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Helen O’Hagan, fashion executive who personified Saks, dies at 89

Helen O’Hagan, who nurtured a generation of fashion designers as the publicity director of Saks Fifth Avenue, died on June 13 at her home in Charleston, S.C. She was 89.

Her niece Helaine Christy, who confirmed the death, said she had been in declining health since she broke a hip in May.

Before Instagram and even before Fashion Week, before designers were megabrands owned by global conglomerates, American women were introduced to the season’s new styles through the department-store trunk show, for which designers would travel the country to present their collections, meet their customers, and take their orders. It was old-school retailing — intimate, hands-on hard work.

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Starting in the 1960s, as the head of publicity for Saks, Ms. O’Hagan organized this mobile theater, all the while overseeing Saks’ expansion into cities like St. Louis; Tulsa, Okla.; and San Francisco and accompanying designers like Bill Blass, Geoffrey Beene, Adolfo, Oscar de la Renta, and Carolina Herrera as they crisscrossed the country.

When she retired in 1994, after 39 years, she had directed the openings of 47 Saks stores. And while carving out a career at Saks, she was also living a glamorous life as the best friend and companion of actress Claudette Colbert, after Colbert’s second husband died in 1968. Though Colbert was nearly 30 years older, the pair traveled together, entertained together at Colbert’s Barbados estate, and shared an apartment at 945 Park Ave. in New York.

Yet despite what many assumed, Christy said, their relationship was not a romance. “Helen was definite about that. But they loved each other and made each other laugh. Helen was like the daughter Claudette never had.”

With her round red glasses and short silver hair, Ms. O’Hagan was a striking figure. She never lost her Southern accent or her manners, which made her even more distinctive in her field, said Jaqui Lividini, who succeeded Ms. O’Hagan at Saks.

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“Women of her generation at her level tended to be polarizing,” Lividini said. “But everybody loved Helen.”

For designers like Blass and Beene, she was a fixer, a cheerleader, and a confidante. “I don’t think Mr. Beene made a move without calling Helen first,” Lividini said.

Ellin Saltzman, the store’s longtime fashion director, said Ms. O’Hagan “stood for Saks.” She certainly played all the parts. Saltzman recalled how Ms. O’Hagan would regularly photograph the European collections, muscling through the runway scrum in khakis and a fisherman’s vest, and then come back and show them in her Adolfo suit.

“I was known as the mother of the photographers’ mafia at the shows in Europe,” Ms. O’Hagan told Women’s Wear Daily when she retired.

Helen Wilken O’Hagan was born on Feb. 7, 1931, in Charleston. Her father, John J. O’Hagan, was an antiques dealer and insurance salesman. Her mother, Helen (Wilken) O’Hagan, was a homemaker who worked part time at a real estate office.

Ms. O’Hagan is survived by her sister, Kathleen Blanchard, who is Christy’s mother. Her brother, John Jr., died this year.

As a teenager, Helen worked summers for a photographer known as One Shot Riley. After high school, she took acting classes at the local theater and, after discovering she was, in her own words, “lousy at it,” became the theater’s business manager.

She moved to New York in 1955 hoping to find work as a photographer — and perhaps as a model, but she was rejected by Eileen Ford because, at 5 feet 3 inches, she wasn’t considered tall enough. On a tip from a family friend, she was introduced to the publicity director of Saks at the time, Countess Grace de Mun, Southern born and originally Grace Cuyler, who hired her as a press assistant.

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The countess was fired three years later, and Sophie and Adam Gimbel, the store’s in-house designer and its president, took Ms. O’Hagan under their wing. (Sophie Gimbel was renowned for her aversion to fads and body-baring clothing — “I don’t show the bosom, the stomach, or the fanny,” she once declared. Nonetheless, she is credited with having invented culottes.)

“I was a girl who hated fashion,” Ms. O’Hagan later said. “I grew to love clothes because of Sophie.”

It was through Sophie Gimbel that Ms. O’Hagan met Colbert, whom Sophie Gimbel dressed, along with other society figures of the day like Estée Lauder, Mary Benny (the wife of comedian Jack Benny), and assorted Duponts, Dukes, Huttons, and Phippses. The pair struck up what would become a two-decades-long friendship.

By all accounts, Colbert was not a woman who liked to be alone. When there were no guests at Bellerive, her Barbados estate, her maid slept in the bedroom next to hers. And when Colbert was in her first apartment in Manhattan, a one-bedroom rental at 945 Fifth Ave., Ms. O’Hagan bunked on the sofa in the living room. In 1984, Colbert switched to a two-bedroom, and Ms. O’Hagan moved in, as Amy Fine Collins reported in a 2010 Vanity Fair article about the star.

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“I was working at Saks and had to be in bed much earlier than Claudette,” Ms. O’Hagan told Fine Collins. “But if she saw that I had fallen asleep, she’d wake me up in order to talk. She needed somebody with her all the time. There was a 27-year age difference between us. So I was like her daughter. We were very lucky to find each other at that time in our lives.”