Meet a designer: Don Loper
For a serious Hollywood designer, there is a surprising dearth of information about Don Loper. A lot of people know he designed for I Love Lucy, and had a couture salon somewhere in Los Angeles, and also designed high end ready to wear. Some even know he was a professional dancer before a designer. And because I tend to get way too personal about these Meet a Designer posts, I will also note that he was something of an arrogant playboy. “God gave me lots of talent–I might as well use it.” And when speaking to a woman he felt was poorly dressed? “If she looks like a frump I say so,” he said. “I’m a real monster. I don’t always mean to be so horrible… but when I say it, it comes out that way.” He was king of the burn. “Honey, you must be kidding with that dress.” “What time does your broom arrive? You look like a witch.” Or my favorite, “I see your mother has been sewing again.” OUCH.
First, Don Loper is not his birth name. I found a lot of variations on his name, but it was most likely Lincoln George Hardloper. His father Charles’s family name was Hardloper, but at some point he changed the surname to Loper. “Don” may have even been a reference to his distant Latin origins; he claimed to be Portuguese, and on his paternal grandmother’s side, this was true at some point. Her family, de la Penha, was likely from Portugal but had been living in Holland since at least the mid-17th century. In a 1958 interview he claimed his full name was Don Loper de la Pena, which isn’t really true, but sounded good.
The signature on his labels, I learned through this Brazilian visa, is basically his actual signature.
He was born in 1907 in Toledo, Ohio, where his family–his parents and older brother Richard–lived until they moved back to New York (his parents had moved from New York to Ohio in 1903) sometime in the 1930s. During that time, his father owned a shop at 406 Jefferson St. in Toledo. At this point the story becomes a lot of hearsay and rumor, started by Loper himself and Hedda Hopper, one of the biggest gossip columnists of Hollywood in the 40s and 50s.
Loper claimed that at the age of three he was dancing “seriously,” and by seven he was designing dresses and store windows at his father’s shop. His family appeared to be at least comfortable, if not quite wealthy, because he reportedly went to school in England (in some of his accounts it’s Paris) between the ages of 9-12. Upon his return to the United States, he began dancing with the Chicago Civic Ballet, and a few years later he claims to have married a childhood sweetheart, to whom he remained married for the next eight years.
This is going to be quite possibly the longest sentence I’ve ever written. Ready? In the 1920s and 30s, Loper was apparently living in New York and trying to make it on Broadway (in some accounts he DID make it on Broadway and in others he blames an uncle for keeping him off Broadway because he felt it was no place for his nephew for whatever reason), with the exception of a brief stint managing a restaurant and then directing a dancing school for girls in Hempstead (The Academy of the Arts and Dance in Hempstead, which had on its rolls a Vye Loper – coincidence?) and then in 1934 leading an orchestra called The Congressional Recorders out of the Congress Restaurant in New York, whose program aired in some markets right before or after Lights Out, one of my favorite suspense shows, then working as a dancer/producer/costume designer, dancing with partner Beth Hardy (1937) and later Maxine Barrat (1938 onward). WHEW.
In the 1930s and early 40s, he did work as a dancer and costume and set designer across the U.S. and possibly Europe, but mostly in New York. By 1942 he had settled into a somewhat regular dancing/producing gig at the Copacabana in New York City with his partner Maxine Barrat, producing a show for which he also directed and designed the costumes called “Flying Down to Rio – and Back”, also designing clothes for his society lady friends on the side. Loper designed most of Barrat’s onstage costumes, as well as her real life wardrobe.
Though he was reportedly offered a designer job at MGM after Adrian left, he was only persuaded to move to Hollywood for dancing. He moved to Los Angeles around 1943 to dance in motion pictures, where, as a self-described quintuple threat (dancing, choreography, costume design, direction and production design) he became instant fodder for the Hollywood gossip columns. In his first major picture, “Lady in the Dark,” he danced with Ginger Rogers. It’s a pretty weird scene. He and Ginger Rogers were apparently good friends, having known each other back in New York from her time on Broadway.
Ginger Rogers will have a new dancing partner when “Lady in the Dark” goes before the cameras. Paramount studio has captured Don Loper, who has been appearing at the Copacabana night club in New York, and much will be made of the terpsichorean numbers in the picture because of this arrangement.
– Edwin Shallert, LA Times, 1942
“Don Loper finally signed that Metro [Goldwyn Mayer] contract, giving him a chance to produce, direct, dance and act. Nothing was said about his being a costume designer, or an expert on choreography, but he’s as versatile a young man as has ever come to this town and if they do right by him he can be built into another Mitch Leisen, who gave him his first training in the movies in ‘Lady in the Dark.
– Hedda Hopper, LA Times, 1943
Sidenote – MGM wanted him to get a nose job. He refused.
His romantic life was a bit shrouded in mystery. I read that he was thrice married and divorced, but only found his first marriage on the books.
The reported romance between Lela Rogers and Don Loper is really a scream. Don already has a wife in Charleston, S.C. and he, Ginger and Lela have been friends ever since those Black Bottom days.
