Adolfo, who achieved international fashion fame as one of Nancy Reagan’s favorite designers during her years as first lady and who dressed many of society’s most prominent women for almost three decades, died Saturday at his home in the New York City borough of Manhattan. He was 98.
The death was confirmed by Joann Palumbo, his lawyer. She also confirmed his age, although numerous sources give his birth year as 1933, which would have made him 88.
The designer’s surname was Sardiña, but he never used it professionally and was always known simply as Adolfo. Although he was a major presence on the fashion scene, he is best remembered as the designer of the trademark red suits worn by Reagan. They first met in 1967, and she wore his clothes in Sacramento, California, when Ronald Reagan was governor of the state.
For President Reagan’s inauguration in 1981, Adolfo created an ensemble for her consisting of a red wool crepe dress and red cavalry twill coat. For Reagan's second inauguration, in 1985, Adolfo designed an electric-blue melton coat with a gold chain belt, which the first lady wore over a matching wool crepe dress and with an off-the-face Breton hat.
Throughout her White House years, Nancy Reagan was often photographed in Adolfo’s Chanel-influenced suits, his silk dresses with knit jackets and, to a lesser extent, his evening clothes.
The first lady was criticized during her first year in the White House when it was disclosed that she made a practice of accepting designer clothes as gifts and later donating them to museums. She then announced that she would no longer accept them on that basis. Adolfo always maintained that she had paid for the designs that she ordered from him, but that she was given a special price, as were several other clients.
Nancy Reagan in 1986 was the honorary patron of a Hispanic Designers Fashion Show and Benefit, principally because an award was being given to Adolfo, who was born in Cuba.
Adolfo came to New York in the early 1950s and began his career designing hats.
At 17, he became an apprentice to Bragaard, a hat designer, and then went to Bergdorf Goodman as the millinery designer there. When he asked that his name be included on hat labels and was turned down, he left to join Emme, one of the best-known milliners of her day. (Halston succeeded him at Bergdorf’s.)
Adolfo opened his own salon in 1963 with a $10,000 loan from his friend Bill Blass. The business was so successful that he was able to repay Blass in less than six months. The salon, on East 57th Street in Manhattan, evolved into a dress business that was to become one of the most prestigious in the 1970s and ’80s.
As a milliner, Adolfo was one of the first to show planter’s hats and enormous fur berets, and he received a Coty Award in 1955 for his innovative way of cutting shaped hats and constructing them without wiring or stuffing. He made four hats for Lady Bird Johnson for the 1965 presidential inaugural festivities, but he was becoming increasingly aware that hats were no longer a necessary part of a woman’s wardrobe.
“I never enjoyed making hats,” he later acknowledged. Still, the experience served a purpose, for he became the milliner of choice for many of the women who would later be his loyal dress clients. After studying dressmaking four nights a week with Ana Maria Borrero, a Cuban designer who had worked in Paris with Paul Poiret and Jean Patou in the 1920s, Adolfo began making the dresses worn by his hat models. One of his first private clients was Gloria Vanderbilt. “She was my inspiration,” he often said.
By 1965, he was making a black lace dress and other clothes for the Duchess of Windsor, who in turn introduced him to society women such as Betsy Bloomingdale, wife of Alfred Bloomingdale, the department store scion and founder of what became the Diners Club, and Babe Paley, a perennial on best-dressed lists and wife of William Paley, founder of the modern CBS.
“The dresses started selling very well, and little by little, the dresses became suits inspired by Chanel,” Adolfo once said.
He gradually gave up his millinery business to concentrate on the knit dresses and luxurious evening clothes that became his trademark. He won a second Coty Award, in 1969, this time for his ready-to-wear.
In addition to selling to the most prestigious stores, his twice-a-year fashion shows, usually held at the St. Regis Hotel in Manhattan, became a not-to-be-missed event for his image-conscious customers. Every August and January, many of the faithful left their retreats in the Hamptons and on Cape Cod and their ski lodges in Vermont and Colorado to return to Manhattan for just one day to attend the shows.
And although fashion-conscious women rarely appreciate being seen in identical dresses, the Adolfo show was an exception. Often, more than a half-dozen women would be wearing the same design from the previous season, posing happily for photographers.
“Almost every women at an Adolfo opening feels that the designer is a close friend,” fashion writer Bernadine Morris wrote in The New York Times in 1985. “This is one reason why the number of women wearing Adolfo clothes at his shows is higher than at any other designer’s opening. Another is that they trust him implicitly.”
While Adolfo’s “beauties,” as he called his clients, appreciated his warmth and modesty, they also approved of the way he made them look. “It’s the same thing that once made us loyal to Chanel,” Phyllis Cerf Wagner once explained. “You know you’re not overdressed, and you know you’re not underdressed — and you always feel comfortable.”
In a 1968 interview in the Times, Adolfo said: “Chic and decent clothes are not enough. Clothes should be amusing.” Believing that fantasy was important in fashion, he created make-believe looks that won great popularity with romantic organdy and gingham designs, ballooning harem pants, Spanish shawl dresses and patchwork skirts.
Adolfo Sardiña was born Feb. 15, 1923, in Havana. His father, Waldo, was a lawyer. His mother, Marina Gonzales, died in childbirth, and Adolfo was raised by an aunt, María López, a fashionable woman with a taste for Parisian couture.
He studied at a Jesuit school in Havana, and when he was 16, his aunt began taking him to the fashion shows in Paris. There he met Coco Chanel several times but was too shy to talk to her. Still, her influence remained with him throughout his career, evident first in the Chanel-type jackets he designed and showed over silk dresses, and later in his Chanel-inspired knit suits.
He left no survivors. Edward Perry, a financial adviser who was his companion of more than 40 years, died in 1994.
Through the years, Adolfo became an important designer for a number of retail stores, including the Saks Fifth Avenue chain. He usually claimed that he did not know his sales volume, but in 1993 a knowledgeable estimate put it at $12 million at wholesale (about $23 million today). That same year, in a move that surprised both his clients and the fashion industry, he closed his custom and ready-to-wear operations and his salon.
“The business was very taxing, and it’s better to close when you’re doing well,” he said at the time. He decided to concentrate on his licensing agreements, he said, in which manufacturers were allowed to use his name in exchange for royalties.
His licensees, under the umbrella of Adolfo Enterprises, included manufacturers of menswear, handbags, umbrellas, shoes, jogging suits, furs, sportswear, hats and fragrances for both men and women The perfume alone, licensed to a private company in Atlanta, was said to account for more than $5 million a year at wholesale. The products were sold in outlets ranging from Bloomingdale’s to Kmart.
After shutting down his operations, Adolfo was essentially retired, although he kept an active interest in his licensed businesses. Living in Manhattan, he attended Mass daily and read history.
Although he attracted a devoted following, Adolfo remained aloof. Many of his contemporaries mingled with their clients at private parties and basked in the limelight at publicized events, but he steadfastly refused to become a part of the social whirl. His one concession was a Christmas party at the “21” Club for employees and clients to whom he felt especially close.
He thought of his salon, in mirrored crystal and gold, as a club and his clients as members, but he usually addressed them by their surnames. “I am not a pal,” he once explained.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.