THE TSY FASHION FLASHBACK | AMERICAN MENSWEAR DESIGNER ICONS

Ralph_Lauren 1970s

The Coty (American Fashion Critics’) Awards first officially acknowledged excellence in menswear design back in 1970, with the honor going to none other than Ralph Lauren.  It signaled a new designer age in American menswear. True men’s fashion icons emerged and soon became household names – Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Alexander Julian — all went on to become institutions that inspire, influence, and in the case of Ralph, still strongly lead to this day. It’s a time in menswear that I’m unapologetically nostalgic over, having largely missed it– but I’ve been fortunate enough to work with a few legends of that golden age, and never miss an opportunity to mine them for all the nuggets I can get.

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American fashion icon Ralph Lauren working in his office --1971.

American fashion icon Ralph Lauren working in his office, 1971.

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Back in the early 70s, Jeffrey Banks (now a legendary fashion designer in his own right) was hand-plucked from Britches of Georgetown by Ralph Lauren personally, and came to work for him as a part-time design assistant.  Part-time because Jeffrey was still in high school. Jeffrey shared a story with me of when he had to get a shipment of hot-selling shirts over to Bloomies quick– Ralph’s orders. Time was tight, and Jeffrey was getting the runaround from receiving department at the store– so he decides to cast store policy aside and brazenly walked through the front doors of Bloomingdale’s 59th Street, both arms bursting with shirts for the Polo shop, much to the chagrin (read: screams) of the operations staff at the store. Here are your shirts, have a great weekend.  Love it.

Sometimes rules are for schmucks and you simply have to take matters into your own hands. Ralph certainly didn’t get where his is today by politely following the rules, he led. See, when you work for Ralph, you quickly realize that you’re a part of something much bigger than yourself, and there’s this incredible power of the brand behind you moving mountains out of your way. It’s a pretty awesome thing really.

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Ralph Lauren checking out the Polo boutique at Bloomingdale's  --1971.

Ralph Lauren checking out the Polo boutique at Bloomingdale’s, 1971.

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Ralph launched  Polo Ralph Lauren back in 1967 (some say it was actually ’68) with $50,000 loaned to him by Norman Hilton (another menswear icon, and father of Nick Hilton) he set out to put his mark on neckwear. During his time working for the tie manufacturer A.Rivetz & Co., Ralph became obsessed with bringing back the beautiful wide neckties oft worn by his boyhood matinee idols– and this was the late 60s, when the skinny tie was the established code. On top of it all, Ralph’s was seeking to fetch retail prices well above where the rest of the neckwear market was.  

Ralph Lauren

He first met with Bloomingdale’s, who flatly refused to buy the line without considerable compromises on Ralph’s part– like changing the label and narrowing the ties considerably. Ralph wasn’t interested in selling out, so he simply walked away. According to an old gent I met many years ago named Jerry Sudak who grew up with Ralph in the Bronx and was a longtime exec at Saks 5th Avenue,  he was able to get Ralph in the door at Saks to present the neckwear line and they bought into the vision. It was a big success, Bloomingdale’s also crawled back to Ralph to buy the line, and Ralph was well on his way to stardom.

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calvin klein

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Also hailing from the Bronx was Calvin Klein, seen above before the much-talked-about plastic surgeries that gave him his finely chiseled features. Calvin of course started a huge designer jean craze in the 1970s with the famous Brooke Shields “Nothing comes between me and my Calvins” ad campaign. Calvin’s clean, modern aesthetic was a welcome juxtaposition to Ralph’s traditional taste, and I’d go as far to say that Calvin Klein was the first metrosexual brand.  It was for the guy who wanted to harness the power of sexuality and separate himself from the preppy crowd through powerful scents, boxer briefs and designer jeans.  Paving the way for them both was none other than the legendary Bill Blass.

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bill blass

(Left) Designer Bill Blass in the backyard of his Hamptons summer home, 1972.

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ralph lauren bill blass

Bill Blass is the man to whom both Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein owe a huge debt.  I always think of Blass as the first male fashion designer to truly leverage his talent, presence and ‘cult of personality’ to propel a brand forward through marketing and the press.  He really created the mold and showed them how it was done.  Bill Blass was a true trail-blazer that just about every public male designer has borrowed a page or two from, whether they realize it or not.

ralph lauren 1970s

Photos of Bill Blass & Ralph Lauren together via the Jack Robinson archive

5 thoughts on “THE TSY FASHION FLASHBACK | AMERICAN MENSWEAR DESIGNER ICONS

  1. Great post, love the history of these brands. There are some great biographies of Calvin Klein and one good one of Ralph, but it is interesting to read the Bill Blass biography.

    • The Blass biography is a must read– even if just to learn about the camoflage unit he was part of during WWII. Fascinating.

  2. Wow, I didn’t even recognize Calvin Klein. Glad to see something on Ralph once again. It’s been a while. Any good suggestions on post relating to RRL(other than Pass the Tee Pee-great!)? The info. is so sparse. Had that started up when you were there?

  3. Solid post! I’ve read books about Kalvin and Ralph. One thing that’s shared by all artists is their burning passion–they have unique artistic statements to make that they simply MUST get off of their chests. I can totally relate.

    “The House Of Klein” is a really good read, by the way. I highly recommend it.

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