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Fashion Designer David Dartnell Dies at 61

David Dartnell, the designer who created the David Dart label and turned it into a multimillion-dollar business in the ’90s, died at the age of 61.

Dartnell died at Touro Hospital in New Orleans, the city that he lived in, on Nov. 13. The cause of death was a recent myocardial infarct and hypertensive cardiovascular disease, according to a spokesperson for the New Orleans medical examiner’s office. The manner of his death was deemed an accident.

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A memorial is being planned for a later date, Dartnell’s friend Lucy Keeler said.

A winner of The California Designer of the Year Award and the Dallas Fashion Award for contemporary sportswear, David Dart also had a signature sport group and a knitwear label in the ’90s. In addition to corporate sale showrooms in New York, Los Angeles, Dallas and Atlanta, there were David Dart Emporium stores in Santa Monica and Beverly Hills. Giving customers their “complete clothing needs” was his modus operandi in the mid-’90s.

Known for his relaxed silhouettes in bold colors and vibrant prints, the West Coast-based designer created a collection that appealed to working and nonworking women who favored affordable styles that weren’t overly complicated. The self-taught Dartnell had started designing on his own in 1985 and established his business, Force One, in 1987. By 1994, he had built what was said to be a $70 million company, which he sold to the Kellwood Co.

Jacqueline Rumohr, who worked with Dartnell from 1993 until 2001, credited Dartnell with creating a signature look that relayed this “very casual easy elegance.” Looking at mood boards with Tencel-based designs for a new sport line in his showroom in the early ’90s, she said she thought, “Oh my God, what do I have to do to work with this man?” While the industry today is swimming with athleisure and easy separates in the post-COVID-19 world, that was not the case 30-plus years ago.

Dartnell surrounded himself with highly creative and innovative people, she said. “He was also very supportive of small businesses in L.A. and helped them get off the ground.”

“He was a trailblazer, a risk-taker and often fearless. We would do things without any hesitation — just go and make it happen — just do it,” Rumohr said.

Dartnell was just 31 years old when the then-publicly traded St. Louis-based Kellwood Co. acquired his bridge-priced contemporary sportswear label and parent company, Force One. With his shoulder-length sun-kissed hair, easy smile and grizzled beard, Dartnell exuded a non-executive casualness that masked a business savviness. His prints often served as conversation starters such as one of people dancing in the streets of New Orleans during Mardi Gras. At the time of that acquisition, Dartnell told WWD that joining a large reputable company had been the the goal since his company’s inception. The designer stayed on with Kellwood initially in the role of president and design director.

That same year the designer returned to the fashion industry for a spell with the launch of a company called Deed — as in doing a good deed. Keeler, who owned the Keelergordon textile design studio at that time, praised Dartnell’s cleverness in recognizing the place in the market between sportswear and contemporary clothing. “She said, “He was the best salesman, who exuded charisma and was giant in statue. His creative focus was like a hawk. He lived by lists and was awake and ready to work by 5 a.m. Before he made a name for himself, he made strong relationships with specialty boutiques, who became his loyal customers.” adding that his business later took off with distribution in Saks Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdales and other major retailers.

Kellwood eventually repositioned the business as part of a new group, the David Dart Design Group. By 1998, sales had climbed to about $40 million.

After exiting the Kellwood Co. in 2004, Dartnell took two years off and retreated to his 200-year-old estate in New Orleans’ Lower Garden District, where he took to landscaping and horticulture. He remained committed to the city in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, having told WWD in July 2006, “The city is in complete disarray, but I can find peace there. New Orleans has such aesthetic beauty with its architecture, live oaks and horticulture. That’s where I go to mellow out, and at the same time it keeps me real.”

With his middle-of-the-road style and affordable pricing, Dartnell created collections for wear-to-work (when that was still a thing) and everyday dressing. He gained acclaim for his wide-ranging styles that included petite and large sizes. By his own account, Dartnell believed that “ Everything works. It’s about lifestyle and your own sense of style.”

Periscope Art founder Peri O’Connor recalled Monday how she would go see Dartnell every Monday morning in the ’90s to show him art that could be translated for his designs. At one point, their weekly meeting shifted to Saturdays and the designer would bring his toddler son to her Los Angeles house, since her daughter was the same age. Describing the designer as funny, warm and snarky, O’Connor said he once kept her waiting for two hours after becoming immersed in a project. O’Connor laughed endearingly about the encounter and said when Rumohr realized the delay and asked him why, Dartnell replied, “Please, I pay her mortgage.”

A cut-to-the-chase kind of person, Dartnell occasionally used his advertising to relay a more personal approach. In 1997, he ran a full-page ad with a small photo of himself looking relaxed, but assured with the tagline “focused sensible real” positioned like an E.E. Cummings poem. Two years prior, another full-page ad featured a full-length shot of a model wearing an apron dress with a short-sleeve blouson top, oxford shoes and a straw hat with a personal message of thanks to retailers for being nominated for the aforementioned Dallas Fashion Award.

Dartnell is survived by his son Devon.

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