American fashion designer
Born: Daughter of Lynn Stuart, New York City designer-merchandiser. Education: Dalton School; the Rhode Island School of Design.Family: Married Ron Curtis, 1986. Career: Opened a belt and handbag boutique on New York's Upper East Side, 1988; worked out of a design studio/showroom on East 68th Street, 1990; introduced Skinclothes, 1993; designs featured in the movie Clueless, 1995; thrived in the Japanese market with stores in Tokyo and Osaka, mid-1990s; showed the Jill Stuart International Collection at her shop at 100 Greene Street in SoHo, 1998; opened third Japan store in Kobe, 1998; signed several licensing deals and launched jeans collection, 2000; new lingerie line, 2001. Exhibitions: Debuted at the Plaza Hotel, New York, 1990. Address: 550 Seventh Avenue, Fifth Floor, New York, NY 10018 U.S.A.
Brill, Eileen B., "Designers Support U.S. Production," in WWD, 25 October 1985.
Botton, Sari, "Jill Stuart Opens Shop," in WWD, 12 October 1988.
Newman, Jill, "Stuart Takes New Direction," in WWD, 4 May 1990.
——, "Showroom Seven to Represent Leather Line by Jill Stuart," in WWD, 10 May 1991.
Gaut, Halle, "Jill Stuart to Unveil Lower-Priced Jill Line," in WWD, 31 July 1992.
"Jill Stuart Opens Skinclothes Lines," in WWD, 24 November 1993.
Schiro, Anne-Marie, "Leather, Shapely and Pretty," in the New York Times, 28 February 1995.
White, Constance C.R., "Two Soothing Visions of Clothes for the 1990s," in the New York Times, 1 April 1996.
"Jill Stuart Goes In-Store," in WWD, 12 June 1996.
Socha, Miles, "Whipping Up an American Frenzy: Jill Stuart Opens Store in Japan," in WWD, 23 March 1998.
"Joie de Mode," in WWD, 6 April 1998.
"New York Rolls On," in WWD, 17 September 1998.
Schiro, Anne-Marie, "Cutting Loose with Colors and Grace," in the New York Times, 17 September 1998.
"Girl Talk…Anna Sui, Victor Alfaro and Jill Stuart are Taking a Sweeter Approach," in WWD, 17 September 1999.
Wilson, Eric, "Jill Stuart's Licensing Streak," in WWD, 28 September 2000.
"Jill Stuart Launches Jeans Line," in WWD, 30 November 2000.
Monget, Karyn, "Jill Stuart Gets Intimate," in WWD, 30 April 2001.
"In Brief," in WWD, 24 May 2001.
"Party On," in WWD, 18 July 2001.
Czarra, Kerstin, "White Out? The Much-Maligned White Pump is Waging a Fashion Comeback (Jill Stuart Brings Back Trend)," in Footwear News, 30 July 2001.
Davis, Boyd, "Jill Stuart Spring 2002," available online at Fashion Windows, www.fashionwindows.com, 11 November 2001.
"Jill Stuart," available online at Fashion Windows, www.fashionwindows.com, 11 November 2001.
"Jill Stuart Runway Fashion Photos," available online at Fashion Showroom, www.fashionshowroom.com, 11 November 2001.
Johnson, Phillip D., "(Le) Smokin'!" online at Lucire, www.lucire.com, 11 November 2001.
Kim, Eri, "Jill Stuart's Sensual Vision," online at Fashion Windows, www.fashionwindows.com, 11 November 2001.
Knight, Molly, "Jill Stuart's Black Out," online at Fashion Windows, www.fashionwindows.com, 11 November 2001.***
Since her introduction of trendy handbags, belts, and leather kilts, the star attraction among her girlish sportswear and dresses in 1993, Jill Stuart has maintained a steady business in the U.S. and a robust demand for her goods in Europe and Asia. She received her first nudge into fashion design in childhood from observing her parents, makers of tailored clothing for Mister Pants in Manhattan's Garment District. Her mother, Lynn Stuart, earned recognition by creating costumes for Lucille Ball and Sheila MacRea. To fashion writer Eric Wilson, Stuart explained, "I was born into this business. It's in my blood and my genes. I live for it and I'm very passionate about it. As a child, I remember hearing about the business at the dinner table every night, from the designers of the fabric to the collection to the ad campaign and the contractors." By age 15, she was selling her first line of bags and belts to Bloomingdale's.
Educated at the Dalton School and the Rhode Island School of Design, in 1986 Stuart asserted her creative bent by marrying a fellow artist, Ron Curtis, producer of an off-Broadway play. In 1988 she opened her first boutique, a 400-square-foot shop on New York's Upper East Side, at 22 East 65th Street, between Madison and Fifth Avenues. From one-on-one interaction with customers, she got to know shoppers and their needs. Interviewer Eileen Brill reported the designer's motivation to succeed: "I've always believed in my designs. I'm pretty aggressive and pretty persuasive and I won't stop once I've started on something."
Stuart's modest beginnings prefaced a rapid rise in name and style recognition. By 1990 her low-priced line of belts, evening bags, stoles, and fur accessories quickly found choice spots at Neiman Marcus and in Bergdorf Goodman stores and catalogues. Working out of a design studio/showroom on East 68th Street, she gave a formal exhibition at New York City's Plaza Hotel and distributed her fashions through Showroom Seven on 37th Street. She demonstrated pride in American goods by lauding U.S. crafting, which she correctly envisioned would impact the rest of the world's shoppers.
Stuart made a splash in the fashion world in fall 1993 with Skinclothes, a flirty line of leather slip-dresses, jeans, shirts, jackets, and kilts with matching shirts distributed by Annett B, Barneys, New Signatures, and Macy's East. Women's Wear Daily quoted the excitement of Benny Lin, Macy's East fashion director: "It's great fashion at great value. We've always done well with Jill's accessories, so it's a great tie-in…. We've wanted her to do sportswear for some time."
