IT’S A LONG TRIP FROM THE HOBBLE SKIRT TO HOTPANTS. WWD HAS BEEN THERE ALL ALONG THE WAY, CHRONICLING AN INDUSTRY AND ITS PEOPLE — THEIR FASHIONS, FRIVOLITIES, TRAGEDIES AND TRIUMPHS. HERE, A THUMBNAIL LOOK AT 90 YEARS OF NEWS.
Editor’s Note: Whenever WWD reporters go after a story also covered by the mainstream press, the goal is to give the readers something they are not likely to find anywhere else. This principle was established early in WWD’s history. Take, for example, this article that appeared on April 19, 1912, when the newspaper was less than two years old. Reprinted in its entirety, it is a report on the sinking of the Titanic and is an interview with Edith L. Rosenbaum, who worked for the paper in Paris, and who was a Titanic survivor.
EDITH L. ROSENBAUM;
In Which She Tells Some Incidents of the
Tragedy in Connection With People
in the Trade
Miss Edith L. Rosenbaum, who arrived on the Carpathia last night, has apparently suffered no serious injury to her health from her experience in the Titanic disaster. She was calm and showed remarkably little effect of the shock and the great nervous strain which she had endured, controlling herself wonderfully. In a bodily sense, she suffered only a blister on one eye.
Miss Rosenbaum stated she has given an authorized interview concerning the disaster, as she saw it, to the New York Herald, which probably will appear in tomorrow’s issue of the Herald. She thought, however, she could detail for WOMEN’S WEAR some incidents which came under her observation and which had to do with people in the trade.
Miss Rosenbaum will take a week’s vacation in the country to recuperate and will then return to Paris as quickly as possible for, of course, she lost all the models and other merchandise she was bringing over in the Titanic.
Mr. Klauber, of Klauber Bros., laces, also one of the buyers of the Jordan Marsh Co. and a buyer of Gimbel Bros., as well as another young lace man (name unknown) went down. There were a number of Toronto buyers; the men were mostly lace and textile buyers, lace buyers predominating, it being a lace season.
George Rheims, of Rheims, Lenn & Co., had a wonderful escape. He was standing on the top deck with his brother-in-law, when he said, “See, the deck is under water. I guess we will have to swim.” His brother-in-law said, “I do not know how to swim.” Mr. Rheims answered, “Then, good-bye, old boy, I will take my chances.” He jumped, struck the water, swam for two hours in the icy coldness, came across a collapsible boat and crept into it. The people had to stand up to keep it balanced. There were a couple of women in the boat, but they got tired standing up, and one leaned forward on Mr. Rheims’s knee and finally dived and floated away from him. Mr. Rheims stood six hours in this icy water, and was carried up to the boat frozen nearly to the thighs, after having passed from close onto 1 o’clock to 7:30 swimming in the water. He was picked up by one of our own boats.
Showing the disposition of all to assist in the rescue of their fellow sufferers, Miss Rosenbaum related:
“One of our own boats rigged a sail and transferred her passengers into another boat, while this officer went back to pick up other survivors. He picked up Mr. Rheims among 16 others, six of whom died, so that ten survivors were taken into our boat very nearly half dead.”
B.L. Forman, of the firm of Kugelman, Frankland & Forman, who was formerly with Einstein, Wolff & Co., laces, for many years, was coming home from Paris, having just made the most wonderful connections. He had the most brilliant future ahead of him. He went down nobly.
The following incident then related by Miss Rosenbaum shows the courage the women displayed and that even in the face of such a frightful disaster the question of dress is inevitably present in the feminine mind:
“Lucille,” Lady Duff Gordon, made her escape in a very charming lavender bath robe, very beautifully embroidered, together with a very pretty blue veil. She told me my clothes had been her admiration all the way over on the boat, and we exchanged compliments about our costumes and swapped style information closely after getting on the Carpathia. All her models, as well as my own, had gone to the bottom of the sea, and we both acknowledged that panier skirts and Robespierre collars were at a discount in midocean when you are looking for a ship to rescue you. Lady Duff Gordon asked: “Are you the one giving such interesting previews in WOMEN’S WEAR, and have you any idea what they are going to wear next year?” Our style costumes in mid-ocean: a pink bathrobe worn by me and a lavender by Lady Duff Gordon.
Miss Rosenbaum said that it seems extraordinary and wonderful to her that so many people should have had a kindly interest in her fate. The proofs of friendship and feeling that so many have shown have touched her very deeply. For instance, all the Paris and other houses of acquaintance upon her arrival cabled their sympathy.
Miss Rosenbaum said that perhaps she had to go through this great trial to realize how truly kind everybody can be in life, and how little one can live with and be glad one is living. “After all, the only thing is friendship,” she said.
Miss Rosenbaum, too, feels deep gratitude for the many kindly expressions which have been extended to them by friends, so many as to be too far-reaching for her to answer personally all the telephone calls, letters and cablegrams she received, and she therefore begs of her many friends to accept in this expression her thanks and deep appreciation for the sorrow expressed.
“Tributes to Isidore Straus and His Wife.”
“Prominent merchants, contemporaries and admirers of Isidore Straus this morning paid sincere tributes to his life and work, and to the splendid courage and loyalty of his death and that of his wife.
“With the arrival of the Carpathia, bearing the survivors of the Titanic disaster, all hope for the safety of Mr. and Mrs. Straus was abandoned. The big Macy and Abraham & Straus department stores, which stand as monuments to the business ability and integrity of Mr. Straus and his brothers, were closed this morning and will not reopen until Monday. Throughout the city, men in all walks of life deeply regret the loss of Mr. Straus.”
Designer Lady Duff Gordon, who “made her escape in a very charming lavender bathrobe,” was shadowed by scandal for years after the Titanic disaster. She and her husband had discouraged crew members from turning back their half-full lifeboat to save more people, fearing the boat would be swamped.
“Miss Rosenbaum said that perhaps she had to go through this great trial to realize how truly kind everybody can be in life, and how little one can live with and be glad one is living.”
WWD, April 19, 1912
When Charles Gibson’s sporty, young icon was reined in by the hobble skirt, Women’s Wear was on hand to catalog the fallout. Paris’s hobble was “universally repudiated,” the paper reported, and in 1910, even Pope Pius X deemed the style “scandalous.” His Holiness just didn’t understand editorial hype. “The hobble skirt familiar in pictures is obviously never seen on the street,” Women’s Wear noted, “since a woman could not wear it without accident, to say nothing of ugliness…Who could have perpetrated this silly hoax upon the wifeless, daughterless prisoner of the Vatican?”
Women’s Wear’s page ones during World War I typically boosted patriotism and the industry. This one, from 1917, called for readers to give to the war effort.
Italian dictator Benito Mussolini was determined “to free Italian women from the dictatorship of the French dressmakers,” according to a page one-story on Aug. 23, 1926 that included sketches of what Il Duce deemed appropriate apparel, drawn by an unnamed Italian designer.
