This Year in Fashion – 2020

The zoom meeting became a popular way of only half dressing for work…

Not since World War II has so little and so much happened at the same time to the world of fashion. Fashion has remained virtually unchanged this year – there has been too small an audience to make much of an impact. Some manufacturers will be even re-offering their spring 2020 collection in 2021. While luxury market sales plummeted, the fashion industry has been forever altered and COVID-19 can be blamed for much of the disruption but not for everything. 

There was already a growing awareness of how damaging every aspect of the fashion industry is to the environment. Wage inequality for those working in the fashion industry was heightened by reports from China of hundreds of thousands of Uighur Muslims being forced to pick cotton. It will be interesting to see if and how the fashion market will react because a ban on slave-cotton would lead to a global shortage of the textile.

COVID did bring traditional in-store shopping to a near standstill, expediting the death of many chain and department stores: Neiman Marcus, Lord & Taylor, J.C. Penney, Brooks Brothers, J. Crew, Ann Taylor, Lane Bryant, Aldo, Le Chateau, Top Shop… Many of the chains were teetering for years and/or were unsustainable in expensive long-term leases. Department stores have been slowly dying since the 1980s, and the few who survive the full length of the pandemic will have to reinvent their business model. Some are reorganizing or have been bought out but in the current world of fashion, without fundamental changes any restructuring is akin to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Fashion businesses that have survived have had online sales to thank, especially if they were purveyors of athleisure: yoga pants and leggings, T-shirts and fleece hoodies – the only part of the market that was unscathed by the pandemic lockdowns.

Dress of the Year at the Bath Fashion Museum – a hazmat suit, pink latex gloves and face mask, worn by Naomi Campbell for a transatlantic flight in March (paired up with a camel coloured cape)

The season-system of fashion collections was already fading. Dior and Chanel have asserted they will stay with traditional collection show launches, but more designers are switching to smaller online launches through social media that coincide with their collection’s availability.

What COVID-19 is doing to fashion is erasing a decade’s worth of gradual progress. Fashion is fast-forwarding to a new era where designers have to consider how to create and market their clothes in a new way. Where is the cloth sourced? Do the dyes pollute? Are living wages paid? Is the workplace inclusive? Do the clothes promote body positivity?

The globalism movement of the late 20th century inadvertently created a movement for cultural identity and individualism. This is made evident in the rise of nationalistic governments, but it has also resulted in the conscious consideration of others, ensuring everyone is heard, and reconciling past injustices. Fashion will be reflecting this even more in coming seasons.

Chromat, Spring/Summer 2020

The most common question I am asked as the curator of the Fashion History Museum is if I think fashion will become more casual, or if we will see a return to glamour. My answer is that both will happen as it becomes more acceptable to express yourself on your own terms – whether that’s in sweatpants or full drag.

2020 saw the passing of two important Japanese designers who shaped late 20th century fashion, Kenzo Takada, and Kansai Yamamoto, as well as Italian shoe magnate Sergio Rossi and Italian born French designer Pierre Cardin, who was the last of his generation of postwar French couturiers who steered fashion towards a more youthful chic in the 1960s. The year also saw the birth of a new garment that has entered virtually everybody’s wardrobe – the mask. It will be interesting to see how long face masks will continue after the pandemic has passed.

Fashion Hall of Obscurity – Max Raab

Max Louis Raab was born in Philadelphia on June 9, 1927 to Herman and Fanny Raab, who owned a family-operated apparel company that specialized in making shirtwaists – affordable blouses worn with skirts by women of all classes for a variety of tasks and trades.

When Max returned from wartime service, he began working with his brother for the family business. Max soon realized that the postwar world was upwardly mobile and tastes and pocketbooks were allowing for a higher end product, especially for the younger teenage consumer in the growing post war suburbs. 

Max defined the new suburban preppy look by taking the tailored man’s shirt and turning it into a full-skirted shirtwaist style dress for women. Their new upscale country look was perfect for the suburbs that was neither the city nor the country, and was launched in 1958 under The Villager label. Around the same time he also launched Rooster ties, which made square ended straight grain ties in great textiles.

The Villager dresses were typically made in cotton or cotton blend fabrics, the style was the ultimate WASP dress, appropriate for the office, school, home or date night. The style was also quickly picked up by Hollywood, who used shirtwaists as go-to looks for TV moms.

