SHORT, STRANGE TRIP
IN THE SEVENTIES, JEANS FLEW SKY HIGH, THEN CAME DOWN, THEN GREW UP. FAR OUT.
Byline: Arnold J. Karr
By 1970, the buzz was gone.
The previous year’s Woodstock high and Altamont bummer were receding into memory. Richard Nixon was beginning the second year of his Presidency, his “secret plan” to end the War in Vietnam still a secret and his Cambodian incursion and the Kent State tragedy that followed still months away. The Beatles were beginning their first years as solo artists. Not since the Roaring Twenties yielded to the Depression had a decade ended with such a sense of finality and foreboding.
The U.S. population had just passed the 200 million mark for the first time, carried along by the Baby Boom surge that peaked in 1955 when the birth rate reached an all-time high of 25.0 births per 1,000. As this group began to contemplate life after school, they could take little for granted. Cherished institutions were under siege. The optimism of the Summer of Love three years earlier had yielded to decadence and death. Their generation’s heroes, like Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison, were succumbing to their own excesses. Before overdosing on heroin in October, Janis Joplin summed it up in the words of Kris Kristofferson: “…and feeling near as faded as my jeans.”
By 1970, denim jeans had arrived. For some of the nation’s young, they were a symbol of rebellion, an endorsement of working-class values and proletarian politics. But for nearly all, they represented the casual comfort of a more relaxed set of social standards. School boards, perhaps sensing that resistance was futile, had by now largely relaxed their dress codes, opening the door for seven-day-a-week casual dressing. On increasingly chaotic college campuses, the verdict was never in question.
From Cultish Clique to Chain Gang
And the jeans scene was already changing. A business that had largely been done out of Army/Navy stores and head shops was becoming institutionalized. In 1969, a real estate developer named Donald Fisher and his wife, Doris, had opened the first Gap store in San Francisco and had turned to a local jeans giant, Levi Strauss & Co., for merchandise. Gap was so closely identified with Levi’s in its early years that it would be considered newsworthy when the maker’s share of the assortment dropped below 50 percent several years later. Of course, that was over 2,000 units, an acquisition and one start-up ago, long before anyone could have envisioned Gap would become a threat to Levi’s market share.
The Gap would prove the most enduring, but it was far from the only jeans store that rested on the launching pad of denim delirium at the start of the Seventies. “The business really started in boutiques, in head shops, in stores on and near college campuses,” recalled Bobby Margolis, later the co-founder of A. Smile and today the chief executive of Cherokee Group. “You not only had Gap, but Jeans West in St. Louis, Wild West and Miller’s Outpost in the L.A. area, House of Jeans in Texas. Up until 1969, the suppliers were big, utilitarian makers, like Levi’s and Wrangler.”
That was all about to change, even as the major manufacturers were to experience meteoric growth of their own, Margolis pointed out. With their own entrepreneurial instincts emerging and filling the void left by the major producers’ orientation toward larger stores, a new generation of fashion jeans producers appeared on the scene. Slowly, the department stores entered the junior and young men’s businesses, using big-brand jeans as their “hook” items, and smaller boutiques either expanded (like Gap), consolidated or went out of business altogether.
“Ultimately this would drive a lot of the boutiques out of business, with exceptions such as Fred Segal and Up Against the Wall, who would be forced to go high-end,” Margolis said. “But while the boutiques were still viable and before things got totally commercial, there was a whole cult of stores and manufacturers who flourished together, although just for a while. The commonality for the makers was that every single one was known for a single, distinctive product.”
For A. Smile, the product was the pleated jean, which would earn Margolis and then-partner Stanley Buchthal a Cody Award, an honor perhaps as antiestablishmentarian as the Best Picture Oscar going to “Midnight Cowboy” in 1970.
Also coming in as part of the first wave of fashion jeans makers were Landlubber (low-rider, besom-pocket jeans), Male (four-patch-pocket jeans) and other companies, generally based in New York, such as Viceroy and UFO. Meanwhile, workwear makers such as Big Smith, OshKosh B’Gosh, Carhartt and Dickies assumed new fashionability. Levi’s, after its storied California Gold Rush beginning and near closure in the early part of the century, was fighting the downside of success, struggling to keep up with demand that seemed to have no limits. The company went public in 1971, hit $1 billion in sales in 1975 and would double that revenue figure before the decade was over.
