A Reminisce to a Legend
Each time I am invited to speak to a fashion merchandising class or any group connected with the bridal industry, one question is always asked, “Which designer did you most admire and why?”
The answer is easily Priscilla of Boston.
Of the many advantages of being the longest running bridal retailer in Kansas City is that I have had the aerial view perspective of watching the trends over the last three decades. The story of my relationship with this legendary designer is one that audiences find fascinating. It evolved in the authentic way relationships should…in person and without the artificial buzz from social media or press hype.
Priscilla “of Boston” was actually, Priscilla Kidder, who lived in Boston. Never referred to as anything less than “Mrs. Kidder,” this seamstress with a little shop on Newbury Street vaulted into the role of standard bearer for the East Coast families of old money and impeccable taste. For parents wanting their daughter to have “a good gown,” it was always a Priscilla.
Along with her husband, John, and sister, Natalie Cahill, they started choosing exclusive stores in the U.S. to carry their line. When her 5’2” daughter, Elizabeth, needed dresses made by her mother, they realized there was a huge need for petite-sized bridal gowns, and thus the “Betsy Collection” (all using delicate laces and beading patterns) was born.
Likewise, Mrs. Kidder’s vision of how to cut and stitch lace was unparallel. The gowns were all made in the Boston factory and one of the young interns she trained was Jim Hjelm. Hjelm worked for Priscilla for 19 years before launching his own label.
From the 50s through the 80s, Priscilla of Boston gowns were carried at only the finest stores. Here in K.C. they were in the bridal departments of Woolf Brothers, Harzfelds and Swanson’s…ironically all on the Country Club Plaza. Each store had about 10 different styles, all with matching veils. (Designers nowadays seldom create veils)
In 1979, my then fiancé, had already developed a taste for the classic ultra-quality and found “the” gown at Harzfelds (and its matching chapel length veil.) She shopped with her mom only, bought it on her first visit and brought it home to show her father. (None of this multi-store shopping or feeling compelled to see if there is yet another better option.)
A year later, I opened my first bridal salon in Columbia, Missouri and knew that was a line I wanted to carry. Mrs. Kidder was not easily influenced, but my proximity to Stephen’s College (a high-end boarding school for girls) swayed her vote and I was allowed to purchase a few samples.
Perhaps because I believed in the line, perhaps because they were indeed like no other, the line exploded for Nolte’s Bridal. Quickly rising into the stratosphere of valued accounts, Nolte’s Bridal became the fifth highest selling Priscilla account in the world…yes, the world!
When I was able to afford a buying trip to New York, the highlight was to be invited to the showroom of POB. Yes…invited.
Unlike today’s market, flooded with so many wannabe’s, getting to view the gowns of Priscilla of Boston was limited only to her accounts. You didn’t call for an appointment and you certainly didn’t just show up. You waited to see if you got the engraved invitation…and I did.
The first time I walked in that showroom, I felt like I was in the Vatican of Bridal. There were only about 20 other people in the room and Mrs. Kidder herself “emceed” the fashion show. No music. No frills. No props. No fancy lighting. No see through tops. No dogs on the runway. Just one breathe talking dress after another, and each one standing alone on its own merit.
It is customary nowadays for designers to offer “lunch” for buyers during the noon rush. “Lunch” consists of a foil pan of soggy salad and dried out deli sandwiches served on a Styrofoam plate balanced on a folding chair. Sometimes there’s a plastic fork to help with the salad. I’m not kidding. Beverages will be a Coke in a can. No cup, no ice.
The converse of that…at the end of Priscilla’s fashion show, members of the staff quietly circulated among the buyers as they were writing orders and said, “Mrs. Kidder would like you to stay for lunch.”
And I, this dumb kid from the Midwest, age “under 30,” got one of those whispered invitations!
Lunch was actually a LUNCHEON…held in her back stage dining room with her personal chef from Boston preparing the food. We sat at a table complete with linens, china and silver flatware. The water glasses weren’t Waterford…but they weren’t plastic.
Of course there were fresh flowers on the table.
Members of the Kidder family, John, Priscilla and their son, Robert, (with whom I am still friends) were in attendance, along with just a handful of the chosen ones.
I will never forget her graciousness or their authentic hospitality.
Likewise, when Priscilla was the first designer to be inducted into the Fashion and Textile Hall of Fame, she invited me to sit with her family at the black-tie dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria held in her honor.
She was also known however to “never suffer fools” and if you were wrong, she made no excuses for telling you such. I recall a time when I admired a blush silk Shantung gown trimmed in white lace. I asked (in front of a room full of other buyers) “What color of gloves would you put with that gown?”
Priscilla looked at me like I had grown two heads and replied, “There is no such thing as ‘color’ when it comes to gloves. A proper bride would only wear kid gloves and they come in only one shade. The shade of kid leather is the only one ever appropriate for a bride.”
At that point, I wished the plush mauve carpeting of the showroom had been deep enough to suffocate me…but I have NEVER forgotten that rule! Every bride out of Nolte’s only wears “the color of kid leather,” when it comes to her gloves.
Through the years I bought hundreds of Priscilla gowns, and upon opening the Kansas City store heard over and over, “My mother wore a Priscilla.” Particularly when it was time to dress debutantes for the Jewel Ball…those families were really familiar (and desirous of the label.)
In her 80s, Priscilla sold the company to a wealthy banking family headed by Tricia. It was rough transitions of old guard meeting new blood. However, Tricia took the company to new heights with promotion marketing, and I remained friends with her too while she was the owner. Sadly, it became apparent that Tricia’s interest was simply to turn a profit by bolstering the company for sale…to the May Company…which owned David’s Bridal. I couldn’t believe it. The day that happened, I dropped the line.
After several years of David’s trying to keep the elegance of the name alive with stand alone Priscilla retail stores in major cities, they realized that high-end brides will never buy their dresses from David’s. Period. By that time, the brand name was so diminished that David’s chose to close down the collection permanently.
In my mind it was akin to hearing that Rolex, Waterford, Wedgewood or Rolls-Royce had gone out of business. There are many young designers who use the Priscilla look as their inspiration, and thus the talents of this extraordinary woman do indeed live on. As lace makes such a comeback, sales reps will claim their dresses “echo the influence of the gilded age of Priscilla” and indeed some do.
Many of her gowns are on display at the Smithsonian and rotate occasionally to the Johnson and Nixon presidential libraries upon the wedding anniversaries of those famous White House brides.
Stay tuned for more Priscilla stories in coming blogs!