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Mellinger, Founder of Frederick's of Hollywood, Dies

June 04, 1990|BURT A. FOLKART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Frederick Mellinger, whose fascination with a World War II pinup picture eventually became the provocatively popular and profitable Frederick's of Hollywood, died Saturday night at his Brentwood home.

Morton Field, attorney for the nationally known purveyor of naughty nightwear and women's undergarments, said Sunday that Mellinger, who had retired in 1984, was 76.

He died of the complications of pneumonia and had also been suffering from Alzheimer's disease.

Until his retirement, Mellinger ran his retail chain of 160 stores and a multimillion-dollar mail-order business from a garish two-story building on Hollywood Boulevard that was as colorful as the push-up bras, crotchless panties and derriere-enhancing lingerie it contained.

The dapper, mustachioed Mellinger, who said he was successful because "I never listen to Paris designers . . . they don't dress women for men," had the exterior of his headquarters building painted purple and the interior cranberry and peach.

From there his passion fashion grew to a multimillion-dollar concern thanks in no small part to Mellinger himself.

He was a tireless promoter on TV talk shows, including Johnny Carson, and his annual report to stockholders included summaries of the media attention the founder of the padded or paste-on empire had generated in the last year.

The genesis of what was then considered Mellinger's scandalous enterprise came in World War II when he was a GI stationed in the Midwest. Like millions of other soldiers, he had pinned a picture on a wall of Betty Grable displaying her famous legs. Unlike his fellow soldiers, he asked his buddies what they found attractive in women's dress.

Equipped with this less than scientific survey, he opened a 4-by-4-foot office in New York City, calling it Frederick's of Fifth Avenue. There he designed women's clothes from a man's point of view.

He nearly went broke and in 1947 moved to Los Angeles, where he sold lingerie from a small shop in Chinatown. A movie fan since childhood, (many of the early Frederick's catalogues contained drawings suggestive of the starlets of the 1930s and '40s), Mellinger next moved to Hollywood.

For years all the American public knew of Frederick's came from those catalogues, but in the 1960s Mellinger began to open outlets in malls. They proved an immediate success for, as Mellinger liked to observe, "sex never goes out of fashion."

Despite the daring designs and the cost, most of his customers came not from the fleshpots of large cities but from Middle America.

Women shopped for his wares while pushing baby strollers and men could be seen on their lunch hours buying nighties for the mothers of their children.

In what some saw as a ploy to obviate charges of sexism, Mellinger in 1979 introduced a line of briefs for men, though the business remained oriented toward women.

Yet styles do change, and some of Frederick's stock-in-trade came to be seen as routine rather than risque. The firm suffered its first yearly loss in 1984.

Mellinger stepped down as chairman and chief executive, replaced by George W. Townson, who set about changing Frederick's image.

Frederick's catalogues no longer push sexual aids, bondage devices and X-rated videos. Tasteful clothing and underwear are worn by wholesome-looking models.

And last fall, the purple Hollywood headquarters was painted gray.

Mellinger himself, unlike his building and inventory, presented a conservative facade, seated in an office filled with family photos.

"Many people," he said in a 1981 Times interview, "expect me to be a dirty, old lecherous man. I think they're kind of disappointed when I'm not."

Survivors include his wife, Harriett, a son, daughter and five grandchildren. Services will be private and contributions are asked to the John Douglas French Foundation for Alzheimer's Research, 11620 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, 90025.

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