Jeffrey Banks has been a familiar face in fashion since he launched his first collection in 1976. The menswear designer and author, who worked for Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein before creating his own line, is credited with introducing never-before seen colors and fabrications as well as soft styling and a loose silhouette to the men’s market.
Now Banks is being honored with another first: the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s one-time special Anniversary Award.
This isn’t the first special award he’s received from the CFDA. In 1977, the year after he created the Jeffrey Banks Collection of tailored clothing, dress furnishings and sportswear, the designer was nominated for a Coty award for best menswear design, and while he didn’t win that, he did take home a special honor for best men’s fur design that year. (The Coty’s were the predecessors of the CFDA awards.)
While he was making his mark with his own line, his impact was perhaps most evident during his years he spent as design director of Merona Sport, a position he took over in 1980. Within six months of assuming the role, sales jumped from $7 million to $70 million, a figure that more than doubled to $150 million shortly after, he said.
In addition to that, Banks is credited with reinventing two of Bloomingdale’s private label men’s collections: East Island, which he described as a “preppy, Ralph Lauren-style,” and Metropolitan View, which was “more European, Armani-esque” line.
“They thought they could bring up the quality and design of the lines,” Banks said. “They used to price shirts at $65 and sell them on promotion for $19. I said, ‘Make it look like a $250 shirt’ and sell it for $65.” The strategy worked, with the lines generating more than $70 million in sales in their heyday, according to the CFDA’s listing on Banks.
In 2004, Banks was tapped to be a design consultant for Haggar Clothing Co. as it started to move beyond its trademark pants to offer a full sportswear collection. His designs for the company’s woven shirts and knitwear helped make Haggar’s Cool 18 the number-one selling knit shirt at Kohl’s and increased sales dramatically at J.C. Penney.
In 1998, Banks was selected to be design director for Johnnie Walker Scotch when it was looking for alternate channels to appeal to a younger man. “They wanted to change the perception of this being the brand that your grandfather drank and go for the 30-year-old Wall Street guy.” Banks helped the brand make that jump by designing a collection of modern sportswear and accessories.
While the spirits brand soon moved on to other things, Banks continued to make his mark with licensed deals at Neema Clothing, Watson Brothers and Platinum Hosiery. He was also a cable TV star, selling his home collection on HSN.
Beyond design, Banks is an author, penning five books: “Tartan: Romancing the Plaid”; “Preppy: Cultivating American Style”; “Perry Ellis: An American Original”; “Patricia Underwood: The Way You Wear,” and “Norell: Master of American Fashion.”
Looking back on his lengthy and storied career, Banks singled out several highlights, including being the youngest person to receive a Coty award in his first year in business; developing and designing Merona Sport, which was carried in “every retailer from Bergdorf Goodman to I. Magnin,” and the publication of his first book in 2007. “I was obsessed with writing about the origins of tartan — and it took me five years to write it,” he said. He was told that he’d be lucky if 1,000 copies were printed, but the first run was 8,500 copies and it’s “never been out of print,” Banks said.
So what’s left on his bucket list?
“I would love to design for the theater,” he said, adding that his designs have been featured in a couple of movies, including “Pulp Fiction.” “And I’d like to eventually get back into menswear.”
Asked for the highlight of his year so far in 2022, Banks said the answer is easy: “The CFDA Anniversary Award. It was unexpected and the board unanimously put my name forth. So to know that peers like Michael Kors and Tom Ford wanted me to get this award is very special.”