Jackie Rogers, Jet-Setting Fashion Designer, Dies at 90
Jackie Rogers, a fiery American model and aspiring actress whose experience mingling with the elite of Europe and the United States during the jet-setting 1960s, along with her eye for elegance and her boundless (if at times abrasive) personality, fueled a five-decade career as a go-to couturier for film stars and socialites, died on Jan. 29 in Manhattan. She was 90.
Michael Murnighan, the spokesman for her New York-based company, said the cause of her death, in a hospital, was congestive heart failure.
Since the 1970s, Ms. Rogers had targeted the celebrity set with her line of elegant clothing, which she sold out of the boutiques she ran over the years in New York, Palm Beach and the Hamptons.
Ms. Rogers started her career as a designer in the mid-1960s, crafting mod-influenced sports jackets and slacks for men — her clients eventually included the likes of Jack Nicholson and Dustin Hoffman — out of her boutique on Madison Avenue.
In the mid-1970s, she turned her sights to women’s design. A fixture in Women’s Wear Daily, she was known for her elegantly sculpted tops, dresses and gowns, in flowing silk, satin or organza, often in electric pinks, blues, yellows and other bold confectionary colors. Her creations, often made to order, were not cheap — her gowns sold for more than $5,000 — but they lured clients like Diana Ross, Salma Hayek, Patti LuPone, Barbara Walters and Nicole Kidman.
A life in fashion, however, was never the goal that Ms. Rogers, a chestnut-haired charmer with a big personality and big ambitions, envisioned while growing up in Brookline, Mass. She wanted to be an actress or a singer, and she use her work as a model beginning in her late teens as a starting point. Her looks, drive and knack for beguiling film stars, moguls and aristocrats served her well when she moved to Rome in her late 20s, and later to Paris.
Ms. Rogers quickly wove herself into the social fabric of haute European society as if she had been born into it. She loved to tell stories of sipping aperitifs with Federico Fellini, who gave her a small, uncredited role in his 1963 masterpiece, “8 ½,” or tooling around in a Maserati with Gianni Agnelli, the dashing Fiat chief and playboy.
A seasoned raconteur, Ms. Rogers did not drop names so much as carpet-bomb listeners with them. Speaking to The New York Times for a 1998 profile, she recounted antiquing with Andy Warhol, dining on caviar in Monte Carlo with Aristotle Onassis and dancing the night away with Peter O’Toole at the sizzling Manhattan discothèque Ondine in the 1960s. “We were crazy,” she was quoted as saying. “I was Zelda Fitzgerald and Peter was Scott — that was my fantasy anyway.”
None of her famous intimates, however, approached the influence of the French fashion titan Coco Chanel, who hired her in the early 1960s as her top model. She referred to Ms. Rogers as her “American cowboy” because of her broad shoulders, which made her an ideal mannequin for draping.
Ms. Rogers, in other words, learned design by observing one of the masters. “I was so fascinated by the way Chanel worked that I couldn’t stop watching her,” Ms. Rogers wrote in “My Love Affair With Chanel,” a memoir she never finished that the website New York Social Diary excerpted in 2020. “As I watched her work, Chanel would sometimes say to me, ‘Your eyes are going to fall out.’” She added, “Since she draped her creations on models rather than sketching them, and I was the model, we became inseparable.”
Like her mentor, Ms. Rogers was not afraid to be sharp-tongued in her business dealings. “Jackie had a very loud demeanor,” Mr. Murnighan said in a phone interview. “She could be very charming, but she could also be very curt. And it didn’t matter who you were. She could be intimidating.”
A few years ago, Ms. Rogers delivered a custom wedding dress to a New York businesswoman who ran a multimillion-dollar company, but it was the wrong color — a soft peach instead of coral. The client said nothing. “Rather than telling Jackie she made it wrong,” Mr. Murnighan said, “the client redid the colors for her entire wedding, table settings and everything.”
Jacqueline Rogers was born on Feb. 24, 1932, and raised in Brookline, Mass., the younger of two daughters of Maurice Rogers, a professional gambler who had run liquor from Canada during Prohibition, and Elizabeth Rogers, a hat designer.
Even as a small child, she sought to turn heads. “My first significant memory is of looking at the mirror in my mother’s bedroom,” she wrote in her memoir. “I was dressed up in her satin underwear, high heels flopping all around and thinking, ‘One day I am getting out of here and move to N.Y.C. I am going to have a big apartment on Park Avenue, become a famous actress and entertain the rich and famous.’”
She often skipped school to catch a double feature at a Boston movie house, hoping to glimpse the glamorous life she dreamed of. She got a better look at that life at 16, when she spent the summer modeling in New York. An “early, ill-fated marriage to one of the richest boys in Boston” followed, she wrote; she quickly annulled it.
Returning to New York shortly after that, she moved into the Mayflower Hotel on Central Park West with her sister, Pat, and began modeling for a coat company while studying acting at the Stella Adler Studio at night. She eventually headed to Hollywood, where she adopted the screen name Jackie Grassi and hung around the Universal Pictures commissary looking for her break. She was offered $150 a week as a contract player, she wrote, “but they wanted me to date the producers, so I turned them down flat.”
In 1960, she moved to Rome, where she rented an apartment on the Via Margutta, a storied street in Rome’s cultural life, and over the next few years secured roles in low-budget Italian films, as well as a cameo in “8 ½.”
During that period, her main love interest was Prince Andrea Hercolani, a descendant of the Borghese family. Accompanying him on a trip to Paris, Ms. Rogers met a former Chanel model who offered to broker an introduction to the famed designer, who was looking for women to model for her fall collection.
At 5 p.m. that same day, Ms. Rogers arrived at Chanel’s studio at 31 Rue Cambon, where she met the designer. Chanel, who was in her 70s, was wearing a beige tweed suit with a pair of scissors dangling from her neck, a pearl necklace “the size of quail eggs” and a “cigarette dangling from her mouth — which gave her a certain amount of sex appeal even at her age,” Ms. Rogers wrote.
She hired Ms. Rogers on the spot for $700 a week. The two spent hours together during fittings during the day, then often retired to the Ritz for dinner, Ms. Rogers wrote.
Ms. Rogers, who leaves no immediate survivors, never forgot the lessons she learned. Like Chanel, she blithely lied about her age throughout her life, carried herself with an imperious bearing and never forgot that fashion was a business, and that sometimes business requires sharp elbows
“We don’t work from genius, we’re tradespeople,” Ms. Rogers recalled the famed designer telling her. “We don’t hang clothes in galleries to be seen; we sell them.”