Produced in men’s shirting, and then prints from companies like Liberty of London, textile artist Marielle Bancou Segal was brought in in the mid 60s to create prints in the textile studios of Kenmill, in New England. The brand was typically sold through a shop-within-a-department store locations that catered to the preppy chic customer. A younger line was created in the 60s called Lady Bug fashions that featured turtleneck sweaters, kilts, tights, slacks and simple dresses. The look grew into a collegiate look popularized by actresses like Ali McGraw, who wore Villager clothes for the filming of Love Story in 1970.

1970 was also the year, Raab recognized that fashion was heading a different direction and he sold all his companies to Jonathan Logan and turned his interest towards film production. Max returned to the fashion industry in 1974, setting up the company J.G. Hook, which specialised in women’s sportswear, often with a nautical flair. In 1989 he opened Tango, a necktie manufacturing company.  Max Raab was dubbed ‘The Dean of the Prep Look’ by Women’s Wear Daily. In 1998, Max sold off his share in the company and retired. He died in 2008. 

Herb Goldsmith 1927-2020

Members Only magazine ad, Gatlin brothers modelling, c. 1983

Herb Goldsmith was the man behind the Members Only brand. Born in the Bronx on September 3, 1927, his father was a traveling salesman for the garment company Chief Apparel. Herb served in Northern Italy during World War II where he worked as a disc jockey on Armed Forces Radio. Afterwards he went to Long Island University on a G.I. bill and graduated in 1950 with a degree in marketing. He then went to work for his father who, with partner Edwin Wachtel, had founded the company Europe Craft Imports.

While working for this company, Herb came up with the idea of using celebrities to sell clothes, including Tony Curtis and Bing Crosby. In the 1970s he came up with the name ‘Members Only’ for a clothing line – the idea was borrowed from a sign he saw at the Long Island Country Club. In 1978 Herb copied the idea for a jacket with epaulets and a Nehru collar he had seen on a trip to Germany, adding a ‘member’s only’ tag below the breast pocket, and offering his version in a rainbow of colours. The line was so successful, the whole company was renamed Member’s Only.

In 1986 he felt celebrity advertising was becoming stale, so he took the company’s six million dollar advertising budget and switched to making sponsored public service announcements. The first public service campaign addressed the crack epidemic, the second urged people to vote. Some television stations refused to show the spots but they received advertising industry awards and sales climbed 25% over the next four years.

Herb sold his company and left the garment business in 1992 to become an investor and broadway producer. Members Only jackets are still being made. Herb Goldsmith died February 22.

Barneys (1923 – 2019)

Barney Pressman standing in front of his men’s clothing store at 7th Ave and 17th Street, 1923

Founded in 1923 by 29 year old Barney Pressman, the men’s clothier grew to become a New York institution. Barney originally acquired his stock from bankruptcies and manufacturer overstocks, offering deep discounts to his working class clientele. Barney’s son Fred officially took over the store in 1975, although Barney remained influential in all business decisions until his death in 1991. Fred polished the store’s reputation, and expanded the business, venturing into women’s clothing and housewares in 1977. Around the same time Fred brought in his two sons Bob and Gene to learn the family business. Wanting to make Barney’s larger, Pressman’s grandsons pushed to partner with Japanese retailer Isetan in the late 1980s. In an expansion designed to rival Bergdorf Goodman, a glitzy flagship department store was opened at Madison and 61st in 1993.

Barneys followed a classic three-generation business arc (first generation makes, second generation maintains, third generation loses) when Isetan pulled out, leaving Barneys to face bankruptcy in 1996. The company was sold and left control of the Pressman family. Fred Pressman died that same year.

After several different owners, the store once again declared bankruptcy in August 2019. The company was bought out and will be dismantled – its stock sold at deep discounts during the 2019 Christmas season (angering competing New York luxury retailers). Barneys joins New York store Henri Bendel that also closed this year, and many other once great, now defunct New York department stores: Arnold Constable, Bonwit Teller, Abraham & Straus, and Gimbel’s.

Forever 21 may not get much older than 35…

Forever 21 just filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and will close almost 1/4 of its stores and withdraw from some overseas markets.

Originally called ‘Fashion 21’, the company was founded in April 1984 by Korean born Do Won Chang as a young woman’s boutique in Los Angeles. The shop has focussed on trendy fast fashions although it now also includes some girl’s and menswear. Over the past 35 years, the company grew into an international brand and retailer culminating in 800 stores around the world – its largest growth period (doubling in size) occurred in the last decade.

