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The Not-So-Famous Designers of Doris Duke’s Wardrobe

When someone asks me what some of the more interesting things in Doris Duke’s fashion collection are my usual answer is how many lesser-known designers are in it. This is a bit misleading because Doris Duke did have a fair amount of high-end, couture, and custom fashions in her Rough Point closets from big name designers that you would think of like Christian Dior and Balenciaga. I think the diverse range of designers in her wardrobe speak to Doris’s independence and her interest in supporting up and coming artists, both in the fashion world and as she did through her philanthropy within the music and dance world.

For a 1981 Met Gala (before Anna Wintour made it THE fashion event of the year), Duke chose to wear a relatively unknown designer, Dimitri Kritsas (born late 1930s), a fashion designer from Greece with only a small New York boutique. We don’t know how Doris Duke came upon the designer, but she made a big decision to wear his gown that evening and chose to be photographed wearing it.

Tina Leser (1910-1986), an American designer who is becoming more recognized in scholarly fashion history circles in the last decade or so, was clearly one of Doris Duke’s favorites. There are over a dozen items from Leser in the collection that span the range of her career and Doris’s life. It is possible the two women knew each other as they both spent considerable time in Honolulu prior to World War II; Leser and Duke likely would have been a part of the same social circles. There is still more research to be conducted on the extent of their relationship, including how long Doris was a client of the designer (much of Leser’s company archives are housed at the FIDM Museum in Los Angeles). Leser’s design aesthetic fits well into Doris’s jet set lifestyle, interest in Eastern aesthetics, and the casual elegance of caftans, robes, and sundresses.

Some of the lesser-known designers in the Doris Duke fashion collection are items purchased on her world travels. Many of these items represent traditional dress of countries she visited, especially in Southeast Asia where Doris Duke spent considerable time in the 1960s and 1970s to build a collection of Southeast Asian art. Star of Siam (founded 1955 by Americans Vera & Lewis Cykman) was a Bangkok, Thailand-based silk company that specialized in custom tailored clothing in the Thai style. There are close to twenty pieces of fashion from this company, as well as many yards of Thai silk used in upholstery around Doris Duke’s homes, including the curtains in Doris’s bedroom at Rough Point.

Taj of India (founded 1950) is perhaps one of the most fascinating lesser-known designers in Doris Duke’s closet—a maker of a pair of shoes so beloved by Doris, she owned over 20 pairs of the pointy-toe flats in almost every color available! Taj Tajerie, a female designer from India, created the brand. Doris purchased them from small boutiques and well-known department stores both in Hawaii and in New York like M. M. Merry, Ltd. and Nordstrom. A fun fact about this brand- the designer created all the shoes for the show I Dream of Jeannie!

There’s an old adage that you can learn a lot about people of the past through looking at their clothes. If you look at the many items of Doris Duke’s clothing collection, you would learn that her clothing is almost as eccentric as the woman herself – and these pieces hold many memories and stories we are still learning about today.

By Kristen Costa, Senior Curator at Newport Restoration Foundation

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