Interview: Robert Colman of Alex Colman

1955 Alex Colman California Ad

If you know vintage clothing, then you know the Alex Colman label.  The California company produced some of the best printed clothes ever, in my humble opinion.  I was delighted recently to be contacted by Robert Colman, the son of the founders, and himself a president of the company during the 1970s.  He very graciously agreed to answer a few questions.

Until he joined your mother in her blouse manufacturing business, your father’s fashion experience was in retail.  How did this experience help shape the direction the company took?
My father worked for Bambergers, Newark , New Jersey, Strawbridge and Clothier, Philadelphia, Pa and then the May Company here in Los Angeles before joining my mother in her business. He was the women’s sportswear buyer at the May Co and found a blouse called the Dixie blouse that was a big seller at the May Co.  He gave that style to my mother and she started manufacturing it.  It was the beginning of Alex Colman Sportswear. My father left the May Co. soon thereafter and joined my mother in business.  His experience in retail was a big asset to their early success.
I’ve read that not only your mother, but also her 2 sisters, worked for Alex Colman.  In a 1952 picture I’ve seen they were all 3 very professionally dressed in suits.  Did they wear Alex Colman clothing in their leisure time?

It was truly a family business. In the first picture you see my father, my mother and my Aunt, Blanche Lefton.  She was our primary designer off and on for over thirty years.  She too had a retail background, working for May Company Los Angeles, then Meir & Frank in Portland, Oregon, Harris Co. San Bernadino and The White House in San Francisco.

The next picture encompasses both the top executives of the company, at that time, and most of my family that worked in the company. From left to right: Jules Yadley, my mother’s brother in law who was sales manager. Next to him was my mother’s sister Esther Novick, who was my father’s executive assistant and worked in the Los Angeles Showroom. Seated is my father. In back of him is Esther’s husband, Irving Novick, who was the controller of the company. He is still alive today. Then my mother and next to her Myron Landon, her brother, also alive today, who worked in the production department with my Aunt, Tommy Yadley, not pictured, who was Jules’s wife and my mother’s sister who was the production manager at that time. And yes, all the women wore Alex Colman clothing from time to time.
I’ve always loved the vivid prints Alex Colman used in the 1960s.  Some of them look as if they were engineered to fit the garment.  Did the company have fabrics designed especially for them?  Or were they just very lucky to find such great prints to work with?
Blanche Lefton was truly an artist. All the prints you remember were all designed by her. She and I took many trips, to France, Germany and Italy for ideas and inspiration, and then would go on to Japan to work out our exclusive patterns with the printers, Kanebo and Toyobo.  Blanche was an expert at engineering prints so that the borders would match perfectly. Our ability to produce these exclusive prints was one of the primary reasons for our success. The Alex Colman company was one of the first, if not the first American manufacturer that was able to work direct with Japanese mills and not have to go through a converter.
Most Alex Colman garments make a bold statement.  Did the company produce coordinates, or were most of the designs just separate pieces of sportswear?
Alex Colman Sportswear had an extensive line of both coordinates and separates, but overwhelmingly our coordinate part of the line accounted for the majority of the business. We would take our exclusive prints and team them with polyester coordinates. We did this for years. We were one of  Milliken’s biggest customers. At one time we were receiving almost 80,000 yards a week of Millikens double knit polyester that we would cut into to coordinating, pants, skirts and jackets.
According to an article I read, you were 11 years old in 1952, and you told me earlier that you were the president of the company in 1976 when you left it.  What was your involvement in the company between those 2 dates?
As for myself. I joined the company in 1961 at the age of 20, first working in the shipping department and soon thereafter getting into sales, eventually becoming sales manager in 1965. By 1968 or 1969 the Alex Colman company went public. By then I was executive vice president, essentially running the company.  In 1973, we were approached by Borden Inc. who was looking to  purchase a company in the apparel field. They liked us. We merged with Borden, my parents retired and I became President of the company, continuing to run the company for the next three years, until I retired, in 1976.
What do you feel is the most important contribution your family’s company made to fashion?

As far as the Alex Colman’s company contribution to fashion, I would say a few things and not in any particular order and not necessarily regarding fashion. There were probably many fashion lines that from time to time were better designed than Alex Colman. 

1. The Alex Colman line was distributed extensively across the United States. Probably more than any other California based company. the only exception might have been Koret of California. Looking back, I would say that the Alex Colman Company was the Liz Claiborne of the 60’s and 70’s.

2. We did a lot for promoting the so called California look. Before Alex Colman, stores would carry,  for example in fall, only woolen fabrics from Eastern manufacturers.  We were able to show retailers that the lighter fabrics, and for the most part, in the 60’s and early 70’s, it was polyester,  were more comfortable and would sell better.  We also were able to show the retailers that California manufacturers were not just for brightening up their presentations for resort and summer, that we were, in fact, just as innovative and competitive as their resources in New York or Boston were.

3.  Obviously our unique prints set the standard.

4. Another major reason for our success, which had nothing to do with fashion, was a marketing tool, we used, where we would guarantee a maintained markup to our largest retail accounts, essentially guaranteeing that what they bought they would sell or we would take it back. This strategy which is ubiquitous today, as it has been over the last 30 years, was unique in the 60’s and cemented a relationship with the retailers that kept our business growing and growing.

In retrospect, I think, fashion wise, the Alex Colman company was more innovative in the 50’s, when I was not around. I was a great believer that true fashion innovation did not necessarily sell around the country. Our weakest market was metropolitan New York, one of the fashion capitols of the World.

Enter a caption

A Store Window Featuring Alex Colman Fashions.  Note the above dress, third from left.  1955  Company promotional photo, courtesy of Robert Colman

 

I would like to add two other thoughts, that contributed to the success of the Alex Colman Company. 

