Category Archives: Designers

History behind Gunne Sax By Roger and Scott Bailey

Elle Bailey, still sewing at 92.

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.

Mom and Dad pinning on my 2nd Lt. bars in 1975 at my Air Force commissioning at Arizona State, a few years after Gunne Sax was sold to Jessica.

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.

Elle and son Roger

Elle with her family; sons Roger and Scott behind their mother.

My thanks to Elle, Roger, and Scott Bailey.

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Currently Reading – Jean Patou: A Fashionable Life by Emmanuelle Poole

I’m not a collector of couture clothing, but that does not mean I can’t learn from the lives of the masters of it.  One French couturier whose work I have always loved is Jean Patou.  Patou’s rise in the fashion industry came about at the same time as that of Coco Chanel, and the two are often compared.  They had similar design aesthetics, and their clientele overlapped, leading to competition and mutual dislike of one another.

Of course today Chanel is a household name and Patou is barely remembered outside of the fashion history set.  If not for his famous fragrance, Joy, it is possible that the name Patou would be even more obscure.  And while volumes and volumes have been written about Chanel, little has been written about Jean Patou.  I was delighted to find this 2013 book by Emmanuelle Polle.

Patou’s work in fashion began around 1910.  By 1914 he had opened a couture house under his own name, but World War I intervened.  After serving in the war, Patou returned to Paris where his business was revived.  He soon became the darling of the modern woman.  Like Chanel, he realized life had changed for women, and they required easy to wear clothing that allowed them to move about their lives with freedom.  And he was an early designer of sportswear.

In 1925 Patou opened “Les Coin des Sports” on the ground floor of his couture house.  It was a place where women could go to shop for his sports clothes, which were then made to order.  He was popular with tennis stars Suzanne Lenglen and Helen Wills who often played against each other, both attired in Patou dresses.

Les Coin des Sports also made swimsuits, ski wear, and clothing for sports spectating.  The book is rich in photographs, not just of the clothing, but also of the original sketches and often with matching vintage photos.  The ski suit on the right can also be seen in the small sketch.

I had no idea that the Jean Patou archive still survives.  Patou unfortunately died in 1936 with his sister and brother-in-law continuing to run the business, which made clothing under a variety of designers until 1987.  Today Patou produces only perfumes.  But because the house never closed, the archive remains, and so there is a rich treasure of sketches, photos, documents, and even garments.

I was most amazed at these photos of Patou sweaters, which are folded across a rail.  They date from the 1920s.  The model on the left appears to be wearing the red and white sweater in the upper left.

Of course, Patou made more than sportswear.  He was also a master of beaded evening dresses, like the one above which is from 1927.

And here is the dress as worn by dancer Eleanora Ambrose.

I loved the close-up look that the reader is given of many of the garments featured.  This dress from 1926 is stunning, but the full length view does not tell the entire story.  It was only with the close-ups that I could see the beautiful textile and the intricate beadwork. In all, there were four photos of this one dress.

I’m really not a fan of huge, heavy books.  Measuring 12.5 by 9.75 inches, and weighing five pounds, it’s a bit hard to curl up in a cozy corner with this one.  However, the wonderful large photos of details more than make up for that bit of inconvenience.

The book is an English translation of the French original, and I must say that at times the writing seemed a bit odd to this American-English reader.  Added to that, the organization is also not what might be expected.  After an initial brief biographical sketch of Patou’s life, there was little adherence to any sort of timeline.

Some of the vintage photos in the book have been widely reproduced, especially those of his bathing suits, but most of the photos were new to me.  That is always a good thing.

Jean Patou: A Fashionable Life is a bit expensive, even at discount.  Even if you don’t buy this one, I do recommend tracking it down through your library.  It’s a fascinating look at a designer that you just don’t see every day.

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Vera Scarf Tying Art

Back in October I ran across the little booklet above, Vera scarf tying art.  It’s one I’d been looking for so was glad to buy it when it came up at a fund-raising silent auction for the Costume Society.

