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Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger — storied brands whose founders built companies and aesthetics now deeply entrenched in the American fashion psyche. Over decades, each has produced reams of product and other visual imagery. Yet the two are practically arrivistes compared to other brands under the PVH Corp. umbrella, the oldest of which dates back 140 years. Among those “Heritage Brands”: Van Heusen, Arrow, Warner’s, Olga, Izod and Geoffrey Beene.

It all adds up to big business — $9.9 billion in total revenues in 2019 — and a great deal of history to steward.

Over the past several years, PVH has compiled its brands’ vast holdings of clothes, accessories, print materials and other artifacts into the PVH Archives, a huge physical and state-of-the-art digital repository of the company’s historical treasures. The meticulously maintained collection is located at the Uovo fine art storage facility in Long Island City, Queens, in a 22,000-square-foot-space that has separate archives for Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger and the Heritage Brands. In addition, the Vintage Inspiration Library holds clothes and accessories from non-PVH brands, and the Viewing Room provides space for meetings, archive processing, photography and in-house exhibitions.

The entrance to the PVH Archives. The trunks hold installation fixtures from an exhibit that was canceled due to COVID-19.

The entrance to the PVH Archives. The trunks hold installation fixtures from an exhibit that was canceled due to COVID-19.  Masato Onoda/WWD

The Archives project got started almost accidentally, after a couple of office moves put a spotlight on the abundance of materials PVH had in-house, some of it partially organized, some not. Tommy Hilfiger was an early collector, both of his own designs and vintage, starting as a young fashion aspirant in Elmira, N.Y. Across 35 years and several ownership situations, Hilfiger’s personal collection of clothes traveled with him to various offices. Most recently, when the brand moved its New York base from the Starrett-Lehigh Building in Chelsea to its current location at 285 Madison Avenue, “a ton of stuff came in,” says the brand’s archive manager, Becca Love.

Similarly, Arrow’s relocation to PVH headquarters brought with it a great deal of tangible history — about 600 boxes arrived at the 200 Madison Avenue office, according to Lauren McClain, vice president, PVH corporate communications. And while the Calvin Klein company hasn’t moved anywhere (it’s maintained its base at 205 West 39th street for decades) it, too, had a massive compilation of historical material. Beginning in the early 1970s, the house founder saved a good deal of his work as a matter of course, and made an attempt at its formal organization in the mid-1990s.

McClain joined the company in 2014, with oversight of the Archives project a primary responsibility under her purview. She credits Tiffin Jernstedt, who exited PVH last year, with the initial idea to centralize the diverse historical holdings. “Tiffin said, ‘this is an opportunity, this is content, this is interesting material,” McClain recalls. “Then I was brought in. We put a strategy together; we got leadership on board.”

Original prints from campaigns produced by the CRK agency, 1990s.

Original prints from campaigns produced by the CRK agency, 1990s.  Masato Onoda/WWD

PVH Chairman and chief executive officer Manny Chirico was all-in from the start. “Our history is something to be proud of, and also something that we learn from and can take inspiration from to move forward,” he says. All the more so if its artifacts are properly housed, catalogued and cared for — a massive endeavor that required philosophical support and serious funding. “When we built our PVH Archives, we made a commitment to invest in and preserve the rich history of our company and our brands,” Chirico notes. “The archives are an incredible resource for all PVH associates, particularly our designers, to see how our iconic brands like Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, Van Heusen and Warner’s have captured the hearts of our consumers for 140 years.” 

It is not an ivory-tower entity. While design research is a primary focus, and the brands’ various designers the most frequent visitors, Archives was conceived of as a companywide asset, and the welcome mat is out to all 40,000 employees, who can make use of its offerings, digitally and in person.

In addition, the archivists curate exhibits both on-site and off, the former typically special events for company staff. Among those produced in the relative short time since the Archives’ opening: “PVH Was There: A Century of Fashion and Change” in 2018, and in 2019, “The Power of Celebrity,” and “The Power of PVH,” done in conjunction with the company’s European headquarters in Amsterdam, where the exhibit opened.

