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THE MAN BEHIND THE SEAMS

The top seller in the first collection of Luis Estevez, a hit that shot him to stardom in 1955; sketches of his distinctive styles with signature necklines.
With Fashion Week (Fashion Month might be a better name) coming up, I was reminded of an article in the current Santa Barbara magazine about my friend Luis Estevez who held forth in the New York fashion world from the early 1950s through the late 1960s when he abandoned the Big Apple for the tempting life in the glamorous hills of Hollywood and Beverly. I had known Luis when he was a New Yorker, and so I contacted him when I moved to Los Angeles at the end of the 1970s. I knew only one other person out there besides Luis, when I made that move – the object of which was to become a professional writer.

However Luis changed that, and in an impressive way that had a great impact on my professional future. He was popular and well connected in the film colony, with lots of friends and acquaintances and a dance card that was always filled. Generous by nature, tho almost to a fault, he introduced me to his world, and frequently. And knowing my great interest in matters historical and sociological, he opened many doors that led to making a career for myself.

I tend to think that there are certain people in our lives (besides our mothers and fathers and family) whose presence makes a measurable difference down through a lifetime. It may be a friend through whom you met someone through whom you met someone, a person who provided a lifetime of learning, experience, good fortune (which always comes along with some not-so-good-fortune). They’re what some people would call Guardian Angels. Luis Estevez is one of those people in my life.

You can see by his face that there is a placid quality to his personality, a calming quality. However, he is nothing, if not intense and meteoric. Luis is Cuban. I have the possibly ill-informed belief acquired through experience that to be Cuban is to be intense and meteoric. It makes me laugh when I think of it. Although I never laugh during firestorms.

The Santa Barbara magazine is published locally and distributed all over the world. It is a beautifully published glossy, chic and stylish. When I first heard they were doing the story on Luis, based on his work-in-progress memoir, I was envious because it’s perfect for NYSD readers. However, now that the Dale Kern-authored piece is published, we’ve been granted the opportunity by its publisher Jennifer Smith Hale and its Executive Editor Gina Tollison and Features Editor Trish Reynales.

THE MAN BEHIND THE SEAMS


by Dale Kern
portraits by Coral Von Zumwalt

Cuban-born designer LUIS ESTEVEZ built a storied career on his belief in bold elegance—good taste coupled with overt sex appeal—not to mention his big heart and magnetic personality...

NOT LONG AFTER MOVING TO MONTECITO in 1997, Luis Estévez was at a dinner party regaling his hostess with anecdotes about his past lives in Paris, Acapulco, New York, and Los Angeles—tales that included a long list of celebrities. From across the table, a woman spoke up: “Why Luis, you are such a name dropper!” To which he replied with utter sincerity, “Darling, it’s just that I don’t know anybody else.” It’s a story that the hostess tells often.

Never at a loss for words or wonderfully colorful stories, Estévez, 79, has lived what he referred to in his youth in his native Cuba as a “fanciful life,” one that has only become more interesting with time. Since his birth in Havana in 1928, the fashion designer who would become the “Neckline King” has always moved in a rarified circle. But it was his own good luck to become a handsome and talented young man whose warm heart, love of people, and deep appreciation for beauty took him to heights beyond his dreams.
Clockwise from above: Dina Merrill wearing Luis's famed Madame X gown; Estévez with his mother in Havana in 1948; his Manhattan wedding to Betty Dew in 1953, attended by maid of honor Eliane Orossi and best man Hubert de Givenchy; an early design for Pat Hartley.
Born to an aristocratic family of Spanish-Cuban roots, Luis Estévez de Gálvez—the son of an engineer, grandson of a sugar baron, and great-grandson of a supreme court justice, among many other distinguished relatives—spent his first decade playing at the family villas in Havana and the beach house in the Caribbean resort of Varadero. His father, Luis “Buffalo” Estévez, was a track star and devotee of crew racing; his mother, Gloria Cortínas Benítez de Gálvez, was a stylish woman who adored family parties, French couture, and American magazines. “I always loved drawing and had a keen interest in design since I was 7 or 8,” Estévez recalls. “My father was one of the most macho men in Havana—he did not approve. But my mother did and encouraged me.”