In the first few years of Women’s Wear, retail dynasties were building colossal emporiums, including R.H. Macy, Lord & Taylor, Filene’s and Gimbel Bros., whose Sixth Avenue and 32nd Street store opening was reported Sept. 28, 1910. “Thomas A. Edison, the electrical wizard, expressed admiration of the store and its contents on display….Not one stone has been left unturned to make the new establishment modern in every respect.” Outrageous ads and promotions of the era included one from Bernheimer Bros. in Baltimore, which advertised in January 1914 “a live baby boy offered at our stores for adoption….We don’t want the people to misconstrue the step we have taken…we are not looking for publicity… we are doing this for humanity’s sake alone.”
The Wild One
Paul Poiret, fashion’s first wild man, was also the first designer Women’s Wear treated like a star. Still, in 1913 the paper challenged his scandalous Turkish trousers. Would American women wear them? “You must not confound such a fashion with street clothes,” he responded. “They are only correct for soirees in private.” In America, Poiret’s hype swelled up to such an extent that he made a trip to the States to “defend himself against a persistent slander,” he told the paper. “Whenever there is anything sensational produced, people may say, ‘That is Poiret’. Often it is something with which I have had nothing to do at all, out of character and beneath my style.” And lest anyone think the art vs. commerce debate is relatively new to fashion, heed Poiret. “I am not commercial,” he proclaimed. “Women come to me for a gown as they go to a distinguished painter or to get their portraits put on canvas. I am an artist, not a dressmaker.”
The Singular Schiaparelli
It Was Shocking. Elsa Schiaparelli, in many ways the anti-Chanel, started with handknit sweaters decorated with trompe l’oeil bows and thrilled Women’s Wear with her rampant whimsy and surrealistic antics throughout the Thirties. She dared to show such oddities as a cellophane suit, a chest-of-drawers jacket, a telephone bag and, of course, a shoe-shaped hat.
The Flap Over Flappers
The flapper epitomized the burgeoning post-war youth culture. She had bobbed or shingled hair, wore short skirts, danced the Charleston, loved jazz and sported the flapping galoshes that were all the rage, and had given her her name. She was the fast girl who necked with boys at debutante parties, haunted speakeasies and drank bathtub gin from a flask tucked beneath her garter. Besides making front-page fashion news, those flimsy, waistless beaded dresses she favored caused a stir among parents, preachers and even insurance companies. The flapper style seemed to “invite pneumonia and kindred ailments,” an Aetna agent explained to Women’s Wear in 1922.
Retailers and designers alike jumped on Charles Lindbergh’s historic transatlantic flight and Paris landing on May 21, 1927; Gimbel Bros. offered the pilot $100,000 to wing the latest fashions from Paris back to the States on a regular basis. Fashions sprang up as well, like this aeronautically inspired gray felt cloche outfitted with a propeller and wing-like ear flaps. Stores begged to outfit Amelia Earhart for her first transatlantic trip, as a passenger, two years later; according to a Women’s Wear report, Earhart did not use a powder puff during the journey though “she did feel they were essential.”
“For those who like to visualize people, Madame Vionnet is of medium height, well proportioned, with a fresh complexion. She is married, enjoys country life and has simple tastes,” the paper wrote about the couturier on June 26, 1931.
Women’s Wear tried to simultaneously report the stock market crash of October 1929 while avoiding full-out doom. “Credit circles viewed the stock market break with mingled trepidation and gratification — trepidation because of the widespread feeling that the crash presaged failures, even suicides, among those merchants hard hit by the market, and gratification because the feeling was that the break would end speculation by the textile trades.” But a story in the same issue was more revealing: “Value of 32 Retail Stocks Off $614,312,688 Since Oct. 1.”
The Nazi Rise to Power
“Brown-shirted youths who need to be spanked.” That’s how Women’s Wear Daily correspondent B.J. Perkins, writing from Berlin, described Hitler’s minions in the first mention of the Nazi regime on March 23, 1933. Under the headline, “Terrorism Makes German Public Shun Jewish Stores,” the paper reported mounting Nazi violence toward Jewish retailers, adding: “Hail Hitler movement may tickle his vanity but it is a Hell of a thing for Germany as a whole.”
A few days later, Perkins wrote of being threatened by a Nazi youth outside a Jewish store; the youth then moved on to bludgeon a man standing nearby as our reporter watched. Over the next few weeks, unfolding events in Germany made the front page daily in such stories as “German Jewish Business Seen Facing Ruin by Boycott” and “Germans May ‘Nationalize’ Jewish Business.”
WWD ran numerous stories analyzing the impact of war on business, with headlines like, “Believe War Would Only Slow Couture” and “London Stores Prepare for Emergencies.”
Open for Breakfast
Tiffany & Co.’s move uptown to an eight-story building at 57th Street and Fifth Avenue from its Murray Hill store in October 1940 is front-page news. “Almost severe in its simplicity,” the new limestone, granite and marble store is one of the first major city stores where air-conditioning is an integral part of the design, WWD reported.
FDR and the Great Depression
WWD ran daily coverage of the bank collapse in 1933, with headlines like “Last 24-hr. Developments in Banking.” It also had plenty of copy from the Federal government during the ensuing months, as Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Congress installed complex federal regulations on manufacturing under the National Recovery Administration (NRA); headlines included “Roosevelt Gets Cloak Code in 10 Days” or “Code for Retail Industry Unexpectedly Made Public.”
The debut of sales tax, on the other hand, was barely felt: Dec. 10, 1934, an article headlined “Little Confusion Marks First Day of Sales Tax,” noted that New Yorkers were hardly ruffled by the 2 percent city sales tax instituted in hopes of raising $40 million for unemployment relief. “At the cigar counter of Gimbel Bros., one sales clerk called to his colleague, ‘Not to forget the sales tax, Bill.”‘
In August 1942, WWD attempted to assuage concerned milliners with the headline “The epidemic of Bareheadedness is on the Way Out.” A year later, though, retailers took matters into their own hands: Bloomingdale’s enlisted models to pose as picketers outside its flagship on Sept. 16, 1943, using reverse psychology — such as signs that said “Bloomingdale’s is unfair to hatless women,” to provoke sales and shame increasingly hatless women.
The War at Home
The Dec. 8, 1941 edition blared, “War on Japan is Declared by Congress; Trade Grimly Gathers Forces To Help Weld Nation’s Strength Against Shocks of Foe.” A news summary that day informed readers that Seattle “sees the possibility of war with Japan may even increase holiday business. Believes war will be a popular one and will have unifying influence.”
As women were thrown into the workforce, often in assembly-line jobs, they dropped hats, gloves, printed dresses and open-toe shoes for blue-collar attire. WWD shot them in overalls, aviator suits, denim, short-sleeve “mannish” shirts, trouser suits “styled like that of a mechanic,” head scarves and close-toe shoes. Against one photo of a Rosie-the-Riveter type on Sept. 23, 1943, WWD wrote: “Her two-piece work outfit with practical pockets is neat and trim, her hairdo covered, her closed-in toe and heel shoes are comfortable.”
