Born: Chicago, Illinois, 22 May 1945. Education: Studied at Washington University, Missouri, and Parsons School of Design, New York. Career: Worked for Pattullo-Jo Copeland, Gayle Kirkpatrick, and Geoffrey Beene; became designer of Traina Boutique and Traina Sport collections, 1971; created own collection; became partner at Gillian Group, 1972, with Howard Bloom and Jon Levy; lines include Gillian, Gillian Dinner, Gillian Suits, Gillian Petites, Woman, and two other prominent dress lines, A.J. Bari and GiGi By Gillian; shut down Gillian and A.J. Bari labels, 1995; launched own company with labels Kay Unger New York and Phoebe, 1995; created eveningwear division, Unger Mindel, 1996; began separates collection, 1999; started producing lower-priced Pamela Dennis line, 2000. Awards: J.C. Penney scholarship and Irish Linen Association scholarship, Parsons School of Design. Address: Kay Unger Phoebe Enterprises, 575 Eighth Avenue, New York, NY 10018 USA. Website: www.kayunger.com .
Lambert, Eleanor, World of Fashion: People, Places, Resources, New York, 1976.
Stiansen, Sarah, "Staying on Top," in Savvy Woman, November 1990.
Wilner, Rich, "Unger's Back on Seventh Avenue as Chief Designer for Phoebe," in WWD, 7 March 1995.
"Kay's Evening Bag," in WWD, 15 October 1996.
Rath, Paula, "Island Style," in Honolulu Star Advertiser, 27 December 2000.
Haber, Holly, "Oh, Kay," in WWD, 24 May 2001.
Kay Unger epitomizes the customer for whom she designs—with a clear understanding based on her own busy lifestyle. Using herself as the customer, she understands the needs of an active lifestyle, whether a woman is involved in a career or not. The specific needs of her clientéle are rooted in lifestyle dressing, primarily dresses that can be worn from the office to dinner or appropriate for luncheons or charity functions.
In 1989, recognizing a void in the marketplace for "clean dinner dresses," Unger set out to reinvent the little black dress. She designed a group of understated, tasteful, less embellished restaurant dresses, brought hemlines down—some to mid-calf and ankle length—and successfully replaced the overly opulent, short, and ornamented looks of the 1980s dress market. In addition to the void in evening dresses, she also filled a void in the daywear market with city short sets or rompers. To unite day and evening, she created ensemble dressing: two-or three-piece outfits sold as one rather than as sportswear separates. This allowed the customer a certain freedom to alter the look of a garment, depending on the occasion.
Selling her wares under the Gillian label, Unger's signature fabric was silk, in many guises and in various weaves. Other fabrics used were wool crêpe for fall and linens and linen weaves for spring and summer, always incorporating novelty fabrics and innovative color mixes. Unger's eye for color and design was honed during early training as a painter and influenced the prints appearing in every line, designed in-house by her design team and exclusive to the Gillian Group. They were often influenced by her knowledge of art history as well as home furnishings. Color was the primary strength of the Gillian line, due to its innovative and saleable quality.
Unger's clothes were categorized as bridge, falling between top-quality ready-to-wear and designer apparel, feminine and classic rather than trendy, streetwise, or masculine, and dresses following trends. Her customers were adult women, fairly affluent, with good taste, interested in the classic rather than trendy but definitely not traditional. The Gillian collection included a wide variety of classic designs for daytime, career, and dinner dressing. Comfort and affordability were important considerations for a customer whose day demanded polish and professionalism, from early meetings to late night dinners or entertaining. Bold color combinations, quality fabrics, and striking prints were consistent Gillian trademarks. Certain styles such as the longer shirt dresses, easy chemises, coat dresses, savvy suits, and understated dinner dresses met with great success.
The Gillian Group was one of the largest suppliers of women's apparel in America. Recognizing the various needs of women spanning from the Northeast to the South and to the West, these regional differences were addressed through a large variety of fabrics and colorations within the different fashion divisions bearing the signature Gillian style and value. They included Gillian, Gillian Dinner, Gillian Suits, Gillian Petites, Woman, as well as the A.J. Bari and GiGi By Gillian labels.
Unger and her partners shuttered Gillian and A.J. Bari in 1995 after more than two decades in business. Within a few months, in 1995, Unger set up shop for herself as a bridge resource, establishing the brands Kay Unger New York, for misses' sizes, and Phoebe, consisting of dresses and eveningwear for younger women. The higher-priced Kay Unger New York line consists of both classic styles and more innovative pieces. In 1996 Unger launched an eveningwear division in partnership with Wendy Mindel, an assistant designer for Phoebe, under the Unger Mindel moniker. Then in 1999, Unger started a line of separates for daytime, allowing her customers to shop for mix-and-match coordinates rather than exclusively for sets.
Unger's designs are recognized for their attention to detail and for utilizing a variety of prints, nearly all created in-house. From stripes to florals, Unger's fabrics claim a central role in her designs; some pieces layer fabrics in a variety of prints. The fact that the company makes its own fabrics also gives it the flexibility to quickly react to changes in the market and to focus on bestselling items, a trait appreciated by key customers, including Neiman Marcus and Saks (for whom Unger creates some exclusive items to differentiate the line from store to store).
In 2000 the Lieber Group retained Unger to produce a lower-priced line of eveningwear under the Pamela Dennis label (although the line, designed by Lieber staffers, is thought to be in some jeopardy as of 2001 due to the Lieber Group's financial problems). Unger has also designed a line of leather goods for Vericci and has created several licensed accessories lines under her own labels.
Unger prides herself on her readiness to listen and respond to her customers. She is on the road for appearances 20 weekends a year, not only to publicize her line but to collect customer feedback. She has a following among the famous; she created Tipper Gore's gown for the 1997 inaugural ball and has designed custom attire for stars at various awards shows, including the Grammy Awards. Unger's designs have received a boost through publicity in fashion publications, particularly In Style magazine, and through product placement in television shows and films such as Bounce. Indeed, many of her designs are influenced by looks from Hollywood's heyday, with Unger claiming Audrey Hepburn as one of her muses.
Kay Unger's philosophy is "less is more." She counsels women to eschew bulky clothing and to dress appropriately but without regard to age or shape; she sometimes creates designs in the same fabrics for different figures so all customers will find something in which they feel comfortable. She urges her customers to emphasize their femininity, and she creates affordable clothing that enables them to do so.
—Roberta Hochberger Gruber;
updated by Karen Raugust