Category Archives: First Person Stories

Serbin of Miami by Marianne Serbin Friedman

Almost a year ago I showed off my new Marianne by Serbin golf set.  At the time, a lot of what I wrote in my post was guesswork, as I could find very little about Serbin in my resources and on the internet.  But as I usually do in these cases, I added to the end of the post that I’d love to hear from the Serbin family.

It took nearly a year, but the worldwideweb came through, and I got an email from Marianne Serbin Freidman, the Marianne whose name is on the label.  Marianne very kindly answered my questions, and she sent along some great photos of her family.  That’s her father, Lewis Serbin, in the photo above.

SERBIN FASHIONS

My father, Lewis I. Serbin, founded Serbin Fashions in Cleveland, Ohio in the mid-1940’s. My uncle, John Serbin joined the company a few years later.

In his young years Lewis Serbin dropped out of school after the eighth grade to work and help support his family of his parents and eight brothers and sisters. He was raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. When he met my mother who was from Cleveland, they married soon after and moved to Cleveland, and so did his brothers and sisters.

Before founding Serbin Fashions my father had the good fortune of working for Joe Lample of Lample Dresses. Joe Lample mentored many men who also went on to become very successful in the garment business. One of these men was Maurice Saltzman, the owner of Bobbie Brooks.

Serbin Fashions began as a dress company and became quite successful and in 1951, my dad and uncle flew to Miami many times, where they fell in love with the city and decided to buy a factory. Our families moved and extended the invitation to their key employees to move with the company. The Miami apparel industry was thrilled that Serbin Fashion relocated to Miami as it provided more credibility to the Miami fashion industry.

Mr. Serbin then bought a factory in Fayetteville, Tennessee for production. And in later years a very large factory was also built to handle the expansion of the company; making assured that Serbin Fashions was all “Made in America”. Serbin Fashions grew from a small company to a major force in the woman’s moderate dress and sportswear industry.

I do not remember much about Muriel Ryan. She was very talented and designed for Serbin for many years. After she retired I designed everything and handled Public Relations. Leroy Lustig Advertising Agency handled all the advertising, and there was no marketing firm. Babe Didrikson Zeharias designed the golf dresses for several years. She was the “Woman Athlete of the Half Century” and the greatest woman golfer of all time.

As the years passed Serbin had lines of dresses, sportswear, golf and tennis clothing. The company was famous for the Shirtwaist Dress and Sweater Dress and Sportswear. We also had fashion editorials in fashion magazines. The garments were sold in major department stores, mail order catalogues, pro shops and specialty stores all over the United States.

After the death of my father, Lewis I. Serbin, and fifty years of a fabulous business, our family decided to discontinue the business. My dad accomplished so much over his lifetime. Amazing for a man who never went to school beyond the eighth grade.

Written by Marianne Serbin Friedman
March, 2016

“I am the older little girl. My Dad made the matching mother- daughter dresses and also a giant doll with the same dress.”

“My Dad had a golf tournament  in Miami Beach which was Babe’s first win after her cancer and he presented her with a trophy topped with a diamond studded metal golf ball..quite a thrill for everyone.”

Serbin Sportswear, as seen at Saks Fifth Avenue in the 1960s.

A big thank you to Marianne for sharing her family’s story.

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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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Interview With Naomi Jackson of Vested Gentress

Courtesy and copyright of Club Vintage Fashions

About a month ago I got an email from John Fibbi in Florida.  Seems as if he was sitting with Naomi Jackson, who had been along with her husband Bud, the owner of Vested Gentress.  They were searching the internet looking for references to her company and came across an old post here at The Vintage Traveler.  He got in touch, and she agreed to answer a few questions about the company.

This was very exciting to me because despite the fact that vintage Vested Gentress clothing is pretty common and some pieces are highly collectible, there just wasn’t much about the company to be found.   Now, thanks to John and Naomi, and Naomi’s son, Dan Jackson, I can tell the story behind this whimsical label.

Copyright and courtesy of GailDavid’s Memory Lane

1.  How did Vested Gentry get started?

Fritz, or “Bud”,  Jackson Jr.  Naomi’s husband,  was good at doodling, and was in advertising for a while and good at casual art.  Around 1960 he had two comics or cartoons published; one in Look and a short time later one in Playboy.  