There is no date on the booklet, but it is later 1960s or early 70s as far as I can tell.  The illustrations remind me of the ones done for small features in Glamour magazine in the same period.

One thing I’ve heard women say over and over through the years is that they love scarves, but don’t know what to do with them.  The Vera Company must have been very aware of this problem, and they wisely set out to do something about it.  The booklet covers the basics (“the triangle fold”) but also shows how to wear a scarf as a top (“halter ties are body art”) and how to hang a scarf on the wall.

Turbans seem to be having a bit of a fashion moment, and so here are four ways to join that trend.  I like the demi-Leia look, number 4.

The dog collar reminds me of that old scary story about the girl who always wore a scarf (or in some versions, a ribbon) tied around her neck.  Turns out it was holding her head on her neck.

I can remember when young women were doing the scarf-as-top trick, but I was too afraid that it would lead to over-exposure.  Sometimes a little fear is a good thing!

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Iris Van Herpen at the High Museum of Art, Atlanta

Today I’ve got something just a bit different from the usual fashion history post.  It’s New Years Day, a day when we all look to the future, so I thought I’d give a look at some very futuristic design, that of Iris Van Herpen.  Van Herpen is Dutch, and she is renowned for her use of  unusual materials.  Her first collection, Chemical Crows, was in 2007, and the museum has a selection of three designs from each of the shows she has created through 2015.

I’m not going to go into my usual analysis of the clothes, other than to give the name of the collection, and the materials used.  Other than that you are on your own.

If you can’t get past the thought that these clothes are unwearable, let me tell you that Van Herpen’s collections also contain clothing made of more conventional materials.  More conventional, but still stunning in a way that is rarely seen these days.

Chemical Crows, 2007:  wire umbrella ribs, industrial yarn, leather

Refinery Smoke, 2008:  metal gauze, leather

Mummification, 2009: leather strips, ball chains,  laced metal eyelets

Radiation Invasion, 2009: strips of leather

Synesthesia 2010: metalicized leather strips, metal eyelets

Crystallization, 2010: Plexiglass, leather, metal chain

Escapism, 2011: hand processed plisse fabric

Capriole, 2011:  transparent acrylic sheets, tulle, cotton fabric

Hybrid Holism, 2012:  3-D printed polymer

Micro, 2012:  3-D printed polyamide with copper treatment

Voltage, 2013:  mirror foil, acrylic sheets, viscose fabric

Wilderness Embodied, 2013:  laser-cut fabric

The work is astonishing, to say the least, and I suggest that if this show comes to a museum near you that you make an effort to attend.  The show will be traveling to other museums in North America, but I have not been able to find a schedule.

Iris Van Herpen: Transforming Fashion, at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta through May 15, 2016.

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Oscar de le Renta at SCAD FASH

As I neared completion of my history degree one of the career paths I considered was museum work.  I even applied to several institutions in the Southeast, and was invited to interview and tour the facility of one.  I went, but did not get the job, and went into teaching instead but I’ve always had a great interest in how museums work .

Had I gotten that job in 1976, I’d have lived and worked through some huge changes, especially when it comes to the display of clothing.  Clothing in museums was still a relatively new concept at that time, and the idea of a museum completely devoted to fashion would have been laughable to many in the field.  The idea had been tried in New York City, with the collection that became the Costume Institute at the Met, but that collection survived in part due to its absorption by the larger, respected institution.

Fast forward almost forty years and fashion museums are thriving.  The latest addition to the fashion museum world is SCAD FASH, which is owned and operated by the Savannah College of Art and Design.  While the main campus is in Savannah, Georgia, there is a branch in Atlanta, where SCAD FASH is located.  For several years SCAD has been doing fashion exhibitions in Savannah, but it was exciting to hear they had located their fashion exhibition space in Atlanta.