Other installations are done in collaboration with outside organizations. In 2019, the PVH initiative Building Resources for African American Voices and Empowerment (BRAAVE) hosted a retreat in partnership with Howard University with an exhibit highlighting the role of Black and African American culture in PVH marketing. The Archives also organized an inclusion-focused exhibit for WWD’s first Culture Conference in 2019.

Archives also lends out. The Brooklyn Museum’s recent exhibit “Studio 54: Night Magic” featured seven Calvin Klein looks. “That was a really big moment for us,” says Jessica Barber, Calvin Klein archive manager. “We like these pieces to see the light of day.” Next stop for that exhibit: The Art Gallery of Ontario, the exact opening date to be decided.

Calvin Klein archivists Vanessa Garber and Jessica Barber.

Calvin Klein archivists Vanessa Garber and Jessica Barber.  Masato Onoda/WWD

McClain considers the Archives’ organization and function “absolute perfection,” due largely to the efforts of its four senior archivists. In addition to Barber and Love, Vanessa Garver is​ archive senior coordinator for Calvin Klein. All three hold master’s degrees in fashion and textile studies from FIT. Suzanne Shapiro, PVH historian and Heritage Brands archivist, received her master’s in costume studies at NYU. They know their stuff, and radiate enthusiasm for it when walking and talking a visitor through the fashion treasure trove.

My visit to the site was originally scheduled in advance of the company’s centennial observation of its March 25, 1920, listing on the New York Stock Exchange. But non-company events intervened, causing cancellation of all in-person anniversary-related activity, including an expansion of the Amsterdam exhibit that was supposed to open in the Calvin Look Space on 39th Street. (A celebratory book, “The Power of PVH,” for employees, was published as planned.)

Eight-plus months later, the trip proved well worth the wait. I’ve covered Calvin Klein, man and company, since the mid-’90s, and Tommy Hilfiger, even longer, since his days at Click Point (a cute junior sportswear company). As for the Heritage Brands, Arrow was once part of Cluett Peabody, long based in my hometown of Troy, N.Y., aka, The Collar City. Well into the 20th century, Arrow made the detachable, stiff shirt collars that defined elegant dressing for men, and advertised them on the dashing Arrow Collar Man, who, it turns out, had a quite interesting backstory. I’ve always thought him a ringer for F. Scott Fitzgerald, at least in famous profile views of both. Coincidentally, Fitzgerald is in the pop-culture zeitgeist even more than usual right now because on Jan. 1, “The Great Gatsby” passed into public domain. That tale provides one of literature’s most famous fashion moments when Gatsby tosses his elegant shirts all about to impress Daisy.

Yes, I digress. But then, there’s more purpose to historical preservation than essential professional research. One joy of a compelling archive: It takes you places. Given time and curiosity, one can wander vastly via the PVH Archives.

CALVIN KLEIN: MASTERFUL MINIMALISM

The Calvin Klein area is immense, occupying two rooms. A 7,000-square-foot space houses Fashion and Home. The second room holds the CRK Advertising archives. Fashion includes clothes and accessories designed across 50-plus years, from 1968 (a pair of “That Girl”-worthy A-line dresses) through the Raf Simons era that ended unceremoniously in December 2018. The latter features Simons’ outsider, often heady take on Americana — Western wear, “Jaws,” painted denim — as well as his label change for Collection, to Calvin Klein 205W39NYC. Also well-represented: the under-celebrated Francisco Costa era that ran from Klein’s retirement in 2004 (the year after he and his business partner Barry Schwartz sold the company to what was then called Phillips-Van Heusen) until 2016. Costa started his tenure with a distinct declension of Klein’s concepts and became increasingly more artful, ending with a pair of powerful collections, moody, sophisticated florals for spring, and a fall lineup that featured racy cutouts secured by polished geodes.

Calvin Klein Collection wool twill bustier and trouser, spring 2002.