As Stuart's company CEO, husband Curtis estimated sales of her label had reached $100 million in 1993, one quarter of which was derived from Europe. The showcasing of Jill Stuart outfits on star Alicia Silverstone in the Paramount movie Clueless (1995) enhanced the first nationwide spurt of interest in Stuart designs. By 1996 Stuart had introduced in-store goods at Bloomingdale's on the East and West Coasts.
When the American clothing market fizzled in mid-1990s, Stuart had begun looking to Pacific Rim outlets for her sensual, bouncy fashions. To Eric Wilson with Women's Wear Daily, Curtis remarked confidently, "We've always thought of Jill Stuart as a global brand." For department store shoppers, she introduced more goods priced under $100. Curtis reported there were 70 Jill Stuart in-store shops in Japan and announced plans for several dozen more over the next few years. Already successful at flagship locations in Osaka and Tokyo, her outlets carried a variety of goods, from footwear to handbags.
In fall 1998 Women's Wear Daily characterized the Jill Stuart look as cute and sugary "girly-wear." Departing Cinderella fantasies, Stuart developed a frontier look with burlap and showed open-backed smock dresses, cropped pants, and full skirts teamed with peasant blouses and chiffon aprons. She acquired a 5,000-square-foot store in SoHo at 100 Greene Street, where she could display the entire Jill Stuart International Collection, produced by Sanei International of Hong Kong. For the gala premiere, she crafted a luxurious, mohairand cashmere-rich collection intended to boost U.S. sales. Her models strutted in wide pants, pleated skirts, thick knits, chinchilla coats, and off-the-shoulder dresses embroidered with blossoms. For evening, she coordinated cashmere skirts with embroidered velvet bodices.
This same era saw a boom in Stuart labels in Japan, where young buyers snapped up items displaying the designer's signature cuteness. She told Women's Wear Daily, "Their enthusiasm is amazing. It's really a high to be there; they love to shop, the Japanese, and when they catch on…" A reader poll conducted by Ryuko-Tushin, a Japanese fashion magazine, placed her in the top spot shared with Vivienne Woodward for favorite international designer. A third Stuart flagship opened in Kobe in 1998.
The year 2000 was Stuart's venture into licensing deals in Japan, where Itochu Fashion System Company Limited managed distribution. Fans exalted her to cult status, stalked her in public, and begged autographs. Carrying her label were lingerie, eyewear, denim, and shoes. Stuart maneuvered forays into a spring eyewear collection with Eyewear Designs, two shoe lines debuting with Schwartz Benjamin, and another footwear collection with Japan's Moda Clea. Scoring with Bergdorf Goodman, Stanley Korshak, Neiman Marcus, and Fred Segal were Stuart's fur-trimmed pumps and gold mesh footwear. Kuipo of Japan introduced Jill Stuart handbags and shoes at 40 locations. The year 2000 also saw plans for further expansion into watches, fragrances, skincare products, and home furnishings.
To advertise her fashion goods, Stuart hired Ellen von Unwerth as photographer and Doug Lloyd of Lloyd Company as art director. CEO Curtis explained the need for collaboration as an outgrowth of the broadening of mid-level marketing. In Japan, eight-foot-high billboards splashed the Jill Stuart label and generated a sell-out business. To fashion analyst Miles Socha, Stuart chuckled, "They know how to do it in Japan." Keeping the Stuart name before the public were dolls sporting scaled-down outfits made by Itochu and Sanei. For full-sized wearers of the Stuart label, the designer relied on top-of-the-line fabrics and a wide variety of styles to catch shoppers' attention.
At the same time, Stuart pursued serious negotiations with Sara Lee Corporation to buy the Jill Stuart company. Curtis, who admittedly was not a business mogul, justified his wife's interest in a corporate connection as a relief from business concerns so she could concentrate on creativity. Of their team approach, he summarized to Eric Wilson, "Jill works on the collection, I work on the creative campaign. The demands on our time are backbreaking and overwhelming." Contributing to those demands were new lingerie designs distributed in fall 2001 by Host for Her.
In May, headlines blared Stuart's appearance in court to settle a lawsuit by Vicki Ross for nonpayment of $2.9 million in the licensing of Stuart designs in Japan. Ross sought finder's fee, royalties, and compensation. Undeterred by the action, two months later Stuart reprised her sugary basics at a designers party, where she served raspberry lemonade at her roof deck. Parading among guests, models displayed Stuart's signature peasant blouses, lacy-sleeved jersey frocks, and puff-sleeved tops with trousers.
For fall 2001, Stuart dressed models in Edwardian finery—ivoryand-white lace and cotton dresses with matching jackets, vests, slips, and leggings and rounded out the look with calf-high lace-up sandals. She balanced ultra romanticized femininity with hot pants and vest, lilac or green cargo pants, voluminous cotton shorts, patchwork skirts, voile suit, ethnic belts, and roomy peasant blouses. To Women's Wear Daily, she pegged her familiar style as pretty, feminine, and never retro: "The collection is playful and dainty. It has a certain sweetness with little touches of young and feminine detail."
Some fashion mavens were confused by Stuart's mixed signals in 2001. Rather than her usual tunnel vision on confection-rich clothes, she intermingled a variety of looks with a heavy tough of black. Phillip D. Johnson, writing for Lucire, found her "terribly erratic." He brightened that her fall-winter 2001 collection was more cohesive and classy—sleeveless knee-length coat and a cropped one-button jacket with nods to the pared waistlines of Prada and Yves Saint Laurent.
—Mary Ellen Snodgrass