Also from Hedda Hopper in 1943.
And then in 1944: “Don Loper’s a busy fellow. When not squiring with Judy Garland, he’s with Lela Rogers.”
Who is Lela Rogers? Ginger Rogers’s mother. She was 16 years older than Loper. News of their canoodling first surfaced in 1940: “Don Loper, the smoothie, and Leila Rogers, Ginger’s youthful ma, haven’t stopped holding hands for seven days!” Dorothy Kilgallen reported in August 1940.
The wife that Loper already had was possibly fellow dancer Violet Hughes, whom he married at age 17 (she was 16). They married in 1925 in Monroe, Michigan, just over the border from their home state of Ohio. The extremely young couple moved to Manhattan and in 1930 were living in an apartment at 618 53rd street that they rented for $55 a month. I couldn’t find any reference to Violet after 1930, though it’s possible the couple had a son together.
The Sunset Salon
Loper continued to work in Hollywood as a dancer and general creative person until 1946, when he opened his own couture salon on Sunset Boulevard with business partner Charles Northrup. His initial intent for his empire, which he designed and decorated himself, was not just a store for wealthy women looking for a designer wardrobe.
“It’s a very exciting new idea,” he says. “We’re calling it Design Associates, Inc. We give a complete service for independent studios— clothes and sets. Our board of arbitration breaks down the script and decides who’s right to do the picture. I’m corny enough to think the play’s the thing. We hope our place will be a sort of clearing house that will bring all the big designers to Hollywood. They can bring their own cutters or fitters—anything that makes them happy. What I want to do is have the great couturiers get together on ideas the way they did in Paris. It’s going to be a hard pull in Hollywood—they’re not ‘simpatico’ to each other. “I don’t think a gal should be dressed by one person,” he added. “In a way, she’s a collector. You wouldn’t have just Renoirs in your house.”
– Don Loper, New York Post, August 1946
It’s unlikely this idea ever really took hold. He did have a custom department, as well as ready to wear, as well as accessories like Seymour Troy shoes and millions of dollars of Van Cleef & Arpels jewelry. By 1951, he was moving into a new salon and had little patience for other designers. “Most actresses are badly dressed. All except the ones in Loper gowns, of course. But few of my customers buy strictly from me.” But those first five years at the Sunset salon were key in establishing Loper as a world-class, sought after designer. Because Loper was brilliant at hyping himself up, the press got a preview of this over-the-top, beyond-borderline offensive fashion emporium. Virginia MacPherson, United Press staff writer, wrote in August 1946:
His establishment looks like a southern plantation set down in the middle of the super-expensive sunset strip. A Negro [sic] butler greets you at the door. A pretty maid takes your things. And Loper himself conducts you into the “producer’s room” for the business.
This is a mirror-lined room, gussied up in thick carpets, mustard-colored couches, and heavy draperies. He calls it the “producer’s room” because he’s going to design for independent movies, too. And this is where the bosses’ll sit to view the results.
“We’ll take a prospective customer and analyze her personality,” Loper explained. “Then we dress her in that style–from head to toe.”
In a pearl-gray room the lady will get her hats. In a dark-green one–with more mustard-shade couches–she’ll be issued her shoes. Gloves, stockings, and bags will be whisked out of crystal showcases in the flower-splashed foyer… If a lady gets hungry during the “treatment” the butler serves her luncheon on a silver tray from the kitchen downstairs… She flicks her cigarette ashes in sterling silver containers. She walks on cushiony carpets. And she can see her reflection in dozens of expensive mirrors.
“I’ve already spent $120,000 remodeling the place,” he grinned. “I’d hate to think it didn’t show!”
– UP writer Virginia MacPherson, August 1946
The opening of the first salon in October 1946 was a true Hollywood affair. Howard Greer sent Loper a dress form made of flowers. Stars and designers turned out for the event.
If Don Loper’s clothes are as beautiful as the decor in his place on Sunset, he’ll give Adrian, Greer and the other designers some competition. His shop, which 15 guests already have tried to rent for a home, was jammed at cocktail time Thursday; Joan Crawford in a black plumed hat a la Lillian Russell; Lucille Bremer, thin but striking; Oleg Cassini, lost without Gene Tierney [editor’s note: they were going through a divorce]; Sally Cobb, one of the handsomest girls present; Natalie Thompson, with a new shade of hair that’s fine for Technicolor but startling to encounter in public… When I asked Don where he snagged his beautiful iron chairs, he said, “Romance got them for me.
– Hedda Hopper, October 1946
He gained some immediate acclaim for his designs, as in this 1946 Vogue feature:
Loper, also an interior designer (having worked on the Brown Derby and the Beverly Hills Hotel) as well as a clothing designer and entertainment Renaissance man, took over the space from William Haines, famed Hollywood actor-turned-interior designer and antique dealer.