Calvin Klein Collection wool twill bustier and trouser, spring 2002.  Masato Onoda/WWD

Costa designed women’s wear only; Italo Zucchelli was his men’s wear counterpart, often displaying a flamboyance — bright, acid-hued suits, for example — that seemed brave, if antithetical to the founder’s ethos. His and Costa’s very different aesthetics raised the question of whether a major brand needs a single creative director, or can thrive with different leaders working unlike visions for different areas. By 2016, the Calvin brass obviously thought a singular vision preferable, and hired Simons, whose departure little more than two years later led to the dissolution of the brand’s runway presence, and left the company again without singular creative oversight.

The absence of a single creative director hasn’t lessened the archive’s traffic; designers from across the brand areas — Jeans, CK, Sport and others — have made ample use of its resources. “Our archive is the ultimate physical connection to our brand’s DNA, and is a daily source of inspiration,” says Jacob Jordan, global merchant and product strategist. “We use the archive to reference everything from garments, trims, fabrics and colors to packaging and campaigns on a regular basis. Since they are also digitized, the full breadth of the archive is accessible to our teams around the world.”

Just as the design teams take inspiration and tangible information from the wealth of material available to them, their areas of interest provide the archivists with valuable information. “On the database, we keep track of how many times each piece was borrowed and who borrowed what, says senior coordinator Vanessa Garver. “We can tell what are the most popular collections by what the designers borrow the most, and see year-to-year what people are looking at and what’s changing.”

In December, Jessica Lomax arrived as executive vice president, global head of design. If her background (she hails from Nike) suggests that a heightened sports vibe might emerge, it will be taken with consideration of the house legacy. “I intend to honor and celebrate the incredible history of the brand to create truly authentic design, whilst simultaneously looking ahead to build the future,” she says. “I see the archive as an ongoing body of work, a process, and as we design for longevity, I constantly think about what we will hold onto and how that will represent our legacy going forward.”

These days, that legacy includes significant attention to the red carpet. The archive holds about 300 celebrity-worn event looks, most designed on Costa’s watch. Conversely, while there’s plenty of Calvin-designed eveningwear, and one can imagine his slithery gold lamé numbers hitting the dance floor at Studio 54, not a single look has a known celebrity provenance. Back then, women, even famous ones, wore clothes because they loved this or that look. If a designer offered a gift, it tended to be just that — a personal gift. Now, the red carpet is all business. PVH-dressed celebrities typically return their clothes post-event, after which the looks are sent straight to the archive for tagging. Some pieces have interesting footnotes. Archivist Barber notes the famed pearl-encrusted gown Lupita Nyong’o wore to the 2015 Oscars. After the event, it was stolen from her hotel, miraculously recovered and then criticized when the word broke that “the thief” had sent two pearls out for testing and they came back fake, despite the reported price tag of $150,000. The dress ended up getting almost as much press as Nyong’o herself. “We have some really iconic pieces,” says Barber.

But the lion’s share of the Calvin Klein archive contains the work of the house founder. In addition to the clothing, there’s a wealth of print images produced by the in-house agency, CRK Advertising, established “around 1980.” The “R,” Barber notes, “is for Richard. Not many people know that stands for his initials.”

The “R” may be relatively unknown, but the Calvin Klein advertising bravado is legendary. All along, Klein wasn’t content to hire star creatives and let them do all the work; he immersed himself in his brand messaging, which is why he started the agency in the first place.

“Calvin was big on controlling the imagery,” Barber notes. “So he thought, ‘why should I go to Madison Avenue and hire somebody? I’m just going to create my own agency.’ The result of that is, while we obviously don’t own the rights to these things, we have a massive amount of material.” More than 1,000 boxes are filled with literally hundreds of thousands of brand images, many famous for the controversies they stoked.

