The Man Who Singlehandedly Made Rodeo Drive Into A Fashion Mecca
This story was originally published in April 2016.
Fred Hayman, the man widely credited with inventing Rodeo Drive as a fashion capital, died Thursday at 90. He was an arbiter of style, a marketing visionary, and an impresario who fundamentally changed the rules of the high-end retail game. He was also the "original celebrity stylist," a consummate name-dropper who helped transform fashion into a star-powered business.
Beverly Hills became synonymous with luxury—and conspicuous consumerism—under Hayman's careful tutelage. He propelled Giorgio, his store, from a small boutique into an opulent empire, and developed Rodeo Drive along with it. The store "eventually became the fashion playpen for the rich and famous and a catalyst for transforming the street," according to a 1991 New York Times story.
Born as Fred Jules Pollag in a Swiss textile town, Hayman arrived with his mother and stepfather in New York City in 1942. They were European Jews fleeing the threat of Nazism, and Hayman was 16, with dreams of becoming a chef. He talked his way into an apprenticeship in the kitchen at the Waldorf Astoria as a teenager, and was later promoted to banquet manager. The luxury of the Waldorf Astoria would indelibly shape Hayman's aesthetic. In 1954, Hayman was personally dispatched by Conrad Hilton to the then-fledgling Beverly Hilton.
Beverly Hills was still an affluent but quiet village, and Giorgio was the street's only high-end boutique when Hayman purchased the store in the early 1960s. Neighbors included a gas station, a pharmacy, and the Brown Derby restaurant at the corner of Wilshire Boulevard. Technically, Rodeo Drive the street spans two miles and extends beyond the borders of Beverly Hills, but when the name is tossed out it's usually referring to a three-block stretch north of Wilshire and south of Little Santa Monica.
Intersection of Wilshire Boulevard and Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, looking toward the Brown Derby Restaurant (no longer standing) on May 23, 1960. (Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection)
By the 1970's, the street would become an international emblem of luxury. By 1980, the City of Beverly Hills would estimate that the Rodeo Drive shopping district was responsible for a whopping 25 percent of the city's sales tax revenues, according to a 1980 L.A. Times article. Hayman would ultimately see the shopping Shangri La he helped create rewrite itself many times over, with his centrality diminishing in each subsequent draft. Here's a brief history of how it all went down.
The year after he bought Giorgio, Hayman hired a striking young cocktail waitress for the Hilton's Rendezvous Room. Gale was 19 and broke, with abandoned ambitions of a life as a ballet dancer. He was 37 and still married to his second wife. Hayman's second marriage ended a few years later, and he and Gale wed in 1966. Three years later, she joined him at the store's helm. It was her eye for fashion that helped build the store (she famously brought Halston's gowns to the West Coast).
He and Gale were Southern California's "gurus of glamour," and under their shared guidance, Giorgio became an icon of opulence. At one point, Giorgio had the "highest sales-per-square-foot of any store in the country," according to a 1990 L.A. Times story written by Nikki Finke. The boutique's signature yellow-and-white awning grew so iconic that it was once stolen right off its frame.
The former hotelier was famous for his exacting hospitality: customers received hand-written thank you notes and special purchases were delivered in a 1952 Silver Wraith Rolls-Royce. A pool table and a newspaper rack in the main showroom kept men occupied while their wives and girlfriends shopped. The in-house cocktail bar was the "site of many a 10 a.m. pick-me-up in Hayman's heyday, the place where Elizabeth Taylor could order a glass of white wine while she shopped," according to a 1998 L.A. Times story. Needless to say, drinks were on the house.
In the early 1970s, Hayman and a handful of other retailers founded the Rodeo Drive Committee, a kind of proto-BID. In 1977, the Committee launched "a publicity campaign designed to make everyone around the world think of Rodeo Drive as the shopping street of the rich and famous," according to a 1984 New York Magazine article. Hayman brought valet parking to the city that same year. "There was actually a time, in the dark and distant past, when wealthy shoppers had to park their own cars before they dropped thousands of dollars," wrote Karen Stabiner in 1998 L.A. Times article. "Hayman understood that luxury demanded better."
And no one understood luxury better than Hayman. As Stainer wrote:
"Here is what Rodeo Drive was like in the 1970s and 1980s, when Fred Hayman was so powerful that designers such as Halston willingly granted him the exclusive right to sell their designs: People went shopping in double limousines (one for the family, one for its purchases); Gucci had a private second-floor salon for special customers who had a key to get in, and even the congenitally blase retailers were sometimes shocked at the level of consumption. One longtime colleague remembers the day Hayman had to close down Giorgio temporarily while he solved an inventory problem: An Arab and his harem had come into the store, Hayman reported, and bought every evening gown he had. He was hardly complaining. That kind of extravagance was just what Hayman wanted, proof that his master plan was working. He wanted to elevate Rodeo Drive from just another shopping street to a world-class boulevard, on a par with London's Bond Street, New York's Fifth Avenue, Paris' Avenue Montaigne. Dorothy Chilkov, an impossibly tailored woman with a European air and a shock of short white hair, managed the Beverly Hills Chamber of Commerce when Hayman first approached her in 1972 about a separate Rodeo Drive committee: She refers to him as "the catalyst" who inspired the grand excess of "the Golden Era."
