The Fox Company, Bessie Van Wickle-McKee’s favorite dressmaker, was one of the oldest and most elite dressmaking establishments in the United States. Founded by the four Fox sisters in 1885, it occupied an elegant house at 53 East 34th Street in New York City. Under the Fox sisters, the business flourished, ultimately employing 225 people. The sisters’ marketing policy was relatively simple but clever – there was no sign on the door and they never advertised, thus giving the appearance of exclusivity. And their wealthy clients willingly recommended them to their friends. Their reputation as a fashion house imbued with an aristocratic flavor allowed them to confine their customer base to the fashionable set.
By the early 1890s Bessie Van Wickle had become a patron of the Fox sisters’ establishment. She spent weeks at a time in New York City, staying at the Plaza Hotel with her husband Augustus who was conducting business in the city. Fox quickly became Bessie’s favorite couturier, and most of her gowns were made by them. When she moved to Boston with her second husband William McKee in 1901 she commented that she would not be purchasing her gowns in that city—she would be staying with Fox. She made frequent buying trips to New York, spending the modern-day equivalent of thousands of dollars at a time. A January 1911 invoice includes one dress costing the equivalent of $10,600, with one day’s shopping spree totaling $72,000 (in today’s dollars)!
By 1903 the Fox sisters were very wealthy, and ready to retire, so they sold the business to Mrs. Edward Douglas. Mrs. Douglas retained all the Fox customers by making no changes in the sales staff and keeping the elegant house exactly as the Fox sisters had. She also traveled regularly to Europe in search of new fashions, exquisite fabrics, and gorgeous trims.
By 1911 the tone of East 34th Street had begun to change from an upscale residential district to a more commercial one, so Mrs. Douglas moved her establishment to a more gracious neighborhood. She bought the Havemeyer house at 10 East 57th Street, on a very fashionable block between Madison and Fifth Avenue, and next door to Paul Durand-Ruel’s art gallery. She filled the new establishment with beautiful furnishings from Europe, and maintained her reputation as the couturier of New York’s most influential women.