Kitty D’Alessio, who as president of Chanel Inc. from 1979 to 1986 helped modernize the brand, died March 4 at the Hebrew Home of Greater Washington in Rockville, Maryland. She was 95.
The cause of death was heart failure, according to her niece, Leslie Meyers.
A no-nonsense executive who truly understood the power of a brand, D’Alessio described herself as a “worker bee” who knew how to get things done. One of her boldest moves was persuading Karl Lagerfeld to design Chanel couture and ready-to-wear, which gave the brand a more modern and youthful sensibility. But that relationship became fraught with controversy.
“It is with great sadness that we have learned of Kitty D’Alessio’s passing. For almost a decade, Kitty was an integral force in the evolution of the House of Chanel, and was a key driver of the growth of the brand during the 1980s. She will be deeply missed. Our thoughts and prayers go out to her family,” said a statement from Chanel.
Born in Newark, New Jersey, to Mary and Mario D’Alessio, Kitty was raised in a large Italian-American family with two younger sisters and a younger brother, who predeceased her. She graduated from Upsala College in East Orange, New Jersey, and entered B. Altman’s retail training program in 1950. She then became a fashion coordinator at NBC in the early days of live TV. In 1956, D’Alessio was hired to be a stylist to the late Kay Daly.
D’Alessio then became an ad writer at ad agency Norman, Craig & Kummel, where she rose to senior vice president and management supervisor, and worked on the Chanel account for 23 years. Enlisting the talents of photographer Richard Avedon to shoot commercials, including ones with Catherine Deneuve, who personified the Chanel woman for many years, was among D’Alessio’s achievements. Through her total immersion in the brand, she genuinely felt that she was the target customer.
In 1979, D’Alessio and Alain Wertheimer, chairman of Chanel, were on a plane together flying back from Europe when she spoke about two department store presidencies she was weighing, and he suggested she become president of Chanel. As president, she oversaw all U.S. operations of the fragrance, cosmetics and fashion company.
Wertheimer told WWD in 1979 he had been considering a European for the job, “but that presents its own set of problems.
“We’ve worked so long and so well with Kitty. I began talking to her about joining us,” he said.
D’Alessio attributed her hiring to Wertheimer’s “consistent and good offers.”
“I think this move is a rather natural extension of my work with Chanel and Norman, Craig. The agency and Chanel have had such a unique and close relationship for so long I don’t expect to have any problems dealing with them from this side. And as far as the personnel at Chanel are concerned — well, we’re hardly strangers to each other,” D’Alessio said.
During her tenure, D’Alessio further developed Chanel’s beauty business and ready-to-wear. She was credited with opening its 57th Street flagship and stores not just in the moneyed Beverly Hills, but also in more unexpected destinations like Honolulu, Hawaii. Keen to usher in a younger generation of shoppers, D’Alessio explained in a 1985 New York Times article, “I wanted to open the windows and let in the year we were living in.”
To help air things out, she hauled out some Chanel favorites from her closet and consulted with former fashion editor and Calvin Klein stylist Frances Stein and The Costume Institute’s esteemed Diana Vreeland.
Wooing Lagerfeld — who had previously turned down a job at Chanel in 1973 — to design Chanel couture was a major win for D’Alessio. She appealed to Lagerfeld’s many talents by assuring his work at other European houses could continue. Lagerfeld told Michael Gross in a Times article in 1985, “Without her, I never would have touched Chanel. Never in my life.”
D’Alessio reportedly routinely visited stores to try on Lagerfeld’s designs and “studied them.” Once he was contractually free to do so, she added Chanel ready-to-wear to his job title.
In 1984, D’Alessio received an award from the CFDA for “revitalizing Chanel’s image in the U.S.”
Although their collaboration was commercially successful, Lagerfeld and D’Alessio’s relationship eventually turned rocky and in a 1985 WWD story he claimed he could “no longer trust Miss D’Alessio.” He said a fortune teller told him he would run into trouble with her. After the October 1985 show, Lagerfeld said that would be his last Chanel collection if he was not given more control over the brand’s image. He resented the idea that D’Alessio’s cohort, Frances Stein, designed ready-to-wear separates in the Chanel Accessories collection, sold apart from his own ready-to-wear for the house, and he said he couldn’t stand Stein’s manners.
About his relationship with D’Alessio, Lagerfeld said in a WWD article, “It’s just like marriage. It has to be worked out. And Alain knows that.” Lagerfeld’s contractual arrangements with Chanel had been on a freelance basis yearly. Wertheimer’s response to all that was, “No comment. All that counts is a good collection.” Lagerfeld said he was prepared to walk away and didn’t need Chanel.