Fashion also picked up on the pervasive military influence, producing suits and dresses with military insignia-buttons, epaulettes, sailor shirt-inspired dresses and jodhpurs, among other looks.
When the war ended in 1945, WWD’s front page of May 8 featured a photo of Seventh Avenue’s own version of a ticker-tape parade: shredded telephone books, newspapers and, of course, piece goods. Later that year, the paper chronicled Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s visit to the garment center in the minutest of detail. “Sometimes it would be a wave of the right hand, sometimes by a gesture of the left, frequently he would stretch wide each arm high above his head: Occasionally he would clasp his hands in waving a greeting, at other times he would come up with a smart military salute, or he would wave his cap high.”
Sporty apparel took an androgynous turn from time to time during the Forties, as seen here in a “They Are Wearing” shot in Miami in January 1940. The couple is wearing glen plaid jackets in identical colors.
The New Look
Corolle. Corolle. Corolle. In 1947, Christian Dior hypnotized the fashion world with that majestic word and the decadent New Look silhouette it described. “Bright new Star flashed into the couture firmament today when Christian Dior presented the first collection of his house to a three-row-deep audience,” Women’s Wear gushed. Six months later, he followed with yet more bravado and skirts that “swing out like dervish costumes,” the paper noted. “One model called Diorama measures nearly 45 yards round the hem.”
Casual Claire McCardell
Claire McCardell’s look was called cabana fashion, or play clothes. Her style spoke of the seaside and sporty ease, though in 1940, Women’s Wear reported she had never been to Palm Beach or to California. She didn’t need to. McCardell was a sportswear visionary. “Her idea of a really clever fashion creator is one who isn’t too advanced or too extreme — though she herself constantly leaps a year or so ahead of the design trend,” the paper wrote. A year or so ahead? McCardell’s passion for sportswear and casual dressing made her decades ahead of her time.
The spread of television and the sprawl of the suburbs gave rise to a new apparel category: leisure separates for the home. “Casual Apparel Trend Seen on Continued Rise,” trumpeted a front-page headline on Jan. 12, 1950. Industry executives felt the classification’s growth would be “linked to the expansion of the suburban store and horizontal changes in retailing.”
As trips to the new shopping malls became a national pastime, department and specialty stores became juggernauts. Retail square footage exploded in the Fifties and WWD published a series entitled “Downtown vs. Suburbia,” which revealed that the regional centers opened in September, October and November of 1956 alone contained more gross floor space than all the regionals opened in the previous eight years.
Make It Middy
Designers and retailers returning from the Paris couture summer collections in February 1952 told WWD that tailored suits were no longer important and were being replaced by “the middy silhouette.” They also said one of the newer designers in Paris looked “extremely promising.” His name: Hubert de Givenchy. To protect copyrights as well as the right to reproduce couture clothing, Paris began demanding IDs and business affiliations of U.S. attendees at the shows. The tightening of regulations began in March. Admission fees for manufacturers ran as high as $1,000 per show.
Coco Chanel, who had gone into a lengthy exile in Switzerland following her scandalous affair with a German officer during World War II, reemerged in 1953 and told Women’s Wear that she was ready to reopen in Paris, though the paper reported on Coco’s legendary glamour, not on her love life. The following February, she kept her word. “When the first model appeared, the entire audience froze to silence and attention. It was ‘Number Five’ — Chanel’s lucky number — a cardigan suit of black jersey,” the paper reported. Was the show a blockbuster? Hardly. Besides her triple-tiered dress, the collection “was not going to break new fashion ground.” But before long Chanel rebuilt her empire — and, of course, her glamorous image.
WWD got the scoop on Princess Margaret’s “monastically simple” bridal gown a week before her May 6, 1960, wedding, running a sketch and predicting it would influence bridal design. WWD spared no feelings in critiquing other royal outfits. “The queen, who can look lovely, looked a mess. Even the elegant Duchess of Kent took it on the chin with sequin-embroidered lace over tulle over satin.”
Lingerie looks took to the courts in 1954, when WWD reported “pettipants” were expected to become a star attraction at Wimbledon. “Tennis stars are reportedly ordering sportswear designer [Teddy] Tinling’s embroidered and frilled tennis petticoats.”
The practice of stitch-for-stitch copies of Paris couture clothes by American department stores became a major point of contention in November 1960, when Christian Dior filed suit against Alexander’s over the store’s use of the Dior name on its copies, claiming copyright infringement. In subsequent hearings, the retailer charged that Dior merely wanted to control retail prices of the copies. The suit was settled in July 1962; Alexander’s would still be allowed to attend Dior’s shows.
Ohrbach’s, meanwhile, under the direction of Irene Satz and Sydney Gittler, staged twice-yearly presentations of line-for-line adaptations of the European couture shows, events covered regularly in WWD. Ohrbach’s and other stores would pay a “caution” — a fee akin to a “minimum” — to attend the collections, purchase originals or muslins and bring them back for reproduction as lower-price adaptations in less expensive fabrics.
Following the assassination of President Kennedy on Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, the next issue of WWD — a special eight-page edition on Monday, Nov. 25 — was devoted almost entirely to what it all meant. There were stories about the economy, reports on the stores that closed around the nation and a look at the 1964 presidential race. A two page spread on Jacqueline Kennedy, headlined “The Culture and Elegance” showed her at the White House and on state visits to Iran, India and Europe. A profile of Lady Bird Johnson stipulated that she “never jumps into anything. She thinks about it, learns how to do it, and then does it efficiently.”
Yeah Yeah Yeah
“What is apt to happen in the weeks ahead is a national rash of retail promotions capitalizing on every hair of the Beatles, as well as a flock of lawsuits as Seltaeb [the group’s licensing organization] tries to keep tabs on the Frankenstein monster it helped create,” WWD wrote on Feb. 6, 1964, as retailers stocked up for the Fab Four’s appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Carl Rosen, president of Puritan Fashions Corp., which held the license to make Beatle T-shirts, knit shirts and sweatshirts, said he expected to ship 100,000 dozen items in 45 days.
A New Owner
A turning point in WWD’s history was its 1968 acquisition from the Fairchild family by Capital Cities Broadcasting — then a fledgling media company with a handful of small radio and local television stations. The $36-million-dollar acquisition ushered in a new era of growth and experimentation for both companies. Thomas Murphy, retired chairman of Cap Cities, remembers: “We were limited to the number of TV stations we could own, so we wanted to get into newspapers.We saw a chance to make a deal to buy Fairchild and we were attracted to it because the franchises were so unique. Our biggest concern was the printing in New York, which was too costly, and whether John Fairchild would stay. John stayed and we ended up paying a lot to the unions to move the printing out of New York, where the paper had paid the same rates as the big city dailies.”
