Fashion Hall of Obscurity – Kandahar Designs

Last week we received a donation of some clothing primarily from the 1970s to the 1990s. Amongst the items was a late 1970s striped grey cotton ‘A’ line sundress with the label ‘Kandahar Designs – Boston’. A few google searches resulted in an interesting back story

In 1970 or 1971, Eli Zelkha was heading down to Florida for spring break with Archie — (his last name is never revealed), a pre-med college mate from Colgate University in upstate New York. On the trip down they talked about what they would be doing that summer. Archie had $5,000 and suggested the two go to Afghanistan to buy ‘cool stuff’ to resell. During their summer they purchased a very expensive Bengal tiger skin rug, scores of antique 19th century Afghani rifles, and 800 men’s wedding shirts from dealers in Kabul.

When their purchases arrived in the United States, the tiger skin rug was confiscated, there was no interest in the rifles from collectors, and the shirts were used, stained, and mis-sized. All they could do was try to salvage what they could from the shirts, so they dyed them to cover the stains and then consigned them through boutiques. One shop offered to share his booth at an upcoming New York sale in lieu of payment for some shirts, and the shirts were a hit. Mademoiselle magazine snapped some up for a fashion shoot, and other fashion mags and leading stores followed.

The next problem was filling orders. By 1972, Eli and Archie had moved from being importers to manufacturers when they hired tailors in Afghanistan to make the items to order. As the interest in ethnic clothing grew, especially after Yves St. Laurent’s success with ethnic-inspired collections, the two expanded the business, hiring fashion designers to remake Afghani clothes and textiles into Western styles, like sundresses.

The venture was a huge success until 1979 when the Iranian revolution lead to Russia invading Afghanistan. Even though ethnic fashions were already cooling in popularity, Eli bought out Hindu Kush, a competitor clothing business that sourced similar clothes. He then attempted to shift production to different styles of clothing, but the business failed.

There is a great article that tells the story in more detail, as well as the video below, with Eli Zelhka telling his story first hand. BTW, the owner of Hindu Kush was Tom Freston who went on to found MTV in 1981, and Eli Zelhka went on to head the team that invented Ambient Intelligence in 1998.

The Year That Just Keeps Taking…

COVID-19 has decimated retail. Since the beginning of May American retailers Neiman MarcusJ. CrewJ.C. PenneyBrooks Brothers, Ann Taylor and now Lord and Taylor have all filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy to shed debt and break expensive leases for their stores. Lord & Taylor’s roots date back to 1826 – the oldest department store in the U.S. and has been famous for its holiday windows since 1938.

Brooks Brothers Bites the Dust

I was not surprised when I read this morning that Brooks Brothers was filing for bankruptcy protection. The company blames the pandemic, but is that really the problem? I knew they were in trouble years ago.

Founded in 1818, the company boasts that they have dressed 40 U.S. presidents and that much of their product is still made in the U.S., which means it is well made, but not fast-fashion-cheap. The company was sold by English parent company Marks and Spencers to Italian owner Claudio Del Vecchio in 2001 who looked to update the stodgy reputation of Brooks Brothers by appealing to a younger crowd — this was the beginning of its downfall.

I have bought a lot of my clothes from Brooks Brothers over the past 20 years but what I found was that it gradually became more difficult to buy anything. When I went into the shop closest to me, which is 1 1/2 hours away in downtown Toronto where there is no parking nearby, I found that what I wanted was not stocked in my size, and often not available in any size. The American shops I went to while travelling were rarely better. Online shopping through their Canadian site resulted in massive import costs, and so my only option was to order through the Toronto shop, which often took weeks for the items to arrive and required a return trip to pick it up. I will bet the typical client of Brooks Brothers is the classic middle aged male shopper who wants in and out of the store in 20 minutes – tops – I know I am.

As the company courted thirty-somethings who weren’t into buying suits (unless they were appearing in court as either lawyer or felon), they ignored the fifty-somethings who wanted classic business and ‘something-with-a-bit-of-ease-and-flair-for-a-more-contemporary’ business casual look that didn’t abandon respectable middle-aged needs (think Kennedys at Hyannis Port). It got to the point that I was just putting in an order for a few of the same shirts every year and I doubt any company could survive on a few shirt sales.

Added August 14: It was just announced that Brooks Brothers found a buyer, in Simon Property Group (mall operator), and Authentic Brands Group (a licensing firm) so the brand will live on a while longer. It doesn’t sound like the perfect fit to me, but maybe they will fix their supply and demand chain better and not force off-shore production to improve the bottom line…

Canadian Fashion Connection – Army & Navy (1919 – 2020)

In March 1919 Sam Cohen, a native of San Francisco, and his brothers Joe and Harry opened a store at 44 West Hastings Street in Vancouver, B.C. to sell surplus army boots. Originally known as the Liberty store, the name was changed to Army & Navy in 1922, probably to leverage the marketing from the long-established English Army & Navy stores. The store sold military surplus as well as goods from other stores closing down and even advertised its own closing in 1927 as a publicity gimmick, reopening as ‘new and improved’ months later.