The first products Bud created were men’s woolen vests that were also screen printed with cocktail-themed designs and sports cars, thus the name Vested Gentry.  Ads were placed in The New Yorker magazine and orders were taken.  Bud actually hand screened the first articles at home in the bedroom on a flush door. Orders from individuals and Ambercrombie & Fitch were filled as they were received.  They also made some men’s hand screened shirts.

The label for Vested Gentry was a stoic guy, dressed in black, wearing a top hat.

2.  Is there a special significance to the name Vested Gentress?

That was the name the Bud created when he began the woman’s line in 1961 and began phasing out the men’s wear.

Courtesy and copyright of pinky-a-gogo

3.  How was the logo of the equestrienne chosen?

This was a creation of Bud’s, who felt that the logo fit the name.

Courtesy and copyright of Metro Retro Vintage

4.  What can you tell me about the fabric designs?

In the beginning all of the designs were the personal work of Bud.   He really most enjoyed drawing the animals.  Most of the floral prints were purchased as Bud did not enjoy drawing the florals.

Courtesy and copyright of Better Dresses Vintage

   Did you employ an artist? 

In the later days an artist was hired, mostly for the florals.

Courtesy and copyright of Metro Retro Vintage

5.  Was the screen printing done in your own factory?

Yes it was done in the factory, in a large room with many screeners. We could handle a ten color process.  At the factory there were approximately thirty-five employees: screeners, designers and sample makers.

Courtesy and copyright of Northstar Vintage

What about the sewing?

The sewing was contracted out.  In the beginning it was tough, as we did not have large orders.   Articles were screened and cut in the factory, and samples were sewn there. The cut pieces were then sent out for sewing.

Courtesy and copyright of Second Looks

6.  I’ve noticed that many of the designs incorporate a big, friendly dog.  Was he based on an actual dog?  Did he have a name?

The dog logo was based completely on a family pet and member of the family, a 200 pound Newfoundland hound named Briney Bear.  He was the chairman of the board and had his own stationery.  The hang tag, also designed by Bud was based on a drawing of Briney Bear.  The hang tag logo can also be found on Bud’s headstone.

Courtesy and copyright of Hatfeathers Vintage

7.  Was Vested Gentress marketed as an active sports line?  So much of it seems to be appropriate for golf and tennis.

There was a pro line, that was sold exclusively in country club pro shops.  This was late in the life of the line.

Vested Gentress had four of their own retail stores, Rehoboth, Deleware, Stone Harbor, New Jersey,  and Jupiter and Clearwater, Florida.  Florida was the largest sales area.

Courtesy and copyright of Northstar Vintage

8.  Which of the print motifs were the most popular?

Heads and Tails which is the horse with the bows, and one with a parrot.  The parrot was also based on an actual creature.  He was positioned outside a barber shop in Florida, and when they went by him the parrot would bother Briney Bear.

Copyright and courtesy of joulesvintage

9.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen an ad for Vested Gentress in vintage magazines.  Did the company advertise on a national level?

Yes, mostly through The New Yorker.

Courtesy and copyright of Hatfeathers Vintage

10.  How and when did the business close?

Naomi  remembers that Lilly Pulitzer folded (1984)  prior to her husband’s passing in 1985 and Vested Gentress closed sometime after he died.  Dan said that they kept the business going for a while after his father died, but that Vested Gentress was Bud’s passion, and it was too hard to continue without his guiding force.

Naomi stated that they were surprised at Lilly Pulitzer’s closing as they had three items in Town & Country that year.

Courtesy and copyright of pinky-a-gogo

Vested Gentress was a true family company, with Bud and Naomi running the company and the children working there as well.  Dan said that his first job was sweeping the factory floor on Saturdays.  He was able to work his way up.

Many thanks to John Fibbi, who found me and who transcribed Naomi’s story.  And thanks to Naomi and Dan for answering all my questions.  Also thanks to members of the Vintage Fashion Guild for providing so many great illustrations of Bud’s work.

Courtesy and copyright of Viva Vintage Clothing

A few words about the label:

Vested Gentress was started in 1961, and in 1966 the  equestrienne trademark was registered.  The version on the trademark site shows the woman without a riding crop in her hand, and I’ve seen labels that do not have the crop.  I assume thay are older than the much more commonly found woman with a crop.  The Jacksons had no recollection of the change in the label.  If you find a label with no crop and no R (registered) symbol, I think you can safely assume it is from before 1966.