Did the paper’s often-irreverent tone ever bring down any heat on the corporate front? “Not at all,” says Murphy. “We were always very proud to be associated with Women’s Wear Daily. John Fairchild is a very interesting, creative fellow. He sat on our board for many years. Besides, we always had the sense that a lot of what John did was sort of tongue-in-cheek.”
Top to Bottom
“It was a big bust, but we didn’t see it, nobody saw it,” WWD reported June 3, 1964, after a showing of Rudi Gernreich’s heavily-hyped topless swimming suit didn’t materialize. Gernreich’s fellow designers let loose their feelings about the look, shown here. “My opinion is unprintable,” said Norman Norell. “It has no dignity. It’s rock bottom. If it happens in the year 2000, thank God at least I won’t be around to see it.”
The legend of swinging London — a frenzy fueled by the Beatles, Penelope Tree and the fashion shock of tiny skirts, pale lips and long, straight hair or Sassoon cuts. It was a mix of high and low culture, and beginning in 1962, WWD chronicled it in all its outrageous glory, from Mary Quant’s pop to the glamorous dishevelment of its young aristocrats, a look the paper dubbed “London’s Droopy Decadence.”
Saint Laurent Sainted
In 1958, Yves Mathieu Saint Laurent arrived out of nowhere and took the helm at Christian Dior. WWD was taken with the 21-year-old’s talent from the start, describing his look as “in the Christian Dior tradition, but with a younger slant…flattering and feminine.” His debut was marked by tears and tumultuous applause, the paper noted, and provided “probably as emotional a scene as has ever taken place in a Paris couture house.” So began the first act in Saint Laurent’s incredible rise, and what followed read like a high-drama screenplay: Dior’s management dismissed the designer’s “beatnik” collection. The fragile designer was drafted into the army, had a nervous breakdown and was sent home. Pierre Berge stepped in and saved the day, organizing the funds to start up a house. Saint Laurent showed a triumphant collection in January 1962 and the paper anointed him “fashion’s much-needed third force with Balenciaga and Chanel.” The love affair between YSL and WWD is one of fashion’s greatest romances, spanning the launch of his le smoking in 1966 and his mid-Seventies reveries — the gypsy collection, the Ballet Russe, the peasant look — and on and on through the years.
Throughout the Sixties, WWD’s editors, were positively obsessed with the possibilities of interplanetary fashion. In 1961 the paper asked designers to work up an imaginary wardrobe for the most modern of woman — tomorrow’s space traveller. The next year, editors wrote about the technology behind Colonel Glenn’s space suit, suggesting its portable air conditioner might be fit into the bustle of a future Norell to “keep a chic woman as cool as a cuke on a muggy day in August 1980.” And in 1965, the paper promoted equality for the sexes in orbit. “Just think how chummy it would be, how less lonely it would be up there in the ether if one of the astronauts were, you know, different from the other,” the paper wrote. Back on earth, radicals like Pierre Cardin, Andre Courreges and Paco Rabanne made the spacey look fly with their bubble helmets, stiff A-line minis and fantastic plastics.
Part boutique, part “happening,” Paraphernalia’s overnight success was covered by WWD from its celeb-studded debut in November 1965, at 795 Madison Avenue. Tuffin & Foale pantsuits, Betsey Johnson silver dresses, and Mary Quant furs all flew off the racks, and three days a week, the store, owned by Puritan Fashions, stayed open until midnight. The unit at Lexington and 55th Street, which opened in 1968, was kept pitch black all day. No clothes were visible to the customer; instead, shoppers were issued remote-control devices to view a video of items. By 1968, the chain had grown to 44 stores nationally, with four in Manhattan.
The Long and Short of It
It was a debate, a controversy, a battle — the Midi vs. the Maxi and the Mini vs. the Longuette and even the Low-down. The newspaper covered the combat inch by inch, citing designers’ and retailers’ opinions, documenting the ladies’ choices and weighing in with wildly oscillating proclamations of their own. In 1967, the paper even looked at the topic lyrically, with a short poem entitled “At Long Last.” “The Midi/Here/Now/Why not/Looks right/Feels right/Warm for the cold/Cool for the chic/The proof/THE LADIES/Buying them/Wearing them/The mini still/Sure/But the Midi too…”
Neiman Marcus started it, and several stores tried it, but Bloomingdale’s became the acknowledged master of the specialty retail promotion in the early Sixties, starting in 1961, by highlighting French products. Other extravaganzas in the ensuing decades included “India: the Ultimate Fantasy,” in April 1978, representing $8 million worth of merchandise at retail and an additional $1 million in advertising and promotion.
A Bag Is Born
The Stephen Sprouse-designed Louis Vuitton handbag was the international fashionista’s trophy in 2001, but the company snagged an equally loyal following with its “snob” bag in 1967. “Lots of the fashion editors and almost every Cover Girl in Paris carry the famous Louis Vuitton small handbag,” WWD wrote. The waterproof bag was vinyl-coated and covered in the classic LV pattern.
In 1967, when Faye Dunaway appeared as girl-on-the-run Bonnie Parker in her snug sweaters, supple silks and beret, Seventh Avenue came panting. WWD called it the “Bonnie and Clyde Syndrome,” but fashion’s fascination with film was a trend that continued through the early Seventies. Dunaway again influenced designers with her glamorous turn in Chinatown, but they were just as intrigued by Mia Farrow’s flapper romance in The Great Gatsby, Diane Keaton’s boyish tweeds in Annie Hall and Ali MacGraw’s Ivy League sportif in Love Story.
Peace, Love and a Fashion Punch
In 1969, boy met girl and they each stole a little something from the other’s closet. WWD called those androgynous hippies “The New Gender-ation.” Girls went without makeup and suited up in low-riding boy’s jeans. Boys grew their hair long and wore beads around their necks. “They call it unisex, monosex, trans-sexual, to-gether, uniworld, asexual, epicene,” the paper noted. “But whatever you call it, it’s happening…in Paris, London, New York, Los Angeles. Everywhere.”
And it happened on Yasgur’s farm, where the look reached its apex at Woodstock. “Few of them actually heard the concerts,” WWD reported from the scene. “Instead, the weekend hegira turned into a fight for survival.” But as rations ran low, the revelers found alternative sustenance, as they “indulged themselves with drugs and sex took place more openly. They seemed to be completely unaware of their bodies.”
A Troubled Time
Coverage of the escalating war in Vietnam included a report from Saigon on May 12, 1966, on the financing of the war and a piece on June 5, 1967, on the wars brewing outside southeast Asia, notably flareups in the Middle East. A feature on American women stationed in Vietnam was published Dec. 20, 1965, as well as numerous stories on the various rallies — pro-administration or antiwar — taking place across the country, and their effect on local business.
