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Dorothy Fuller ‘put the “Chic” in Chicago’

Dorothy Fuller Merchandise Mart Apparel Center. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times File Photo

Dorothy Fuller at the Merchandise Mart Apparel Center. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times File Photo

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Updated: October 24, 2012 6:46AM

Susan Glick said she’ll never forget that brief, shining moment on the street outside the InterContinental Hotel in Paris.

She was with Chicago fashion maven Dorothy Fuller when Karl Lagerfeld appeared.

Lagerfeld — that leathery, legendary fashion designer whose silver mane and gloved, vaguely equestrian style can sometimes make him resemble a splice between a horse and a man — spotted Dorothy Fuller.

“He knew who she was. She was a legend, a living legend,” said Glick, vice president of Women’s Apparel at Merchandise Mart Properties. “She walked right up to him, and they connected, and it was fabulous.”

Ms. Fuller, founder of Chicago’s Apparel Industry Board, died Friday in hospice care in Chicago at age 91.

She was promoter and prophet in a career that spanned nearly 65 years of fashion.

As a fashion coordinator at Marshall Field’s after World War II, she helped introduce Christian Dior’s “New Look” to America. Postwar prosperity meant more of everything, including fabric. Dior’s dresses featured big skirts and pinched waists, and American women, starved for something pretty and new, couldn’t get enough of them.

Dior had a rather shy assistant, but Ms. Fuller knew he was going places.

His name was Yves Saint Laurent.

She became head buyer at an elegant, now shuttered retailer, Bramson-Weathered.

In 1960, her program “The Fashion Show” aired for a year on Channel 7, according to the Chicago History Museum, which houses some of her dresses in its collections. She created her own company, Dorothy Fuller Productions, to stage fashion shows.

And she continued to spot trends and promising designers, introducing them to Chicago and the U.S. In the early 1980s, she organized the city’s first simulcast of Parisian prêt-a-porter shows at the Apparel Center. In those pre-podcast days, the technological gamble had participants holding their breath to see if it came off.

It not only worked, but she conducted live interviews with the designers, fresh from the runway.

Ms. Fuller, who sat in the front row at Paris couture shows, and promoted fashion in a trade mission to Beijing, knew clothing is about more than beauty and attitude. She founded the AIB in 1987 after Mayor Harold Washington asked her to head a task force on fashion, jobs and economic development.

She was an endless source of advice for fledgling designers, linking them with factories, suppliers and gifted craftspeople to achieve their signature looks.

“She helped Chicago designers get to the next level,” said designer Maria Pinto, whose sleek creations were some of the first signals of Michelle Obama’s considerable chic. “She was very generous, and I remember one of my first big collections, she was also very supportive. She bought some of my garments.”

Before movie star Bette Davis sported his designs, Ms. Fuller helped introduce fashion sprite Patrick Kelly to the world, Glick said. Ms. Fuller “worked with him in Paris and brought his collection back to a show, and he adored her, and she also wore his signature looks.”

She also helped launch the career of designer Stephen Sprouse, famed for grafting punk with elegance.

“I’m devastated” at her passing, said designer Barbara Bates, who recently competed in NBC’s “Fashion Star.” “She was Chicago fashion.”

Beauty expert Tiffani Kim told the Sun-Times that when she was in school at the Art Institute and she decided to spend a year in Paris, “I called her and she gave me lists of designers I should see in Paris, and they turned out to be the right ones.”

In a business sometimes known for histrionic temperaments and rifts, “She never raised her voice; she never swore,” said Marsha Brenner of the Apparel Industry Board. “The worst thing she could say was, ‘I’m cross with you.’”

She cut an imposing figure. Tall and slender as a model, she wore impeccably tailored suits, perfectly coiffed, short white hair, and big jewelry, including an Egyptian ankh.

Ms. Fuller grew up in California, Brenner said. “She had a mother who was as tiny as Dorothy was tall, and she was always beautifully dressed, and taught Dorothy the same thing — that how you present yourself is important.”

Though she never stopped championing young designers, she counted many of the industry’s eminence grises as friends. “Oscar de la Renta was a dear friend, Geoffrey Beene, Bill Blass,” Brenner said.

Ms. Fuller once recalled to the Sun-Times how Bill Blass commented on how long she’d been pushing Chicago fashion. “Just because Bill said I’ve always promoted Chicago, well, he’s always designed clothes,” she said. “What else is new?”

As Glick once said, “Dorothy Fuller put the ‘Chic’ in Chicago.”

Ms. Fuller always used her maiden name in the workplace. Her married name was Dorothy Englehaupt. Her husband, William, died before her. Brenner said she is survived by her sons, William, Jr. and Michael, and a granddaughter. Funeral arrangements were pending but are expected to be private, Brenner said.

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