Courtesy and copyright of Viva Vintage Clothing

Courtesy and copyright of Club Vintage Fashions

Courtesy and copyright of Northstar Vintage

To see even more, here is an old blog post at the Vintage Fashion Guild blog.

Edited to correct the name of The New Yorker

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Conversation with Magda Makkay

Two months ago I posted about a beautiful Magda Makkay handbag I’d bought.  I wasn’t familiar with the name, but the handbag experts at the Vintage Fashion Guild quickly identified the bag as being made by Makkay.  I was able to piece together a small biography of Makkay through old newspaper accounts of her work.

And if not for the wonder of the internet, the story would be over.  But two weeks ago I got an email from a person in New York who had seen my post, and as it turns out, is Magda Makkay’s neighbor.  She wrote to tell me that Magda was alive and well at 88, and would love to talk with me.

The next day I called Magda.  She gladly told me  about her life and career, and then she offered to send some photos and things that would fill in the gaps in her story.  We’ve talked again, and it had been so much fun getting to know her.

Magda was born in Hungary in the 1920s.  As a child she would help her mother and sister produce clothing from their home knitting machine.  By the time she was fourteen, she went to work as an apprentice in a Budapest handbag factory.  There she worked for three years, perfecting her craft.  She was the first woman to ever finish the program.  Magda also took classes in fashion, graduating from Hungary’s leading fashion school.

After marrying and the birth of a daughter, Magda returned to work as a newspaper reporter.  The paper was impressed with her knowledge of making things so she was assigned to write about and sketch manufacturing plants.    All was well until Magda was approached about joining the Communist Party.  When she refused, she lost her job.  With the help of the Hungarian Underground, Magda began to plan her escape from Hungary.

In 1956 she was hidden in the back of a truck among large cartons.  She was taken to a hideaway, and from there was led across the border to Austria.  Eventually she made her way to New York City.

In New York she went to the Pocketbook Local Worker’s Union, who suggested that she contact Hungarian business leaders in New York.  Through one of them, Mickey Gordon, she was given employment at Koret Handbags.  She worked as a handbag designer for Koret for the next nine years.

In the mid 1960s Magda began producing handbags under her own name.  In 1975 she joined Charisma by Make Well as handbag designer.  There she developed what was called the Fashion Organizer.

In the above illustration you can see an Organizer.  The flap lifted up to reveal a folded section with pouches.  It could be carried like a handbag, or it could be a shoulder bag using the detachable strap.  If you are sharp-eyed, you can spot Mary Tyler Moore carrying one on her 1970s television program.

In 1978 Magda designed a handbag especially for Princess Grace of Monaco, and she traveled to Monte Carlo to present it to the princess.  She also made a briefcase for President Gerald Ford.

Magda told me that she is still making handbags in her home.  She explained that making bags was more than just a job – it was her craft and a lifetime passion.

Many thanks to Magda for her conversations and friendship.

UPDATE:

I found a 1970s Fashion Organizer on etsy, and got the seller’s permission to share the photos here.

Thanks to YesterdayIsBack for the use of the photos.

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Bates Fabrics and Fashion

A few weeks ago I got an email from a new reader here, Diana.  After exchanging a few back and forth she mentioned that she had worked for Bates Fabrics in the late 1940s . She had trained for a career in radio, and after college she worked doing women’s programs for a station in Maine.

Bates, which was at the time most famous for their bedspreads and home fashions fabrics, hired Diana as part of an effort to expand more into fashion fabrics.  Bates had famous designers do clothes using their fabrics, and Diana’s job was to travel around the northeastern US summer resort hotels presenting fashion shows utilizing these clothes.  She got some of her friends to model the fashions while she did commentary.

Here you see Diana at the microphone, describing a gown made of Bates fabric.  The model is Hazel, Diana’s sister-in-law.

Another photo from one of the fashion shows.  Isn’t it interesting how the audience sat around under the sun umbrellas?