In 1971, when the Pentagon Papers — a top-secret history of the U.S. role in Indochina — were leaked to the New York Times, freelancer Sidney Zion subsequently fingered Daniel Ellsberg as the source, an action for which he was vilified by the media. Zion told his side of the story in a first-person piece in WWD on July 1, 1971, writing, “The Times has treated me to lectures on morals and ethics, which is like learning about love from Attila the Hun.”
Burn Baby Burn
Bra manufacturers were appalled to read a front-page headline on Aug. 7, 1969, that announced: “Bra’s OUT! Says Couture.”
“The free, natural body is in, say fashion merchandisers,” wrote the story, quoting an intimate apparel buyer at Henri Bendel, who pointed out: “The bra rebellion is a definite statement for the natural body. It is a final dismissal of the artificial.” Later that month, the front page featured “The No-Bra Look,” a photo of a bra-less woman on 59th Street in Manhattan. The article was accompanied by photos of others similarly unencumbered. The paper was accused of trying to “destroy” the bra business.
Halston’s rise both as a wildly successful, internationally known designer and party circuit regular got constant and almost equal play in WWD. From the explosion of UltraSuede sportswear — a group of high-profile women including Barbara Walters and Nancy Kissinger wore it so much they were dubbed the “UltraSuede Pack” or “UP” — to his acquisition in November 1973 by Norton Simon, the paper devoted spread after spread to Halston’s many activities. “He is the U.S. designer who has most successfully combined business with fashion, money and prestige,” the paper wrote in 1975. “He is unique in this country. In Europe, possibly only Dior and Cardin have built such solid business structures.”
But his deal with J.C. Penney for a lower-priced line damaged his prestige, and stores like Bergdorf Goodman began canceling orders; then, Norton Simon became part of the Beatrice Foods conglomerate. The designer fought to regain his name, but it was sold in 1986 to Revlon Inc. A year before his death from AIDS-related cancer in March 1990, Halston told WWD: “Clothes should be practical, glamorous, functional and spare.”
From the roller-disco Xenon to Halston’s lair, Studio 54, WWD began its relentless coverage of the disco movement and its dancing devotees in 1973, two years before the mainstream press picked up on the phenomenon. The disco look, with its drapey dancing dresses and skin-tight pants, was sexy and then some — and nobody wore it better than the pack the paper called the LPs, or Long Players.
“They’re like long-playing records which never seem to stop,” Francesco Scavullo noted in 1977, when he saw Calvin Klein standing at the bar of the disco Hurrah at 5 a.m. But the party had just started, attaining mythic status after moving on to Studio 54 later that year. “Studio,” Halston mused. “It’s a democracy. You see a David Bowie there, Liza, unemployed actors.” And, of course, lots of daring, decadence and drop-dead glamour.
“Some Like It HotPants,” the paper proclaimed in 1970. And WWD’s editors loved it. They pushed the style relentlessly, featuring HotPants wherever and whenever the look cropped up, from the Paris runways to the dance floor at discotheques like Le Club Prive and New Jimmy’s, and New York’s roller discos.
Breakthrough in Versailles
It was supposed to be a friendly, cooperative, festive evening between a group of American and a group of French designers, but “An Evening at Versailles,” the November 1973 fashion extravaganza held to raise funds to refurbish the chateau, raised a lot of hackles. Five French designers — Hubert de Givenchy, Yves Saint Laurent, Emanuel Ungaro, Andre Oliver for Cardin and Marc Bohan for Christian Dior — picked the five U.S. designers: Halston, Anne Klein, Bill Blass, Oscar de la Renta and Stephen Burrow. An underwhelmed Klein told WWD: “The boys are much friendlier with the French than I am.” The French floats had mixed results, leading the paper to declare. “The Americans Triumphed,” on Dec. 3.
On July 1, 1976, the paper took an unusual route to Bicentennial coverage by calling randomly chosen people in New York who had the same name as Founding Fathers, including Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Lacking a King George, reporters settled for George King. The article remarked that “of the six George Washingtons in the Manhattan phone book…two recently died, a few left their wives, and one sounded as if he’ll probably be celebrating the Fourth with a fifth, Bowery-style.” Aspiring actress Betsy Ross was considering switching to her married name: “You wouldn’t believe the nuts I get calling up here wanting to know how’s George Washington.”
Lauren for Life
It was Ralph Lauren’s world, but others were clamoring to live in it. Whether his precise fantasies took inspiration from the Wild West, as with his 1978 blockbuster, the Ivy League look in 1981, or tony English tweeds, as in 1997, Lauren was always classic, rich and all-encompassing. From throw pillows in the country house to flatware in the kitchen and from head to toe, Lauren pioneered lifestyle dressing, showing the world that you are what you wear and where you wear it. And nowhere was that more fully realized than in the Rhinelander mansion flagship he opened on Madison Avenue in 1986.
The Jan. 7, 1980, edition reports that experts believe computers and television sets will revolutionize shopping over the next decade, making purchasing from home a key part of the retail landscape. Forward-looking ideas, with the logic a bit off. The cover of a “Star Tech” special section shows a computer with these words typed on the monitor: “Shopping from home by computer will be one of the gas-saving shopping alternatives in the Eighties.”
Designer Jean Pool
In the late Seventies, the profusion of “designer” jeans names included Jordache, Gloria Vanderbilt, Zena, Sasson, Chic, Paris St. Tropez and even Studio 54 Jeans, which had the misfortune of launching while owner Steve Rubell was under indictment for tax evasion. But it was Calvin Klein who got the most attention, at first as a designer venturing into denim waters, and then for the controversial Brooke Shields campaign. In 1980, for example, the paper reported that a number of West Coast television stations refused to air the TV spots that featured Shields declaring nothing comes between her and her Calvins.
“Watch out for the new BP,” WWD warned in 1977. That’s “British Punkers,” not the paper’s beloved Beautiful People. On the King’s Road, home to London’s burgeoning punk scene, young rebels like Vivienne Westwood pioneered the look. “They are apparitions,” a correspondent noted. “Metal is an important accessory, especially safety pins and razor blades. Holes, stains and tears are important features of their clothes. Boys usually wear black leather. Girls appear in micro-minis and black fishnet stockings. Gruesome black eye make-up with two-tone purple lips is all part of Punk. So are five safety pins through one ear.”
How did it happen? By the Eighties, buyers, once the backbone of retail, were dissolving into mere “order takers” buried under paperwork that stifled creativity. It was the consequence of mergers, the emergence of centralized merchandising and widespread adoption of vendor matrix structures, pioneered by May Co. and Wal-Mart. In 1985, WWD ran a front-page story, citing a 20 to 30 percent buyer turnover rate annually, as they searched for “more money, prestige and greater creative opportunities.” “For those [vendors] on the matrix, it’s terrific,” one prominent manufacturer observed. “For those not on it, it’s a horror.”
In the Nineties, buyers became more disillusioned about their careers. WWD observed: “Enthusiasm about merchandise has been supplanted by angst over numbers and anxiety over job security….As business lags, buyers are more likely to spend their time chasing markdown money rather than fashion trends.”