The designer water-skiing in Acapulco in 1955. Inset: at the Havana Yacht Club in his 20s.
His parents’ world revolved around social events at private clubs—as did young Luis’s. After two kidnapping attempts on his life, however, he was sent at age 10 to Pennsylvania to stay for a few years with his father’s sister and her husband, an American businessman. It was en route to Philadelphia with two of his cousins that his world changed forever.

“We had to wait a day and a half in Miami,” he says. “While we were there, I saw my first films in America: Wuthering Heights with Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon and Marie Antoinette with Norma Shearer and Tyrone Power. I was awestruck. At that moment, I discovered that I was a true romantic.” Not only would Estévez’s work as a designer be greatly influenced by “the grandeur, the beauty, the refinement” of those films—but he would ultimately enjoy close friendships with their very stars.

Still, Estévez’s first muse and confidante was his devoted mother. “It was her simple, dramatic style that ignited my interest in a fashion career late in my teens,” he says. He graduated from Sanford Prep School in Delaware in 1947 and studied architecture at the University of Havana. But right out of college, he moved to New York, where he enrolled at the Traphagen School of Fashion and landed a job in window display at Lord & Taylor. The fledgling designer was only making $55 a week, but support from his mother—who had since divorced his father, remarried, and moved to Chicago—had him going out nights to El Morocco and other hot spots. And he wasn’t going there alone. While Estévez found himself charmed by both sexes, he had taken up with fashion model Betty Dew, a vivacious socialite from a prominent Bahamian family. The two were quite a sight to see—and in those days, they were seen out a lot. “Betty and I practically lived at El Morocco—along with the rest of New York society,” he says.
L. to r.: Cover girls modeling Estévez in Mexico for Harper’s Bazaar in 1960; his backless cocktail dress in Vogue the same year; the 1960 Life magazine cover story with Dina Merrill wearing his lace dress.
On the work front, meanwhile, he had the good fortune to impress a fabric manufacturer who introduced him to Lilly Daché. The famous French milliner was planning her first dress collection and hired Estévez to create it. “I wasn’t ready for such a task, and it took its toll on me,” he says. “She had no experience in the couture business—and neither did I!” He came up with a few designs based on what he’d picked up at Lord & Taylor, where he had turned dresses inside out to study their construction. But he knew he was in over his head and soon resigned. “I learned one of the most important lessons of my life,” he says. “Do not walk though any open door unless you are prepared to take on the task expected of you on the other side.”

The next chapter in Estévez’s life took him and Dew to France. Their initial plan was just a holiday. While he couldn’t afford to make the voyage on the Queen Mary, Dew could and wanted to pay his way. He rejected the offer, turning instead to his mother, who provided him with passage plus a $600-a-month stipend—more than enough funds for a fashion neophyte to apprentice in Paris in 1951. Befriended by the likes of established designers Hubert de Givenchy and Jacques Fath as well as French Vogue editor Françoise de Langlade, the couple stayed more than a year. Though Paris was still recovering from the war, Paris fashion was coming into its heyday, and Estévez quickly landed an apprenticeship at the house of Jean Patou. “I had the run of the place—mostly because they weren’t paying me,” he says. “I could absorb everything without the pressure of having to prove myself.”
Clockwise from above: A leopard coat and hat from a ’60s fall fur collection; Gloria Swanson joining him in port during his honeymoon cruise in the Mediterranean in 1953; The designer at the Oak Brook Polo Club in Illinois in the 1960s with owners Michael and Lois Butler.
With such invaluable training behind him, he returned to New York and joined Pat Hartley, a ready-to-wear firm, in 1952. As head designer, he increased the company’s annual sales by $3 million the first year—at which point it occurred to this prodigy that he might do better on his own. Still, he had other priorities—he wanted to marry Dew. In 1953, he finally felt financially secure enough to propose.

“Betty and I lived a very straight social life, though we both had an understanding about what our tastes and needs were,” he says. “As I’ve always said, being bisexual is the best—that way, you’re never without something to do!” Theirs would be an open union based on friendship and mutual interests. At the May ceremony, a modest affair at the couple’s penthouse apartment on Central Park South, Hubert de Givenchy served as best man and gave the bride away. For their honeymoon, the Estévezes summered in Europe on a 100-foot yacht chartered by film producer Sam Spiegel (The African Queen, On the Waterfront). The trio cruised from Cannes to Portofino, joined in various ports by Marlene Dietrich, William Holden, Gloria Swanson, and Rock Hudson.

