Jackie Rogers, Fashion Designer

How the designer stays in the game.

It began with a simple white gazar, slightly ruffled “petal jacket.”

A photograph of Lee Radziwill in Jackie Rogers appeared on the cover of Women’s Wear Daily in 1982 and sparked a craze: Women wore the jacket over stirrup pants, sarongs, skorts. But, like Norma Kamali’s shoulder pads, the fad ended, and designer Jackie Rogers, the former Chanel model who made her initial foray into menswear, left New York’s Seventh Avenue—but never her loyal clientele. Now their daughters want to wear Jackie, too.

Working above her tiny Lexington Avenue store, which opened in 2004, the “sixtysomethingish” Rogers continues to turn out exquisitely made evening gowns, blouses, resort wear, and, yes, her now-iconic white jackets to the faithful (she has three boutiques: in Manhattan; Southampton, New York; and Palm Beach, Florida). Her designs have been under the radar for the past two decades. It’s not that she hasn’t been working her tail off, it’s just that nobody was paying too much attention.

“When I say she’s from another era,” says actress and client Christine Baranski, “I don’t mean passé. She is an iconic figure, in touch with another age of sophistication and sexiness.”

Rogers has been a bit player in films—most famously Frederico Fellini’s 1963 work 8 1/2—party girl, Studio 54 regular. She had a weakness for politicians, Italian princes, feckless royals, Ari and Gianni and Frederico. Every sentence out of her mouth (marked by a heavy Boston accent) begins with a slight variation of the following: “Did I tell you about Onassis? Very sexy. And that guy who married Lauren Bacall? Jason Robards…well, he was chasing me in the South of France….”

These days she’s often seen in her new boutique in Southampton. The day before our interview there, she had presented her spring 2009 fashion show in a Manhattan hotel, attended by various coiffed socialites, vintage cult actress Sylvia Miles, and one young, heavily rouged roué baring his nipples. The models glided on air in gossamer silk the color of iced sherbets, and guests roundly applauded the strapless hot-fuchsia gown with a bow the size of a small foreign car on the left shoulder.

Deciphering exactly what makes Rogers’s demi-couture so cultishly collectible is simple: the cut. She never uses a pattern but drapes and sculpts the lush fabrics on a mannequin, then Chinese seamstresses finish the garment. “I can look at a pattern and know if it’s right or wrong. Bill Blass could never make a pattern, either.” Because Rogers works above her store, she can whip up a design and complete it with one or two fittings.

“I got a call yesterday from Betty Catroux. She’s a great girl. You know who she is—Saint Laurent’s muse. She just wore the seersucker pants I sent and she said, ‘They fit perfectly. Jahhhkie, you are the new American Chanel.’ ”

Friends say Rogers’s brashness is one reason she never found a financial backer. “It’s all me, honey,” she says. According to longtime pal Ben Brantley, theater critic for The New York Times, “She’s never played the game very well.” New York gossip columnist Liz Smith puts it more bluntly. “She wouldn’t kiss ass.”

Adds Brantley, “Jackie has charmed as many people as she has alienated, mostly charmed.” Pause. “Did she mention the former prime minister of Peru?”

At the moment Rogers is waiting for a 96-year-old customer to come into her Southampton shop for a fitting. She is wearing a sculpted denim jacket of her own design over white pants. On her head is a small fedora she bought at a French flea market. Her dark hair is clipped short. On the wall is a huge black-and-white shot of Rogers and costar Marcello Mastroianni on the set of 8 1/2. The story is that Fellini was so inspired by her freewheeling, American-single-girl-in-Europe lifestyle that he wrote a part for her in the movie. “I was mad for Frederico,” says Rogers. “Marcello locked us in the closet once at the Pierre hotel. And we couldn’t get out.”

Born in Brookline, Massachusetts, Rogers says her father was “actually a professional gambler, but we used to say he was in the furniture business.” Her mother was a hat designer. “She had her own store and was very artistic. I fashioned my own clothes from the age of fourteen.”

Rogers’s verbosity as an adult may be related to the fact that she didn’t speak a word until she was four. “I think something traumatic must have happened,” she says. “I was always alone with the maid. My mother was afraid I was mute.” At 16 she ran away to the Plaza Hotel in New York. Rogers’s aunt lived in the city, so she eventually moved in with her and started modeling for Priscilla of Boston. “I think my mother made me so insecure, I had so little self-esteem,” Rogers says. “That motivated me to go out in the world to do things, to stay alive. I went to see Eileen Ford, and she turned me down as a model. She told me, ‘You’ll never make it.’ ”

In the fifties she attended the University of Miami for two years and got married. “I didn’t know what the hell I was getting involved in,” she says. “He was in love with the Red Sox. When they lost, he would cry.” Her father set her up in an apartment in Manhattan. Then she moved to Rome and had an affair with an Italian prince and Gianni Agnelli. Rogers was a familiar face among the rich and famous. “I remember being in the South of France with Maria Callas and Ari. I used to have a dachshund, and Ari would feed caviar to the dog.”

On a shopping trip to Paris, Rogers bought a $600 Chanel suit and wound up as the designer’s favorite mannequin. After a year she began to work on the line with Coco Chanel and credits that experience with influencing her chic sense of style.

By the early seventies Rogers was back in New York and the owner of a barbershop-boutique on Madison Avenue called Jackie Rogers for Men (Peter O’Toole, Michael Douglas, and Woody Allen were all clients). On the advice of Bill Blass she moved into womenswear. One of the first women who discovered Rogers was Babe Paley. “She just came in one day and ordered three dresses. Then Jackie [Onassis] came in. She never knew what the hell she was wearing. She asked, ‘Can you make me clothes that are uniforms? That way I can put them on without thinking.’ ” Rogers tilts her head back and laughs. “Ari used to say, ‘What’s she doing with all that money? She’s always wearing those pants.’ I said, ‘She’s keepin’ it.’ ”

There are other memories. Halston: “He was on 68th Street and I was on 67th. I never liked his things. But I heard he used to knock me off. He would send somebody down to buy things, and I was so naïve!” Diana Vreeland: “She was great. We used to carry on together.”

Back in her boutique Rogers hears the door open. She greets her customer, who walks with a cane but is sprightly and, yes, would love a gin and tonic.

The item in question is a two-piece ensemble of gorgeous gold fabric.

“I just tried it on myself,” Rogers says, her voice rising ten octaves. “It feels like a million dollahs.”

For now, she’s cranking up the stereo. A little two-step on the bleached-wood shop floor while her client waits in the dressing room. But first another story.

“I was going with a man called Serge Rubenstein who was murdered. He was a brilliant financier…and I….”

Jackie Rogers, 1034 1/2 Lexington Ave.; 212-535-0140; jackierogers.com.