Gerry Sills, 97, formerly of Bala Cynwyd, a Philadelphia fashion icon who raised hundreds of thousands of dollars by asking her friends to put on a hat and come out in support of her favorite charitable causes, died Sunday, April 23, at the Watermark in Philadelphia.
Mrs. Sills had charisma, a flair for style, boundless energy, and an air of authority. When she requested her friends and associates to attend a white-glove tea party to raise money for hearing research, 300 of them appeared.
“Who would say, 'I don’t want to be part of it?'” said her daughter, Judith Sills Swartz. “How could you turn her down? You wanted to be part of the team.”
Her longtime friend, Sibby Brasler, said Mrs. Sills “was a doer and a goer, and she wanted to be a part of exciting things.” She swept her friends along with her, and they were thrilled to be in her orbit.
Starting in 1938 and continuing for more than a half-century, Mrs. Sills “dreamed up” benefits to raise funds for the Fashion Group International (which promotes fashion), Moore College of Art and Design, Drexel University Nesbitt College of Design Arts, the National Organization of Hearing Research, the Breast Health Institute, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and underserved city school children, her daughter said.
Many of the events, which she organized herself, were intended to help students facing financial hurdles. That was no accident; an orphan reared by her two older sisters, Mrs. Sills graduated from Philadelphia High School for Girls, but when the time came for college, there was no money for the classes.
“You have to go to work,” she was told by her family, her daughter said. Mrs. Sills, then 18, founded the Classic Shop, a fashion boutique at 18th and Walnut Streets in Center City for 20 years, then at 365 Montgomery Ave. in Bala Cynwyd, and finally in the Bellevue Hotel on S. Broad St. Though the shop established Mrs. Sills as a fashion icon throughout the city before closing in the late 1980s, that success never dimmed her disappointment in not being able to go to college.
With the help of friends, she set up a scholarship for fashion students at Drexel. Over the years, she devised lively benefits to fill its coffers, such as “An Evening of Style” in 1992.
“Guests will be treated to a reception, silent auction, dancing, and a show highlighting fashions of the past, present and future,” wrote the Inquirer’s Roy H. Campbell on Oct. 11.
Among the gowns shown was a pearl-encrusted Christian Dior worn by Leonore Annenberg when her husband was the U.S. ambassador to the Court of St. James. Mrs. Sills served as one of the runway models.
She was a style setter. When Mr. Pants tried to interest area retail stores in stocking its line of trousers for women in the 1960s, “no one would buy them,” said her daughter. Mrs. Sills was the first to carry the pants in her boutique.
Mrs. Sills also was a force behind the Do-Gooders, a nonprofit benefiting needy children in Philadelphia. In the late 1980s, she and her friends had been meeting monthly for lunch at a restaurant. Mrs. Sills woke up in the middle of the night and asked herself: Why couldn’t they meet over a brown-bag lunch and donate the money saved to charity, Swartz recalled.
“Some said no. Others said it was a wonderful idea,” Swartz said. On Jan. 28, 2010, the Do-Gooders celebrated Mrs. Sills’ 90th birthday with a tea at the Water Works Restaurant in Spring Garden. Mayor Nutter, who attended, declared the day “Gerry Sills Day.” The event raised $25,000.
Mrs. Sills was married for 68 years to Harold Sills, an attorney who died in 2010.
In addition to her daughter, she is survived by a granddaughter.
Funeral services will be held at 2:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 25, at West Laurel Hill Funeral Home, 215 Belmont Ave., Bala Cynwyd. Burial will follow the service. Shiva will be observed at the home of Randy and Judith Swartz until 9 p.m. Tuesday.
Donations may be made to the Gerry Sills Scholarship Fund at Drexel University, P.O. Box 8215, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101; the Central Committee of the Philadelphia Orchestra via https://www.philorch.org/support#; or the Do-Gooders via www.Dogoodersphila.org.