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.

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. 

Fashion Hall of Obscurity – Conover Mayer 1995-2006

Just before COVID-19 shut down the world, I was invited to guest lecture at Syracuse University for the fashion arts program. Two of the teachers in that program, Jeffrey Mayer and Todd Conover, were former design partners working under the label Conover Mayer. Their high-end women’s fashion line produced two collections per year between 1995 and 2006 that were sold through stores like Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus.

I won’t repeat all the tea served in conversation, but it was fascinating to hear how the fashion industry shifted and changed during that decade. The two were already teaching fashion design at Syracuse University while they designed their collections, and continue to teach there today, but both have since moved on from designing fashion on the side. Todd Conover now designs jewellery, and Jeffrey Mayer curates fashion exhibitions.

Fashion Hall of Obscurity – Rosina Schiavone Ferragamo

While we are in Italy, here is another name that eludes research. Rosina Schiavone Ferragamo is often cited as being the sister of the more famous shoe designer Salvatore Ferragamo. Her birth date is recorded as 1905, but I have not been able to find a death date – unusual considering she was designing shoes under her own name from the mid 1950s (the MET has several positively identified from then), until the mid 1980s, when there were also leather clothes being sold under that label (see eBay). Even more peculiar is that the Ferragamo company, family, or museum all fail to mention her existence. Perhaps there was a bit of a family scandal…

Patchwork suede pump by Rosina Schiavone Ferragamo, c. 1969, FHM collection

Fashion Hall of Obscurity – Oppio

In 1940, Anna Ancillotti Chiarugi established a dressmaking business in Sovigliana-Vinci, near Florence. Her four daughters Sandra, Lucia, Rosaria and Stella Chiarugi inherited the business in 1975 and seven years later renamed the company Oppio (Italian for opium). The label found international success, but by 2009 the company had been bought out or sold.

Embroidered and applique knit two piece dress, mid 1980s, by Oppio

Fashion Hall of Obscurity – Mrs. Franklin Inc. (1923-1938)

1931 – figure at right “dark blue wool golf or country suit with green jumper and white blouse, from Mrs. Franklin Inc.” This suit closely resembles the suit we acquired, without the jumper and blouse.

Last year we acquired a very nice forest green knit suit from the early 1930s. It is dead plain – consisting of a straight, ankle length skirt, and an open jacket with a belt. In the nape is a small tag that reads “Mrs. Franklin Inc.  Chicag0 – New York – Philadelphia”

With the help of some members of the Vintage Fashion Guild, we looked around the internet but didn’t find much of anything. All that could be found was a mention of Mrs. Franklin sponsoring a fashion show, and a few advertisements (all dating between 1931 and 1938) with references to Mrs. Franklin being available in Bar Harbor, Palm Beach, Haverford, Watch Harbor, Jenkintown, Philadelphia, Chicago, and New York. However, this chain of boutiques carried some fashion weight as Mrs. Franklin was included in several American Vogue magazines during the 1930s.

In 1933 the actual Mrs Franklin was interviewed by Vogue, who pointed out that her specialty was knitwear “Heavy, tweedy-looking fabrics were made by loving hands… on actual needles.” Vogue noted.

I thought that was it…

Added November 9 Marianne Dow found a legal document that outlines more history of Mrs. Franklin, which lead to a few more documents…:

1935

Ellen J. Franklin, wife of William B. Franklin, was born in 1875. In 1915 she began knitting women’s sweaters and selling them from her home. In 1917 she opened The Sweater Shop in Philadelphia. In 1920 she bought a new premises for her shop and in 1921 incorporated the business, changing the name to Mrs. Franklin Incorporated in 1923.

In 1927 she opened a branch in New York, and in 1932, a third shop was opened in Haverford, Pennsylvania. Mrs. Franklin had built a good reputation for her tasteful designs, and she is credited with popularizing knit dresses and suits. By 1938 she had shops in Bar Harbor, Maine, and Watch Hill, Rhode Island, and was operating a factory in Philadelphia, making women’s knitted dresses and accessories for wholesale.

1938 – figure at far right “Model wearing a yellow dress with yellow plaid jacket by Mrs. Franklin Inc.”

However, by the summer of 1938, the business had not been profitable for several years and was in financial difficulties. Mrs. Franklin owed nearly $150,000 for mortgages, rents, and past stock, and didn’t have enough credit to acquire any autumn merchandise. The board negotiated a plan of readjustment with creditors by re-organizing under a new company called Mrs. Franklin Shops of Philadelphia, Inc. Ellen Franklin ceased working for the company and paid out $5,000 on the more than $21,000 she personally owed. She then requested a weekly payment of $75.00 for the use of her name for the company, which was paid towards the balance of her debt. The New York shop and Philadelphia factory continued to operate until the end of 1938 before closing. The new company went back to making hand-knitted sweaters and dresses and continued in business until at least the end of 1941. After that the trail goes cold, although the company is mentioned in several legal papers dating up to 1954 over precedence regarding the taxation of the money paid to Ellen Franklin for the licensing of her name.

Fashion Hall of Obscurity – Francis & Co., 9 rue Auber, Paris

There were so many couturiers working in Paris in the late 19th and early 20th century that it is nearly impossible to research their labels, especially when what information there is, likely exists only in France.

A couple of years ago we acquired a jacket from about 1903 with the label ‘Francis & Co. – 9 rue Auber, Paris’. The workmanship of the jacket is superb – beautifully cut, trimmed and lined. The Met has a red dress with the same label, which I am showing instead of our black jacket, as it photographed better.

Advertisement from Femina for travelling clothes by ‘Francis, 9, rue Auber’ August 1902

The location of 9 rue Auber is across the street from the Paris Opera House, and around the corner from Galerie Lafayette – Paris’ largest department store. It was also a short walk from rue de la Paix, where the highest-end couturiers were establishing themselves at the time. Femina, a French magazine printed between 1901 and 1917 for upwardly mobile middle class women, has an advertisment for travelling clothes made by ‘Francis, 9 rue Auber’, but that is the extent of anything I could find. By the 1920s a booking office for Air France was located at that address, and by the 1930s, another clothing shop had opened at 9 rue Auber by the name of Valerie.

Acquiring Contemporary Clothing: Weston Wear, c. 2010

When collecting fashions from the recent past for the future, it can be a challenge to make sound decisions without the perspective of time that allows us to see the past more clearly. Since the museum was founded in 2004 we have acquired a mix of contemporary pieces ranging from  Alexander McQueen to a pair of Crocs.

A recent donation included a brown stretchy nylon mesh dress labelled Weston Wear. The dress is from c. 2010, and is similar to the reddish dress pictured at left from the blog missdisgrace, but with long sleeves. After doing some research on the label, I decided we will accession it into the collection – primarily because it represents the shift in retailing that has occurred since the turn of the millenium.

Weston Wear was founded in San Francisco by Julienne Weston in 1980. She launched a line of stretchy cotton/Lycra separates and in the 1990s started working with nylon mesh, the material from which our dress is made. When worn with Spanx, these dresses instantly made you look like you had lost ten pounds — a winner with most women. Weston Wear was worn by Madonna, and sold through Nordstrom’s, Macy’s and Anthropologie, as well as through her own boutique in the Mission district of San Francisco, not far from where her clothes were made. By 2010, around the time our dress was made, sales were mounting to 10 million per year, and were being carried in stores internationally.

But in 2017 Julienne Weston shuttered her business, citing a list of issues from e-commerce competition, to undisclosed internal reasons. “You could see it coming from 20 years ago” she said, regarding consumer trends. “I just took it as far as it could go.”

Julienne Weston in 2009

Fashion Hall of Obscurity – Carole Little

Jacket by Carole Little, late 1990s

Mary Carole Lenski was born September 27, 1934. After studying fashion design in Los Angeles, she started her fashion career as a secretary at swimsuit maker Rose Marie Reid. She married her boss, James Little and by the early 1970s Carole was designing hot pants for junior sportswear manufacturer Jasper Brothers.

In 1974 she struck out on her own with Leonard Rabinowitz, her division manager from Jasper who bankrolled the venture with a $20,000 loan from his parents. The company initially sold clothing under the label Saint Tropez West.

May 12, 1975

Little had noticed how young Parisian women were so adept at putting together chic outfits on limited budgets. In 1993 Little reminisced to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch how “Instead of all these throwaway clothes, they would wear a very expensive designer blouse and jeans, the next day, it would be the same blouse with different accessories.”

Little felt American women could benefit from using separates for creating different looks. Her first hit design was a crepe de Chine shirt with epaulets and front pockets. It became a huge hit after Lauren Hutton wore the blouse on the cover of the May 12, 1975 edition of People magazine.

In 1979, Little and Rabinowitz married, and the company was booming. The clothes were selling through high end department stores like Bloomingdales and Saks, alongside labels like Jones New York and Liz Claiborne. Sales peaked in 1994 at 375 million — then everything started going wrong.

Carole Little, c. 1989

Department stores were in trouble and cutting back on the number of vendors. Little had to broaden her line to service more stores, not just the upscale locations. That meant diluting their designer image with mid-market saleables. Profit margins shrank, and Little’s company had to pay back markdown costs to department stores for merchandise sold below expected retail.

Around this same time, two of the company’s top executives, the Vice President, and Chief Financial Officer, were gunned down in separate instances – the motives presumably related to subcontractor cutbacks by the company.

In 2001 Little and Rabinowitz divorced, and the following year, the company was sold to Cherokee Inc. The company still exists, selling through department stores, and online.
Carole Little passed away from cancer in 2015 at the age of 80.