1. As the company grew we were able to add some of the smartest and brightest people in the apparel industry. Beginning in the mid 60’s most of the major positons in the company were held by non-family members. Before I left, in 1976,  we probably had 5 or 6 designers working on various aspects of the line under the guidance of a merchandiser, who we bought in from Robinsons Department Store here in Los Angeles.

2. The Alex Colman company was of the first companies to start manufacturing, in a major way, in Mexico. By the late 60’s almost 25% of our production came from a factory we controlled in Mexicali. Between buying the fabrics direct in Japan and manufacturing garments in Mexico, we were able to produce a well designed product at a price that was competitive.

 

I hope the above is helpful. It has taken me back many years. 

Sincerely,

Robert Colman

 

 

Again, I’d like to thank Mr. Colman for sharing this important company history with us!

 


 

Comments:

Posted by bbrueg:

This is fascinating. I’ve been interested in the company for years and had no idea the story was so rich. Thanks for this wonderful and truly important piece of fashion history!

Wednesday, June 4th 2008 @ 6:46 AM

Posted by Sydney’s Vintage Clothing:

That is such a COOL story. Great lesson to learn here, for manufacturers, if the retailers don’t sell it, take it back! Thanks for sharing, I love the Alex Colman prints!
Sydney

Wednesday, June 4th 2008 @ 6:50 AM

Posted by KD:

A big THANK you to Mr. Colman (and to Lizzie!)for his insightful info about one of my favorite labels.
When I began reading this, I thought of a parallel family business – Goldworm… I can’t help but feel a bit sad about the absence of these well-oiled family-run innovators in today’s business world… which makes this label even more valuable in my opinion.
Also want to add that I love the fact Alex Colman not only gained a great reputation in its time; but continues to be collected & worn today because it was based on good construction and durable fabrics – fashion built to last!

Wednesday, June 4th 2008 @ 6:54 AM

Posted by Carol:

Really great interview! I really enoy hearing the history of a business, especially when it’s a family run business, with each member contributing. Mark me as being another fan of the fabulous prints and fabrics!

Wednesday, June 4th 2008 @ 7:21 AM

Posted by Joan:

What a fascinating interview! Thank you Robert and Lizzie. I’m a big fan of the wonderful Alex Coleman prints, and am thrilled to finally know the story behind them. As well as all the other interesting history of the company. Loved reading about the Coleman family, and seeing the photos. Thanks again!

Wednesday, June 4th 2008 @ 9:37 AM

Posted by cemetarian:

I love the prints and the colors and the movement in every Alex Coleman I’ve ever seen. And to think that the internet has brought together such talent and history to blend with the new discoveries being made by the Next Generation of Vintage collectors.

Wednesday, June 4th 2008 @ 9:48 AM

Posted by Joules:

I loved learning about the company history, and Blanche Lefton! Thank you both, so very much.

Wednesday, June 4th 2008 @ 10:17 AM

Posted by Daisy Fairbanks:

Thank you so much for this interview! I do have one question: what was Mrs. Colman’s name? She’s mentioned as the first one to manufacture for the Alex Colman brand, but her first name is not mentioned (other than “mother” which as too sweet!) Both she and Ms. Lefton are also important figures in the company.

Wednesday, June 4th 2008 @ 1:02 PM

Posted by Lizzie:

Great question, Ms. Daisy. Her name was Sade. The company was in operation from 1949 through the middle 1980s.

Wednesday, June 4th 2008 @ 4:16 PM

Posted by Hollis:

Great article Lizzie, and thank you Mr. Colman. Every Alex Colman garment I have found has been wonderfully designed – they really stand out from the ordinary.

Wednesday, June 4th 2008 @ 6:39 PM

Posted by Becca:

I am a fanatic when it comes to reading and learning about the history on companies and it’s people, especially when it comes from the actual source. Wonderful article Lizzie! I give a big heartfelt THANK YOU to Mr. Colman for contributing his information, photos, and the insight on his family!

Thursday, June 5th 2008 @ 5:56 AM

Posted by Justine:

Lizzie, that was a fantastic interview. I, too, have always loved the Alex Colman prints. I think Robert hit it right on the head when he compared the line to “the Liz Claiborne of the 60’s & 70’s”.

Thursday, June 12th 2008 @ 1:13 PM

Posted by Bruce Lebowitz:

Interesting article. Lets not forget the traveling salesmen that left at the crack of dawn & distributed to the old mom & pop shops throughout California. 🙂 Harry Lebowitz:)

Thursday, September 4th 2008 @ 1:32 PM

Posted by June:

I worked for Alex Colman during the time that Robert (known widely as Bobby at that time) was president of the company. Over my professional career I worked for many apparel companies, but none could compare to the wonderful atmosphere at Alex Colman. The facilities were top-notch, and there were lovely little perks (awesome employee picnics, $100 annual Blue Cross medical deductible was reimbursed by the company, and we got our birthdays off as a paid holiday!).
One thing that Bobby forgot to mention that had a h-u-g-e emphasis was the importance of all pieces coordinating with each other. Related separates was in its infancy, but Alex Colman fully understood that. They also brought plus sizes for women out of the dark ages… no more were women of a certain size relegated to verticatl stripes, dark navy and black. 🙂

Tuesday, May 19th 2009 @ 6:09 PM

Posted by Alexandra Rembac:

I just got a phone call from my mother telling me to Google Lizzie! I think it’s so great you did this article about Alex Colman California, he was my uncle (Myron Landon, in the picture above is my grandfather and Esther and Irving were my godparents). It’s so nice to hear such kind things about the label and hear so many sweet comments. Just wanted to put my two scents in! Keep doing what you do Lizzie!;)

Tuesday, October 13th 2009 @ 7:25 PM

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