The agency produced some of the most memorable designer-brand campaigns in fashion history, focused on categories in which Klein fearlessly disrupted norms. He took on underwear’s mass-market big guns with logoed waistbands and well-endowed poster boy Marky Mark [Wahlberg]. He pioneered the designer jeans arena by enlisting the teenaged Brooke Shields, who mused in a TV spot about going commando under her jeans. He glamorized an unhealthy psychological state — obsession — naming a fragrance in its honor and casting the original waif Kate Moss as its embodiment, and further rocked that fragrance world with the first unisex scent, CK One. Yet most shocking was the infamous CK Jeans “rumpus room” campaign shot by Steven Meisel, decried as kiddie porn by critics across ideologies.

The underlying audacity still stuns. “[Calvin] took risks and experimented. To have an archive of images that stoke such passion and stir emotions is truly inspiring as a creative,” says Cédric Murac, the brand’s executive vice president, global creative. As for whether such risk-taking translates to the current woke culture that leaves little room for missteps, Murac maintains that the inclination to provoke still informs the brand. “Calvin took risks and pushed boundaries whether the world was ready or not. While that might look different today, it is still very much our ethos as a brand. We continue to create engaging campaigns that connect to culture and challenge industry norms.”

This imagery is maintained primarily for historical record and research purposes. However much Klein paid his various collaborating photographers (one can assume it was a lot) — in addition to Meisel, Richard Avedon, Bruce Weber and Mario Sorrenti are among those who also shot for the house — for the most part, they retained the rights to their work. Nor did the model releases allow the brand unlimited use in perpetuity.

When I ask about getting an outtake or two of the trove of 1990s Marky Mark photos that caused such commotion on giant billboards and in magazines, the request is denied; Wahlberg wouldn’t approve. In fact, an original photo wasn’t used for the in-house book celebrating the Stock Exchange anniversary. The workaround then: a photo agency shot of the billboard in Times Square.

As for the clothes, by the time PVH acquired the brand, the holdings were already significant. “Calvin didn’t call it an archive,” Barber notes. “I think it was more of a fashion closet. But everything had a style number, everything was in run-of-show order. He kept things. So now we have over 20,000 garments.”

Though Klein hasn’t visited the archive itself, he relied heavily on its resources when working on his book, published in 2017. His editors made numerous visits, and at times, the archive went to him. Staffers would pack up countless boxes and head to the brand’s longtime West 39th Street headquarters, where Klein did some work on the project. The archive staffers found his process illuminating, particularly when he eschewed familiar published photographs in favor of outtakes.

That Klein is a genius of marketing, visual communication and provocation is undisputed. Of course he is acknowledged as well as a major designer, one of the very few who brought American fashion into global prominence beginning in the 1970s. Still, he doesn’t get the credit he deserves for the power, impact and enduring allure of his fashion.

CK One rocked the fragrance industry when it launched in 1994.

CK One rocked the fragrance industry when it launched in 1994.  Masato Onoda/WWD

Calvin Klein invented minimalism as the fashion construct we know today. He was there before Miuccia Prada discovered black nylon, before Jil Sander took Milan by discreet storm from her Hamburg home base and well before Helmut Lang refined his captivating tailored street vibe. At various times, Klein was accused of culling from all of them, and truth be told, occasionally he did. But the essence of sensual simplicity was all his own — pure Calvin.

Though Klein started in the late 1960s, as evidenced by those two precision-cut A-line dresses, one pink, one black, his design ethos took shape in the 1970s. Among the archive’s earliest pieces from that decade: a pair of 1972 wrap coats that recall the famous, true tale of the aspiring designer pushing racks of clothes along Seventh Avenue to retail appointments. Soon after, his full sportswear vision emerged — minimal in terms of cut, color, flourish. He favored precise tailoring, unfettered dresses and separates and a baseline palette of neutrals into which he sometimes introduced color, seldom bright and often dusty; 1,000 shades of gray were given 1,000 different names. He used pattern with control, but more often than memory might suggest — muted plaids and the small florals that later became inspirations for the brand’s bedding patterns. As time went on, Klein also flexed an art muscle or two. For example, his fall 1996 asymmetric matte jersey color blocks in moody hues, and his 1997 abstract line prints.