Although seen as a universal wardrobe piece, jeans had more impact on men’s wear at this point than it did on women’s. For one thing, most workwear jeans were designed by and sized for and sold to men. For another, a strong unisex trend ran through the jeans business at this point. Again, change was in the offing.
The same casual influences that had helped spur the jeans explosion among younger customers were incubating other relaxed looks in the men’s business. Older customers were gravitating toward the leisure suit, which, while generally considered vulgar today, dominated and energized the business of the mid-1970s. Women sat that trend out, but they joined men in their acceptance of printed polyester and nylon shirts.
These men’s sport shirts would suffer the same agonizing demise as did the leisure suit, beginning in 1966, but their women’s counterparts would live on, topping off a new generation of denim looks, many of them emanating from West Coast vendors, that were more often than not designed for younger women. With inflation taking an economic toll, Nixon departing for California in 1974 and disco arriving with a bassy bang the following year, the stage was set for a return to slightly dressier looks, and these would filter down to the jeans market, too.
“Levi, Lee and Wrangler were worn unisex, but the next group — Gloria Vanderbilt, Calvin Klein, Sasson, Jordache and Guess — were aimed directly at women, even before they started to appear on TV,” said Dutch Leonard, who was executive vice president of Burlington Sportswear at the time and today serves as president of the Burlington Casual Wear unit, which includes denim. “As a men’s wear product, jeans tended to be rigid, but as the focus shifted to women, manufacturers started rinsing and washing them. Stretch jeans arrived, with polyester and Lycra, and again it was done to entice women. European companies like Fiorucci and Girbaud also helped to address the issue.”
They also helped to swell domestic denim demand. Figures provided by Burlington show that U.S. denim production, at 290 million square yards equivalent, had more than doubled by 1975 (607.8 million) and peaked two years later at 748.9 million. The 1977 figure wouldn’t be met and exceeded until 1986.
Just as the women’s business began to breathe a life of its own, its counterpart on the men’s side experienced a nearly catastrophic contraction. As demand for men’s jeans began to level off, department stores and specialty chains, now the major players for the big brands, began to use their large inventories of Levi’s as loss leaders. Beginning in the summer of 1977, large chains in major cities, and some secondary markets, too, began to discount their stocks of Levi’s 501 and 505 styles. The same Levi’s that might have been selling at a premium in the Soviet Union were dropping at retail, to $12.50 and below, in U.S. stores. In many cases, these stores got out of the basic Levi’s business entirely, selling off their remaining inventory to jobbers and focusing on fashion both in denim and elsewhere. This phenomenon accelerated Levi’s decision, rendered in 1980, to expand distribution to include Sears and J.C. Penney.
“It was a transaction-oriented business in the early 1970s, but it matured into a very programmed business with tremendous delineation of brands at all levels,” commented Jack Rose, president of Gloria Vanderbilt Apparel Corp., which today is relaunching one of the outstanding denim success stories of the late 1970s and early 1980s. “To get the denim business going again, and functioning at the designer level, products had to be differentiated. And everyone who was a factor in this business realized that doing so — redefining what the jeans business was — meant that you had to be on TV.”
The impact of Vanderbilt’s commercials, and the subsequent campaigns for Calvin Klein featuring Brooke Shields as well as Jordache, Sasson, Sergio Valente and others, was felt 20 years later when Rose and his associates found that, its absence from the marketplace notwithstanding, “we still had a brand.” Consumers remembered Vanderbilt’s TV commercials and associated her with stretch jeans and the swan logo.
“Today, you need a great product, a point of view, great fit and value, and you have to surround it with the right ambience,” Rose said, “but a brand is a tremendous head start. You couldn’t invest the kind of money they did in the 1980s and come out of it with a brand.”
By 1980, the population had passed 225 million. The buzz still wasn’t back, but the jeans business was.