Their inaugural exhibition was the expansion of one that was curated in Savannah soon after the death in 2014 of designer Oscar de la Renta.  It made good sense to bring the show to Atlanta to open the new exhibition space.  Even though the exhibition opened in October, I waited until last week before making the trip because there was another fashion exhibition that recently opened at the High Museum of Art (more on that later, of course).

I can’t say enough about what a great job the people at SCAD have done with this first show.  The exhibition hall is quite large, and it circles around to make good use of their space.  The mannequins are, for the most part, arranged so that visitors can get very close to see the details, and to see the backs of garments as well.  Student docents were positioned around the hall to answer questions and to show photos on an ipad of the women who lent the garments.  This dress belongs to singer Taylor Swift, who wore this dress to the Charles James Gala at the Met in 2014.

I do look at any exhibition with the bias of an historian, and unfortunately, for me, this is where the show came up a bit short.  I realize that this is a museum of design, not of history, and so I have no right to expect the museum to be something it is not. Still, the older works of de la Renta were under-represented.  The oldest dress came from the first collection he designed under his own name in 1965.  It is the dress in the center, and my pictures cannot begin to tell you just how great this little black dress is.  That white satin sash is not a sash at all; it is a built in waistband.

(I believe this is the Oscar de la Renta for Jane Derby label, though the docent could not confirm this.  She was not there for the instillation, and did not see the label.)

There were several dresses from the late 1970s and early 80s, all donated to SCAD by Cornelia Guest, in honor of her mother, C.Z. Guest, to whom the clothes belonged originally.  Unfortunately, none of these were actually dated, something that could have been achieved with a bit of time and research.

The remainder of the garments in the exhibition dated from 2000 or later.  Even though these clothes are not vintage, they are an excellent representation of the work de la Renta did over the course of his long career.  And most importantly, it shows why these clothes are so special.  In order to see it, you have to get up close.

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There was a lot to love in the eighty-four garments on display, but I really do think my favorites were these two, both owned by Bee Shaffer.  The amount of handwork on each was amazing, with the embroidery being engineered in order to fit the pattern pieces.

The coat on the left is owned by Bee’s mother, Anna Wintour.  I looked very carefully, and could not tell if this was made from an antique paisley textile.  Seeing as how it was made by de la Renta when he was doing couture for the French House of Balmain, it is possible.  The embroidered coat is owned by Mercedes Bass.

An interesting aspect to the show is that it includes dresses from the designer who took de la Renta’s place after he died, Peter Copping.  These dresses are part of the Oscar de la Renta archive and were lent to the exhibition by the company, a practice that is not universally embraced by museum critics.  In this case, however, it does allow the observer to closely compare the work of the two men.  The two dresses on the left, and the one on the right with the ruffles are by Copping; the white and black coat is by de la Renta.

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This close-up of the coat shows not only the craftsmanship of the house of Oscar de la Renta, it also points out the power of seeing these pieces in person, in an environment that allows one to get really close.  A coat that might look as though it is made from a print is revealed to be constructed of grosgrain and rick-rack on a base of tulle.

This great little dress of checked silk is from the fall 2015 collection by Copping, and it is on sale on the ODLR website for $1395.  The flowered print dress to the left is also for sale on the site.  It does seem to be a bit odd to have garments that can still be seen in stores in a museum exhibition and tend to blur the line between exhibition and commerce.

Look carefully at the photograph to see Karl Lagerfeld and Oscar dancing the merengue, 2002.

Here are two more ensembles from the closet of Mercedes Bass.  I adore this coat and matching dress made of red silk appliqued on black.  The coat closes with large snap to the waist, and I’m sure it looks like a one-piece garment when it is closed.

This embroidered cashmere coat was worn by First Lady Laura Bush to the 2005 presidential inauguration.  Several of her garments were on loan to the exhibition from the Bush Library and Museum.  I remember when she wore this beautiful coat, and it was a real pleasure seeing it.

This hall of mirrors made a stunning backdrop for a collection of de la Renta evening gowns.

This gown was inspired by the Marie Antoinette film of 2006, and the star, Kirsten Dunst was photographed in the dress for Vogue. The mirrors allowed the viewer to see the front, side and back of the dress.