Richard Pryor, Berry Gordy, Diana Ross, Robert Evans and Ali MacGraw were all Giorgio regulars in the 1970s. "It was like the living theater," Gale told People Magazine. "You never knew who would come in next. One day Imelda Marcos came in and bought a Nehru jacket in every color we had." Giorgio's signature perfume—a combination of Jasmine Absolute, attar of Roses, and Gardenia, among other scents—was launched in 1981 at an infamously over-the-top party where a reported 70 pounds of caviar were served, according to the L.A. Times. "Giorgio was a fragrance that made cab drivers ask, 'What are you wearing, ma'am?'" former White House counsel John Dean told People Magazine.
The perfume became a legendary success, so ubiquitous that it was even banned by one New York City restaurant who tired of smelling its floral scent. "We have already sent out 100 million scented inserts," Hayman told Orange Coast magazine in 1984. Sidenote: among other things, Hayman is also credited with popularizing the scent strip, now a standard marketing tool in the perfume industry.
By then, the store had inspired a blockbuster novel and was a tourist destination in its own right. Rodeo Drive had become a street of ritzy dreams, and Hayman was its once and future king. Those were the halcyon days.
Six years after the perfume launched, Avon bought the company and the corporate name. Hayman's empire was valued at a cool $167 million at the time, but the sale of the business was the culmination of the long and painful custody battle that Hayman and Gale waged over Giorgio after their acrimonious 1983 divorce.
Recalling that period in her 1990 piece, Nikki Finke compared them to the Trumps:
Like Donald, he was social-climbing and shrewd. Like Ivana, she was sharp and chic. They, too, cultivated a public image as the "perfect couple." And their divorce also brought down more than a marriage; it brought down a marketing phenomenon.
Hayman still had his store, but it was no longer Giorgio. He had reopened it as "Fred Hayman" in 1989 after buying the property back from Avon for $6 million, but the boutique was a shadow of its former self. As he told the New York Times in 1991:
"Something like Giorgio happens once in a lifetime," he said. "When I was 'Mr. Giorgio,' everybody knew me. Now that I'm Fred Hayman, it's 'Who's he?' I have to make the name Fred Hayman become just as well known, not out of ego, but for business."
The times were also a-changing for the eponymous shopping district. By the early 90s, Rodeo Drive was "starting to look like a ghost town—albeit one with lots of marble and gold leaf" according to a Los Angeles Magazine article. The nation was in a recession, the city was riot and earthquake-scarred, and grunge had overtaken glam.
As Jill Gerston wrote in 1991, "Sales, once unheard of in the boutique, [were] now permitted. In November [of that year], a half-dozen shirts languished on the fabled pool table accompanied by a discreet 'sale' sign."
A comeback was eventually had for Rodeo Drive, but it came a cost, at least to the street's exclusive reputation. Decreased occupancy rates equaled cheaper rents and the city's Economic Development Council "aggressively pursued" new merchants, introducing behemoths and mass-market corporate brands. The first to plant their flag was Gap-owned Banana Republic in 1992. The Nike store opened their doors in 1996. There were high-end giants too—Barneys New York, Prada, and Emporio Armani had all arrived by 1994—but the landscape was vastly altered.
"Success in the 1970s was about designer exclusives and the personal touch," Stabiner wrote in 1998. "In the 1990s, it's about the global luxury broker and a Rodeo Drive Web site."
As Finke wrote in 1990:
"Where once that corner where Rodeo Drive meets Wilshire Boulevard was the trend-setting capital of Southern California, maybe even the world, now that honor is accorded Melrose. Where once the Haymans secured exclusives on relatively unknown designers like Halston and Giorgio di Sant' Angelo, today many of the big names have their own stores. Where once the marketing of Giorgio by direct mail and scent strips was unheard-of, now the practice is commonplace. And where once launching a new perfume was seen as a rare event, today the proliferation of fragrances from every Tom, Dick and Cher is no more exciting than the opening of a mini-mall."
The locus of glamour had become a theme park for global tourists, and after holding court from the southwest corner of Rodeo and Dayton Way for more than three decades, Hayman vacated 273 Rodeo Drive in 1998, handing over the keys to the Louis Vuitton company in a long-term lease. Stabiner described Hayman's departure as the closing of a chapter, saying:
His departure symbolizes the end of the era when brash, ambitious entrepreneurs muscled onto Rodeo and turned it into a street of dreams. There is no longer room for him in the wonderland he created; Vuitton's move signals the dominance of the international retailer.
Gil Cates presents Fred Hayman with a star on the Rodeo Drive Walk Of Style on May 31, 2011 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)
Hayman was still phenomenally successful, with his perfumes bringing in about $100 million in sales that same year, but his role at the very circus that he'd willed into being had dwindled from ringmaster to mayor emeritus. Still, "Mr. Beverly Hills" would forever remain a booster for the fashion district. As Stabiner wrote in 1998:
"A big Vuitton store at the south end of Rodeo would, [Hayman] thought, be "good for the street." And that has been his guiding principle for more than 30 years; personal success has always been tied to the larger issue of what is good for the street."
In 2011, Hayman was awarded the 15th plaque on the Rodeo Drive Walk of Style (an award that he himself had created). “Rodeo Drive would just be another district if not for Fred's marketing vision,” then-Beverly Hills mayor Barry Brucker said at the Ceremony.The godfather of Rodeo Drive is survived by his wife Betty, three children and 10 grandchildren.