Whatever Happened to Rebecca Danenberg?

Rebecca Danenberg

Photo courtesy of Rebecca Danenberg

A look from WORK Custom.

Though the name Rebecca Danenberg likely falls on deaf ears for most shoppers under a certain age, any New York woman looking for the perfect pair of jeans in the mid-to-late '90s knew it well.

“When hipster pants were just beginning, Rebecca was making them to be worn in music videos,” says Steven Alan. “I remember thinking the proportions were great.”

With his help, Danenberg became a huge international success, eventually opening stores in both Tokyo and Osaka in addition to her 1,200-square-foot shop on E. 9th St. in New York––not to mention launching several diffusion lines before everybody had a diffusion line.

So what exactly happened to Danenberg? First, a little rewind.

In 1996, when the now defunct GenArt was just getting off the ground, Danenberg was named one of its Fresh Faces. She was a young designer who was making her name creating outfits for rock stars (think Madonna, Billy Idol, KISS) and had a serious knack for pants.

Soon after, Barneys started selling her line. Not that an uptown department store messed with her street cred––she was still selling out at Patricia Field and the storied TG-170, which she lived next to on the Lower East Side's Ludlow St.

Coming from a background in clothes—her parents manufactured juniors lines for over 20 years––Danenberg seemed like a prodigy. Her self-titled label, which showed at New York Fashion Week, was started with her business partner–husband, Charles Helm, on just $500.

With the aid of Alan––who helped nurture her career by once buying her entire collection to sell in his store and by promoting her designs alongside other new talents in a dedicated showroom–– Danenberg became a fashion magazine fixture.

Traditional press helped too. Her clothes were seen on the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow and the incredibly influential, albeit fictional, Carrie Bradshaw.

Danenberg hit a sweet spot among women trying to capture that just-emerging “downtown tough” look that’s now so effortless as to be almost rehearsed. “Take a little glam rock and a little utilitarian chic, mix it together with a bit of hip flavor, and you’ve got Rebecca Danenberg’s collection in a nutshell … She has a great way of mixing fabrics, like leather and lace, to create a hard yet feminine look,” crooned WWD in 1998. Alan confirms that “sales were great” in his store.

By the next year, Danenberg was flying high, set to open a flagship on Bond St., which was filling up with other cool designers like Katayone Adeli and Daryl K. But when the plans fell through due to “cost overruns and a zoning dispute,” it was just the first rock to tumble down in what would be a sudden avalanche of Danenberg’s company.

Though it had managed to double its sales every year and the staff swelled to 19 full-time employees, Danenberg’s label outgrew its line of credit. There are also reports of the bygone shopping site Boo.com placing a $120,000 order for Danenberg’s clothes but then never paying up. In 2000, Danenberg filed for Chapter 11, closely followed by personal bankruptcy in the same year.

“I was very surprised when the line folded,” says Alan.

All of Danenberg’s labels—Red Tape, known for “perfect-fitting bootleg styles,” according to Style.com; the junior-oriented Wreck Les line; her self-titled designer label—were suddenly gone, and here was New York’s premier cool designer looking for her next gig.

Everything that followed was pretty short-lived—a stint as associate designer at BCBG; some time spent helping to establish 7 for All Mankind as the new must-have jeans in 2001; a new label from Danenberg, Three Girls Running, that folded after two seasons; and finally, a pit stop at WORK Custom Jeans in 2008.

Danenberg, the original “downtown” designer, has been living in L.A. for nearly a decade.

When asked what she thinks of her former stomping ground, Danenberg doesn’t parse words, “Ludlow now is like what happened to Vegas!”

And who picked up the torch of downtown edge and cool? “I don’t think anyone has picked up where I left off. Those were different times, an era that has passed. Heroin chic, club kids, and grunge. Those days will never be duplicated. It was like the punk days. I think Alexander Wang and Alexander McQueen are the closest to carrying the torch!”

These days, you could say Danenberg is back to weighing her options. She’s designing part time for 7 again (“When I left they lost the vision I had implemented”), just helped Mother Denim “get off their feet too,” and says she’ll be working with other companies to help solidify their brand image.

But the real question presses: Can fans clutching onto faded 15-year-old Red Tape jeans expect a comeback?

“Yes, I do see myself launching a full line … in the near future,” Danenberg confirms via e-mail, adding, “Right now I will focus on helping others. I am in the market for a denim director position where I can make history!”

Meanwhile, Danenberg describes her current project at 7 as taking “a more sexy, hipster route, very sophisticated '70s vibe.”

Looks like fans will just have to settle for the next best thing in the meantime.


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