|Architectural Record & Building News, March 1938|
Arriving in Hoboken, New Jersey on September 13, 1924, Daché started out as a sales clerk in Macy's, then in a women's hat boutique, the Bonnet Shop, on Broadway at 77th Street. She and a co-worker, milliner Hattie Fredericks, purchased that shop for $1,000 on installments in 1926. Their deposit was $200. Within a few months Lilly bought out her partner.
Lilly Daché's creative designs, at a time when no woman would leave her front door without a hat, were exotic and ground-breaking. And expensive. She would be responsible for introducing the turban to female wardrobes and shocking the fashion world with deliciously bizarre designs.
Lilly rapidly expanded with two more boutiques, and then in 1928 merged them into a single Midtown shop. Her organizational acumen was a sharp as her designing abilities and she formed Lilly Daché, Inc. to operate the business. According to Susan Ware in her 2004 Notable American Women, "Hats with cherries and hats without; sleek-fitting cloches, exotic turbans, glamour snoods; even something called the half-hat--such was the stock-in-trade of Lilly Daché."
|Lilly checks one of her creations in 1956. photograph by Leoard Mccombe for Life magazine.|
In her 1946 memoirs, Talking Through my Hats, Lilly explained that her husband was reticent to spend lavishly on a building project during the Depression, but she prevailed. "So at last we signed the papers for the property, and then we started planning the building which was to be a monument to hats, and to beauty, and to things that seem frivolous ad silly sometimes, but which really are so important to the lives of every woman."
On November 9, 1936 The New York Times reported that Lilly had announced plans to demolish the two existing buildings at Nos. 78 and 80 East 56th Street, to be replaced by "a modernistic structure erected for occupancy about June 1, 1937." Construction would take slightly longer. But on September 15, 1937 Vogue magazine reported "Lilly Daché has packed up her hat-boxes and moved into the nine-story building at 78 East Fifty-Sixth Street, which she herself has just built. T. H. Robsjohn-Gibbings designed the interiors, with a grand staircase sweeping up to the Salon."
That Robsjohn-Gibbings was the only name mentioned was worth note. The structure had been designed by Shreve, Lamb & Harmon which had worked, by Lilly's prompting, with Paris architect George Letelie. Lilly gave Letelie the lion's share of credit for the design, rarely, if ever, mentioning the American architects. In her autobiography she totally ignored Shreve, Lame & Harmon; and instead called Letelie "a brilliant young architect." She wrote that she felt if "George could come, I was sure, my building would be the picture of my dreams." (George was, not coincidentally, Lilly's brother-in-law; the husband of Jean Despres' sister, Marguerite.)
|The entrance was recessed within the stone facade. Architectural Record & Building News, March 1938|
The sleek, early Modernism design was as impressive inside as out; and for some perhaps more so. Architectural Record & Building News explained that the building "consists of three units: four floors for the design, manufacture and sale of women's hats, a penthouse apartment for Mme. Daché and three loft floors to be rented." (The rental idea never came to pass.) The article mentioned the Parisian-style treatment of the shop spaces "where 'class appeal' is a very essential part of the sale. The public ares are as little as possible like those of the average store: counters, display cases, adding machines--all are carefully hidden from the customer." No merchandise was displayed. Instead, customers sat in mirror-walled recesses and hats were brought to them.
|Architectural Record & Building News, March 1938|
|The Reception Room (above) and the Salon gave no hint of retail activity. Architectural Record & Building News, March 1938|
|The living room, shot from the staircase, included built-in rosewood furniture. Architectural Record & Building News, March 1938|
In 1937 Life magazine wrote "On Sept. 13 she will open her new ten-story building on Manhattan's East 56th Street, with an exhibition of what threatens to become the 'African style' in hats this fall and winter. For $32.50 a Lilly Daché customer can, so far as headgear goes, look just like a Congo chief."
|Life magazine pictured Lilly's inspiration and her resulting designs. September 13, 1937|
Lilly suffered some bad press when, on March 5, 1941, most of her 120 employees walked off the job. Representatives from the Millinery Workers Union told reporters that female workers making hats "for the masses," which sold at wholesale for $12 per dozen, earned $30 for a 35-hour week. In contrast, Lilly's workers, who worked on hats selling for $35 each, made from $16 to $22 for a 40-hour week.
Lilly denied the charges, telling a reporter from The New York Times that "The strike was originated by agents of a union which apparently represents a minority." She said the union leaders "have made impossible demands and in addition do not represent the workers." The newspaper mentioned that she was "irked by the presence of union pickets outside her door."
When Lilly staged the fashion show of her spring collection on January 13, 1949, there were more than hats in the line. The Times reported "Yesterday...Lilly Dache added a new facet to her already well-known reputation as a milliner that of a full scale designer of coats, suits and dresses." Lilly's collection of apparel was well received. "So well did each part of the costumes complement the other, the overall effect of the manikins [i.e. models] as they whirled and twirled down [the] runway was one of perfection."
Lilly's tremendous success and subsequent personal fortune was evidenced early in May 1953. In a panic she called police to report that a diamond and platinum bracelet had disappeared from her penthouse She placed the value at $10,250--nearly $94,000 today. Detectives could find no signs of a break-in. According to The New York Times, they "told a very sad Miss Daché that it looked like a case of loser's weepers."
|Lilly at her work desk in 1956. Life magazine September 1956|
|Visitors to Lilly's apartment climbed a pink-striped stair hall with carpeting which read in part "welcome to my penthouse" Life magazine September 1956|
Indefatigable, Lilly became president of Lilly Daché Hair Products, and in 1956 published her second book, Lilly Dachés Glamour Book." She included exercise and diet instructions among her beauty tips. She warned her readers about the cringe-inducing "secretarial spread." But she stressed that exercise and diet should not be a punishment.
|Large statues and a rubber tree decorated Lilly's work room. Life magazine September 1956|
The end of the House of Daché came in 1969 following Jean Despres' retirement. Lilly closed the business and left New York. She and Jean spent the rest of their lives in their homes in Florida and France. She died in France, on New Year's Eve, 1989.
In the meantime, No. 78 East 56th Street was remodeled in 1971. It is unclear how drastically the brilliant 1937 design was altered. Not that it much matters. In 1986 the building was demolished to make way for the Park Avenue Tower with entrances on East 55th and 56th Streets.
many thanks to reader Matthew Priest for suggesting this post