Carnegie, Hattie (1886–1956)
Carnegie, Hattie (1886–1956)
Austrian-born American fashion designer and retailer. Born Henrietta Kanengeiser in Vienna, Austria, on March 14, 1886; died in New York City on February 22, 1956; one of six brothers and sisters; married an Englishman while in her teens; married a second time; married John Zanft (a motion-picture executive); no children.
Immigrated to New York with her family (1897); opened her own business (1909); was in control of a fashion empire (by mid-1920s), which lasted until her death.
Born in Vienna, the second in a large family of seven children, Henrietta Kanengeiser grew up as one of millions of poor but ambitious immigrants in New York City. After attending public school for only two years, she began working as a messenger at Macy's department store. Only 4′10″ in height, Henrietta displayed unlimited energy and ambition as well as a knack for stylish dressing despite a wardrobe that consisted of no more than a skirt and three blouses. Her first contact with the fashion world took place when a neighborhood shopowner noticed her flair for dressing and provided Henrietta with a free wardrobe in exchange for her enthusiastic promotion of the shop's line of merchandise. In 1909, she opened her own business in partnership with a seamstress named Rose Roth , and the venture prompted Henrietta Kanengeiser to transform herself into Hattie Carnegie. (At the time, industrialist Andrew Carnegie was the richest man in the United States, and his name was synonymous with the ultimate in American business success.) Situated on East 10th Street in Manhattan, their little hat shop was called Carnegie-Ladies' Hatter. During the next few years, while Rose Roth made dresses, Hattie Carnegie designed and sold hats. Now a professional in the world of fashion, Carnegie could not sew, an ability she would never acquire. Although she had a sharp eye for fashion, Hattie would also never become a fashion designer. Instead, as she branched out from hats to dresses she would later employ the very best fashion designers.
Thanks to her energy and shrewd entrepreneurial instincts, their business grew rapidly, and by 1913 the Carnegie-Roth partnership had become successful enough to be incorporated with a capital of $100,000. Success also made possible a move from East 10th Street to a boutique on 86th Street and Broadway, in what was at the time Manhattan's fashionable Upper West Side. Situated near exclusive Riverside Drive, her new shop was located on the second floor of a building over a restaurant, a laundry and a delicatessen. Carnegie was very purposeful about her business strategy, aiming for the high end of the market, and her clothes were only for the affluent, starting at $75. While Rose Roth worked hard behind the scenes, Hattie mixed with her customers wearing her designs at all of the socially correct places, including the smart restaurants, the theater, and the opera.
By the end of World War I in 1918, Hattie Carnegie was having more and more disagreements with Rose Roth and decided to buy out her partner. Continuing to display the confidence that had made her a success, she changed the emphasis of her business from American designs to stylish adaptations of Paris originals. This strategy was so dramatically successful that in 1923 she opened the retail shop at 42 East 49th Street that became almost immediately a fount of fashion wisdom for America's well-dressed matrons and their daughters, both pre- or post-debutantes. With this success, she branched out to create a veritable fashion empire. Her millinery business was headquartered at 29 West 57th Street, while her popular lines of perfumes, jewelry and cosmetics were manufactured under her watchful eye at a factory located at 412 East 59th Street. Carnegie relied on two of her brothers to help build up and manage her complex business enterprises. Her brother Tony managed the wholesale dress business while financial affairs were handled by her brother Herman.
Whereas the prices of her dresses were stratospherically high and unaffordable to all but a few of America's women, Carnegie realized the potential market embodied by middle-class women who desired to dress fashionably. The models of original Hattie Carnegie dresses were sold to manufacturers who sold them at lower and relatively affordable prices, and her fashion line soon became so popular that many of her designs were pirated by unscrupulous entrepreneurs. Although annoyed by her business competitors, legal and illegal, Carnegie forged ahead with new ideas. She purchased a building at 711 5th Avenue to house her offices and wholesale business. Here were created the dresses that would be sold in major stores throughout the United States.
In little over a decade's time, Carnegie had gone from impoverished immigrant to fashion mogul. Starting in 1919, she made the first of what would total 142 buying trips to Europe by the start of World War II in September 1939, more than seven trips annually. These buying sprees made her well-known in Paris and other European fashion centers. If a dress caught her eye, Carnegie bought it regardless of cost; only weeks or months later did she contend with the problem of how to pay for her European purchases. In virtually every instance, however, her instincts were excellent and the dresses she brought to the United States were snapped up by her affluent customers. With an eye for talent as well as dresses, she discovered a large number of highly gifted designers including Travis Banton, Bruno, Madeleine Vionnet , Jean Louis, Claire Mc-Cardell , Norman Norell, Pauline Potter and Pauline Trigére . Madeleine Vionnet, who was discovered in Paris, was launched by Carnegie on a career that placed the French designer at the very peak of the world of haute couture. Norman Norell worked for Carnegie from 1928 through 1941, producing one successful dress after another.
Hattie Carnegie and her team of designers and seamstresses were responsible for creating both custom-made clothing and high-priced ready-to-wear items for women with both the taste for and means to afford quality dresses. She made a permanent mark on American fashion in the era of depression and war from the early 1930s through the late 1940s. Her "little Carnegie suit" became an unchallenged status symbol, as was also true for the "little black dress" that American women relied on for an entire generation. Sensing a need for elegance in a nation that was still defining itself, Carnegie brought style to the minority of women privileged enough to wear a suit in the morning, a cocktail dress in the afternoon, and an evening dress at night. Among the honors she received were the Neiman-Marcus Award in 1939 and the American Fashion Critics' Award in 1948, the latter for her "consistent contribution to American elegance."
The celebrities who patronized the Carnegie salon included Tallulah Bankhead, Constance Bennett ,Oona O'Neill Chaplin, Joan Crawford, Marlene Dietrich, Barbara Hutton, Gertrude Lawrence and Wallis Warfield, the Duchess of Windsor . But it was average women of means with a desire to dress stylishly who enabled Hattie Carnegie to prosper for more than three decades. The brand loyalty of her patrons helped her establish retail shops not only in Manhattan but also in Southampton, N.Y., and Palm Beach, Florida. Her multimillion-dollar corporate interests included a custom and wholesale dress business, a millinery business, and a nationally distributed wholesale lines of jewelry, cosmetics and perfume. Having exemplified the American dream, Hattie Carnegie died in New York City, her name truly a household word, on February 22, 1956; she left behind a name synonymous with quality and a fashion empire worth more than $8 million. For three decades, she had reigned, in the words of Hilton Als, as "the pioneering spirit of Seventh Avenue ready-to-wear."
Als, Hilton. "So Very Hattie," in The New Yorker. Vol. 72, no. 3. March 11, 1996, pp. 80–81.
"Designer's Will Filed," in The New York Times. March 9, 1956, p. 8.
"Hattie Carnegie dies here at 69," in The New York Times. February 23, 1956, p. 27.
"Luxury, Inc.," in The New Yorker. Vol. 10, no. 7. March 31, 1934, pp. 23–27.
Schiro, Anne-Marie. "To Hattie Carnegie, Style's God Was in the Details," in The New York Times. March 1, 1996, p. B10.
Stegemeyer, Anne. Who's Who in Fashion. 3rd ed. NY: Fairchild Publications, 1996.
John Haag , Associate Professor, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia