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Following Fashion’s American Journey

From the iconic Hollywood glamour of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire to the chic sportswear that defined Seventh Avenue, the history of American fashion is as rich as its European counterparts.

From the iconic Hollywood glamour of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire to the chic sportswear that defined Seventh Avenue, the history of American fashion is arguably as rich as that of its European counterparts. Yet there has never been an extensive book chronicling its evolution — until now.

In September, Assouline is publishing “American Fashion,” reviewing the nation’s fashion from 1929 to the present. The book, commissioned by the Council of Fashion Designers of America, is a visual journey, from Gilbert Adrian to Mainbocher and Hattie Carnegie, Mary McFadden, Donna Karan, Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren. It was written by Charlie Scheips, a freelance writer, curator and art adviser.

“A great book on American fashion was overdue,” said Diane von Furstenberg, president of the CFDA, who was instrumental in putting the volume together. “I know people will be inspired by this book — I am. This book should make us proud of American fashion.”

Scheips said he wanted the core of the book to be the designers themselves.

“It was a story that hadn’t been told yet,” he said. “It has a vibrant history and culture. I don’t look at it as the definitive history of American fashion. I see it much more as a celebration with a lot of history. And it’s eye candy.”

Scheips relied on many of his contacts, and conducted much of his research at the Condé Nast and Hearst archives, and the Time & Life Pictures collection run by Getty Images. And he interviewed “hundreds” of people, he said, including Babs Simpson, Susan Train, Grace Mirabella, Arnold Scaasi and Luis Estevez.

In addition, the CFDA had sent out letters to designers, asking them to submit images that were key to their careers.

“I couldn’t start with the Revolutionary War period because it would be too big a subject, and the CFDA itself only started in 1962,” Scheips said. “After much research, I came to the conclusion that 1929 was a pivotal year to start with for modern American fashion. There had been fashion before, but both the [stock market] crash and the fact that only the very rich could afford French couture after the crash, and the burgeoning designers in Hollywood as the talkies came into play…really took American fashion into the modern period.”

This story first appeared in the July 31, 2007 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Along the way, Scheips realized that the oft-made assumption that the American apparel industry was driven by copying did not hold true, adding that designers such as Charles James, Geoffrey Beene, Halston and Scaasi always have expressed original ideas about fashion. The evolution of fashion in the U.S. ran in tandem with the

art movement.

“American art was definitely a second-class citizen until World War II, when you had all Europeans like Hans Hoffmann and [Ludwig] Mies van der Rohe coming to America,” he said. “By the Fifties, you had the emergence of the New York school. At the same time, most designers who worked under manufacturers in the Fifties came to prominence by being advertised by name, and you can see the emergence of American fashion, which is a parallel to other art forms.”

Designers Management Agency forged the deal between Assouline and the CFDA. The $50 book will be celebrated on the third floor of Bergdorf Goodman on Sept. 11 and will be on sale that night. Bergdorf’s also will offer special copies signed by several CFDA members.

To mark the occasion, all Bergdorf’s women’s windows will be dedicated to the launch of “American Fashion” for two weeks, with images from the book complementing the display of fall clothes by CFDA designers. Some windows in the men’s store also will feature the book.

“American Fashion” hits major bookstores in mid-September, as well as Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf’s.

“I think Hollywood and the movies are a very big part of the image of American fashion,” von Furstenberg said, when asked for her opinion on the most influential decade in fashion. “American fashion is glamorous and functional at the same time. I love looking at the Forties and, of course, the Seventies.”

Scheips couldn’t pinpoint the most significant era, but said: “The Thirties were important because the world saw the Americans dressed and how they carried themselves through the movies. The idea of a penthouse apartment with Fred Astaire in a white tie and Ginger Rogers in a Gilbert Adrian gown is what captured the world. I know it influenced the world. Then, one of the pivotal moments, in terms of influence, was certainly the Seventies.”

Scheips cited the 1973 Versailles fashion show featuring five American and five French designers, with Liza Minnelli performing for the Americans and Josephine Baker for the French, as a major influence and trigger of American fashion’s prominence.

“Most people thought the Americans trumped the French, and after 1973, you have this incredible emergence of the Ralph Laurens and Calvin Kleins, who in the Eighties go from being huge designers to having flagship stores, and being publicly traded companies.”

CFDA executive director Steven Kolb said the organization also asked designers to contribute original sketches that will be bound into a one-of-a-kind book to be auctioned to benefit the CFDA Foundation. About 45 designers submitted illustrations, including von Furstenberg, Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein’s Francisco Costa, Narciso Rodriguez and Yeohlee Teng.

The CFDA and Assouline plan more books together. “The whole idea of ‘American Fashion’ was to create this foundation, or anchor book, and from this point, we can do a series of books that look at different segments of fashion that is related to the CFDA,” Kolb said. “This book is just on ready-to-wear. There could be a book on accessories or just men’s wear.”

One of the books is on Geoffrey Beene, as part of the CFDA’s collaboration with the Geoffrey Beene Estate, which recently gave the CFDA a $5 million gift. Kim Hastreiter, editor in chief and publisher of Paper magazine, a close friend of the late designer, will write the book.

“American designers have long been incredibly influential in the worldwide fashion industry and we are honored to be the ones to tell the story,” said Prosper Assouline, founder of Assouline.