Innovative, avant-garde and startling, Yohji Yamamoto, Rei Kawakubo, Issey Miyake and Kansai Yamamoto changed the definition of high fashion in the early Eighties. Still, “I’m not very happy to be classified as another Japanese designer,” announced Kawakubo in 1983. “There is no one characteristic that all Japanese designers have.”
Of course their individual styles varied, but four unconventional designers emerging from Tokyo all at once were bound to be grouped together — especially Yohji and Rei, who shared a love of austerity and the color black. Some found their quirky and often dour look shockingly odd, but as Kawakubo explained, “It was never meant to be worn in supermarkets and in movie theaters in malls.”
Woman to Woman
With her seriously sexy, draped separates, Donna Karan showed the fashion world in 1984 that ease and comfort could still be plenty seductive. After leaving Anne Klein, her first solo effort boasted “a fluid body consciousness that is consummately feminine,” WWD declared. And it didn’t take Karan long to figure out she’d struck gold. Her second collection, based on the bodysuit, offered the ultimate in sophisticated sensibility — black essentials that could be “wrapped, tied, switched and swapped,” the paper reported.
“I had to come up with things women didn’t have,” Karan explained. “No one needed another pair of linen pants, but maybe she needed a jersey skirt.”
Giorgio Armani’s dream was to become a “simple country doctor,” he told WWD in 1978. Instead, the “King of the Blazer,” otherwise known as “Milan’s Saint Laurent,” found the cure for the working woman’s wardrobe woes. Armani’s broad-shouldered suits gave her an air of authority, and the look caught on fast. “Bigger shoulders give more allure and are more feminine,” Armani said. “It’s less casual, but more elegant.”
And did the young designer want to turn his budding business into an empire? “Yes,” he said. “I hope to have a perfume one day…”
“AIDS: It’s everyone’s business.” That was the page-one headline on May 28, 1985, as the paper reported on the disease that was decimating the industry. “There are an amazing number of people in the fashion industry who have given absolutely no funds to any of the different organizations” fighting the disease, said researcher Dr. Alvin Friedman-Kien. “They just don’t want to hear about it, or know about it. It’s as if they’re afraid they’re going to be associated with homosexuality. It’s shocking that some of the major designers in this country, who themselves are gay, have not been behind the effort to raise funds or to provide funds — which for them would be a tax-deductible item — and some of their greatest talents have died, and are dying, and will die.” A year later, WWD reported that the fashion industry’s first AIDS fund-raiser had pulled in $480,000. In ensuing years, the industry mobilized and through various organizations such as amFAR, DIFFA, 7th on Sale and APLA, has raised millions for a disease that has taken some of fashion’s greatest talents.
French leather-goods maker Louis Vuitton and champagne and spirits maker Moet-Hennessy announced a merger in June 1987, proposing to call the combined company LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton; the resulting entity would be France’s sixth-largest corporation.
In the fall of 1987, with U.S. stock prices collapsing, WWD weighed in with a page one headline “Top Retailers Lose Millions as Stocks Fall.” Some of the biggest hits, the Oct. 13 story said, were felt by Limited Inc. chairman Leslie Wexner, who saw his holdings in the company lose $1.21 billion. Gap chairman Donald G. Fisher took a paper loss of $404.3 million in his holdings. The 500-point stock plunge that came six days later on Black Monday panicked investors, the paper reported on Oct. 19 but wasn’t expected to have a long term effect.
In June 1980, a page-one story reported that off-price retail stores owned by manufacturers were “the single fastest-growing segment of the industry.” Merchants from that segment admitted they were starting to overcome their one major fear — that someday the supply of factory seconds and other low-priced goods would run dry.
But the emerging “marts” would truly dominate retail in the Eighties. From Wal-Mart to Steinmart to Super Kmart, WWD in 1988 examined the discount phenomenon from a fashion perspective, and foresaw “a momentum that should carry them smoothly into the Nineties, well ahead of the competition.” Even if their merchandise was more bread and butter than cutting edge, “They’re driven by an uncomplicated formula for profit — building volume through an expanding empire of stores, operating on lower costs and lower gross margins and carrying basic merchandise.” Wal-Mart, founded in 1962 by small-town merchant Sam Walton, reported $191 billion in sales in 2000 and was by far the biggest retailer in the world, with an apparel and accessories business estimated at $25 billion annually. “It can no longer be typecast as basic tonnage,” WWD reported. “After years of dominating the dowdy market, Wal-Mart is ready to be recognized for serving up some style.”
“Grunge is a hippied romantic version of Punk,” explained then Perry Ellis designer Marc Jacobs in 1992. To the sounds of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Sonic Youth and L7, Jacobs gleefully sent out the wrong length, the wrong size and clothes that just didn’t match. While his controversial ode to Seattle’s gritty chic was a hit with fashionites, Perry Ellis execs showed him the door.
Big Gets Bigger
As retail mergers began to pick up steam in the mid-Eighties, analysts were still banking on department stores to beat out the competition. But events spoke differently. Ward’s closed its catalog in 1985, and in 1986, May Co. ignited the retail merger movement, with a sweeping takeover of Associated Dry Goods. In 1987, under the headline, “Instant Retailer” WWD reported the grand vision of Australian developer George Herscu, and his plans for building “megamalls” across the U.S. to be anchored by a group of retailers he bought up fast: Bonwit Teller, B. Altman and Sakowitz. A few months later, WWD revealed Herscu’s cash flow problem, which triggered vendor cancellations and ultimately bankruptcy.
Robert Campeau, a Canadian developer, charmed bankers, Wall Streeters and veteran retailers alike and in 1986 bought Allied Stores with its Jordan Marsh, Bonwit Teller and Brooks Brothers divisions. In 1988, he bought Federated Department Stores, with its Bloomingdale’s, Burdines, Lazarus, Bon Marche, Abraham & Straus and Rich’s divisions. Both rapidly tumbled into bankruptcy under weighty debt, traumatizing the industry. In other big deals, Investcorp bought Saks Fifth Avenue after Batus relinquished it, General Cinema became a white knight by buying Neiman Marcus from Carter Hawley Hale and preventing The Limited from getting it, while The Limited did pull off a few big acquisitions of its own, buying Lerner’s and Lane Bryant.
By the Numbers
Merchant princes were out and financial executives were in. Among the Nineties’ most wrenching cases: Edward Finkelstein of R.H. Macy, brought down in April 1992 by Macy’s bankruptcy and succeeded by his chief financial executive Myron Ullman 3rd. “After 43 years — my entire business career — with Macy’s, this has not been an easy decision,” Finkelstein told the paper.
Ed Brennan, ceo of Sears, was replaced by Arthur Martinez, another financial executive and Stephen “I don’t pick merchandise” Elkin took the helm at Bergdorf’s, when Burt Tansky moved to Dallas to run Neiman Marcus.