Even amid the gilded pleasure domes and palaces of Hollywood, the Don Loper fashion salon is something ultra in swank and shimmer. To Loper’s Grecian temple-like establishment on the lush “Sunset Strip” come movie stars and others who can afford to pay $500 for a gown and prices scaled accordingly for hats, shoes and other accessories. Loper, a former ballroom dancer, several years ago turned his very apparent talents to the fields of interior decorating and exterior adornment for women. First he designed his salon to provide the proper setting of luxury and classic grace, then he began whipping up luscious one-of-a-kind creations that soon had movie queens treading a path to his portals. Loper’s creations seem to vary from numbers cut briefly but strategically, to cunningly swathed and draped affairs which cover, but certainly do not obscure the wearers.
– Buffalo Courier-Express, May 4, 1947
In 1947, Loper decorated the new ballroom at the Beverly Hills Hotel. In 1948 he designed a complete wardrobe for Lana Turner for about $30,000 (add a zero for today’s dollars). Said Hedda Hopper, “Created exclusively for Lana, it will consist of champagne lace over champagne satin. Topping it will be a prim little champagne lace hat threaded with oak velvet. (I’m jealous.)”
Beverly Hills Salon
In 1951, Loper moved to his new salon in Beverly Hills at 152 Rodeo Drive, which has since been torn down and is now part of a large real estate office (at one point it was the William Morris agency). At the time, however, he absolutely purred over it. The Niagara Falls Gazette reported in September of 1951 that “The new Don Loper salon in Beverly Hills is the last word in plush–from the thick black carpet to the elegant metal draperies (also in black). ‘Sexy, isn’t it?’ he asked, beaming. ‘Cost me a fortune. But I’ll get it back in no time.’” And I’m sure he did.
Don Loper in the market
Today, Don Loper designs are not terribly hard to find, but they often come with hefty price tags, especially the earlier ones. Expect to pay around $100-$800 for a coat or a suit (though I’ve seen suits for over $1000 and I’ve paid $40 for each of mine), and anywhere from $100-$800 for a dress (though again, mine have cost $40-90). I’ve never actually seen a couture piece of his, and he was so prolific with his ready-to-wear lines, sold in dozens of stores across the country, that it’s difficult to tell which pieces were high end, sold in his salon, and which were not. Two cocktail dress examples:
This dress was sadly butchered from its original form, having been irreversibly hemmed to just below the knee, let out in multiple seams, and possibly altered in some other very strange ways around the back and the internal structure. But the quality in the remaining cut and drape that is there, along with the unusual petal-shaped bust and lots of handwork in the bodice, make me think this was possibly a higher-end dress sold in the salon.
This one, with hand-sewn sequins all over the bodice, bears the same originals label but is made of a cute but inexpensive cotton:
It was also shortened, but has some hem allowance I need to let down at some point. I have seen labels that read “Don Loper Beverly Hills” and “Don Loper originals,” the assumption being that the former is mass-produced and the latter is from his couture salon. But both of these dresses bear the “Don Loper originals” label and I highly doubt they were couture. The construction of this second dress just doesn’t cut it. But Loper was somewhat transparent about the pricing of his clothing.
“I’m the only designer in the business who shows a dress for $39.95 along with one that sells for $3995.00… And I must honestly admit that the $39.95 dress is just as good a buy as the expensive one. The same thought, same workmanship, often the same materials, go into the cheaper one.” There is only one difference, according to Loper, and that is that he makes a thousand of the $39.95 model but only one of the expensive design.
– James Bacon, September 5, 1957
Loper launched his coat and suit line in 1951, from which this beauty emerged:
Another line to watch for is the “asymmetrical closing” suit jacket, which is built on such sound architectural principles that its off-center closing will hang with grace even when unbuttoned.
Cynthia Cabot, “Don Loper to Introduce Popular Priced Fashions,” Philadelphia Inquirer, April 17, 1951
This is one of three Don Loper suits I’ve had, and I have to say, they’re all very high quality, and they all exhibit some kind of magical quality I can’t quite pinpoint. But the odd thing about Don Loper designs to me is that there’s nothing that unifying to me about his work. It’s all sexy, it’s all shaped to an hourglass (until you get to his Eastern Airlines uniforms and 1960s suits), but it’s difficult to point to something and say, that’s a Don Loper, the way you can a Ceil Chapman or a Claire McCardell or a Dorothy O’Hara. But always appreciate his work, and I love my little collection of Don Lopers.
Loper died in 1972, after branching out into menswear and accessories and enjoying a very successful career. He lived in Beverly Hills with his “business partner” Charles Northrup, “in a big mansion surrounded by seven servants.”
“It is the only home in Beverly Hills,” says Loper, “with two swimming pools –– one for Chuck and me and the other for the staff.” Loper believes in 18th century living. His apartment in New York is lit entirely by candles… He doesn’t dance professionally anymore but still is rated the best dancing partner at any Hollywood party. “I keep in practice,” he says, “because these Paris designers are bound to smarten up one of these days and design clothes that make women look womanly. They could hurt me then.”
– AP, December 1958