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Helen O’Hagan, Longtime Saks Fifth Avenue Image-Maker

David Moin and Rosemary Feitelberg

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Helen O’Hagan, who helped guide the luxury image of Saks Fifth Avenue for many years and established close ties to leading designers around the world, died Saturday in Charleston, S.C., of natural causes, with her family by her side. She was 89.

The silver-haired O’Hagan maintained a status in the industry and a role at Saks that was larger than her title — vice president and director of public relations and special events — would suggest. Through the Sixties until the mid-Nineties, she staged fashion shows and special SFA USA charity events for Saks spotlighting top American designers of that time, including Adolfo, Bill Blass, Geoffrey Beene, Carolina Herrera, Mary McFadden and Oscar de la Renta, who became her lifelong friends.

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She also traveled to Europe to cover the ready-to-wear and couture collections from major designers, many of which she helped introduce in the U.S., Karl Lagerfeld among them. She also became quite close to the Ferragamo and Missoni families.  She photographed collections for the store for many years, and was feisty enough, in her signature red-framed glasses, to push through the gaggle of photographers to position herself for the best shots, despite her petite 5-foot, 3-inch stature. “I was known as the mother of the photographers’ mafia at the shows in Europe,” she once told WWD.

In 1988, O’Hagan received the Chairman’s Award from Mel Jacobs, the late Saks chairman and chief executive officer who at the time said, “She’s the conscience of the company. She’s the source of our roots. She’s played a crucial role in shaping Sak’s public image.”

“Helen was my closest friend,” said Ellin Saltzman, former fashion director at Saks. “We were a team, the two of us, El and Hel. We worked together for 15 years. She had a tremendous personality and incredible devotion to Saks.”

“I met Helen O’Hagan when I was 18.  It was my first adult interview,” recalled Jaqui Lividini, a former Saks senior vice president. “My saving grace that day was that I was too young and naive to be nervous about meeting such an industry icon or understand what a life changing opportunity this funny, irreverent, smart, clever, unique woman would give me. Helen opened my eyes to her world, besides the obvious glamour and excitement of the fashion industry, it was a world where she had a voice, equal and sometimes stronger than her male counterparts. She taught me that women can be strong, successful, independent and respected for their contribution. I was lucky enough to be caught in her orbit.”

“We marched together through lots of changes on Seventh Avenue especially in the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties,” recalled designer Stan Herman. “She was a formidable presence at a time when there weren’t many formidable women in the industry. Her personality as a woman of substance gave a certain gravitas to the industry that maybe hadn’t been there before. More than anything, she worked in an industry that she gave her everything to. She was very with it.”

“She was like a mother figure — there since the day I was born,” said her niece Helaine Blanchard Christy. “She was really the most loving person I ever met, and so giving, so generous to everybody. She never married but she just had so many friends who were like her family, and a lot of people she worked with and designers became like her family. She was a real determined person. She was always on the go. They used to call her ‘Speedy.’ She would ride her bicycle all over Charleston.”

Christy noted that about a month ago, O’Hagan fell and broke her hip, which is when her health noticeably declined.

O’Hagan  was born on Feb. 7, 1931 in Charleston. Early on, her energetic spirit and desire to achieve was apparent. She was the business manager of her high school newspaper and worked summers for a local photographer (“One-Shot Riley”), from whom she learned photography. After high school, she attended the Dock Street Theater School, thinking to become an actress, but became the theater’s business manager for two years, learning the art of staging large events. “Acting was the best thing my parents let me do, because it showed me how lousy I was,” she once said in an interview. “But it taught me all about lighting, set design and production.”

Getting the big city bug, in 1955 she moved to New York and joined Saks as the assistant to Countess Grace De Mun, then publicity director at Saks. Within three years she rose to director of publicity.

In 1975, she became the store’s vice president and director of public relations and special events, and quickly developed a reputation as being resourceful, quick on her feet, meticulous, even-tempered and caring. During the New York City blackout of 1965, O’Hagan was out of the office when the lights went out. Making the most of the situation, she invited ten of her staff to her apartment and cooked pork chops and ratatouille. During the first SFA USA event, a designer show for charity under tents on Park Avenue, torrential rains threatened to collapse the tents. So O’Hagan ordered dumpsters from the store, poked holes in the tent, and emptied the water into the dumpsters. People on the Saks team considered O’Hagan a “surrogate mother.”

After a 39-year career at Saks, at the age of 63, O’Hagan retired in 1994 primarily to spend more time with the late actress Claudette Colbert, at their beach house in Barbados and in a Fifth Avenue apartment.  They knew each other for three decades.

When O’Hagan retired, Mary Ann Wheaton, then co-owner of Byron Lars, told WWD, “The most memorable thing about Helen is that for the Byron launch at Saks, we had one meeting to discuss what we were going to do. It was one-and-a-half hours long, and because it was Byron, everything — the sets, the invitations, the food — was very involved and detailed. Helen never took one note in that meeting and I walked out of there wondering how it would all get done. Well, it was 100 percent done, exactly as we wanted it and as she said it would be. And of course, on the night of the event, when I was zooming up the escalator to get there, I saw Helen. And she was perfectly calm, not one hair out of place. Now, this was not a typical Saks event, but there was not one excess bit of energy wasted on it, because it was Helen O’Hagan.”

O’Hagan loved to cook and bake, particularly chicken and desserts, read biographies and Dick Francis mysteries, swim and raise orchids. Though she had plenty going on in her life, it still wasn’t an easy decision for her to retire and no longer have the same day-to-day interaction with so many colleagues and friends.

“I have to see if I can really step back,” said O’Hagan in a WWD interview at the time. After all,  during her tenure at Saks, she was involved in 47 store opening and she survived at the store through seven different senior management regimes and several ownership changes, from the Gimbel brothers to BATUS to Investcorp. Saks is currently owned by the Hudson’s Bay Co.

“Adam [Gimbel] asked me to go into the buying office at one time, but I declined. I knew where I belonged — in publicity,” she told WWD. “This is the best retailer in America. What more could anyone ask for?” In her later years she split her time between New York and Charleston, spending time with friends and family.

O’Hagan is survived by her sister, Kathleen O’Hagan Blanchard; nieces and nephews, Helaine Blanchard Christy, Paul Blanchard, Jay O’Hagan, David O’Hagan, Kathleen O’Hagan Hennessey and Frank O’Hagan, as well as many grandnieces and nephews, cousins and friends.