Adolfo, Designer Who Dressed Nancy Reagan, Dies at 98

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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 on Saturday at his home in 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 Mrs. Reagan. They first met in 1967, and she wore his clothes in Sacramento when Ronald Reagan was governor of California.

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 the second inauguration, in 1985, he designed an electric blue melton coat with a gold chain belt, which Mrs. Reagan wore over a matching wool crepe dress and with an off-the-face Breton hat.

Throughout her White House years, Mrs. Reagan was often photographed in Adolfo’s Chanel-influenced suits, his silk dresses with knit jackets and, to a lesser extent, his evening clothes.

Mrs. Reagan 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 Mrs. Reagan had paid for the designs that she ordered from him, but that she was given a special price, as were several other clients.

Mrs. 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.

He became an apprentice to Bragaard, a hat designer, at 17, 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.)

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,” the 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.

“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 men’s wear, 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.

Alex Traub contributed reporting.

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