If you were the new ’80s working woman and shopped for trendy yet well-designed women’s clothing that brought you from day to dinner, chances are the Regina Kravitz label rings a bell. As one of Lookonline’s regular subscribers and a long-time member of the CFDA, I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Regina at her home on the Upper East Side and got a chance to revisit some of her archival pieces. Since I am an ’80s freak and someone who fondly remembers a particular dress of hers that I lived in (more on that later), this was a special treat.
Regina is in a select group of female entrepreneurs who started their own labels (one of the only ones who succeeded without a financial partner or backer) and who I term a “fashion chameleon.” She is able to reinvent herself while adapting to changing times — predicting what the fashion customer wants before they even know it themselves.
You could say it’s in her blood – both her grandfathers were tailors, her father a manufacturer and retailer, her mother a fashion-savvy showroom model. “I grew up in Loehmann’s Back Room,” she laughs. Both Regina and her stylish mother were fish out of water in Paterson, NJ, as “everyone else was very suburban in Bermuda shorts, we wore designer clothing, but never at full price.” Although the future designer trained as a classical ballet dancer and was an excellent student, “shantung, not soccer,” ruled the household.
Despite all of these indicators, Regina was discouraged from the fashion biz by her parents, but in her high school she was voted “best dressed” and “most likely to succeed.” Majoring in English and Theatre at NYU in the late ’60s to early ’70s, she combed thrift shops for designer pieces and had no problem wearing one missing a sleeve. After graduation, she began making clothing — her one-of-a-kind rain slicker capes using appliquéd vintage wallpaper as embellishments immediately sold.
A self-described “early Lady Gaga with headdresses, ornamentation and eye-popping, cosmic outfits,” Regina was enlisted by two friends who owned A. Smile Jean, a hot young boutique company, to create a fashion-forward young “unisex” jacket line. They gave her a division called Pineapple Clothing. She created mixed buffalo plaid bomber jackets (one of which I saw — so on trend right now), hoodies, washed fabrics, and totally new silhouettes.
These items were an instant hit, frequently appearing on the cover of DNR and other menswear magazines. She always had her finger ahead of the pulse, showing me an embroidered dragon design on the back of an item eerily evocative of latter-day Gucci.
Things moved so quickly, I basically figured it out on my own, had a colorful staff of employees and worked long relentless hours, going to clubs at night and having fun in the drug and music-filed years of the mid-70s. When Studio 54 came around. I was already on the scene.Regina Kravitz
The line lasted two years when Peter’s Sportswear, a mainstream men’s garment manufacturer, also offered her own division dubbed the androgynous REGGIE. Regina brought “new life and inspiration” to the stodgy menswear industry. We had a huge fashion show intro in Central Park, and Pete Petrosky, the owner, ‘spent a great deal of money to try to appeal to a growing market of urban, style-conscious young men,” she recalls.
Three years later, Regina went out on her own with a line of “unisexual, soft, eco-conscious, pre-laundered garments called EARTHWEAR. “When a buyer at Bendel’s flipped over them, re-ordering them twice, I expanded my designs, using soft fabrics and easy shapes. This later evolved into my popular and well-priced Regina Kravitz womenswear line in 1976.”
Credited with popularizing the jumpsuit due to a happy accident — a confused sewer attached a dress top to a pant. Regina claims her designs were copied all the time by Broadway mass manufacturers, some of which she knew. “They would point to a new Ferrari and say ‘thank you,’” she recalls.
Buying offices called her “the Queen of soft and sexy” as she purchased over 200,000 yards of tissue faille (drapey rayon) a year. Everything was made right here in New York. Perhaps due to her theatre background, Regina is keenly influenced by movie-like glamour, clean lines, and figure enhancement, whether she takes on activewear, evening wear, or anything in between.
“All the out-of-town buyers wore my affordable dresses and jumpsuits when they came to market, which was a great accolade. I saw my designs in all settings everywhere! Many of my girlfriends worked for me – we all went out after work which often meant 12 hour relentless days, every day! They would wear styles and return them the next day. It was not uncommon to go to Studio all night and work in the AM.
I also lived like a rock star and had a fuchsia fur coat, chauffeured car, and a retinue! My father worked for me – he literally invented the sample sale setting up racks in the warehouse and passing out fliers on the street. He fixed returns himself as sewing and tailoring was our background. He even escorted customers to transportation after shopping – he was a ladies’ man!”
Of course, the late ’80s and early ’90s were not all fun and games – AIDS afflicted many of the most talented in the fashion industry. Regina lost many of her friends and fellow designers, including Willi Smith and Clovis Ruffin, to the disease.
Regina was always interested in health and wellness even while living in la Vida Loca. In enviable form now due to discovering bodybuilding in the mid-’80s (she’s even an accredited trainer), Regina claims she was a bit heavier back then and designed for herself. With a gift for complementing the female figure, her items were shapely but loose-fitting during her most profitable years.
“Once Lycra was introduced, I not only changed my body but my designs as well and focused mostly on knits and more body-con,” she explained. She was also an early advocate of the slip dress – an article by Elsa Klensch appearing on July 19, 1979, calls her creation “The Million –Dollar Dress” as well as “the lucky person who designed the dress that sold $1 million in retail sales is 30-year-old Regina Kravitz.” Take that Narciso Rodriguez, who famously rediscovered the look for Carolyn Bessette’s 1996 wedding to JFK Jr.
In 1991 she sold the Regina Kravitz label to a small public company. It had grown into a $10,000,000 business — but don’t think getting there was easy! “Designing clothing is not for the faint of heart. It’s hard, frustrating, and takes a great deal of knowledge,” which she now tries to impart to her others as a mentor at the Brooklyn Fashion Incubator and Philadelphia Fashion Incubator.
Last December, she was honored at The BFI’s 5th Annual Fundraiser Gala as a fashion entrepreneur role model. BFI & PFI have dedicated non-profits that help fashion entrepreneurs navigate the rough waters of the garment industry.
After selling her eponymous line, Regina designed and managed Danskin Sport, a line featuring knits and Lycra. She has also worked for other manufacturers in the industry. Although she tried to reinvent her previous labels (Regina and Reggie), she met with only moderate success.
By 2016 she turned her focus to her other passionate interests – personal training and wardrobe consulting. Her ballet training from three to 16 ensured that fitness and body extension were not actually such a reach. “Throughout my life, my overarching theme is enhancing and improving the female silhouette.”
Lastly, I will tell you my personal story about Regina’s early ’80s designs. Just out of college and in my first job at an entertainment public relations firm, I had a pretty sparse wardrobe and was just discovering my love for fashion. I had on rotation maybe three summer dresses – one of them a black linen-cotton ’40s inspired silhouette with a fitted buttoned yoked bodice, puffed short sleeves, and a full midi skirt.
I remember feeling very grown-up and sophisticated when I wore it – it became my go-to dress for work events. I would try to change it up each time as my fashion challenge. I remember wearing it with a black and white straw wide-brimmed hat and black and white Bakelite-type earrings and getting compliments. Finally, I think the dry cleaner got tired of seeing it and returned it with a rip in the front of the skirt.
Heartbroken, I had them sew it up and proceeded to wear it a few more times. That dress owed me nothing! Funny enough, when I first met Regina, I told her I knew I had something from her line but couldn’t remember what — until it finally dawned on me that it was my magical dress. I recounted the story, including where I had bought it – a small boutique in Philadelphia.
“I know that dress! We did sell that store!! Feels like yesterday!” replied the woman who has literally designed thousands of dresses. Add an amazing memory to her multiple talents!