Look magazine’s 1957 coverage of a celebrated Estévez design with a daring plunge neckline; a striking ensemble from his 1958 summer collection.
His home life at last settled to his liking, Estévez went on to make fashion history. In 1955, he launched his first ready-to-wear collection under his own label and began a rocketlike ascent in the fashion world. The epitome of elegance—with his signature sculpted necklines and figure-flattering styles—his evening and cocktail dresses, priced at $55 to $150, had the sophistication of designs selling for up to four times more. So successful was the collection that Bergdorf Goodman established its Miss Bergdorf department just to showcase it. And in 1956, just like that, the 26-year-old became the youngest designer to win the prestigious Coty Award.

Life magazine promptly dubbed him the “one-year wonder.” Along with fashion acclaim came features in all the leading publications of day, from Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar to Look and Town & Country. Within the decade, he would become one of the 20 founders of the Council of Fashion Designers of America. Yet it was Estévez’s social magnetism, his warm personality and uncanny talent for mixing with whatever crowd he encountered, that unfailingly drew celebrities to him over the years—from his early inspirations such as Norma Shearer and Tyrone Power to Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable, Lana Turner, Grace Kelly, Natalie Wood, Cesar Romero, Alain Delon, Diahann Carroll, Cyd Charisse, and a host of others.
Clockwise from top left: A gown shot at his Hollywood Hills home; a silk crepe style from his fall 1963 collection; bold ’70s resort wear; cocktail chic from his 1965 Trip to the Moon line.
In 1957, he built a house in Acapulco—three years before another of his first muses, his by-then buddy Merle Oberon, broke ground on her nearby palazzo. Seasoned at entertaining on a lavish and welcoming scale, Estévez helped establish the seaside resort as a jet-set favorite in the 1960s. He was almost as well-known for his fabulous parties as he was for his fashions—both exuding a distinct sexiness yet in the very best of taste. It was no doubt the latter that led Lynda Bird Johnson to have Estévez dress her for her 1964 Oscar night date with actor George Hamilton, an event that garnered national headlines—and the start of what would become a long association with the White House.

When he moved to California in 1965, he added Hollywood-style glamour to his repertoire, creating fur collections, swimwear lines, a label for Eva Gabor, and costumes for Universal Studios. Into the ’70s, his self-designed Hollywood Hills home featured a revolving door of business moguls (Jules and Doris Stein), literati (writer Dominick Dunne, Vogue editor Eleanor Phillips), film stars (the aforementioned crowd), and socialites (Anne Ford Johnson, Prentice and Denise Hale, Oscar and Lynn Wyatt, Betsy Bloomingdale…). Overlooking Sunset Boulevard, the house glittered with glass interior walls built around a swimming pool with dazzling views of night-lit Los Angeles.
Clockwise from top left: His swimsuit line debut in 1970; daytime and evening wear from the same decade; with ’70s collaborator Eva Gabor; Marlene Dietrich in 1953 on the Sam Spiegel-chartered yacht during the Estévez honeymoon.
For Estévez, the era was a bench- mark of productivity. Along with the above, he took on an award-winning line of home furnishings for textile manufacturer Dan River, predating Martha Stewart-style merchandising by nearly two decades. The Smithsonian Institution added one of his gowns to its collections. Through Eva
Gabor and her fifth husband, aerospace executive Frank Gardner Jameson, he met President Gerald Ford and was soon dressing the First Lady for such White House events as the bicentennial state dinner for Queen Elizabeth. “To Luis Estévez—God
bless him for making women so beautiful,” Betty Ford inscribed on a photo of the two of them. To a lesser degree, he did the same for First Lady Nancy Reagan in the 1980s.

Luis in his office.
That decade also saw the end of his marriage. “We were like brother and sister,” he says of his union with Betty Dew Estévez. “We lived six months together, six months apart. The New York penthouse was ours, Acapulco was mine, Paris was hers. By the time we divorced in 1986, she was living full-time in France and I was involved with someone else.”