Diana pointed out that while the young women had a wonderful time, she’s not sure that the campaign was very successful.  I do know that at least some of the clothes were produced for the market, including the Louella Ballerino for Jantzen swim suits in the 1946 ad at the top.  I thought it was really interesting that one of the women involved, Diana’s friend Cricket, sent her the same ad as an example of the clothes included in this campaign.  Below is another example.

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Pat Baldwin, Sweater Entrepreneur

Pat Baldwin when she was President of the Cleveland Smith College Club

Once again the internet has delivered some elusive information.  Last year I posted photos of a Pat Baldwin cashmere sweater I’d found, and asked for more information as I’d found out very little about her.  I recently got an email from her son, Art Baldwin, who very graciously sent a nice biography of his mother.  It is always a treat to hear from a family member of an important figure in fashion, especially when they, like Art, can add to the historic record.  Many thanks to Art Baldwin, the author of today’s post.

Pat Baldwin wearing one of her sweaters

Pat Baldwin was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1905.  Her given first name was Antoinette, but when she was about junior high school age, her friends decided that Antoinette was too much for them to want to handle.  Someone out of the blue said, “Why don’t we call you something simple, like Pat?  Do you mind?”  She didn’t, and that is how she was known for the rest of her life – except by her mother, who liked Pat, but always called her Antoinette.

She married another Clevelander named Fred Baldwin after graduating from Smith College while he was in law school.  Fred’s father, Arthur Baldwin, was the grandson of a missionary, Dwight Baldwin, who went to Hawaii in the 1830s.  While Arthur, who lived on Maui, was attending Yale University, he would come to Cleveland for Christmas and spring vacations with his college roommate and ended up marrying his roommate’s sister.  Although they planned on eventually returning to Hawaii to settle, Arthur started practicing law in Cleveland and became very involved with many activities, and remained in Cleveland for the rest of his life (he would normally spend a month during the summer in Hawaii, where he had an extensive family).  He became one of Cleveland’s leading civic leaders.

Fred and Pat had three children, Isabel, Arthur, and Lee.  When World War II broke out, Fred enlisted in the Army Air Corps and was sent to England as Intelligence Officer for a B-17 bomber group.  After the war, he returned to his law practice.

Pat was always very civic minded and volunteered at many non-profits, serving most of them as president during her career.  At University Hospitals she was instrumental in establishing an Art Cart, which was filled with framed works of art that was taken around to the patient rooms so the patient could borrow one of the pieces to hang in their room.

Fred died very suddenly of a heart attack in 1952 when he was 47 years old.  Pat continued with her civic activities, but then, to keep busy, got the idea of decorating sweaters for more formal wear.  Her concept was to have each sweater have an individual theme, the key element of which would be repeated on one sleeve.  For instance, if the sweater incorporated daisies in a pattern on the front of the sweater, a single daisy would be repeated once behind one shoulder.  She would do the designing and sewing herself and sell them at personal exhibits.  As she became known, she would take orders for sweaters based on colors and basic design concepts.

Early in the planning stage, Pat wanted to use only cashmere sweaters and wanted the best.  She bought Hadley sweaters at retail as each order came in.  As her business grew, she went to see Hadley to see if she could buy directly from them.  They told her they only sold to retail establishments, but she convinced them to make as exception for a widow trying to keep busy.  They agreed since they figured that the number of sweaters would be very small.

She would sell at showings in Cleveland and take a trip to Florida in the winter and Maine in the summer to also put on showings.  Within a couple of years, she had a real problem with backorders.  Not from her suppliers, but from the sweaters she had promised by due dates.  She was falling significantly behind.  She brought a woman on to help her sew, but as the business continued to grow, Pat hired several full-time sewers and set up a production operation.  Pat was not a business person per se, and after a while one of her sewers complained to someone of authority, and Pat was spoken to about running a sweatshop.  Actually she was just trying to get product out as promised.

About this time, Pat realized that the operation was getting bigger than she felt comfortable with.  The president of Hadley told her that, whereas they had agreed to quietly sell to her because they felt sorry for a widow, she had become Hadley’s largest customer.  She decided to back down a bit with her personal time and turned the management of the company over to her first assistant.  Pat would continue to run showings in Cleveland, Florida, and Maine, as well as other cities when invited.  Eventually she sold the entire operation, which included the trade name.

Pat married Wally Quail in the early 1960s.  She died in 1977.