Several big names retired: Bergdorf Goodman’s Ira Neimark, dubbed the “benevolent dictator” by WWD; Bloomingdale’s Marvin Traub, and Lord & Taylor’s Marshall Hilsberg. The feared and admired David Farrell, May Co.’s tough ceo, also stepped down. “He made unconscionable demands that you do everything his way,” said one of Farrell’s former executives, Bernard Olsoff. “He left very little room, but as a retailer, I have enormous admiration for what he accomplished, and as a stockholder I continue to adore him.” Milton Petrie, father of modern specialty retailing; Barneys New York’s great Fred Pressman, and Mel Jacobs of Saks all passed away in the decade.
Bubbles and Bows
In 1986, Christian Lacroix, “the whippersnapper of the Paris couture” thrilled the doyennes of Nouvelle Society — and WWD — with his baroque glamour and outrageous creations for Patou. His famous bubbles and poufs proclaimed “a woman’s right to outrageousness” and to look rich. Still, “clothes now aren’t made to show your social level or how much money you have,” Lacroix insisted. “They show your spirit and wit.” But Lacroix wasn’t alone in providing outlandish ladies with a way to show off. In January of 1983 a tanned and trim Karl Lagerfeld could be found “nervously admiring his careful rendition of the Chanel suit” — the one he would present at his first Chanel couture show. Everything, from that suit to Lagerfeld’s sultry eveningwear, sprouted bows or was emblazoned with big Cs, festooned with gold chains or pearls — and in some cases all of the above.
An Era of Bankruptcy
WWD got the scoop when Federated and Allied filed bankruptcy in January 1990. The charismatic Allen Questrom was recruited to be chairman and ceo and work with James Zimmerman, then president of Federated, to develop a strategy to save the company. Two years later, Federated emerged from bankruptcy, and Macy’s, struggling under the debt of its own LBO and expansion costs, succumbed to Chapter 11. Two years after that, Federated took over Macy’s, wresting it out of bankruptcy, creating a $13.5 billion empire [it’s currently closer to $19 billion] and setting the stage for further consolidations. On the day of the Federated-Macy’s merger, the paper reported: “Allen I. Questrom must be a happy man this morning.”
The squeeze continued through the Nineties, leading to the disappearance of such names as Montgomery Ward, Abraham & Straus, B. Altman, Bonwit Teller, I. Magnin, Bullock’s, Alexander’s, Stern’s, Jordan Marsh, John Wanamaker, as well as Korvettes, Charivari, Martha and scores of mid-sized regional chains, like Hills, Caldor, Jamesway and Hess’s.
Perhaps the nastiest bankruptcy was Barneys in January 1996, pitting the founding Pressman family against Isetan, the landlord of Barneys’ stores and Barneys’ expansion partner. The bankruptcy, filled with international drama and accusations, dragged on for three years; ultimately, the Pressmans were forced out and two vulture funds took over managing the retailer, bringing in Questrom, who had left Federated in 1997 and subsequently spent 15 months running Barneys.
There were some happy endings: The merger of Marshall’s into T.J. Maxx formed the nation’s biggest off-price operation. Federated, too, hung in, posting its best year ever in 1999, then losing ground in 2000, following an ill-fated acquisition of Fingerhut and the souring economy.
In late 2000, the economy began to soften and older mass chains struggled. Penney’s, Kmart and Sears were losing market share to newer chains with clearer identities and better value, like Kohl’s and Target. Questrom was recruited to rescue Penney’s in 2000, and WWD scored the first interview with him that December. “It’s like climbing another mountain,” Questrom said.
Less Is More
Two perfectionist powerhouses, Jil Sander and Calvin Klein, delivered fashion from the grips of Grunge in the mid-Nineties. Minimalism was their mantra and they pared things down — way down — until fashion reached the pinnacle of stark simplicity. “I see minimalism to be a philosophy that involves an overall sense of balance, knowing when to take away, subtract,” Klein told the paper in 1996. Of course, the look had many imitators, some of whom were not as adept at delivering a clean-cut collection with an artsy message. Minimalism, or “pureness” as Sander preferred to call it, was starting to look plain old plain.
As Sander said in 1991, “Believe me, pureness is not so easy to achieve without being banal.”
In Our Own Words
Over the years, WWD has introduced any number of terms that have found a more or less permanent place in mainstream English. Here, some of the more memorable ones.
SA: Seventh Avenue.
They Are Wearing: Copyrighted in 1924, still very much in use.
Fashion Flash: Copyrighted in the Fifties. The Locomotives: The people who make things go.
The BP: The Beautiful People.
The Sheer People: Those you can see right through.
The FVs: Fashion Victims
RBs: Rich Bitches, coined in 1982
Social Cyclones: Eighties term for the likes of Gayfryd Steinberg.
Walker: A man who escorts Social Cyclones to events.
Nouvelle Society: Eighties new rich climbing the social ladder.
L’Institut de l’Ennui: All those boring people.
The Frog Pond: La Grenouille, New York’s elegant restaurant.
HotPants: Coined in 1970.
Sportive: A reference to casual looks coming out of Paris, 1960s.
Fashion Nuns: Favored a monastic look by Yohji Yamamoto.
Geek Chic: Inspired by cybernauts.
Tough Chic: Fashion so hard-edged you could strike a match on it.
Le Smoking: Smoking jackets, a la Yves Saint Laurent.
Jackie O: The one and only.
Daddy O: Her second husband.
Her Ultimate Elegance: Gloria Guinness.
The Tiny Terror: Truman Capote, also known simply as TT.
Mr. Fashion Right: Bill Blass
Mr. Clean: Calvin Klein.
The Chic: Valentino (the designer, not the silent movie star).
Kaiser Karl: Karl Lagerfeld. Numero Uno: Giorgio Armani.
“He is fashion’s current epitome of hip, the renegade who bucked the conspicuous consumption trend of the Eighties as a novice showing in Paris — and has been raising eyebrows ever since,” the paper said of Helmut Lang in 1998. The Austrian-born master of modernity kicked off some of the decade’s biggest trends, from the use of techno fabrics to the elevation of sporty luxury and denim. He made clothes that were sexy, but smart. Though many designers tried, no one could trump the urban sophistication of Lang’s austere vision.
Return of the Lady
In the mid-Nineties, the Lady, that forgotten woman, made a big comeback. She longed for luxury. She cried out for curvy suits, perfectly poised party dresses. And so did retailers. Madcap talent John Galliano gave them just what they were looking for when he made his couture debut at Christian Dior in 1997 — a little romance, perfect execution and clothes that projected polish.
“I knew from the beginning that I didn’t want to do a retro rehash,” he told WWD. “I want this collection to have the romance and femininity Monsieur Dior stood for, which I believe in also, as well as a younger look and a new fit.” But under Galliano’s influence, Dior’s reach extended far beyond the ladylike crowd, becoming a favorite of the fabulous flock from Lil’ Kim to Nicole Kidman.