The original location

Sam bought out his brothers and, in 1938, bought a five-storey building at 27 West Hastings St., turning the original location into a shoe annex. In 1948 he opened a new store on Cordova street and in 1959 bought the adjacent Rex Theatre to tear down the 1913 movie palace for a nondescript expansion. Over the years the business expanded across Western Canada to include stores in New Westminster, Calgary, Edmonton, Regina, Saskatoon and Moose Jaw. The original location became famous for its annual shoe sale, first held in 1949.

Management of the business passed to his son Jack, but a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, necessitated bringing in Garth Kennedy, a non-family member, to help Jack manage the company for three decades. Jack’s son died of a drug overdose in 1978 and his eldest daughter died in a car crash in 1982, leaving his youngest daughter Jacqui to take over the family business, which she did after Jack died in 1995, and Kennedy died in 1998.

The Army and Navy became the longest running department store in Vancouver. However, department stores have been struggling with low profit margins since the 1980s, and even more so since the turn-of-the-century with online shopping. COVID-19 was too much for the business and the Army & Navy stores did not reopen after the quarantine shutdown in March.

The recently renovated Army & Navy department store, Vancouver

Bullock’s department store downtown L.A.

These interiors are from Bullocks downtown Los Angeles store and were designed by Tony Duquette in about 1940 to represent various seasons in the season-less Los Angeles climate. I found this interesting lecture by Hutton Wilkinson, who was Duquette’s business partner. Wilkinson talks about Duquette and the various people he knew and worked with (Vincent Minelli, Gilbert Adrian, Elsie De Wolfe), and there is a lot of good fashion information.

Rossiters of Paignton

I acquired this c. 1955 dress about 15 years ago from a theatre costume department in Toronto. It isn’t in perfect shape but I like the brocade pattern, and the style is classic 50s. The English dress is labelled Rossiters of Paignton, and I found a lot of history about the store.

Opened in 1858 by two seamstress sisters, Jane and Sarah Rossiter, the store in Winner Street was a “general drapery business of well-assorted goods”, according to early advertisements. The shop began to really succeed after the town got a train connection in the late 1860s. Fashionable Victorians were flocking to Paignton as a seaside resort where they believed seawater bathing could cure a variety of ailments.

In 1888 the store moved to Palace Avenue where it expanded into neighbouring shops over the years until it became a department store of men’s, women’s, and children’s fashions. Business for the company began to soften in the 1950s as nearby Plymouth and Exeter were rebuilt after the war with new shopping centres. 

According to an interview with fourth generation Nigel Rossiter in 2009, the store was believed to be an inspiration for writers David Croft and Jeremy Lloyd. They had summered in Paignton the summer of 1971 when they wrote the script for the television series Are You Being Served? which debuted in 1972.

Brands and online shopping took its toll on Rossiters. The final straw was the economic downturn of 2008. After celebrating their sesquicentennial (150th year in business), the shop closed on January 31, 2009.

A view of Rossiters from the 1950s

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

Canadian Fashion Connection – Rosbergs

Jacob Wolfe Rosberg and Mary (Mindel) and their four children emigrated from Kielce, Poland to Toronto in 1913. After a few years, the family moved to Niagara Falls to open a menswear shop that supplied workers at the Queenston hydroelectric project. On October 18th, 1919, the shop opened near the corner of Erie and Queen streets in downtown Niagara Falls. Over the next fifty years the business grew into a three story department store filling an entire city block. The buildings were refaced in the late 1960s with the name ROSBERGS prominently displayed on the façade. 

A sale at Rosbergs

Rosberg’s wasn’t a high end department store. It was where you went to buy back-to-school clothes, underwear, uniforms, and Canadian-made everyday fashions for work and home. A branch was opened in Welland, Ontario when the store was at its peak of success in the 1950s/60s. 

Competition for Rosbergs increased as major stores like Sears and Eaton’s anchored malls in the region (Pen Centre in 1958, and Seaway Mall in 1975). The era of the department store declined as shopping malls became more successful in the 1970s and 1980s. Rosbergs closed in 1988 and the building sat dormant until it was consumed by fire in 2009.

A granddaughter of the founders, Jacob and Mary Rosberg, was Barbara Rosburg (1937 – 1992) who was better known as CBC anchor journalist Barbara Frum.