and ’90s. That is an act that will never be replicated again. They gave American sportswear its pedestal. Annie Klein would be very happy because she predicted it would happen, and those three made it happen.”
He praised “the ABCs of fashion” like uniforms, Levi Strauss and Carhartt as being some of the strengths of American fashion — the clothing that people wear and identify with. In the book, he described Kenneth Cole as the most political designer, and Anna Sui as an unsung one. All in all, the emergence of designers as singular personalities transformed the industry.
“As long as fashion makes money, it will exist and feed a lot of mouths for the rest of our lives. It will be relevant. Whether or not people will be as interested in clothing 50 years from today, I can’t predict but I don’t think they will,” Herman said.
Sometimes the designer “stops time,” looking at people and wondering if a photo were taken, would the time when it was taken be evident 20 years from now. “To a certain degree, we have lost that pinpoint of time. It’s harder to know what year clothes are. It was much easier years ago, when the rules were more restrictive. The do-your-own-thing eventually took over. The rules will be less, but people still want rules. We are very insecure. Most designers are insecure, too,” he said.
“Remember, every time they do a collection, they’re judged. Every time they go out, and the cameras are on them, if it’s not good, they don’t stay there,” he said. “That’s tough. As long as there’s that, there will be enough energy for the next generation to come up and slap them down. It’s such a competitive thing. It’s like a sport.”
Crafting a book started after his partner of 40 years, Gene Horowitz, a writer, died in 1992. Jotting down their vacation tales and travels (including airline-related work), Herman dubbed it “Notes and Sketches.”
He has always sketched every evening and he and Horowitz used to read aloud their nightly writings. The tome’s first incarnation didn’t take, so Herman stowed it away. During the pandemic, leafing through Jan Morris’ memoir, written by Morris at the age of 92, Herman decided if Jan could do it, he could do it, too. Settling into his big red leather chair in his Southampton house, Herman put pen to paper, literally. Writing longhand, he started the draft early into the pandemic and wrapped it up six months ago with the help of agent Jane Lahr.
The book sheds light on his 40-year union with Horowitz. “It was one of those great loves. They write movies about those things, and you think, ‘That’s bulls–t.’ But literally, it was love at first sight. We connected. In the beginning, we had to adjust to how we would be together. But after that adjustment, it was 40 years of a very close relationship.”
Like much of Herman’s life, there is a backstory to their met-in-a-bar meet-cute in 1953. “I was at an orgy and the guy who was the star didn’t get off the plane from California until late. I said to everybody, ‘Let’s go to a bar and not sit around and mope.’ I walked in, and there was Gene, sitting there.”
His fashion destiny started as the child of a New Jersey store owner who sold silk and patterns to ladies. Macho and athletic as a youngster, Herman immediately knew he would become a clothing designer, as boyhood scribblings document. “I don’t even know if I knew what that meant,” he said. “My father accepted it, which was unusual for a conservative Jewish gentleman. Usually, they want us to be doctors and lawyers.”
Not ready for New York, he decamped for the University of Cincinnati for design school and the city’s symphony orchestra, where he was “easily the star” and a fraternity president. Post-graduation, he aspired to be like Jacques Fath, at a time when Paris fashion was ascending thanks also to Christian Dior and Yves Saint Laurent. The first American designer Herman fell for was Claire McCardell, followed by Norman Norell. Years later, Herman recognized Marc Jacobs’ budding talent as a high schooler and hired him as an apprentice.
“As I say in the book, it was called the dress business. We didn’t think of sportswear. That really exploded in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Annie Klein and I used to have scotch three times a week at Bill’s restaurant on 40th Street that all of the designers went to. She was very pioneering and told me she was going to do parts and pieces, tops and bottoms in different sizes that would be coordinated. The sportswear that we know today that really commands the spirit of designing in America flourished in the late ’50s and ’60s,” Herman said.
