Pauline Trigere, the French-born fashion design legend who personified American style, died Wednesday of natural causes at her Manhattan apartment. She was 93, but regularly defied her age.
Just five months ago, Trigere (pronounced Tree-zhair) demonstrated her awe-inspiring cutting technique to design students at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, recalled Jimmy Newcomer, an associate professor of fashion design.
Before an auditorium full of students, she showed how easily she could cut a coat pattern.
“She would put a student on stage and drape her with a piece of double-face wool that probably cost $150 a yard,” Newcomer said.
“She would start cutting into it while she was talking, and with a couple of strokes and pins, she would create the shape of a coat,” he said. “The kids, who spent hours and hours fussing to try to make a piece of muslin into a pattern, were amazed.”
The demonstration wasn’t just for show: That’s how Trigere worked at her business, which for years was at New York fashion’s status address, 550 7th Ave., in the heart of the garment district.
Word of Trigere’s death swept through the audience at Ralph Lauren’s early morning fashion show in New York on Thursday.
Among the guests was her good friend Stan Herman, president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America.
Moved to tears, he later described how in 1955 Trigere paid him for sketches with a mannequin.
Independent, outspoken, hands-on and often impossibly demanding as a designer, Tri- gere resisted the lucrative lure of licensing, which perhaps kept her a lesser-known star of American fashion.
Though she introduced the jumpsuit to high fashion, and common fabrics such as wool and cotton to evening wear, she didn’t reach the status of her contemporaries, Norman Norrell, Vera Maxwell and James Galanos.
Few, however, could duplicate her sophisticated bias cuts and unique approach to tailoring.
“At the time she became a star, which was the end of the ‘40s and into the ‘70s, she brought a French couture method to fashion, but she gave it an American twist,” said Newcomer, who started his fashion career as her assistant in the 1960s. “She translated that French, hard-edge tailoring into a softer, American way of dressing. She was doing couture methods in ready-to-wear.
“Her customer was really her,” he said. “She never tried to dress a woman she didn’t understand, and she didn’t follow trends.”
In 1961, after she hired the first black model on 7th Avenue, Beverly Valdes, Trigere held firm against racist threats.
“There was one major [store] customer in Memphis who threatened not to buy any Tri- gere clothes,” said the designer’s son, Jean Pierre, 69, a Manhattan computer consultant who was the company’s president.
But the store came back, realizing Trigere was good for business.
The designer rarely followed convention. For 47 years, the divorced Trigere maintained the interest of her Latin lover, Julio Werthein, a UNESCO ambassador at large, though he lived in Argentina.
With her sensual, earthy and daring sense of humor and style, she was able to part the waters of any room she entered, Newcomer recalled.
She never let her chronological age dictate her actions.
For her 90th birthday party in 1998, New York fashion publicist Jody Donohue recalled, Trigere wore a revealing gown and had nine men seated at her table. “This old lady was sexy, even as an old lady,” Donohue said. “She was remarkable.”
In her thick Gallic accent that Donohue said became “thicker and sexier as she got older,” Trigere could cast off witty and heart-stopping comments over her hard-liquor cocktails or her morning coffee. Donohue recalled that she once quipped at a fashion industry breakfast, “I feel like the toast of the breakfast table.”
Her favorite saying, however, paid homage to her signature shade: “When you’re feeling blue, think red.”
She used the vibrant color extensively in every kind of creation, including the elegant accessories for senior citizens she created in 2000 and sold though the mail-order catalog Gold Violin. “Just because we are getting older,” she said on the company’s Web site, “doesn’t mean we have to look it.”
During their 60-year friendship, New York fashion publicist Eleanor Lambert observed that Trigere “never gave into old age.” The two often squabbled over the relative merits of American and French designers. “She would infuriate me,” Lambert said. “But she had a wonderful sense of humor.”
A self-made success, Trigere was born into the tailoring business. She learned the basics at the Paris tailoring shop founded by her Russian emigre parents, Alexandre, a tailor, and Cecile, a dressmaker. Though she dreamed of a career as a surgeon, Trigere famously said her father forbade it: “He said he didn’t want me playing with cadavers.”
In 1937, with the looming Nazi threat in Germany, Trigere, together with her mother, brother and two sons, moved to New York, where she soon found work with designer Hattie Carnegie. Separated from her husband, Russian tailor Lazar Radley, Trigere started her own fashion business in 1942 to support her two young sons. Until it closed in 1993, Trigere Inc. was one of the oldest and among the most respected fashion companies on 7th Avenue. Fashion experts compare her work to that of French legends Madeleine Vionnet and Cristobal Balenciaga, but she often shared customers with Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass and Galanos.
She dressed an international contingent of stylish women, including the duchess of Windsor, Kitty Carlisle Hart, Lena Horne, Angela Lansbury and Bette Davis. By 1973, she launched a fragrance, Liquid Chic. In the mid-'80s, her company reached annual sales of $6 million.
The recipient of numerous fashion awards, Trigere’s unprecedented 50th anniversary in business was celebrated in 1992 at the Fashion Institute of Technology. A year later, she was granted the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America. Last year, she received the French Legion of Honor and humorously thanked a long list of doctors who kept her healthy.
She is survived by her sons, Jean Pierre, and Philippe Radley, 66, a Manhattan attorney; granddaughter Karen Radley; and niece Pauline Jane Trigere. Services will be held today in New York at Riverside Memorial Chapel.
Times staff writer Michael Quintanilla contributed from New York.