My family’s not very big on genealogy. I haven’t heard many stories about relatives who passed away before I was born. I dimly knew that my great-uncle Ben Zuckerman had been a succesful fashion designer, and that he was gay. But I hadn’t had a sense for how successful – and how colorful – he’d been.
The story my mother told was prompted by the fact that she’d recently been given a chair from my cousin. The chair had been my mother’s in the late 1960s. She gave it to her sister, who later gave to her daughter… who’s now returned it to my mother almost 40 years later. “But that’s nothing compared to the story of the suit.”
Ben Zuckerman, my father’s uncle, gave my mother three custom-made suits as a wedding gift, including a grey wool suit. A decade or more after the wedding, the suit no longer fit, and my mother passed the suit down to her sister. After a decade or so, her sister no longer fit in the suit, so she donated it to Goodwill. This upset my mother, who’d hoped to save the suit and pass it down to my sister. My grandmother, a veteran thrift store shopper, discovered the suit in a Goodwill store in the other side of New Hampshire. She’d lowered the hem on the skirt years earlier and recognized her stitching. She bought the suit and gave it back to my mother, who keeps it in her closet to this day.
“Couture never wears out,” my mother tells me. “And there’s probably a market for Ben Zuckerman fashion these days.”
There is, indeed. A vintage Ben Zuckerman gabardine jacket is selling on eBay for $225. And there’s a long trail of references to Ben’s work on the Internet.
In a Vogue article, “The Strength Beneath the Silk,” Hamish Bowles writes about Jacqueline Kennedy seeking fashion advice from Diana Vreeland. Kennedy only wore European-designed clothing and needed to find an American designer she could wear as first lady.
Diana Vreeland responded by suggesting an intriguing triumvirate of designers: Stella Sloat, Ben Zuckerman and Norman Norell. Sloat defined the signature simplicity of her well-made sportswear separates as “what is left after you take everything away.” Despite the thoroughly American feeling of her clothes, at times she included copies of Givenchy originals in her line. The Romanian-born Zuckerman was a fashion-industry stalwart working with his designer, Henry Shacter, to produce “the only clothes made in America that look as though Dior or Balenciaga made them.” It was Zuckerman’s line-for-line copy of a Pierre Cardin coat in purple wool that Jacqueline Kennedy had at first decided to wear for the Inauguration Day ceremonies (she wore it instead to tour the White House with Mamie Eisenhower).
Mom remarked that Ben had designed clothing for Mamie Eisenhower – I haven’t been able to confirm that story with my cursory online research. But according to Vintage Fashion Guild, “Zuckerman had the distinction of having the largest collection in most seasons; as many as 300 styles was common.” Perhaps one of the three hundred appealed to the first lady.
There’s an interesting story about Henry Shacter, the designer who helped Zuckerman bring French fashion to the US. According for former Women’s Wear Daily publisher James Brady:
Tailor Ben Zuckerman ( WWD called him “America’s Balenciaga”) pulled over at a New Jersey gas station, fell in love with the young man pumping the gas and drove away with him. The attractive grease monkey was a boxer between bouts named Harry Schacter. Ben taught him a little about fashion, made him his designing partner and the two gentlemen prospered as a happy couple.
I never met Ben Zuckerman. He retired in 1968, and I believe he passed away before I was born. But I’m now finding myself haunting eBay, looking for tangible evidence of my hopelessly romantic great-uncle, a high priest in a field I know absolutely nothing about.