Journalist Elsa Klensch transformed fashion by going behind-the-scenes with designers on CNN, as did designers like Blass, Geoffrey Beene and Oscar de la Renta by taking more public roles owning their own businesses versus working for a large manufacturer. “We became stars. Once our underwear was exposed. People liked it,” Herman said.
Thirty years into his QVC alliance, Herman works with a design team at his licensee the Comar Group. “I’ve written the book, I’m listening to music and playing tennis. What else can I do? I love working. But I have plenty of time to listen to Mahler and Beethoven, go to the theater and to see my friends. That’s the beauty of a full life,” Herman said. “Years ago, when my father found out that I was a homosexual, he was more concerned about whether I would be very lonely, when I got to be very old without any children or a wife to take care of me. I wish he was around to see how many friends I have, how many people who take care of me, and people I take care of.”
Initially chronological, the book highlights his childhood, U.S. army service, love life, fashion career and freelance before edging into more metaphysical territory, such as how he feels about the Alps, Mahler, his show business career, voices, current events and endings, as in the final send-off. Drafted into the army for the Korean War, Herman said he feared being sent to Korea for “a war that shouldn’t be there. I was very lucky to be sent to Germany, which was very unusual for a young Jewish man five years after Auschwitz [was liberated.]”
Upon arrival in Germany, Herman had not been assigned to any barracks, platoon or battalion. “If you were stationed in Europe, you had to go through the ‘repo depo,’ and three lecture series,” he said. “As a lecturer, I would teach how to love the Germans and hate the Russians because that’s what was going on.”
Other insights into his life include written remnants of a show business career, including performing part of the lead in “La bohème” at the Amato Opera House, and recorded imitations of the Everly Brothers and other musicians. By his own ear, 15 years of singing lessons led to him sounding a little like Pavarotti, perhaps because he and the great tenor used the same accompanist, he said. Still perched in the Bryant Park Studios at 80 West 40th Street after 48 years, Herman plans to stay in the Beaux-Arts building that once housed Irving Penn, J.C. Leyendecker and other esteemed artists. Having seen how Bryant Park sprang to life over time and was no longer a little rough around the edges, Herman was instrumental in relocating New York Fashion Week there under the tents in 1993.
Herman, who said he rarely considers his legacy, said he hoped it would be that he loves his work and being part of one of our city’s great industries. “I’ve taken it seriously without burying myself in its complexity,” he said. “I don’t mean to sound that I’m better or different from other people, but people always seem to like me. I don’t have too many enemies that I know of.”
By his own account, one of his strengths helming the CFDA was being so open to all and friendly. “There’s an energy that comes off of me. I look and sound younger than I am. But when my life goes out, it will go out like everyone else’s,” he said.
Failures? Losing the Mr. Mort business and with it the potential of becoming one of the “major, major names” in fashion. But such losses weren’t completely debilitating, thanks to his healthy and varied home life, he said. “So maybe when I lost things, I didn’t lose them in the same way that other people did. The imprint of my fashion is one tiny little blip. It is not what Oscar, Ralph or Tory [Burch] have done. But that blip is strong enough for me to stay relevant and not be eaten up by the system.”
Mentioning that the QVC contract has just been extended for two years, Herman laughed, “When I listen to myself talk, I think, ‘I’m an idiot — I’m crazy.”
Despite having once done a 24-hour marathon on QVC, Herman now mostly Skypes in his appearances, but he will take the trip to Pennsylvania for the occasional appearance. “QVC is a fascinating way to sell you wares, because you know immediately whether what you’ve done is acceptable. On QVC they either love you or hate you. If you do something they hate, they’ll tell you, ‘How could you do that? Your sleeves are too short.’”
Needless to say, Herman has no plans for retirement. “Not at this point — I’ve got the studio, my beautiful house [in the Hamptons] and my beautiful apartment. I love the city of New York. Before I go, I would like to go back to the Alps and yodel in the Alps again.”
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