The catfight continued to play out and WWD reported in a 1985 story, “The Chanel Saga: Does the Hairdresser Know for Sure,” that, “In a dramatic change of heart, Karl Lagerfeld announced Wednesday that the happy agreement he has sewn up just the day before to go on working with Chanel has fallen through, as far as he’s concerned. ‘Back to point zero,’ he said.” Lagerfeld insisted that he needed guarantees and that D’Alessio and Wertheimer would keep their end of the bargain, giving him full design approval of everything produced by Chanel.
His doubts sprung, he said, from a conversation that allegedly took place in a Parisian hairdresser’s in which Wertheimer’s mother, Eliane Hellbronn, a lawyer for the House of Chanel, said to the wife of Lagerfeld’s lawyer, Genevieve Hebey, that, “‘Karl won’t get anything from Chanel.’”
“I’m furious,” said Lagerfeld. “Can you imagine how seriously they are taking it if they are talking about it at the hairdresser’s?’”
After some negotiation, Chanel and Lagerfeld announced that their working relationship would continue.
Meanwhile, in 1984, Arie Kopelman joined Chanel as vice chairman and chief operating officer, reporting to D’Alessio and Wertheimer. He was hired to add more corporate supervision at the company and, according to Wertheimer at the time, to accommodate recent growth in Chanel’s ready-to-wear, fragrances and beauty lines.
Kopelman soon succeeded D’Alessio as president and chief operating of Chanel in 1986, and stayed in that role until 2004, and then became vice chairman. D’Alessio was moved over to vice chairman of new ventures and special projects at Chanel.
Following her run at Chanel, D’Alessio was named president and chief executive officer of Carolyne Roehm Inc. for three years. “I love building things. Carolyne has a unique style and she’s ready to broaden the range of clothing and go into accessories and other areas. Until now it’s been a little jewel and it’s time to expose it more,” D’Alessio told WWD in 1991.
In 1995, she was named president and chief operating officer of Natori & Co. with the intention of taking her experience in cosmetics, ready-to-wear, accessories and sleepwear to further Natori’s development.
“I have wonderful memories of her,” said Josie Natori on Tuesday. “Because of her, I got introduced to Rochelle Udell who helped me with marketing and advertising. I learned a lot from [D’Alessio]. She was funny. She could be serious but had a sense of humor. She was full of life. She really encouraged me to do the ready-to-wear. I learned about marketing from her.”
Michael Gould, former chairman and CEO of Bloomingdale’s, recalled his business relationship with D’Alessio when he was chairman and CEO of Robinson’s in Los Angeles. “We really developed a terrific Chanel business at Robinson’s. She was very focused, very button-downed and very brand driven. She really understood how to position Chanel,” said Gould. “She was also a great teacher in the early ’80s in how to position a brand and the importance of a brand. She understood what Karl could do for Chanel. She was very instrumental in getting Alain Wertheimer to go along with her.”
Stan Herman described D’Alessio Wednesday as “a pioneer for women in our industry.”
“There was no doubt about that. She had an important moment that raised the profile of women in positions in power. She did it quickly and she was very well-liked. Over a period of 20 or 30 years, she was a real true force on Seventh Avenue,” said Herman.
Although there were a few female senior executives who had already forged ahead in fashion like Bonwit Teller’s Hortense Odlum and Henri Bendel’s Geraldine Stutz, D’Alessio’s ascent “was a coup,” Herman said.
Ellin Saltzman, former senior vice president, fashion director, at Saks Fifth Avenue, recalled Tuesday, “She was a perfectionist in every way. In her work, in her clothes, and I guess in her life. Nothing was ever out of place.”
Carmen Dell’Orefice, a model, said she developed a close friendship with D’Alessio. “I’ve known her for so long and we hit it off. She was a woman of such insight and taste. Her vision was so broad and so accurate. She was really a genius in the business. She was loyal and nonjudgmental. I was the model but she was my role model,” said Dell’Orefice.
D’Alessio moved to Maryland around 20 years ago to be closer to her family.
“She was just a very interesting and engaging person. She was very generous. Growing up we learned so much from her because she traveled the world,” said her niece Meyers.
D’Alessio is survived by many nieces and nephews. A funeral service was held on Monday. In lieu of flowers, contributions can be made in her name to the American Cancer Society.