Klein’s spare aesthetic was naturally suited to the ’70s and ’90s. He did his best work in those periods and into the early 21st century. But the archive’s hefty 1980s component shows his integrity as a designer. At a time of indulgent proportions, taffeta madness and more, more, more of everything, his clothes never got hideous. Yes, the shoulders widened; the crisp tailoring went slouchier and the fabrics, less structured. But overall, he nodded to the momentary winds without ever caving to trends antithetical to his core aesthetic tenets.

Now the clothes designed by Calvin Klein the man look incredibly modern, and many could be — should be! — replicated today. Two looks make the point while highlighting both Klein’s focus and his range, one fluid, one structured, both spare: the brown slipdress from fall 1974, a quietly fabulous, early rendering of a future signature, and a wool twill bustier with tailored trouser from spring 2002. Each could walk down a runway or into a party today (well, if we could have parties today), and no one would think “retro.” Everyone would think “chic.”

TOMMY HILFIGER: POP-CULTURE POWER

The first item visible inside the Tommy Hilfiger archive is a would-be storybook ballgown — demure puff-sleeved corseted bodice; tulle skirt. But the color, somber gray, hardly suits a princess ingénue. Yet when Zendaya wore the frock to the 2019 Met Gala, it lit up — and not just from the star’s own radiance. Rather, she got the bibbidy-bobbidy-boo treatment to spectacular effect thanks to some fairy-godmother electronics.

The gown reveals nothing of the primary style genres, preppy and music-derived, on which Hilfiger built his reputation and brand. It reveals a great deal about his professional mind-set and the essence of his brand which, over 35 years, has found mega success (with some bumps) by mining pop culture and forging deep relationships with its icons, enlisting them as ambassadors, campaign subjects and more recently, collaborators. Years ago, Hilfiger sponsored concert tours of the Rolling Stones and Lenny Kravitz. He has often featured celebrities du jour in his campaigns, with a roster from David Bowie and Iman to Usher, Britney Spears and Aaliyah, as well as the children of celebrities, including Kidada Jones and Ivanka Trump (that was then). The approach has kept the brand relevant for new generations.

Various Tommy Hilfiger collectibles including the cowboy boots worn by Naomi Campbell on the runway.

Various Tommy Hilfiger collectibles including the cowboy boots worn by Naomi Campbell on the runway.  Masato Onoda/WWD

As for Zendaya, she was no glass slipper-flashing one-night stand. Rather, she signed on as Hilfiger’s codesigner for his spring and fall 2019 collections. And she wasn’t shy about exerting influence. Inspired by fashion’s famous 1973 Battle of Versailles, she developed a lineup that was something of a departure for Hilfiger, more dressed up and tailored than his typical runway efforts, shown on an all-Black cast. Hers was one of several recent high-profile, high-return collaborations. Hilfiger got the ball rolling with Gigi Hadid in 2016 with spectacular results, and has also enlisted Lewis Hamilton and Kith. In addition, several years ago, he worked with Zoey Deschanel.  

“Tommy is such a pop-culture brand,” says archivist Becca Love. The company has proven resilient, undergoing numerous ownership changes before PVH acquired it in 2010. Through several repositionings, a serious oversaturation episode in the ’90s, a public offering and subsequent buy back to private, the brand’s marshaling of pop-culture connections to sell fashion never wavered.

Nor has his belief in optic verve. “I always say that Calvin is the master of minimalism and Tommy is all maximalism,” says Love. “You look at this collection and it’s like, how many different ways can you do leather, appliqué, beads, embroidery, animal print and red, white and blue?”

She has a point. The large holdings are both consistent and diverse — mostly classic shapes, or shapes that started as classic, which Hilfiger then manipulated — scaling up, shrinking, cropping, etc. — in keeping with the mood of the times. As for the “maximalism” Love describes, Hilfiger’s is a world of high-energy overstatement favoring a bold palette and ample graphics, with an emphasis on color blocks and major logos.

