Education: Studied medicine, University of California; studied fashion design, Parsons School of Design, New York, 1981-83. Career: Assistant designer, Calvin Klein, 1984; formed own company, 1985; launched lower priced "But, Gordon" line, 1990; signed exclusive contract with Saks Fifth Avenue, 1992; designed wedding suit for John F. Kennedy Jr., 1996; design critic at student fashion shows, from late 1990s. Awards: Council of Fashion Designers of America Perry Ellis award, 1989.
Versatile separates. Dressing with ease. These American sportswear tenets are the meat and potatoes of Gordon Henderson's fashion. Although young, he has shown the discipline of engaging in no design that is superfluous and of giving the customer what she wants— garments that can be multipurpose and mixable in a wardrobe, favoring fashion that is neither flamboyant nor expensive. Henderson is anomalous among designers making a mark in the late 1980s in adhering so intensely to the sportswear ethos, never succumbing to the glamour of high-priced fashion. His penchant for vegetable and earth colors seems even politically correct in the ecology-aware 1990s.
He is, as Woody Hochswender of the New York Times, "a realist." Such sportswear orthodoxy and awareness to design's realization in sales made Henderson the "hottest new designer" on Seventh Avenue, New York, according to the Wall Street Journal on September 1990. As there is a pragmatism to Henderson's view of fashion, there is a corresponding restraint in the designer. Photogenic enough to pose for a Gap advertisement (wearing denim) and for selection as one of People magazine's beautiful people, Henderson provides a beguiling and handsome personal accompaniment to his plain message of fashion modesty. For Hochswender, Henderson is "a designer many are calling the first important new talent of the 1990s." Henderson told Kevin Haynes, "People identify me as doing classics with a twist—it sounds like a drink to me. But there's beauty in using relatively inexpensive fabrics and treating them like they're very expensive. I don't like people getting uptight with clothes."
The ideal Henderson client would be a woman who shops for other labels and perhaps even buys basics at the Gap or other retailers, allowing the Henderson separates to work as accent pieces. "You can take the clothes and put them together for career women," Henderson told Nina Darnton, "or combine them for weekend or evening. That's what the 1990s are about—servicing your customer in the way she needs." Even beyond his eponymous line, Henderson created "But, Gordon," an even more responsive, inexpensive line with its name coming from stores who liked certain garments, but wanted them at lesser prices, whining, "but, Gordon…" again and again until the designer acquiesced with a secondary line.
When one examines Henderson's work, one realizes its appeal as fashion basics, from simple dresses to halter tops, beautifully cut trousers, and other wardrobe-building elements. Inevitably, one designer he acknowledges as a favorite is Claire McCardell, whose ingenuity with materials and basic sportswear elements is recapitulated in Henderson's imagination with materials and flair for a simple, uncluttered style. Henderson's lyrical summer dresses, bandeaux, and capelet jackets reflect the spirit of McCardell. His slightly off-beat colors (occasioned in part by necessity and in part by a commitment to the earth) and his love of plaids and checks also align Henderson with McCardell. But Henderson also admires Chanel, an admiration evident in his very serviceable boxy jackets.
McCardell, however, works better as a Henderson muse since she realized the sensibility of suburbs and country (Henderson was brought up in California.) There is something so unabashedly price-conscious and trend-avoiding about Henderson's clothing that it becomes almost antiurban. And it may be precisely the gleeful suburban, campus, low-pressure calm that makes his work so attractive to a broad audience. After all, the working woman is no longer an exclusive phenomenon of the big city, but a staple of suburban lifestyle as well. Henderson also says of his work at Calvin Klein, "I learned everything there. He gives you consistency, and he's so clean and precise it's almost ridiculous. He can take a good idea and go on with it forever."
Henderson has produced a promising prospect of his own "forever" in a consistent and compelling vision of sportswear separates kept at a reasonable price for both American and international customers. Fashion, which has a tendency to drift upward, even among designers who start out with the intention of serving the broadest public, has not corrupted Henderson. He continues to give every sign of being different: reaching the top of his field by adamantly and effectively staying at the bottom of the price ranges, and in giving something back to the industry. In the late 1990s he acted as a design critic for student fashion shows at institutions such as the Parsons School of Design and Marist College. He also gained notice, in September 1996, as the designer of the blue suit worn by the late John F. Kennedy Jr. during his wedding to the late Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, a former Calvin Klein publicist and a friend of Henderson's.
As of July 2000, Henderson was reported by the website Urbangoods.com as planning to open a New York City gift and home furnishings store in partnership with artist Conan Hayes. His loyal clients, no doubt, are looking forward to this next endeavor.
Adjunct Professor, Fashion Design