Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Marilyn Lewis: Designer of Cardinali

Marilyn Lewis, seated in 1966

Marilyn Lewis was born in Cleveland, Ohio and was raised by her grandmother Mrs. Wolfgang Pons.  The Pons family fortune came from the steel industry, but that fortune was wiped out during the stock market crash in 1929.  Marilyn grew up surrounded by the trappings of luxury with no money to speak of.  She had always dreamt of a career in fashion, so when her grandmother died, Marilyn picked herself up and moved to Los Angeles.  She hoped to find a career designing costumes for movies.

Marilyn Lewis (seated at center) in 1971
Things didn't work out that way.  Marilyn met actor Harry Lewis in 1950 after attending a play he was acting in.  On their first date, Lewis shared his dream of opening a hamburger restaurant and the pair ended up looking for locations for it.  They went into partnership and opened the first Hamburger Hamlet on Sunset Strip.  The restaurant was a roaring success and by 1971 there were 19 Hamburger Hamlets scattered all over the Los Angeles area.


In 1966, Marilyn was bored at home with two children and a husband who was running a restaurant empire.  She reignited her dream of becoming a fashion designer.  With no formal training and no sewing skills, she took a leap of faith and started her company Cardinali.  Harry bought her a factory and Marilyn  designed a line of 35 pieces, including suits, dresses and gowns.  Saks Fifth Avenue was her first customer and her clothes retailed for $300 - $2400 in that first year (about $2000 - $16,000 in today's dollar.)

Lewis only used the finest fabrics, most imported from Italy. Cardinali clothes were worn by top celebrities and socialites including Nancy Reagan, Betsy Bloomingdale, Edie Gorme, Dionne Warwick and Dyan Cannon, but what really put the company on the map was a phone call from Marlo Thomas.  She wondered whether Lewis would design her wardrobe for Marlo's TV show "That Girl". 

Cardinali at Bergdorf Goodman, 1973

Marilyn Lewis closed Cardinali after only 9 years in 1977.  Although she loved the business, she became tired of the extensive travel required and found it was affecting her marriage.  Cardinali garments today are rare and highly coveted by collectors and lovers of vintage couture.

Couture Allure is privileged to have had this 1970s silk halter top from the 1970s by Marilyn Lewis for Cardinali.  The top is just as wearable today as it was 40 years ago during the height of Marilyn Lewis' reign in the fashion world.  It's not surprising that it sold right away.

Please note: This biography about Marilyn Lewis is copyright of Couture Allure and may not be copied without permission.