The earliest piece in the collection is a pink rugby polo short from 1985, the year that Hilfiger launched his company backed by Mohan Murjani. Love notes that pink was an important early colorway because of its associations with preppy, the prevailing mood on which Hilfiger launched. Red, white and blue as a constant leitmotif didn’t enter the Hilfiger vernacular in a significant way until about 1992, before which, Love notes, “about the only time you saw it was on the interior label.”

Hilfiger has long worked a deft fusion of cool and mainstream wholesomeness. Numerous themes, and often, pieces, play well across decades, so much so that in 2019, the company launched a Tommy Jeans archival lineup, focused on originals from the 1990s. Conversely, some pieces are snapshots of their eras. One item shouts from its hanger, “you wouldn’t do it today.” It’s a shirt from Hilfiger’s 1997 to 2001 association with Ferrari F 1997 to 2001. It features the logo of another company then also involved with Ferrari — Marlboro. In a later version, that logo is gone. “Because of where society was going, Marlboro themselves had to shift their plan,” Love says.

Tommy Hilfiger Madame Alexander Rebecca Doll, 2000.

Tommy Hilfiger Madame Alexander Rebecca Doll, 2000.  Masato Onoda/WWD

Just as Calvin Klein started saving clothes early, so did Hilfiger. As an industrious young fashion aspirant, he began collecting vintage clothes to repurpose for People’s Place, his store in Elmira, N.Y. He kept what he didn’t sell, and soon started saving his own designs as well, ultimately compiling a big collection. According to Love, it arrived to PVH in a reasonably well-organized condition. “The collection items, if not in run-of-show order, were at least organized by season,” she recalls. “I think the challenge with that was that there wasn’t someone that was totally in charge of organizing it so everything would get mixed up.”

Now, with the tagging system and Love’s oversight, “mix-ups” are not an issue, and everything is readily accessible. When Hilfiger’s designers visit, sometimes they want to peruse. More often they have something specific in mind — tartan, houndstooth, athletic. “Then I’ll tell them, ‘OK, you’re going to want to look here, here, here and here,’” Love says. “But, of course, they are more than welcome to just browse.”

In addition to the products one would expect to find in a fashion archive, clothes and accessories, the Tommy area boasts as well some far-flung branded collectibles: dolls (Madame Alexander Baby Doll from the ’90s; Gigi Hadid Barbie), teddy bear, disposable camera. In some cases, the pop-culture convergence is readily apparent; in others, not so much. During one of his visits, Love asked Hilfiger, “can you tell me a little bit about why we have ice skates?” His response: “Well, that was a period when we were just doing everything.”

More understandable: the pair of snazzy, elaborately decorated cowboy boots set on a table. Naomi Campbell wore them when she opened the spring 2000 show in flight-of-fancy Western regalia, the red-white-and-blue bustier-over-pants number, worn here for the first time since that show.

Love runs through various themes and labels introduced over the years — Tommy Girl, Tommy Jeans, the Cycling Division — and notes a strategy sea change that impacted the way in which the clothes are designed. Hilfiger is one of numerous brands that shifted to the see-now-buy-now runway model several years ago, and is the biggest name to have stuck with it. It has worked brilliantly for him, boosted by the celebrity collaborations and his bold mega-show approach. His consumer-facing Tommy Now extravaganzas, produced in New York, Milan, Los Angeles, Shanghai and Paris, have garnered reams of social media attention for the brand, and people can shop the full collection the next day.

Tommy Hilfiger archivist Becca Love.

Tommy Hilfiger archivist Becca Love.  Masato Onoda/WWD

That schedule shift had design implications. Love indicates the range of looks from fall 2016, the last season before the switch. “You see a lot more of the bead work, and other treatments you can’t do in a see now, buy now model,” she says. “As you jump into the spring ’17 show, it’s still the same level of detail, but instead of doing an actual patchwork, you’re doing something that’s modeling off of it.”

It has not dampened her personal enthusiasm for her material in any way. She turns to the Zendaya fall 2019 lineup. She notes its emphasis on tailoring, including a lean suit in an intricate Zodiac print. But it wasn’t all suitings. Next, she reaches for a colorful mélange-striped sweater, and does a bit of a double-take at herself. “Oh,” she said. “I’m wearing that same sweater today.”

