A celebration of life is being planned for Dorris Yaffe, a former Saks Fifth Avenue executive who wove activism into her work decades before it was fashionable to do so.
Yaffe, 94, died of natural causes in her Lewis Wharf apartment in Boston on Dec. 7, according to Jacob Abrams, Yaffe’s great nephew.
As much as Yaffe loved fashion and was friendly with Lucian Pellat-Finet, Bill Blass, Oscar de la Renta, Halston and other high-profile designers, “she was really devoted to social activism — long before that was a term,” Boston magazine columnist Jonathan Soroff said. “She also was a woman, who was married to a wealthy man and she came from a wealthy family. She didn’t need to work. She just would have been bored if she hadn’t. She was sort of Boston’s version of Iris Apfel with the same kind of zest for life.”
Soroff, a friend of 30 years, recalled Yaffe’s indomitableness during an all-time favorite trip to Tanzania years ago to visit Charles Stith, who was serving as Bill Clinton’s ambassador at that time. During a dinner with a sitting president of one of the African countries, Yaffe asked if ritualistic female circumcision was still practiced in his country. “She was absolutely fearless and a very political creature.”
Racial equity, AIDS awareness and even the plight of dairy workers were some of the causes that she amplified through her work in the 1980s. Summing up her career amounted to “using fashion and, in a way, high society to champion social activist causes. She did not want to sit around and be among the Ladies Who Lunch, but to be with the ones at the front of the picket line leading the charge,” he said.
Born Dorris Slobodkin in Boston, her father Jacob worked in the city’s meatpacking district and dabbled in real estate development and her mother Frances Porter was a concert pianist with the New England Conservatory. The family of four resided in leafy Chestnut Hill, a suburb of Boston, and Yaffe’s childhood and adult life remained rooted in her home city.
A connector in the human sense, Yaffe first started volunteering at the age of 14 at the South End Settlement House. Her activist inclinations were cultivated by an industrious paternal aunt, who lived alone on a farm without any electricity or running water in Lakeville, Mass. “She was a very independent woman and she impressed upon Dorris the importance of not just women’s rights, but also more specifically fighting for rights and activism in general. Dorris carried that throughout her life,” Abrams said.
“She loved to host a bunch of interesting people in her apartment to have wonderful conversations.…That’s what she loved to do — connecting people.”
In addition, Yaffe understood the gravitas of personal loss, having experienced that in childhood. Her mother suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and had to be placed in a medical facility for adequate care. “Conversely, she knew what it was like to have someone take the time to look at you in the eye, smile and be nice, warm and giving. She wanted to spread that in the world,” Abrams said.
Her route to what was then known as Lesley College, and is now called Lesley University, was post-matrimonial. She was just 16 when she met her future husband Wallace, who was then enlisted in the U.S. Marines. After earning a degree in psychology and sociology, she settled into the 1950s housewife life in Waban, Mass., but not for very long, “knowing that was not the life she was destined for,” according to Abrams.
Yaffe’s interest in fashion started in the 1960s as one of the well-heeled customers buying couture from the Boston-based designer Alfred Fiandaca. After Fiandaca, whose clients included Audrey Hepburn, Nancy Reagan and Lady Bird Johnson, opened a Newbury Street boutique, Yaffe started working for him. Yaffe later worked for another high-end specialist, Sara Fredericks, in her signature Boston boutique and later moved onto the now long-shuttered specialty store Bonwit Teller.
But the role that defined Yaffe’s career was at Saks Fifth Avenue in Boston, which she joined in 1984 and served as director of fashion, public relations and special events. Her identity was so synonymous with the retailer that she was nicknamed “Mrs. Saks Fifth Avenue.” That title wasn’t just something that her husband, colleagues and clients used. Describing how a friend in France had once mailed a package addressed to “Mrs. Saks Fifth Avenue Prudential Center,” Abrams said, “Boom— it showed up right on her desk, as if the U.S. Postal Service itself knew who she was. I’m sure the zip code helped.”
Jaqui Lividini, a former Saks Fifth Avenue executive in New York, described Yaffe as “the most connected person” she ever met in Boston. “She seemed to know everyone in Boston, who could get you to wherever you needed to go. It was a great talent that she had. That kind of connecting is a lost art. Now everything is email. But she was the real deal and was just very impressive with what she did.”
At that time, the retailer was owned by the holding company British American Tobacco and each store had the autonomy — and the budget — to do what they chose to. Upon joining Saks, Yaffe staged a fashion show to benefit Fisk University, the historically Black liberal arts college in Nashville. The impetus was to invite the wealthy and elite Black Bostonians to mingle with the affluent Boston Brahmins in Saks Fifth Avenue — an icebreaking venture for the social set amidst the city’s desegregation busing crisis.
In 1987, Yaffe orchestrated another landmark gathering by organizing a fashion show in the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s Back Bay subway station to benefit victims of AIDS. By her own account, that marked the first time a fashion retailer had taken action to fight AIDS. The Council of Fashion Designers of America’s “Seventh on Sale” initiative was held three years later in New York.
Yaffe’s progressive attitudes extended to her marriage. In 1986, after taking on the Saks position and discussing with her husband the prospect of living solo during the workweek in a North End apartment, Yaffe moved into the waterfront Lewis Wharf address. In the 1980s, Boston’s burgeoning suburbs had made commuting more of a task. Weekends were spent with their two sons, Jeffrey and Peter, in the couple’s Waban home. Yaffe continued to live there, primarily independently, until a few years ago, when home health aides were needed.
In 1989, Yaffe didn’t sacrifice her love of fashion while milking a cow outside of the state office to draw attention to the plight of dairy workers. She turned up in a Valentino gown, Magli shoes and Tiffany & Co. earrings.
Her activism and energy didn’t wane after exiting Saks in 1993. After the Occupy Wall Street movement had spread to Occupy Boston in 2010, with supporters stationed outside of corporate bank offices in the financial district, Yaffe pitched in at the age of 81, delivering food to the “hundreds” who camped out regularly and addressing the crowd at one point. Yaffe even invited a few of the organizers to the Parisian-style salons she organized. “She loved to host a bunch of interesting people in her apartment to have wonderful conversations — and always in a very fashionable setting. That was her. That’s what she loved to do — connecting people,” Abrams said.
Post-Saks, Yaffe had started a consulting business for a stint before deciding she preferred to work completely on her own terms. A typical day started with a wake-up time of 11 a.m., breakfast, then phoning a list of at least 10 people to call — not including relatives and friends. Yaffe attended two events or more daily and routinely came home at 3 a.m. and stayed up chatting on the phone for an hour.
A private service was held for Yaffe on Dec. 13. That morning a two-alarm fire struck the Waban house that her two sons had lived in together for decades right around the corner from the house where they had grown up in. Peter Yaffe died more than a week later at Massachusetts General Hospital. An investigation into the fire is expected to be closed a in a few weeks, according to Newton Fire Department Lt. Brian Healy.
Always focused on the work, as in the impact that fashion could have from a social activism standpoint, as well as her contribution to that at one point, Yaffe didn’t give much thought to her legacy. In keeping with her instructions, a public celebration of Yaffe’s life will be held this spring, possibly in April. Everyone in Boston and beyond “who knew her and loved her” will be welcome to attend, Abrams said. “There won’t be any crying or in memoriam. It will be full of fun stories about her life, who she was and the impact that she had on this town.”