If you think that to be a successful designer you need to be a dramatic diva, think again. Legendary fashion insider Emil de John has met most of the greats, plus enjoyed great success as a designer himself, and he is proof that the diva act doesn't get you anywhere in fashion -- or life.
Currently a professor at the Art Institute of Philadelphia, Emil advises his students that talent alone is not enough to succeed. You also have to be strong, to get over rejection; and kind, because it's the right way to be--and because you never know when someone you blew off years ago could be the one sitting across from you today and deciding whether to hire you. Or not.
Emil is certainly the kindest man in fashion and he was kind enough to invite me into his classes to talk to students and to judge the university's annual fashion show. I then had a chance to turn the table and ask Emil about his extraordinary career in the fashion world, his timeless American sportswear style, how he came to design for Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus, and why his address book reads like a private directory of Women's Wear Daily: Betsey Johnson, Iris Apfel, Andre Leon Talley, Donna Karan, Carolina Herrera, to name just a few. Not to mention Bradley Cooper, a close family friend.
Maybe Bradley could play him in the movie; Emil's colorful career could easily be a story on the big screen.
The Boy From South Philly
Emil grew up in a close-knit, working class section of Philadelphia (known as South Philly) and showed an early talent for art and design in a family that had no history in either, yet supported his interests, sending him to art school at 7 and ceramics class at 10 (where all the other students were over 35), letting him decorate the house and generally approach life with a flair all his own. "Even if I made a cheesesteak hoagie, I made it look like a work of art," notes Emil
In junior high Emil started sketching garments; in high school he made posters for dances; he compiled a portfolio to win an art school scholarship. A teacher, though, told him "Forget it. You don't even have a chance." Emil never submitted the portfolio but after college set out to prove the teacher was wrong about the quality of his work.
For 11 months he went from showroom to showroom in New York City showing his portfolio. And got rejected by every single one.
On each of those trips to New York, Emil would stop in at Henri Bendel's because he loved everything about the store, from the merchandise to how meticulously it was displayed. One day he decided to get an opinion from the ultimate arbiter of all this style: Bendel's president Gerry Stutz.
Unannounced, he walked into Stutz's office. A woman sat at a desk typing. Emil asked to see Gerry.
The woman eyed him. "Do you have an appointment?"
"No," he replied, and proceeded to tell her the story of the last long and fruitless 11 months.
She regarded him for a long moment. "Give me your portfolio."
She took the portfolio, stepped into the office behind her and closed the door.
The Big Break
A few moments later the woman came out.
"I am Gerry Stutz," she said to the kid so green he didn't have a clue he had walked in on the first woman president of Bendel's.
"I love your portfolio," she continued. "I just called Bill Blass and Anne Klein. They are sponsoring two new young designers at a luncheon at The Plaza. You're one of them."
The Big Break.
It had finally happened.
And then, the day of the show--which had a guest list of everyone in fashion from press to designers to manufacturers--it snowed. It snowed 17 inches in New York City. Out of 300 guests, about 20 showed up.
Luckily, fate interceded again. Two of the guests who made it were editors from Glamour and Mademoiselle. Both asked Emil to sketch for their magazine. A third guest, Sherry Cole, was the daughter of Arthur Cole, owner of Mr. Mort, a hot women's dress company at the time. "I think my father would like your work," she told Emil. "But I have to warn you: he's really difficult to work with."
Cole proved a tough interview as well: he grilled Emil at nearly a dozen meetings over two weeks before hiring him along with the other designer showcased at the event, Diana Littel. When the collection's lead designer went on her honeymoon, Emil and Diana were told to design the Spring / Summer collection: 30 styles in 3 weeks. Their strong results led to windows at Saks Fifth Avenue and Lord & Taylor.
Feeling emboldened by this success, Emil asked for a raise from $100 to $125 a week.
Already under pressure from the irate lead designer, the owner replied by letting Emil go.
From Fired To Hired ... and hired ... and hired ....
Stunned, Emil gathered his things and headed to the elevator, where he stepped in "beside a woman in a real Chanel suit." (Even in distress, he had an eye for couture.)
"Are you Emil? I know what just happened to you," she said. "Can you design sportswear?"
"I could design lampshades if need be," he replied to the woman--who turned out to be an exec at Lord & Taylor.
From there, one thing led to another. He designed the 1961 Ed Abrams collection. A new young singer named Barbra Streisand wore one of Emil's dresses to an awards show. Women's Wear Daily wrote an article about him, which was seen by a Bergdorf Goodman buyer who hired him to design the Miss Bergdorf collection and later Alex de John by Emil (the transposed name because the senior designer at the store wouldn't let Emil have his own name on the line.)
The look? "Refined, pure, ladylike but never boring," says Emil. Think Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn. "I wanted the clothes to look like they were worth a lot more than they sold for."
Emil's department earned more than any other in Bergdorf's. Miss America bought 20 pieces to be photographed in. Harper's Bazaar named him as one of the 3 top designers under 30. His designs appeared on the covers of Harper's Bazaar, Mademoiselle, Glamour and Vogue, with Isabella Rossellini as model.
After Bergdorf, Emil did children's clothing for Osh Kosh B'Gosh, designed Bill Blass Menswear, Jones New York menswear and womenswear, and in the 1990s private label for Neiman Marcus catalogue.
Looking through his portfolio highlighting these four decades of design, I was struck by how fresh it all still looks. I'd wear any number of designs in a heartbeat.
Classic American sportswear at its best.
A New Calling
In the late 90s, Philadelphia University began a Fashion Design Series, and asked Emil to be a part of it, which he did -- at first, for free.
He found he loved teaching even more than designing, and went on to teach a range of subjects at three schools, also becoming head of fashion design programs at Moore, then Director of Career Development at Drexel University. Currently he teaches Survey of Fashion Design, Fashion Show Production and Visual Merchandising at the Art Institute of Philadelphia.
"I wished I'd had someone who had worked in the biz, someone who knew what it was like, who knew you had to be strong enough to get kicked in the ass and still pull yourself up," says Emil. "I introduce my students to reality and that's the magic of my class."
Emil also brings the working fashion world into his classrooms with an ongoing series of guests that have included Betsey Johnson, Ralph Lauren EVP Joi Deenberg, LAGOS' Janice Waitkus, Vogue's Andre Leon Talley ( ... and me!).
His students have gone on to work for all the top names in fashion, including Oscar de la Renta, David Yurman, Coach, Alice + Olivia, Neiman Marcus and Diane von Furstenberg.
Angel of Fashion
Over the years, Emil has received numerous awards for design, teaching and philanthropy, including the Neiman Marcus Humanitarian Award and the David Yurman Angel Award.
In 2011, the City of Philadelphia awarded Emil its Crystal Award of Excellence at a ceremony that was part of our fashion week. I met Emil for the first time that night at the ceremony and fashion show held outdoors in historic Head House Square. Mobbed by well-wishers, he still had time to greet me with warmth and genuine interest.
The Good Guy Wins
And charm. Happily married for 53 years to love of his life Bette Anne (they met when he was 17 and she 14; he still recalls the exact outfit she had on) Emil jokes about his "fashion girlfriends," who include Betty Halbreich and Iris Apfel. I think I actually have more Instagram pics with Emil than my own social media-averse husband.
It's no mystery why we all love him. His talent is genuine. His passion for fashion is pure and true. His interest in the person sitting across from him--whether writer or designer, student or star-- even more so.
NEXT: Emil shares his tips for fashion ... and life.
"Use the good china for breakfast."