The dress in the center was the wedding dress of Miranda Brooks, and is unusual in that it is made from cotton.  The embroidered flowers symbolize her daughters, Poppy and Violette.  The more obvious wedding dress, to the left, was designed by de la Renta for his step-daughter’s wedding, and the suit to the left was worn by Annette de la Renta, the mother of the bride.

This silk velvet gown with diamante straps was designed by de la Renta for Balmain Couture in 2000.  The coat is also Balmain Couture.

This visit was especially enjoyable because I was able to share it with Liza of Better Dresses Vintage, a fellow member of the Vintage Fashion Guild.  It was a treat having someone with whom to discuss each design.

One thing that we both remarked on was the display of a gown belonging to Oprah Winfrey.  It was displayed on a skinny seated mannequin which did the dress no favors at all.  The bust was droopy and just sad looking, and the dress deserved so much more.

I have really high hopes and expectations for SCAD FASH.  This first exhibition was beautiful and fun, and I loved the accessibility visitors had to the clothes.  Another real plus was a little exhibition book that was given to visitors.  It all makes me excited to see what SCAD FASH has in store for us next.

 

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Currently Viewing: Dior and I

Photo copyright Dogwolf

Dior and I was a documentary film released earlier this year, but which followed the first two months of  designer Raf Simons’ tenure as artistic director at the House of Dior in 2012.  This was after the embarrassing dismissal of John Galliano for conduct unbecoming a couturier the previous year, and the fashion world was anxious to see if Simons could restore order to the prestigious house.

Simons was an interesting choice to head Dior.  He is Belgian, and barely spoke French, at the time at least.  He had been designer at Jil Sander,  a company that was about as far in the other direction from the extravagant designs of Galliano as one could get.  He had never worked in couture, and at the time he was hired there were only eight weeks before the next couture show.

Intertwined with the story of how Simons worked at Dior was the ghost of Christian Dior, the man.  The film used quite a bit of archival material to show the heritage that Simons was expected to draw from in his work for the company.   And the words of Christian Dior, drawn from his 1957 book,  Christian Dior and I, added depth to the story.   I especially liked the scenes that showed Simons and assistants studying old sketchbooks and materials from when Dior was actually headed by Christian Dior.

It is interesting how the book came into play in the film, and especially since Simons announced that he had tried to read the book but gave it up after fifteen pages.  He found the approach that Christian Dior had used, in talking about himself and the firm Christian Dior as two separate entities, to be odd.

Some critics dismissed Dior and I as just a ninety minute commercial for Dior, and it does paint a very pretty picture.  It also gives a very good look into the workings of a couture house.  Most interesting is how Simons worked as creative director, as the modern designer really is more of a director than he is a hands-on designer.  It became obvious very quickly that Simons was responsible for a lot more than just designing pretty dresses.

Much has been written lately about the extreme stresses put upon the creative directors of major design firms, and from watching Dior and I one does get a sample of how demanding the job is.  The point is made more significant due to the recent resignation of Simons from Dior.  Among the reasons he gave for leaving his position was that he needed more balance in his life.  There really is more to life than work, evidently.

Dior and I is currently available on Netflix.

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High Style at the Cincinnati Art Museum, Part II

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High Style is one of those exhibitions that has a surprise at every turn.  The black (actually dark green, but it looks black)  dress is by Elizabeth Hawes, and it was dubbed “The Tarts” dress by its creator.  Dating from 1937, it was thought to be suggestive, with that arrow pointing toward the breasts.  On the back of the dress there is a purple arrow that points downward to the butt.

The white and black dress was designed by Madame Eta Hentz.  Lynn at American Age Fashion recent wrote about visiting the Madame Eta archive at the FIT library.  Interestingly, one of the garments Lynn showed was the dress above, so I really enjoyed seeing it.  One thing I’d not noticed in the photos I had seen of this dress  is that the over-lapping “wings” were semi-detached, and so there would have been a bit of movement in the design.

