Simpson, Adele (1903–1995)

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Simpson, Adele (1903–1995)

American fashion designer. Born Adele Smithline on December 8, 1903, in New York City; died on August 23, 1995, in Greenwich, Connecticut; fifth daughter of Latvian immigrants; studied design at Pratt Institute; married Wesley Simpson (a textile executive), in 1927 (died 1976); children: Joan and Jeffrey.

Born in New York City on December 8, 1903, Adele Simpson performed in vaudeville as a child, billed as "Babe Adele Smithline, the Petite Nightingale." Her true calling, however, would be behind the scenes, dressing celebrities as well as an entire generation of upper-middle-class American women in her meticulously constructed ready-to-wear fashions. Simpson studied design at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, then began working in the early 1920s as a dress designer at Ben Gershel's Seventh Avenue design house, which made ready-to-wear dresses. Seventh Avenue was the center of New York's clothing world, and Simpson enjoyed a meteoric rise to fame, becoming the city's highest paid designer by the time she turned 21 and replacing her older sister Anna as head designer at Gershel's.

In 1928, Simpson moved on to another of New York's Seventh Avenue houses, Mary Lee Fashions, where she began designing a line of clothing under her own label. She won a Coty American Fashion Critics award for her designs in 1947. (She was also one of the first designers, after Claire McCardell , to market separates, although that innovation would not catch on for years with women accustomed to buying a full outfit.) In 1949, she purchased Mary Lee Fashions and renamed it Adele Simpson. There, from her office decorated entirely in pink and white, she created the Adele Simpson line, featuring classically cut suits and matching jacket and dress ensembles. (As did many American designers, she regularly traveled to Paris to view, and crib from, the new haute-couture and ready-to-wear collections.) Her conservative, ladylike clothes particularly appealed to her middle-aged clientele, who clamored for the simple, wearable fabrics and designs. The outfits, which were often color-coordinated and praised for being "safe," were reasonably priced and available in the most fashionable stores of the day, including B. Altman, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Bonwit Teller. Simpson eschewed trends in favor of a classic look that weathered the radical fashion trends of the 1960s and 1970s. She was so popular that first ladies Lady Bird Johnson and Pat Nixon both considered her their favorite designer, and she provided them with dresses for several state occasions. (Jacqueline Kennedy , however, had quite different taste in clothing.)

Despite the high-profile celebrities who wore her designs, Simpson claimed, "I don't make clothes for a woman to make an entrance in. She has to live in them," and this low-key style proved enormously successful. By 1973, the company was turning more than a million yards of fabric into Adele Simpson clothes, grossing $6 million yearly. Simpson herself lived in style, inhabiting a seven-story townhouse on Manhattan's East Side. The house featured an entire apartment devoted to Simpson's collection of fabric and memorabilia, including costumes and dolls from all over the world. She called it her "Simpsonian Institute."

Upon her retirement in 1985, Simpson turned her company over to her daughter Joan Raines and son-in-law Richard Raines. Six years later, they sold it to a clothing company from Lowell, Massachusetts, which before her death in 1995, at age 91, dropped the Adele Simpson line and filed for bankruptcy.


Biography News. Vol. 2, no. 2. March–April 1975. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1975.

Current Biography. October 1995. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1995.

Newsweek. September 1995.

The New York Times (obituary). August 24, 1995, p. D21.

Time. September 4, 1995, p. 23.

Lisa C. Groshong , freelance writer, Columbia, Missouri

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Simpson, Adele (1903–1995)

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