Henderson, Gordon 1957–
Gordon Henderson 1957–
Gordon Henderson first made a splash in the fashion world with his practical, sensibly priced line of sporty clothing. Awarded the fashion industry’s Perry Ellis Award for best new talent in 1990, Henderson garnered considerable acclaim for designs that mix style, color, and affordability. That same year, People magazine deemed him “fashion’s man for the woman who works.” By late 1992, Henderson had secured an exclusive contract with Saks Fifth Avenue to market his newest designs throughout the United States.
The California Native’s interest in fashion started early. In his second grade class picture, he reportedly wore flannel dress pants, an oxford shirt, and a scarf tied like an ascot. As he grew older, Henderson often watched his mother a single parent, sew her own dresses from Vogue patterns as a matter of economy. “I knew he had a special eye, and I would consult him,” Henderson’s mother, Yvonne Simmons, told People. By the time he reached high school, Henderson was stitching his own jackets, pants, and shirts.
After high school, Henderson considered becoming a doctor, taking pre-med classes at the University of California at Davis. But his love of fashion eventually led him to a different career path. In 1981, he transferred to New York City’s Parsons School of Design, considered by many to be the premier preparatory school for Seventh Avenue fashion designers. Henderson graduated in 1984 and eventually landed a job as an assistant to Calvin Klein, a fashion industry guru. The budding designer gleaned much of his fashion finesse from Klein. “I learned everything there,” Henderson told Martha Duffy in Time. “[Klein] gives you consistency, and he’s so clean and precise; it’s almost ridiculous. He can take a good idea and go on with it forever.”
With Klein’s influence, Henderson developed his own unique style. “Klein’s influence shows,” Duffy asserted, adding, “Henderson’s nifty, sporty outfits are never fussy. But they aren’t Calvin rip-offs either, partly because Henderson has avoided the beige-and-black neutral shades that dominate Klein’s sportswear.”
Henderson started his own fashion designing firm after serving a six-month apprenticeship with Klein. The young designer’s popularity grew rapidly. In his first two shows, Henderson did very well, winning approval from both the press and retail buyers. “His intelligent affordable sportswear … eschews the flamboyant, crowd-pleasing styles that make
Born in 1957 in San Joaquin Valley, CA; son of Gordon Henderson and Yvonne Simmons. Education: Attended University of California at Davis; graduated from Parsons School of Design, New York City, 1984.
Apprenticed with Calvin Klein; started his own fashion design business and held first show, 1988; launched new clothing line, “But Gordon,” 1990; embarked on exclusive marketing venture with Saks Fifth Avenue, 1992.
Awards: Perry Ellis Award for best new fashion design talent, 1990.
Addresses: Office—450 West 15th St., New York, NY 10011.
good newspaper pictures but do not sell,” noted Woody Hochswender in the New York Times.
Henderson’s focus on affordable clothing stemmed from his early experience working in menswear retail stores in San Francisco and New York, where he saw that customers wanted inexpensive, practical clothes that looked good. “I don’t believe in this whole yuppie, nouveau, riche spending thing,” Henderson told Hochswender. “It’s not smart. The ’90s are about giving, not taking away. How can a designer be in fashion when no one can afford you? Then there’s really no excitement. I’m trying to make clothes more compatible with people’s pocketbooks.”
Filling the gap between pricey clothes and no-frills sportswear, Henderson became known for designing simple, unconstructed shapes in fine linen instead of silk or cashmere, or cotton twill rather than wool gabardine—all in an effort to keep his clothing affordable. In addition, he assumed a very active role in the day-to-day operations of his business, even pricing clothes himself.
Versatility has been another key to the success of Henderson’s fashion designs. “Though Henderson’s designs, like most clothes, look best on slim young things, individual pieces can be mixed and matched and worn with style by a middle-aged woman who wears a size 12,” commented Nina Darnton in Newsweek. “You can take the clothes and put them together for career women,” Henderson told Darnton, “or combine them for weekend or evening. That’s what the ’90s are about—servicing your customer in the way she needs.”
In 1990, Henderson introduced a new clothing line called “But Gordon,” inspired by a line from conversations he had with his customers. He explained in Time that clients would say things like, “But Gordon, I want something new,” or “But Gordon, can’t you deliver sooner?” or even “But Gordon, I want it all.” Henderson’s customer service approach has paid off. His 1991 sales exceeded $6 million, according to People magazine.
Henderson’s financial success did not affected his casual way of living. Usually clad in a white T-shirt and jeans, he does not look like a stereotypical fashion designer. “Whatever I wear, even a tuxedo, has to be comfortable. Being comfortable brings out the best of beauty. There is always an element of the unexpected in beauty,” Henderson mused in People. “What I look for is inner confidence, a sense of style rather than the outer shell.”
For fashion inspiration, Henderson studies old movies. “[His] facility lies in translation, turning mid-century nostalgia into 90’s gear,” noted Duffy in Time. The final outfit modeled in one of his early fashion shows was a pair of white silk pajamas. “I wanted [the model] to be like Audrey Hepburn or Doris Day when they were stuck in the apartment. They looked so fantastic,” Henderson told Duffy. The designer’s use of color has also caused a stir in the fashion world, with shades of gold, copper, and plum becoming his signature in the early 1990s. “I like fruit tones, wood, stones,” he told Time. “I keep beautiful rocks around, and I dry flowers to see which shades will emerge.”
Henderson’s fresh approach to fashion has made a definite mark on the fashion industry. His “commitment to great looking clothes that women really love to wear” made him a winner in the fashion business at a time when a nationwide recession—coupled with women’s growing sense of fashion independence—made clothing design a “risky business,” reported Essence magazine.
With the success of his early fashions behind him, Henderson went on to break new ground in the industry, solidifying his name in fashion circles as a bold and talented businessman. As the United States began to emerge from depressed economic times in the early 1990s, upscale retailer Saks Fifth Avenue embarked on an exclusive, unprecedented agreement with Henderson, becoming the first retailer to serve as a designer’s financial backer. No longer involved with other retail chains, the designer launched his new”Gordon Henderson” line in late 1992, marketing it solely through Saks Fifth Avenue stores.
Boston Globe, August 18, 1990, p. 14.
Essence, November 1991, p. 74.
Los Angeles Times, March 30, 1990, p. El.
Mademoiselle, March 1990, p. 204.
Newsweek, November 20, 1989, p. 87.
New York Times, April 16, 1989; November 2, 1989; November 28, 1989, p. B10; September 17, 1990; March 26, 1992, p. C1
People, March 19, 1990, p. 80.
Time, February 26, 1990, p. 61.
USA Today, January 15, 1990, p. D6.
Vogue, September 1989, p. 192.
Wall Street Journal, September 18, 1990, p. A1; November 3, 1992, p. B6
Born: Berkeley, California, 19 March 1957. Education: Studied medicine, University of California; studied fashion design, Parsons School of Design, New York, 1981-83. Career: Assistant designer, Calvin Klein, 1984; formed own company, 1985; launched lower priced "But, Gordon" line, 1990; signed exclusive contract with Saks Fifth Avenue, 1992; designed wedding suit for John F. Kennedy Jr., 1996; design critic at student fashion shows, from late 1990s. Awards: Council of Fashion Designers of America Perry Ellis award, 1989.
Stegemeyer, Anne, Who's Who in Fashion, Third Edition, New York,1996.
Darnton, Nina, "At What Price Young Success?" in Newsweek (NewYork), 20 November 1989.
Haynes, Kevin, "Gordon Henderson: All the Rage," in WWD, 22November 1989.
Hochswender, Woody, "Realism Takes Henderson to Top," in the New York Times, 28 November 1989.
Duffy, Martha, "But Gordon, I Want It All," in Time, 26 February 1990.
"Flash! Gordon Has Designs on You," in Mademoiselle (New York),March 1990.
Shapiro, Harriet, "Gordon Henderson's Affordable Designs are Making Him Fashion's Man for the Woman Who Works," in People, 19 March 1990.
——, "Designer Clothes at a Lower Price," in the New York Times, 16 September 1990.
Agins, Teri, "In Fashion, the Talent and His Money Man Make Promising Team," in the Wall Street Journal, 18 September 1990.