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The exhibition was not just about dresses; accessories were well represented.  All the hats above are from milliner Sally Victor.  The hat in the middle looks like an elaborate braided hairstyle and dates from 1937.  The red and green hat at the right had the green jersey forming a turban in the back.

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Even sportswear can be high style, especially in the hands of Bonnie Cashin and Carolyn Schnurer.  The plaid ensemble is from Cashin, and looks as if it could be from the late 1960s.  The date is actually 1943, which shows how Cashin remained true to her design aesthetic throughout her career.  Note the little matching spats.

Carolyn Schnurer designed resortwear based on textiles she found in her international travels.  The two garments above were from her “Flight to India” collection of 1950.  You can see the Indian influence in the sari-like draping and in the textile.

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I hate that this photo is so blurry, as this ensemble from Claire McCardell is so wonderful.  The striped hooded top is made from jersey, while the skirt is cotton poplin.  The hooded coat is reversible, with one side being jersey, and the other brown poplin.  No wonder her designs were so popular.

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All three dresses above were designed by Gilbert Adrian.  The two on the left show how Adrian worked with unusual colors combinations, much in the way an artist would.  The tiger striped dress reveals Adrian’s roots as a Hollywood designer in a design that would have been right at home on an actress.  Actually, all three dresses belonged to an actress, Adrian’s wife, Janet Gaynor.

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Here are more hats from Sally Victor.  On the left is one of the hats Victor made based on the art of Mondrian, and next to it is one with Matisse-like cutouts.  The hat that looks a bit like an upside down pie crust was actually called the “Airwave” and was designed for First Lady Mamie Eisenhower in 1952.  The First Lady had the hat in several color combinations (the lining being in a contrasting color) and it was available to the public as well.

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Most of the designers represented so far in my tour have been women, but men designers were featured as well.  The dress on the left was designed by Geoffrey Beene around 1965.  Would it be too matchy-matchy to have worn that Sally Victor Matisse hat with this dress?  Look carefully at the hem to see that it was scalloped, and that it was lined in bright pink.

The dotted bubble hemmed dress with the red coat was designed by Arnold Scaasi in 1961.  Next to it is a 1955 silk evening dress from James Galanos.  That dress looked to be so light that it would be blown away in a slight breeze.  And finally, there is a pants for evening ensemble by Norman Norell, a revolutionary idea in 1970.

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One of the highlights of this exhibition was the inclusion of quite a few garments from Charles James along with the digital deconstruction videos that were developed by the Met for the big Charles James show in 2014.  These videos incorporated x-rays of the dresses which showed the complex structure of the garments, as well as pattern pieces that magically formed the finished garment on display.  It was highly effective.

Two of the celebrated “Four Leaf Clover” gowns were on display.  As with some of the other dresses, this one had no visible means of support, and you could see the interior of the bodice.

I’m not much of a lace-wearer, but for some reason I love seeing techniques of lace application.  The way the lace was molded to the dress was truly amazing.

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Another highlight of the James display was the inclusion of some of the original working  muslin patterns.  On the left is one of his ribbon dresses, a development of an idea he had gotten from a stash of wide antique ribbons he found in Paris.  On the right is his pattern in muslin.

The pieced “ribbons” on the right continue around to the back of the dress where they come to a point, with the back pieces fitting neatly under the front.  High style, indeed!

If you are planning to see High Style at the Cincinnati Art Museum, I suggest that you plan for the whole day.  To see High Style, taking your time and taking in all the information presented takes at least two hours (unless you were in the tour groups that breezed through in twenty minutes).  Plus, the rest of the museum is really great.  I was there four hours and could have stayed longer.

Admission to the Cincinnati Art Museum is, incredibly, free, though parking is $4.  They do have a nice gift store, and I’m sure they depend on it to help support the museum.  I bought the companion book  to the exhibition at the museum though I knew I could have gotten it cheaper through Amazon.  I consider the extra price to be a donation.

 

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