Gianni and Diana
In the summer of 1997, the fashion industry was stunned by the near-simultaneity of Gianni Versace’s murder in Miami on July 14, and Princess Diana’s death following a car crash in Paris on Aug. 31. WWD followed the tragedies with comprehensive looks at their lives and their impact on fashion. “Gianni Versace rocked fashion…A master showman, he was the force behind a fashion credo that was about glitz, glamour, hype, youth, sex and lots of fun,” the paper wrote. Six weeks later, WWD devoted much of the Sept. 2 issue to the Princess of Wales, her style and her life. “The most important thing about her was her capacity to give. She wasn’t just a woman dabbling in charities,” said Valentino.
“Madame Alix Gres, one of Paris’s most-celebrated couturieres, is dead,” WWD wrote Dec. 14, 1994. “In fact, she’s been buried for over a year. And, in a bizarre tale worthy of Alfred Hitchcock, her daughter, Anne Gres, managed to keep the news of her mother’s death from public knowledge.” For reasons that were never uncovered, Anne Gres had been faking her mother’s correspondence.
In August 1995, sweatshops were catapulted back onto the national stage with the discovery of illegal immigrant Thai workers virtually enslaved at sweatshops in El Monte, Calif. That case resulted in prison sentences as well as damages amounting to $18 million. Seven owners of the factory were convicted of violating federal criminal human rights laws.
A year later, merchandise bearing the Kathie Lee Collection label was found in sweatshops in New York and Honduras. The line’s namesake, talk-show host Kathie Lee Gifford, took the heat, even going to the New York factory and handing out envelopes containing $300 to each of about a dozen workers as emergency money.
WWD did its own visit to a factory, sending market editor Patricia Reynoso undercover for her “Diary of a Factory Worker,” in September 1996. “More physically and mentally exhausting than I had bargained for,” she wrote.
Fashion’s IPO madness hit its stride in 1995 with the successful Gucci Guccio SpA public offering in October, followed by the Estee Lauder IPO in November. The success of the two — Gucci stock soared 22 percent on its first day of trading — introduced the idea to the formerly-skeptical fashion crowd.
In fact, 1996 became the “year of the IPO,” as Donna Karan, Saks Holdings (parent of Saks Fifth Avenue), Revlon, North Face, Guess, and Abercrombie & Fitch all took the Wall Street plunge. In 1997, two more big names joined in: Tommy Hilfiger and Ralph Lauren. As one analyst said at the height of the IPO craze: “Everyone wants to get in on the action. It’s kind of like the IPO fever. Where it’s going to fall, we just don’t know yet.”
Electronic retail merited regular coverage in 1994, as TV channels like Home Shopping Network and QVC flourished, followed by the rise of the Internet first as a marketing tool and then as a retail channel in the mid-Nineties; the Gap, for example, was a pioneer when it launched e-tail in November 1997. By May 18, 2001, though, even the biggest retailer took a breather. “Given the price points and shipping costs associated with [apparel], it was not a profitable area,” said a Walmart.com spokeswoman.
The fashion world lost more stars in 1999. Harper’s Bazaar editor Liz Tilberis died after a six-year battle with ovarian cancer on April 21, 1999. And that July, John Kennedy and Carolyn Bessette Kennedy perished in a plane accident along with Bessette’s sister Lauren. “The only real successor to her mother-in-law, Jacqueline Onassis,” WWD wrote July 19, 1999. “Carolyn Bessette Kennedy has been the kind of designer’s dream that comes along once in a lifetime: a striking woman of easy, unstudied style who, along with her husband, commanded a room the minute she walked in.”
Prada on Parade
One of the most-often-copied designers of the last decade, Miuccia Prada surpassed cult status to create a commercial colossus without ever lessening her artsy cachet. Her quirky, feminine look merged serene, ladylike luxury with the intellectual stuff of graphics, technology and architecture. Consummately interesting, continually provocative and always a risky, she kept the fashion world on its toes. Next up for Prada: an IPO, possibly this year.
For Gucci, the mid-Nineties were a period of high-stakes wheeling and dealing and money problems. Then-ceo Maurizio Gucci managed to avert a bank auction of his company shares in 1993 with money he claimed he found “under the floorboards of his house in Saint Moritz, after a visit in a dream by his father’s ghost.” Two years later the 46-year-old Gucci was murdered by hitmen hired by his flamboyant ex-wife, Patrizia Reggiani. Auditors for the company, then owned by Investcorp, recommended that Gucci be liquidated.
And then came Tom Ford. “My idea was to bring back the image of what Gucci was in the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies, when it was cutting-edge, even a little bit flashy,” Ford told WWD in 1996. “I wanted to bring that edge back.” Ford brought it back, all right, and he infused fashion with a brand new, hard-edged sexiness. Ford’s look was for a woman who “enjoys flaunting her bod and her bank account just a bit more than she should,” the paper noted that year.
In 1999, Ford took to the helm at Yves Saint Laurent, creating a look that, while based on Saint Laurent’s history, was full of romance and, of course, sex appeal. “Fashion can be too serious and can become too cerebral and intellectual,” said Ford. “It’s like food. It should be sensual.”
The Nineties saw an invasion of European retailers across the price spectrum, with Hennes & Mauritz, Zara and Sephora moving at various speeds into the U.S. market. Designers as well, including Giorgio Armani, Versace, Chanel, Prada, Gucci and Ferragamo opened flagships in affluent urban pockets from Madison Avenue to Rodeo Drive. The common theme: verticalization. The Zaras and H&Ms make and price their own goods, getting rapid turns and higher margins. Designers, meanwhile, get to control their image and keep more of the profits.
The Price of Luxury
Three luxury conglomerates dominated fashion and its news in the late Nineties: LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton, Gucci Group and Prada Group. And as the cash-rich trio raced to acquire various fashion gems, not to mention global market share, they often clashed openly and bitterly, making for great copy. Prada snapped up Helmut Lang and Jil Sander, LVMH was well into revamps of Louis Vuitton, Givenchy and Christian Dior, and Gucci was riding the wave of its own makeover.
Then, in the summer of 1998, Prada announced it had a 9.5 percent stake in Gucci, although chief Patrizio Bertelli brushed off any suggestion of a bid. Then came LVMH’s own 5 percent stake; that prompted Gucci chairman and chief executive Domenico De Sole to say this about LVMH chief Bernard Arnault: “This guy wants to take control of the company without paying the full price.” Gucci managed to fend off LVMH’s advances with help from Pinault-Printemps-Redoute, the French retail giant that simultaneously took a 40 percent stake in Gucci and acquired Yves Saint Laurent’s fashion and beauty businesses.
LVMH and Prada teamed up to buy Fendi in September 1999 for a record $900 million — 33 times the family-owned company’s multiples — which was fine with De Sole. “Gucci does not spend like a drunken sailor,” said a source at the time. But since then, LVMH and Gucci have met numerous times in Amsterdam, where Gucci is incorporated, to battle over business and hurl accusations of improper behavior.