The company has come under criticism over the years. There were some employee relations issues but also accusations of sexism and of pushing a Christian agenda via sayings written on shirts. There were also issues of shortchanging customers on refunds, using toxic materials in its jewellery production, and copyright infringement lawsuits by a number of companies, including Diane von Furstenberg and Gwen Stefani. Most lawsuits were settled out of court. It’s almost impossible for such a large company to avoid lawsuits, however, the company is equally litigious towards others.

The original L.A. location, c. 1984

Cultural Appropriation or Admiration?

The topic of fashion and cultural appropriation rears its head once again – this time Dior is in trouble for an advertising campaign that got nixed before it was even launched. A campaign for their men’s fragrance Sauvage (which means ‘Wild’ in French), starring Johnny Depp, has already been pulled. Clips of a Native dancer and Rosebud Sioux Native actor Canku One Star are shown between images of Johnny Depp playing the guitar and doing ‘Johnny Depp’-like loner activities.

Dior said in a release that the advertisement “was meant to be a celebration of the beauty, dignity, and grace of the contemporary Native American culture”. It was created with the full cooperation of the Americans for Indian Opportunity (AIO) organization who stated: “The goals of AIO for providing consultations on media productions are to ensure inclusion of paid Native staff, artists, actors, writers, etc., to educate the production teams on Native American contemporary realities and to create allies for Indigenous peoples. AIO does not speak for all Native Americans. We are proud to have successfully achieved our goals of education and inclusion for this project with Parfums Christian Dior.” However, once a massive backlash began over the advert, AIO wrote via Instagram “Americans for Indian Opportunity (AIO) deeply regrets its participation in the Dior campaign.”

While I can point out some issues I have with the ad (where does Johnny Depp plug in his electric guitar on top of a mesa, why the Inukshuk, and why is there a Plains dancer in the Southwest?), the mob ready to lynch Dior was out of proportion to any offence the advert may have inadvertently created. Knee-jerk reactions to anything that smacks of cultural appropriation are leading to a world where everything is so culturally segregated that there will be public shaming unless only the rehashing of established boundaries are pursued by anybody judged to be of European descent. As writer Vanessa Friedman of the New York Times points out, that for Dior: “…it doesn’t encourage any kind of cross-cultural fertilization or civil debate. When you get mocked for claiming you tried, why try at all? And if you don’t try at all, where does that leave us? Endlessly plowing the same New Look furrow…”

What this will do is make producers of adverts, television shows, and films, avoid referring to, showing, or hiring anyone Native for any production. It’s not worth the trouble.

Camping It Up On The First Monday In May

Last night’s Met gala event for their latest exhibition ‘camp’ was all about being ‘extra’ — tacky, over-the-top, cheesy, artificial, tasteless, ostentatious, exaggerated, and probably gender and age inappropriate… Needless to say, the fashions worn on the red carpet were not really about clothes, but costume one-offs. There was no point to judging who wore what best because everyone went campy.

However, I thought there were some looks worth noting:

Zendaya’s transformation from a dress of grey ash into a Cinderella blue ball gown – total Disney Camp!

Contemporary labels worth collecting… Hoss Homeless

Privately owned by AT LEAST S.A., this Spanish women’s fashion firm is headquartered in Madrid. Founded in 1994 by Constantino Hernandez Duran, who worked his way up through the advertising business and fashion industry before starting his own company, originally called his company Hoss Homeless. The company changed its name in 2007 to Hoss Intropia (a combination of introspection and utopia) when it sought international expansion as ‘Homeless’ had a negative connotation. Intropia conducts wholesale business, as well as retail through their own Intropia stores.

Glamour Magazine, 1939 – 2019

Glamour magazine is packing it in after 80 years. Founded by Condé Nast in 1939, Glamour is the latest women’s/fashion magazine to come to an end. Condé Nast pulled the plug on Teen Vogue last year, and Hearst publishing announced last week that as of next year, Seventeen magazine would no longer be regularly published. The once lucrative business of print publishing is quickly winding down. Condé Nast reported making 120 million less than projected last year which has resulted in some serious belt tightening, including putting up several magazine titles for sale including Brides and W. The last issue of Glamour will be January 2019.