by Gay Degani
She was the first buyer of women’s suits at Decklers department store. Not pantsuits. Her boss, Lois, had been buying those for years, a staple in the Budget Dress department: jacquard polyester pants with elastic waists, button-front jackets of the same synthetic, standard shirt collar, sometimes complete with its own matching shell, purchased at quantity discount to go on sale for 19.99 after the price had been bumped up to 30.00 for a month. Women’s Suits was a whole new venture, but not one the company wanted to sink a bunch of money into, so they promoted shy Debra Kenny and sent her out to conquer.
Debra was a woman of her time, raised to be a nurse or a schoolteacher, on the cusp of massive change, one foot in the 50s and early 60s wearing nylons and a hat to church, the other foot in the Women’s Liberation Movement considering what it might be like to go braless if she decided to burn her Playtex.
Even today, years later, she feels ashamed of her failure because she did fail. At the time, it didn’t occur to her that if she’d been a real libber, she might have stormed into some manufacturer and demanded they hire a designer, that they retool their clothing line to represent the coming of the “professional” woman. That’s what Gloria would have done. Bella.
Debra, like most young people who move along in their careers, was excited to board the American flight to New York. She went airline bottle for bottle with her boss’s intake of Dewars, feeling as if she’d arrived. Her boss had lined up the manufacturers for her to see, smoothed the path. They talked about the open-to-buy and how best to spend the money. Debra admired Lois. Successful in retailing, one of the few fields open to female advancement, long before the phrase “glass ceiling” was coined. Now that Debra thinks about it, in 2015, Lois with her pageboy bob and gravelly voice had only risen as far as buyer for a large department store chain. She hadn’t been a merchandise manager, let alone a VP in the carpeted offices down the hall.
The New York trip was the beginning of the end. Since Lois had her own schedule, Debra went out on her own. The salespeople, both men and women, graciously showed her their fall lines. Polyester. Elastic waist. Shirt-collared jackets.
She was able to find pieces here and there that kind of worked, but the problem was price-line. Women’s suits were in the groundbreaking stage, which meant designer pieces at designer prices. On the red-eye back home, Debra talked to Lois about her frustration and was told to gut it out, that she had build on what she was starting, that she could help the market understand what was needed. Debra swallowed her Scotch and went to sleep and dreamt of becoming a librarian.
published 9 March 2016