That year, he opened the Estévez boutique on Melrose Place in Los Angeles, partnering with Broadway and film producer Allan Carr. When the business relationship soured, he closed the store in 1992 in favor of a respite in Miami. In fact, he was also recuperating from another ill-fated choice, a two-year marriage to Blanche “Skip” Hathaway, widow of film director Henry Hathaway, though the two managed to remain amicable.

It was during this period that his 30-year friendship with the late Montecito resident and actress Joan Perry Cohn (widow of Columbia Pictures head Harry Cohn and former wife of actor Laurence Harvey) often brought him to Santa Barbara. “I’ve always loved it here,” he says. “I think it’s very stylish, and there are lots of women here with great taste.”
The dapper designer at home in Montecito, in his dining room—flanked by another of his creations, a 1992 untitled diptych of canvas on wood.
By 1996, he had moved back to California and, with new investors, reopened his namesake boutique in Montecito on Coast Village Road. Style aficionados such as Anne Douglas, Sally Jordan, Virginia Vanocur, Carolyn Amory, and Adele Wilkie, among many others, flocked to the shop—as did his Los Angeles pals Ginny Mancini, Wallis Annenberg, and Rosemarie Stack. His fashions graced the runways at Coral Casino galas attended by such local luminaries as Tab Hunter, Lord and Lady Ridley-Tree, Stuart Whitman, and Stewart and Katherine Abercrombie. Alas, he and his latest partners also had a falling out that, while civilized, landed them in court. The designer prevailed, but he had enough and closed his doors for good in 1997.

Happily, his interests were soon diverted elsewhere. In late 1997, community activist Betty J. Stephens, the sometime head of Excel-Mineral, appealed to his architect’s talents to help her remodel her Hope Ranch home. Their collaboration resulted in
a spectacular one-level design with rooms that flowed into each other and a sweeping allée of square columns that created a modern sensibility with just a touch of the Mediterranean. “It helped our friendship grow even closer,” he says of the project.

Top to bottom: Greeting First Lady Nancy Reagan in 1981; with Estée Lauder, wife Betty Dew Estévez, and Lauder ’s husband, Joseph, at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York in the ’50s; with friend and client Betty J. Stephens at her Hope Ranch home.
In 2000, Stephens again prodded him out of his comfort zone, suggesting that he write his autobiography. “He’s one of the most creative people,” she says. “It’s perfectly obvious, when you get to know him, that he’s had an incredible life.” Motivated, he says, by the hope “that it might encourage other designers to pursue their dreams,” he recently completed a first draft, a richly illustrated overview of a life well lived, something he continues to do with his usual flair—along with being feted as fashion icon and living legend....

It is, for instance, none other than his Madame X gown that opens the pages of American Fashion, author Charlie Scheips’s acclaimed 2007 style chronicle. Designed in 1960, worn by actress and socialite Dina Merrill in Life magazine the same year, and inspired by the 1884 John Singer Sargent portrait that was the scandal of Paris in its day, the timeless crepe gown literally sets the stage for the entire 319-page volume.

“It’s quite an honor to be remembered in such a way,” says Estévez. Then again, once you’ve encountered the man or his work, he’s not easily forgotten. His coterie at the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s fashion week tribute to Scheips’s book—an 800-guest bash held at Bergdorf Goodman—included, among others, Scheips, Merrill; fellow designers Arnold Scaasi (he and Estévez are the last of the CFDA founders), Diane von Furstenberg, and Carolina Herrera; and early supermodels Carmen Dell’Orefice and Marisa Berenson. Harper’s Bazaar subsequently asked him to reproduce the dress for an exhibition of its top picks from the book. It’s now on display in “Harper’s Bazaar & American Fashion: 75 Years of Headlines and Hemlines” at the Hearst Tower in Manhattan through November.

Enthusing over the show, New York Social Diary columnist David Patrick Columbia recently summed the designer’s legacy up thus: “Luis Estévez’s black, floor-length sheath with a plunging neckline and an attached train...is as fresh as if it were going to be worn to the opening of the ballet next week.” Of course, Columbia is yet another of this legend’s many nearest and dearest.

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© 2013 David Patrick Columbia & Jeffrey Hirsch/NewYorkSocialDiary.com