Washington, Elsie B., "Now: Brothers on Seventh Avenue," in Essence, November 1991.***
Versatile separates. Dressing with ease. These American sportswear tenets are the meat and potatoes of Gordon Henderson's fashion. Although young, he has shown the discipline of engaging in no design that is superfluous and of giving the customer what she wants— garments that can be multipurpose and mixable in a wardrobe, favoring fashion that is neither flamboyant nor expensive. Henderson is anomalous among designers making a mark in the late 1980s in adhering so intensely to the sportswear ethos, never succumbing to the glamour of high-priced fashion. His penchant for vegetable and earth colors seems even politically correct in the ecology-aware 1990s.
He is, as Woody Hochswender of the New York Times, "a realist." Such sportswear orthodoxy and awareness to design's realization in sales made Henderson the "hottest new designer" on Seventh Avenue, New York, according to the Wall Street Journal on September 1990. As there is a pragmatism to Henderson's view of fashion, there is a corresponding restraint in the designer. Photogenic enough to pose for a Gap advertisement (wearing denim) and for selection as one of People magazine's beautiful people, Henderson provides a beguiling and handsome personal accompaniment to his plain message of fashion modesty. For Hochswender, Henderson is "a designer many are calling the first important new talent of the 1990s." Henderson told Kevin Haynes, "People identify me as doing classics with a twist—it sounds like a drink to me. But there's beauty in using relatively inexpensive fabrics and treating them like they're very expensive. I don't like people getting uptight with clothes."
The ideal Henderson client would be a woman who shops for other labels and perhaps even buys basics at the Gap or other retailers, allowing the Henderson separates to work as accent pieces. "You can take the clothes and put them together for career women," Henderson told Nina Darnton, "or combine them for weekend or evening. That's what the 1990s are about—servicing your customer in the way she needs." Even beyond his eponymous line, Henderson created "But, Gordon," an even more responsive, inexpensive line with its name coming from stores who liked certain garments, but wanted them at lesser prices, whining, "but, Gordon…" again and again until the designer acquiesced with a secondary line.
When one examines Henderson's work, one realizes its appeal as fashion basics, from simple dresses to halter tops, beautifully cut trousers, and other wardrobe-building elements. Inevitably, one designer he acknowledges as a favorite is Claire McCardell, whose ingenuity with materials and basic sportswear elements is recapitulated in Henderson's imagination with materials and flair for a simple, uncluttered style. Henderson's lyrical summer dresses, bandeaux, and capelet jackets reflect the spirit of McCardell. His slightly off-beat colors (occasioned in part by necessity and in part by a commitment to the earth) and his love of plaids and checks also align Henderson with McCardell. But Henderson also admires Chanel, an admiration evident in his very serviceable boxy jackets.
McCardell, however, works better as a Henderson muse since she realized the sensibility of suburbs and country (Henderson was brought up in California.) There is something so unabashedly price-conscious and trend-avoiding about Henderson's clothing that it becomes almost antiurban. And it may be precisely the gleeful suburban, campus, low-pressure calm that makes his work so attractive to a broad audience. After all, the working woman is no longer an exclusive phenomenon of the big city, but a staple of suburban lifestyle as well. Henderson also says of his work at Calvin Klein, "I learned everything there. He gives you consistency, and he's so clean and precise it's almost ridiculous. He can take a good idea and go on with it forever."
Henderson has produced a promising prospect of his own "forever" in a consistent and compelling vision of sportswear separates kept at a reasonable price for both American and international customers. Fashion, which has a tendency to drift upward, even among designers who start out with the intention of serving the broadest public, has not corrupted Henderson. He continues to give every sign of being different: reaching the top of his field by adamantly and effectively staying at the bottom of the price ranges, and in giving something back to the industry. In the late 1990s he acted as a design critic for student fashion shows at institutions such as the Parsons School of Design and Marist College. He also gained notice, in September 1996, as the designer of the blue suit worn by the late John F. Kennedy Jr. during his wedding to the late Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, a former Calvin Klein publicist and a friend of Henderson's.
As of July 2000, Henderson was reported by the website Urbangoods.com as planning to open a New York City gift and home furnishings store in partnership with artist Conan Hayes. His loyal clients, no doubt, are looking forward to this next endeavor.
updated by Karen Raugust