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Friday, June 14, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Olive Smith, 79, Set Seattle Fashion, Style

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

Swathed in soft knits or lush leather, her high cheekbones and piercing eyes enhanced by chic silver hair, Olive Smith helped shape Seattle style for 50 years.

Whether working as a buyer for Nordstrom, planning activities for The Fashion Group (an organization of fashion professionals) or serving on the costume council of the Museum of History and Industry, the New York native brought an international perspective to Northwest fashion.

"Pantsuits are here forever," she declared of her fashion passion in 1974. "Chinese women have been wearing them for centuries. We have for just a few years. Why not? They are versatile, chic and comfortable."

Ms. Smith, who in 1978 was among the first American executive women invited to Beijing by the Chinese government, died June 7 in Seattle of cancer. She was 79.

"She was a legend at Nordstrom," said Sherry Sanford, of The Fashion Group International Seattle Chapter. "We were sometimes buying in the same designer showroom in New York, and she was very well respected there."

Ms. Smith researched Northwest fashion history, supported the Northwest in general and promoted endeavors of others, said Gail Cottle, Nordstrom executive vice-president.

"She loved going to those arena (fashion shows) held with cutting-edge designers," Cottle said. "She took great pleasure in seeing other people's new ideas."

Cottle added that Ms. Smith excelled at creating her own look.

"She loved to mix designers with other designers. She didn't believe in following the fashion of the season, but in setting your own style. She was very true to that."

Ms. Smith graduated from New York's Traphagen School of Fashion Design and worked as a buyer for Associated Merchandising Corp.

In 1943 she moved to the West Coast and was a buyer for Rhodes Department Store in Seattle, and The Crescent in Spokane, before coming to The Bon Marche in Seattle in 1956.

In 1963 she went to work for Nordstrom, the store formed when three brothers bought Best's Apparel and combined it with the shoe store founded in 1901 by their father, John Nordstrom. She liked telling how one of the brothers, Lloyd Nordstrom, reportedly told her, "I want you to be the bell cow (herd leader) of Seattle."

She traveled to Italy, Hong Kong and Israel for leading-edge fashion and was an authority on knits.

She retired from Nordstrom in 1978, but continued in fashion consulting. She also volunteered at Providence Medical Center, helping make the gift shop a success.

Ms. Smith is survived by her longtime friend Caroline Ahmanson

of Los Angeles.

A memorial gathering will be held later. Remembrances may go to KCTS-TV, 401 Mercer St., Seattle, WA, 98109; Medic One Foundation, c/o Harborview Medical Center, Mail Stop ZA-35, 325 Ninth Ave., Seattle, WA, 98104, or Providence Medical Center Foundation, 500 17th Ave., P.O. Box 34008, Seattle, WA, 98124.

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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