In one of those happy internet occurrences, I got an email last week from the son of one of the founders of Gunne Sax. Roger Bailey explained that Elle, his ninety-two year old mother had sewn some shirts for him for a very special occasion, and he was in search of some of the original labels to sew into the shirts. I couldn’t help much with the labels, but I know an opportunity when I see one.
Roger and his brother Scott very kindly spent some time reminiscing about how their mother helped found one of the most iconic brands of the 1970s. Roger wrote it all up, and Elle approved the facts. It is a real pleasure to be able to present one of the untold stories of fashion history.
History behind Gunne Sax By Roger and Scott Bailey
Sometime in the spring of 1967, Elle Bailey was contacted by the local high school to do a sewing presentation for the school’s career day. At that time, Elle was giving sewing demos and helping novices make their own clothing while working for Stevens Fabrics in Menlo Park, CA. Elle is a graduate of the Vogue School of Design in Chicago and had been sewing for years. She often made shirts for my brother Scott and me. We tolerated this until somewhere around the 6th grade, when I decided I no longer wanted to look like my third grade brother!
As usual, mom was eager to help the school’s efforts to help kids find some career path. Whoever organized the program also invited Carol Miller, a design student from Chabot College, across the bay in Hayward. Carol and mom hit it off and over lunch they sketched a few ideas on a napkin. This was the conception of what was to become Gunne Sax. As the weeks rolled on, Mom and Carol got serious about their ideas and decided to bring their ideas to life. Mom patterned the designs and the two of them would cut and sew until they had enough of a “collection” to try to sell. Around our dinner table one night, back when families ate dinner together, we were all brainstorming a name for this new clothing line. From this session, the Gunne Sax name was born, an adaptation of “sexy gunny sack” as I recall.
Mom and/or Carol would pack the car with their wares and set about marketing their new line to Bay Area boutiques. By the summer of 1968, they had quite a little business beginning to grow. A typical order in those days might be just a couple units,never more than a dozen units of various sizes of any one design per boutique. I remember many days when we would get home from school and Mom and Carol would be working away into the evening to satisfy their orders.
Then one night, while having our family dinner, the phone rang. I answered it and the caller asked for mom. She answered hello and the conversation went something like this. ” Yes,…..yes…um..yes, how many!!” I will never forget the look on her face! Her mouth dropped open, and her eyes widened to the size of a desert plate. She sputtered “I’ll have to call you back.” Mom hung up the phone, turned to us in shock and said, “You won’t believe this. That was the buyer from [I. Magnin], and they want a hundred and forty four units for fall!” As the saying goes, we were no longer in Kansas, Toto!
The following day, Dad took off from work, and they drove into San Francisco to find someone and somewhere to contract this new work to. A few weeks later, Scott and I along with a few of my friends from the football team, were lugging large, heavy cutting tables up a couple flights of stairs and into a loft in the garment district of the city. Gunne Sax just went big time, comparatively speaking.
Sometime in early 1969, mom bought out Carol and as is usual for most beginning businesses, it came time for a capital infusion in order to take the business to to the next level. The Bailey money tree hand been picked bare, so it became time for another investor. Jessica [McClintock] came into the picture and became a partner. After a while, Jessica and mom had different styling ideas that couldn’t be resolved so Jessica offered to buy Gunne Sax outright. With two kids in college, it seemed like the right time for Elle to sell.
Roger did not know the exact date of the sale to Jessica McClintock, but he estimated that it was sometime in the middle of 1970. Update: Many online sources put the date of the sale as 1969, and in interviews Jessica McClintock uses that date.
Stories like this one are so important. Many of the founders of mid twentieth century companies are gone, and others are elderly and losing their memories. I’m always interested in hearing from the families of entrepreneurs like Elle.
My thanks to Elle, Roger, and Scott Bailey.