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.
American fashion icon Ralph Lauren working in his office --1971.
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.
Ralph Lauren checking out the Polo boutique at Bloomingdale's --1971.
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. 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.
Designer Calvin Klein-- looking very clean, uncluttered and contemporary.
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.
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.
Born William Ralph Blass in Fort Wayne, Indiana to a part-time dressmaker and a traveling hardware salesman. Blass’s father committed suicide when Blass was five. At 15, Blass began selling sketches of evening gowns for $25 each to a New York manufacturer. At 17 he left home to attend fashion school in New York. Blass excelled and at 18 became the first man to win Mademoiselle’s Design for Living award. He found work as a sketch artist with the sportswear house of David Crystal.
In 1942 Blass enlisted in the Army and was assigned to the 603rd Camouflage Battalion a classified division, its mission was to fool the Germans through the use of recordings, dummy tanks and other false materiel, into believing the Allies were positioned other than where they actually were. Blass left the Army in 1945 and went back to New York, where he went to work for Anne Klein. Klein fired Blass less than a year later, calling him talentless. Next Blass started as an assistant designer at Anna Miller and Company, and later at the fashion house Maurice Rentner. In 1970, Blass established Bill Blass Limited. He was most noted for high-quality, high-priced clothing featuring a look of sporty sophistication and casual glamour.
His classic style, which was less severe than that of many contemporaries, attracted a wide audience. He won numerous fashion awards; his designs included sportswear, rainwear, accessories, and evening wear. Beginning in the late 1960s, he also designed menswear. In December 1998, Blass suffered a minor stroke. His company had grown to a $700-million-a-year concern. But after he presented his final collection to in September of 1999, the designer sold Bill Blass Limited for $50 million and retired. In 2000, he was diagnosed with oral cancer, which later spread to his throat. It proved terminal, but his legendary class and style will forever endure.