HERITAGE BRANDS: HISTORICAL ROMANCE

“I have no illusions, these brands are a little bit less buzzworthy, you could say.” So says Suzanne Shapiro, PVH’s Heritage Brands archivist. While the companies under her purview may lack the star-powered zing-pop of those PVH stable luminaries that loom large enough in the consciousness to require only a single name — Tommy, Calvin — they are also hallmark companies of American fashion. The Heritage umbrella includes, among others, Arrow Shirts, Van Heusen, Izod, Warner’s, Olga and Geoffrey Beene. Thus, the materials under Shapiro’s purview span 140 years and cover some of the most indelible touch points of American fashion history. Far from being a stuffy, musty trip down memory lane, they provide snapshots of moments in American design while addressing themes that still resonate today.

“Our brands are steeped in a long history, and it’s compelling to see our archives through the years from the clothes to the ads themselves. It’s interesting to see the evolution of our brands and a great reminder of how we have been able to lead in the apparel industry for decades,” says Brian Mims, PVH’s executive vice president and creative director, Heritage Brands.

The number and age of the brands within the Heritage sphere makes these holdings particularly broad, ranging from clinical to quirky. Over the course of an afternoon, Shapiro shows off some of her area’s diverse treasures, among them an 1877 Warner’s patent for intimates, one of the oldest items in the collection. Another piece, a 1924 corset signed by Warner’s future long-time president John Field, is a favorite because of what the signature conjures, “the immediacy of just being in this room of people saying, ‘oh, we we’ve got another new product and we’re going to register it, we’re going to get a patent for it.’”

Warner’s corselette, signed on Aug. 1, 1924, by company president John Field and others.

Warner’s corselette, signed on Aug. 1, 1924, by company president John Field and others.  Masato Onoda/WWD

While Warner’s, founded in 1874 by brothers Lucien and Ira Warner, is a Heritage company, Shapiro notes that some of its themes are pure 21st century. The brothers were medical doctors by trade. Lucien lectured frequently on the then-taboo subject of women’s well-being, and attributed some of his female patients’ health woes to their restrictive corsetry. Despite having no experience in the world of underpinnings, the brothers struck out to build a better torso-trap, and the Drs. Warner’s Coraline Health Corsets were born. In their mission to achieve a better, more flexible corset, the Warners developed Coraline — a fiber derived from agave plants, as a substitute for the more restrictive whale bones then in standard use. In addition to being more comfortable (even if the stiff material hardly feels comfy today), there was the added benefit of eco-friendliness, though that wouldn’t have been the word either Warner used. “They said in their writing,” says Shapiro, “in language that echoes today’s sustainability, ‘we don’t want to kill these mythical beasts if we have an improvement.’” Nor were the Warners’ corporate responsibility inclinations limited to whale preservation. Shapiro notes that in the 1880s they established a center for education and recreation for their female factory workers.

Whether such actions appealed to consumers who then shopped the brand or women were just drawn to the appeal of less-restricted motion, the corsets were a hit and business boomed. In 1913, the company purchased Mary Phelps Jacob’s patent for the brassiere. Ultimately, Warner’s would build on that patent to launch the ABC Alphabet Bra in the 1930s (and with it, lettered cup sizes) and, a little later, Merry Widow corsetry (named for, but not featured in, the Lana Turner film of the same name).

From early on, Warner’s embraced advertising with visuals and language that, in hindsight, amuse at times. Warner’s advertising program for summer 1920 highlights a host of corsets and brassieres, the former promising “styles for everyone — for the slender, girlish figure which needs only a little girdle, lightly boned; and for the woman of ample — even excess – flesh, who needs special corseting to control hips, back or diaphragm.” A 1954 ad for one bra style, The Gay Deceiver (seriously), promises that “women with small figures can have fuller, more beautiful curves.”

