Helga Oppenheimer, 87; Designer Stressed Elegance

Times Staff Writer

Helga Kallman Oppenheimer, whose elegant suits, cocktail dresses and formal gowns relied on the lustrous silk and wool fabrics she found on twice-annual jaunts to Europe and were shaped by her need to pack conveniently for those trips, has died. She was 87.

The designer, who had been in declining health, died in her sleep at her Los Angeles home on Jan. 6, according to her husband and co-founder of her Helga Inc., Walter Oppenheimer.

German-born Helga met her future husband while working in London, and they started Helga Inc. in San Francisco in 1947, then moved it to Los Angeles five years later. The couple sold the company to Michael Shore in 1986, but she continued designing her graceful line for two more years before retiring to consultant status.


Unlike most companies in the Los Angeles rag trade, Helga Inc. offered no sportswear. If Helga designed so much as a denim suit, it still looked dressy enough to go out to dinner in the dressier mid-20th century.

If her line and her company had to be described with a single word, Helga, as she was known professionally, would want it to be “fabric.” She rarely used synthetics, preferring Jacquard woven silks and velvet or chiffon, wool jerseys, double-faced flannels, gabardines, crepes and mohair.

A classy and classic designer, Helga eschewed trendiness and was admired for gentle, comfortable shapes and wardrobe-building colors -- bright reds and blues tempered with taupes and the ever-appropriate black.

Her precisely tailored day dresses, trim little suits and coats, flowing cocktail dresses and billowing ball gowns were much in demand among the carefully fitted fashions of the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s.

“I want women to look wonderful in my clothes,” she once told The Times, “not for one season but for many.”

As clothing grew more casual, the designer who had always stressed comfort added convenience -- for herself and her clients -- but still stuck to her standards.


“I used to travel with 20 pairs of shoes for the 20 outfits I took with me, plus hats and gloves for each ensemble,” she told The Times in 1981. “Today, I take no hats, no gloves, three pairs of shoes, three complete outfits and a few extra blouses with which to change the look of things. Everything I pack -- and everything I design -- is calculated to make life uncomplicated.

“Mohair jackets and coats are warm, yet relatively weightless, and are meant to be worn with many different things,” she explained. “Suit fabrics are as durable as a man’s fine suit would be. No successful woman ever looks badly tailored or sloppy -- no matter what the trends of the moment are.”

Helga Oppenheimer sought out her prized fabrics in France, Italy, Britain and Switzerland, and always attended the Paris couture shows, even when the economy discouraged most from buying the pricey custom-made clothing.

“I see couture as an experimental laboratory, a place where designers can work out their grandest fantasies,” she told The Times in 1979. “I believe the world needs such blue-sky experiments, even if sometimes they do not succeed.”

Helga prized artistic design as much as fabric, explaining what she called her “Gauguin silk print” dress in her 1986 fall collection by saying: “I love beauty above all else. My greatest love is art -- if it’s good.”

The Oppenheimers amassed an impressive art collection and were benefactors of the UCLA Hammer Museum.


The philanthropist couple also endowed a chair of orthopedic oncology at UCLA and contributed to the UCLA School of Public Health, Cedars-Sinai Heart Research, the City of Hope and Hebrew and Ben Gurion universities in Israel.

In addition to her husband, Oppenheimer is survived by a brother, Werner Kallman. Memorial services will be private.

The family has asked that, instead of flowers, memorial contributions be made to one of the above institutions or to a charity of the donor’s choice.