Born: Vera Huppe in New York, 22 April 1903. Family: Married Raymond J. Maxwell, 1924 (divorced, 1937); married Carlisle H. Johnson (divorced, 1945); children: R. John Maxwell. Career: Danced with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet, 1919-24; studied tailoring in London and worked as a fitting model before beginning to design in 1929; designed for New York wholesale firms, including Adler & Adler, Max Milstein, Glenhurst, 1930s and 1940s; designer of sports and tailored clothes, Brows, Jacobson & Linde, from 1937; launched firm, Vera Maxwell Originals, New York, 1947; closed firm, 1985; designed collection for Peter Lynne division, Gulf Enterprises, 1986; retired to write her memoirs. Exhibitions: Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., 1970 [retrospective]; Museum of the City of New York, 1978 [retrospective]. Awards: Coty American Fashion Critics award, 1951; Neiman Marcus award, Dallas, 1955. Died: 14 January 1995, in Rincon, Puerto Rico.
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Obituary, "Died, Vera Maxwell," in Time, 30 January 1995.
Throughout her long career, Vera Maxwell held steadfastly to her belief that good design is timeless; decade after decade her collections bore the fruit of this philosophy. In 1935 her career was launched with the goal of achieving softer tailoring in women's suits. The silhouette of those early designs would be quite fashionable today. In 1937 she joined Brows, Jacobson & Linde as a designer of sports and tailored clothes. Active sportswear was her specialty with emphasis on skiing and riding, and her shorts, jackets, slacks, and skirts became the foundation of American sportswear separates and the staple of the industry.
Maxwell was most famous, however, for her suits and topcoats, worn for both the city and the country and characterized by excellent tailoring, choice fabrics, beautiful colors, and pragmatism. One suit, designed under her own label in 1948, a year after she opened her own business, was designed for traveling. Called "the original flight suit," it consisted of a brown and white Irish tweed coat with a plastic-lined pocket for carrying a washcloth and toothbrush, worn over slacks and blouse of a coordinating cocoa wool jersey. Ease of movement and comfort while traveling were of great importance, but the effectiveness of the design with the close fitting jersey and the fingertip length full coat, gave this particular suit a timeless modernity.
Influences on Maxwell's designs came from many sources. One of her early memories was of a visit to Vienna with her father, an aidede-camp to the Emperor Franz Joseph, where she was impressed with the beautifully dressed military officers. Chanel was also an important influence. Long considered a classicist by the industry, Maxwell's clothes were usually described as "handsome, interesting, and eminently wearable," according to a New York Times article from November 1964. In 1960, on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of her entry into the fashion business, Maxwell pulled together her favorite designs of the past and discovered she had trouble identifying them by year, an indication of the constancy of her work.
In 1935 Maxwell visited Albert Einstein and was inspired by his Harris tweed jacket which she adapted and paired with a gray flannel skirt and pants, giving an important boost to the concept of separates and what she called the "weekend wardrobe." During the 1940s she designed a coverall, which she considered the first jumpsuit for the women doing war work at the Sperry Gyroscope Corporation. In 1951 she was honored with a Coty Special award for coats and suits, and in 1955 came the Neiman Marcus award, both during one of her most prolific decades. In 1970 she was given a retrospective at the Smithsonian Institution.
Ever concerned with attractive and convenient clothes and wardrobes that could travel well, and always on the lookout for new means to achieve them, she took a significant risk in 1971 to purchase 30,000 yards of a new fabric called Ultrasuede produced by a company in Japan. Initially buyers were afraid to purchase clothes made of the new material, but time proved Maxwell right and the fabric became identified with her designs. Though Maxwell closed her business in 1985, she was again designing in 1986. Then she once again announced her retirement to set about writing her memoirs, which were never completed.
Vera Maxwell inspired a loyal following of fashion-conscious women who sought the timeless wearability of her clothes. She ranked among the top of the group of craftspeople-designers who flourished during the 1930s and 1940s in New York and who created the well-tailored but casual look long associated with American fashion.