Last Word: Roberta Hochberger Gruber Fashions a Legacy for Designers

Roberta Hochberger Gruber, wearing a black patterned jacket and glasses, is looking to the right and smiling.
Photo by Allie Ippolito for Margo Reed Studio

Designer and Drexel University Professor Emerita Roberta Hochberger Gruber still remembers the Chanel suit she saw as a student visiting the Drexel Historic Costume Collection — now the Robert and Penny Fox Historic Costume Collection — for the first time: “It was beautiful in color. The lining was the same silk chiffon as the blouse. So I guess that Chanel suit was probably something I have never forgotten.” 

She was a student in the very same design program of which she would later become department head for 11 years. A professor in fashion and design and design merchandising at Drexel for 30 years, Gruber also stewarded the school’s collection of designer pieces. During her tenure, the collection she once admired as a student swelled from 7,000 pieces to more than 20,000 today.

On Dec. 8, the Doña Gracia chapter of Hadassah in Philadelphia will honor the collection and the Jewish designer’s prevailing commitment to it with the “Visionary: The Curatorial Legacy of Roberta Hochberger Gruber” fundraising event.

“She is a very talented, Jewish, committed woman in an industry that is very tough: the fashion world, the teaching world,”  Hadassah chapter President Elaine Grobman said. “But she is all things to her students.”

Gruber would say that the corollary is true. She loved teaching and enjoyed seeing the designs of her students differ over the years, saying she never saw the same sketch twice. 

“I really feel that my purpose in life was to teach — it ultimately became teaching — and design was where my heart really was,” Gruber said.

Perhaps Gruber’s biggest demonstration of commitment to her students was in the development of the collection. From the time she graduated from Drexel as an undergraduate student in 1975 to becoming a full-time instructor there in 1986, the collection hadn’t grown or been well-managed, Gruber said. 

“I was convinced that this was an amazing resource that needed nurturing,” she said. “And that’s really what I worked towards.”

When she became the department head of design, she hired curator Clare Sauro to care for the collection and began hosting exhibits to make the space accessible to students, researchers and the greater community.

In 1994, Gruber hosted an exhibit called “Designer Sketchbook,” where she asked designers from all over the country to submit a piece and an accompanying sketch to be displayed. She received submissions from Oscar de la Renta, Donna Karan, Calvin Klein, Michael Kors and 10 other designers. After the exhibit, she asked them to consider donating a piece to the collection.

“It just started to grow and grow,” Gruber said of the collection.

Gruber grew up with an interest in fashion and design.

“It was always in my blood,” she said.

A lifelong Philadelphian originally from Mount Airy and now living in Center City, Gruber grew up with Jewish immigrant grandparents — her grandfather was from Russia and her grandmother, Latvia — with a knack for fashion. Her grandfather was a tailor, and her aunt, who dropped out of school early to work during the Great Depression, became the foreman at the factory at which her grandfather worked.

With an interest in art and a growing passion for design, Gruber decided to matriculate at Drexel in 1971, appreciating the school’s fast-paced nature. As an undergraduate, Gruber also took classes in math, psychology and the sciences, becoming a “well-rounded,” “grounded” student.

After graduating, Gruber stepped into the world of retail in Philadelphia, which was replete with designers and successful retailers at the time. For her senior collection, Gruber hand-painted silk and velvet, and her collection was featured in a big window display at Limited Editions on Walnut Street.

Gruber’s collections of wearable art, though not sustainable to make a living, were featured in several retail shops in the city and today have a home at the Robert and Penny Fox Historic Costume Collection. 

But beyond cataloging Gruber’s past as a designer, the collection contains a timeline of human creativity and growth, Gruber believes. By preserving and growing the collection, more people can access a part of society and history that represents humankind.

“Until we’re not wearing clothes anymore, fashion is going to be important,” Gruber said.

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