Here’s the Pat Baldwin label, from the sweater in my collection.

The photos of Pat Baldwin are courtesy of and copyright of Art Baldwin.  Do not copy or repost.

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Interview With Elise Meyer, John Meyer of Norwich

After I posted those great ads from John Meyer of Norwich last week, I hope you will be pleased to read a bit more about the company.  Today I have an interview with Elise Meyer, the daughter of the owner, John Meyer.  Elise is a collector with a mission – to learn about and share the story of her family’s company.  Her collection is now on display at the Mattatuck Museum in Waterbury, Connecticut.

Elise’s interview is interesting not just from a family history perspective.  It gives a great glimpse into the world of American garment manufacturing in the mid 20th century.

1.  The story of John Meyer of Norwich actually begins with your grandfather, Issac Meyer.  Tell us about him and the garment company he started with his brothers.

Isaac Meyer, the father of John Meyer, was born in May 1894 on “Orchard Street second floor in the sink”, according to family lore,  on the famed Lower East Side of Manhattan to parents who, like almost 2,000,000 other Ashkenazic Jews, emigrated from Russia, Germany, Lithuania, and other parts of Northern Europe seeking refuge from genocidal Pogroms.  Armed only with needle skills they brought with them from the Old Country, many who settled in New York City grew the garment industry with a willingness to work hard and the desire to succeed.

Soon, Isaac, his parents Morris and Minnie, and four older brothers, and a brother-in-law had left the squalor of the Lower East Side, and according to the 1910 Census, were living at 1143 Herkimer Street, Brooklyn.  By 1915 the American sons of Russian- born Morris Meyer, (a “truckman”), had started a company called Meyer Bros. located in a new cast iron factory building at 48 Walker Street, right below Canal Street, the epicenter of the Dry Goods Market of the time.

The company manufactured men’s trousers, and supplied other factories with “Gray (Greige) Goods” or, fabric freshly off the loom before any finishing, printing, or dyeing processes were done.  Twenty-year-old Isaac, known for his charm and good looks was a travelling salesman and spent most of his time on the road, taking orders for the manufacturing side of the business, and buying textile lots that were then sent to New York for sale to other businesses .

2.  The Meyer Brothers’ factory was located in Manhattan’s dry goods district.  Is the building still there today?  Did you always know the location of the building, or did you have to re-find it while doing your research?

Finding the address of the company was a delightful surprise, I found it in an old trade directory.

I also found a reference to their move to 670 Broadway in this fabulous trade publication (check it out!)
It was so interesting, because in 1976 I moved to Soho to open an art gallery, and when I moved to Broome Street, the family joked about my moving back to the Lower East Side after all the hard work to get to Connecticut! Nobody had ANY idea of the address of Meyer Bros.
3.  How did the Meyer family come to leave New York and move to Connecticut?

Unfortunately the economic woes of the Great Depression did not spare the Meyer Bros.  Family letters from years after the 1929 stock market crash indicate that everyone was still working hard, but having invested heavily in the stock market, trading on each others’ stock tips, suffered the fate of many. Grandmother Anita’s cousins wrote letters trading horror stories about suicides and destitution, and most of the girl cousins went to work as bookkeepers and stenographers, and encouraged each other to do as best they could under the circumstances.

But the interesting part of the story– one that I never knew before I began my research – was that after the death of Harry Meyer (one of the Meyer Bros.) his widow sued the other brothers with the hope of taking on her dead husband’s role in the business.   She lost the lawsuit, but I can surmise that the pressures were too great on the partnership.

I never knew any relative on my grandfather’s side of the family; Isaac Meyer died when I was a baby, and his wife Anita, shortly after.  My father died very young– right after he turned 50!  And my mother never had any relationship with that family.  In doing my research I did locate the grandson of my grandfather’s only sister, Bessie.
4.  After the brothers dissolved their partnership in the mid 1930s, what was Isaac Meyer’s next business venture?

The 1929 city Directory of Norwich, Connecticut shows Isaac Meyer (alone) living on Fairmount Street, the same street on which Philip Gottesfeld, a tailor, is living.