For Shapiro, it’s the historical resonance, innovation and storytelling possibilities that lend magic to the archive. She’s proud to still be in touch with members of the Phillips family — the P in PVH — who remain a source of inspiration, despite no longer having a controlling interest in the company. Moses Phillips, the family patriarch, emigrated to the U.S. from central Europe. When he discovered that he could not support his family as a rabbi, he became a man of a different sort of cloth, first mending and, ultimately, making shirts for miners in Pottsville, Pa.

An array of 1920s Arrow shirt collars.

An array of 1920s Arrow shirt collars.  Masato Onoda/WWD

A series of savvy business decisions led Phillips to New York City, and then to a partnership with John Manning Van Heusen. Van Heusen invented the famous soft-folding collar, a more comfortable alternative to the starchier Arrow shirt collar. From collars, Van Heusen expanded to ties, shirts and men’s sportswear and became an early leader in celebrity-driven advertising and multiplatform marketing. Ronald Reagan was an early pitchman, and a framed illustration of him hangs (somewhat incongruously) above a black-and-white sequined top by Geoffrey Beene. That item is a bit damaged, so Shapiro acquired it for a song at auction. The appeal: Jean Shrimpton wore it on the June 1, 1963, cover of Vogue.

In what Shapiro calls “a classic immigrant story,” another Heritage Brand, Olga, was founded by Olga Erteszek in the early 1940s. A former lawyer who fled Poland with her husband after the Nazi invasion, Erteszek has over two dozen patents to her name. One, the bifurcated panty-slip, resides in Shapiro’s collection. Erteszek’s pragmatism and penchant for problem-solving fueled her inventions. During an overnight hospital stay for a slipped disc, she lamented the lack of support in her medical-issue sleepwear, and soon created a nightgown with a built-in bra. “[She] was an innovator who was always looking for fashion solutions…’what do we need now?’ So she had almost a proto-Spanx two decades ahead,” Shapiro says. Erteszek and her daughter launched a more “sport-oriented” line known as Christina and became the first to trademark the term “sport bra.”

Some of the stories found in PVH’s Heritage wing hold relevance beyond the nuts and bolts of fashion innovation. The Arrow Collar Man retains a special place in Shapiro’s heart — she has lectured about him at universities including Wake Forest. Arrow, a longtime rival of Van Heusen, first featured the suave, stylish man in 1905. According to Shapiro, he is considered by many as advertising’s first sex symbol. A prototypical figure of early 20th-century American masculinity, the Arrow Collar Man received letters of adoration from swooning fans (as many as 17,000 pieces of mail in one month). Illustrator J.C. Leyendecker created the dreamy hunk based on his real-life longtime partner, Canadian model Charles Beach. Shapiro highlighted this secret history as part of PVH’s Pride initiative in 2017, in a story covered in Vogue. She relishes the twist: “I just love the delicious irony that what defined American masculinity was a gay Canadian and [imagery] made by a German immigrant.…You can say, ‘So what? So the Arrow Collar Man was based on a gay man.’ But at the same time, when you tell that story, it’s an inclusive message that I think is really meaningful.”

Warner’s Gay Deceiver, fall 1954.

Warner’s Gay Deceiver, fall 1954.  Masato Onoda/WWD

With an archivist’s zeal, this is how Shapiro links the items in PVH’s collection to the present day. She notes that one of the company’s associates gives her his Pride gear after PVH’s annual celebrations (employees are encouraged to personalize their own T-shirts). “We’ve got to keep collecting and keep telling the story of who we are now, and so that’s the kind of thing that I acquire,” she says.

While her wry assessment of her “nonbuzzy” brands might hold true, the dynamism of PVH’s Heritage archives holds something deeper. Shapiro explains, “[It’s] the privilege of just working with this history and all the stories that it tells. And it’s this whole story of American industry, of masculinity, of femininity and how it adjusted for the years.”

See Also:

Bridget Foley’s Diary: Tommy Hilfiger: Save Those Clothes!

Manny Chirico’s Purpose and Profit at PVH

What’s the Latest at Calvin Klein, PVH and Tommy Hilfiger?