Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Mildred Custin - Fashion Leader

Mildred Custin was born in in Manchester, NH in 1906 and was raised in Boston. After attending Simmons college, she took a job in the controller's office at Macy's. Jobs at Shepard's and R.H. White followed before Custin moved to Philadelphia in 1935. There, she joined John Wanamaker, and worked her way up to a vice presidency before becoming president of the 3-store Bonwit Teller Philadelphia chain. The Bonwit's Philadelphia stores became part of Bonwit Teller New York in 1963. In 1965, Custin was made president and chairwoman of the Bonwit Teller 12-store chain, and as such became the top female retail executive in the country.

Custin secured her reputation and later promotions by turning Bonwit's drab and rundown traditional stores into high-fashion retail leaders that carried clothing from the top designers of the time. Custin always referred to Bonwit Teller as a "specialty store", rather than a department store. She believed her stores filled a niche with top quality service and carefully selected stock that filled the Bonwit's customer's needs. Rather than making and selling line-for-line copies of Paris couture, Custin led the industry by offering exclusive garments from top designers. In this way, she differentiated the stores from competitors such as Saks, I. Magnin, and others.

Stavropoulos, 1964

It was Mildred Custin who, as a buyer in 1963, discovered George Stavropoulos and placed the first order for his designs.

Rudi Gernreich, 1966

It was Mildred Custin who started the trend for in-store boutiques by showcasing designers such as Norman Norell, Rudi Gernreich, Donald Brooks, and James Galanos.

Nancy Reagan wears James Galanos, 1967

It was Mildred Custin who talked James Galanos into showing his line in New York in 1966. Previously, Galanos had always shown in Los Angeles, and Bonwit's customers had to visit the store several times in one season in order to see the entire line.

Pierre Cardin, 1966

It was Mildred Custin who opened the first menswear department at Bonwit's in 1966, a department she stocked with the first Pierre Cardin and Bill Blass menswear lines, along with Hermes ties and Turnbull & Asser shirts.

It was Mildred Custin who put Calvin Klein on the map by placing the first order for his clothing in 1968, an order that totaled $50,000. Custin had wanted an exclusive with Klein, but he refused, telling her he could not cut out other buyers who were already interested in his line.

Giorgio di Sant'Angelo, 1968

It was Mildred Custin who gave Giorgio di Sant'Angelo his first boutique in 1968, before he had even designed his line.

It was Mildred Custin who brought mystery and cachet to Bonwit's windows by having them covered and then raising the curtains every Tuesday night to a new display. People would purposely stroll past the 5th Avenue windows to see the latest innovations in fashion.

In 1970, Custin retired from Bonwit's, as the company had a mandatory retirement age of 65 for it's executives. She then went on to form her own retail consulting firm, Mildred Custin, Ltd. which was very successful until she closed it in 1990. Custin died in 1997 at age 91.

Couture Allure is pleased and proud to be able to offer for sale a 1969 James Galanos silk palazzo pant jumpsuit that was owned by Mildred Custin. This jumpsuit was recently deaccessioned by the Brooklyn Museum. Custin had donated it to the museum's costume collection in 1972. Don't miss your opportunity to own this piece of fashion history - a garment that was owned by the woman who was the most powerful force in American fashion retailing from 1965-1970.

Please note: Biographical information about Mildred Custin is copyright of Couture Allure and may not be copied without permission.