Fashion Designer, Cabaret Performer and Travel Journalist Jon Haggins Dies at 79

Jon Haggins, whose fame started with a fashion career and morphed into ones in music and travel, died June 15.

The 79-year-old was found at his home in Queens, New York, where he had been recovering from a broken hip after falling in Athens, Greece, according to Chee Chee Williams, one of the friends who had joined him on that excursion. The cause of death had not been determined, she said.

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A September tribute is being planned on what would have been Haggins’ 80th birthday, a milestone that he had been eager to celebrate.

Industrious, kind, opinionated and outgoing, Haggins continually reinvented himself after initial success following his 1966 debut, and then a series of fits and starts in the fashion industry. Coming of age with fellow Black designers Scott Barrie, Stephen Burrows and Willi Smith, he was the first to break through with distribution in swanky retailers B. Altman and Company, Bonwit Teller and others.

In the high-flying ’70s, New York City’s nightlife was essential to not only until-dawn merriment, but also making professional connections. A familiar face at The Sanctuary, Arthur, Studio 54 and other clubs, the enterprising Haggins capitalized on some of those friendships. Over time, he dressed such celebrities as Diana Ross, Joan Collins, Debbie Allen, Diahann Carroll, Raquel Welch and Farrah Fawcett, and gave the iconic model Naomi Sims one of her first major fashion jobs.

The Florida-born Haggins was raised by his grandfather and at the age of nine, moved with his younger sister to New York to live with their mother. After attending the High School of Fashion Industries, he enrolled as a 17-year-old at the Fashion Institute of Technology, where Burrows was a classmate. After earning his diploma, he first worked in the back rooms of fashion companies, which he quickly decided he didn’t want to do. Haggins also worked at McCall’s Simplicity Patterns for a stretch to learn how to make patterns as a patternmaker, a short-lived post that indirectly spurred him into starting a business.

Gentlemanly, intercontinental, international in his friendships and ever-fit, Haggins sported a white suit as his trademark and befriended such luminaries as Jack Nicholson, Sidney Poitier, Shirley MacLaine and Arthur Mitchell. Haggins claimed to be the first fashion designer to cast a runway show entirely with Black models in 1967. “This was when ‘Black is beautiful’ was a theme in the United States, but designers hadn’t really done that yet,” said Dreamleapers founder Harriette Cole, who interviewed Haggins a month ago for the HistoryMakers series.

By his own account, Haggins once said, “Scott Barrie, Stephen Burrows, Willi Smith, and I were doing our thing and making our fashion statements while the Black Revolution was happening across America. We were a pack that revolutionized fashion with our own style in the late ’60s.”

During last month’s interview, Haggins mentioned the financial struggles he faced in the fashion industry, despite his success. His 40-year archives are housed in the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

Model-turned-restaurateur Norma Jean Darden said Wednesday that the designer was also the first to use her in a fashion show. Early on he could be found working from his home cutting his designs on the floor of his Kips Bay apartment, where he also welcomed troves of creatives to his all-are-welcome parties at night.

Weekly arrangements of fresh-cut flowers abounded in his apartment when he was at the top of his game fashion-wise. “He was ‘Mr. It,’” Darden said definitively.

His popularity on the social scene, especially with well-heeled socialites, helped him to self-promote, Cole noted. “He said his race was really not an impediment at all for him,” she said.

In addition to modeling for Haggins, Darden handled public relations and helped him with his then four-person business. To appear that the company had more employees, she would introduce herself as “Cerise Stevens,” a pseudonym the designer had dreamed up, the first name inspired by the deep red color. For booking models, she went by Norma Jean. At his request, she was the unofficial caterer too, and started cooking to accommodate showroom clients and fashion show guests. Haggins later encouraged the Spoonbread founder to open a restaurant and scouted a location. (Twenty-five years later the caterer and restaurant owner is still at it with Miss Mamie’s Spoonbread Too.)

When his fashion career faltered due to financial reasons, he became a cabaret performer, enlisting a few of his former models as backup singers — dressed in his designs. “That was really shocking especially for me, since I couldn’t sing,” Darden said. (His business woes were equally startling to her, due to his unfaltering can-do attitude.)

But Haggins could sing, as evident through a performance at Studio 54, countless cabaret appearances and the occasional piano accompaniment by American composer Cy Coleman.

Later he evolved professionally again, when the Cortell Group founders’ Jules and Margot Cortell recruited him to lead travel tours and stage fashion shows in Africa and other regions.

“Every time he had a hard-luck situation, he bounced back in another career. He wound up having a weekly television show on travel called ‘Globetrotter,’ jetting off to Mexico, Asia, Italy and other locations to explore the cultures and cuisines. Then he started writing restaurant reviews for newspapers and, incredibly, he became a food traveler,” Darden said. “He really traveled all over the world — for free — because people would pay for him to come to visit their resorts or hotels to put them on television.”

The show opened with Haggins seemingly fast-stepping on a globe. His sendoff for each episode was “Get up and travel. See the world!” The physically fit designer cycled in the ’70s decades before New York City had designated bike lanes, and swam nearly daily in his later years. Haggins could not walk past Macy’s or Brooks Brothers without dropping by to browse and often buy swim trunks, Darden said.

All in all, Haggins would want to be remembered as “a creative, who lived his dreams. He was a successful fashion designer, cabaret performer and a travel journalist. He had spent the last 20 years exploring great places, where people enjoy life. Isn’t it interesting that his last trip was in Greece, where he was enjoying his life? He lived fully.”

So much so, every Monday Haggins met Darden on her one day off to attend a play, visit a museum or find a new out-of-the-way lunch place. “Then he would come back to feature the restaurant on his TV show, if he liked it. If he didn’t like it, he would tell them [laughs]. He was always outspoken and he always spoke to strangers. In New York, that’s a bit rare. For some people, that was annoying,” she said.

Anyone with a dog merited a hello-Spot greeting, which either prompted a madman-like glance or a conversation starter. Always with an antenna up to communicate with people, Haggins once asked a struggling man using a walker to take his photo with Darden, as they had at each restaurant they dined at. “The man sprang to his feet and was so glad to be useful. He said, ‘Oh, I used to be a photographer.’ His hands were shaking and we all look like the Leaning Tower of Pisa,” the former “Battle of Versailles” model said. “But it is my favorite picture, because it shows Jon’s interaction with humanity. Wherever he found it, people responded to it.”

Haggins is survived by his sister Grant. In keeping with his wishes, his body has been donated for medical research.

Launch Gallery: Jon Haggins Dies at 79: Images Through the Years

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