The exact details are lost to history, but the 1933 Directory lists Philip Gottesfeld Pants Manufacturers on 37 Chestnut Street (the same building later known as 242 Franklin Street). The evidence suggests that Isaac Meyer, travelling frequently to the mills around Norwich to arrange orders for the family business in New York, took a residence in Norwich, perhaps as a base for business trips to the dozens of important fabric mills in the area. And, the 1935 directory shows that “Ike’s” future son-in-law, Karl Meyerowitz (soon to change to Meyers) a German Jew whose family went to great lengths to arrange his immigration to America as Hitler rose to power, was living in Norwich also, with the stated profession of “salesman” in that year’s directory suggesting that he and Isaac were working together.

Gottesfeld and Meyer  started G&M manufacturing together.

5.   How and when did your father, John Meyer, enter into business with his father?

In January of 1949, after serving in the Navy in WWII,  John Meyer joined his father as salesman and merchandise manager.

In an effort to change the distribution of the G & M line of pants and jackets, John steered the company to manufacture a better quality of clothes, designed for the more upscale university clientele, and began to sell to stores in New England university towns. This new direction proved successful, and the company became specialists in the “Ivy League” style. They began to produce a high-quality line that was carefully tailored and fabricated in high-quality fabrics, that positioned their line in an exclusive niche.

Meanwhile, John Meyer met the beautiful and stylish Arlene Hochman.  Arlene, a Brooklyn native, was a student at nearby Connecticut College in New London, Connecticut.  She was an English poetry major and a talented artist who had attended the famous High School of Music and Art in Manhattan.  Like her collegiate peers, Arlene liked shopping the boy’s department of Brooks Brothers for scaled down collegiate staples like Bermuda shorts and button-down shirts.

6.  At what point did G&M switch over from men’s trousers to women’s apparel?

Together my parents  approached Isaac with the idea of manufacturing “walking shorts” for women, after Jean Higgins from the Fred Atkins company, (a buying office that represented and consulted to the biggest and best department stores and specialty retailers) met with John Meyer in the fall of 1955, and agreed that it was a great idea.

7.  Describe the women’s clothing made by G&M.

That year, the G. & M. Manufacturing Co., Inc. made their first women’s items. A flyer excitedly proclaimed; “ A menswear manufacturer producing completely man-tailored Ivy-League Type BERMUDA SHORTS and TAPERED PANTS FOR WOMEN! ALL in washable fabrics!”   The shorts had a strap in the back, a buttoned back pocket, no pleats, and a fly front with a hook and eye closure. They came in three plaids  (Black Watch, scarlet and green, and green and white) and three solids in flannel and cotton poplin, made of new wash-and-wear fabrics that had recently come on the market.

Because of their popularity, thanks to the quality and fine fabrics, the stores pressured for more women’s items, and soon the women’s business was growing fast. There was no competition in the field, as menswear for women’s sportswear was a brand new market.  With their first New Yorker magazine ad in February, 1960, they took the market by storm. The company quickly developed a reputation for quality and originality of design.

8.  After your grandfather, Isaac Meyer died in 1957, your father took the family company in a new direction, which included a name change.  Can you tell us the hows and whys of this change?

After Ike Meyer’s death in 1957, John Meyer took over as president of the company, and immediately started importing fine Shetland wools and cottons from Europe and the British Isles, sourced during trips to Hong Kong, London, Paris, and Italy. And, of course, to India, where a relationship with the leading Madras mill was cemented. Philip Gottesfeld sold his share of the business, and went on to do other things.  I have spoken to his son.

In 1960 the name of the company was changed to John Meyer of Norwich, which reflected the New Englander’s pride in craftsmanship and his flair for advertising too. Soon the company was making sweaters to match the skirts, and shirt-waist dresses and shirts, made from Liberty of London prints from England were added to the line.

By then they had found an eager market in college girls and “young suburbanites” who found that the clothes expressed their lifestyle… easy for Mr. and Mrs. Meyer who were living the country life as well.   It was the all-American look for the all-American girl.  The clothing as John Meyer would have said “Hit the spot”.

They decided to change the name to John Meyer of Norwich to express the “country life” marketing angle of the clothing, and the Ivy League appeal. Also, my father was an extremely charismatic man, and soon he was making store appearances with the announcement, “Yes, Virginia, there really is a John Meyer of Norwich”

9.  John Meyer of Norwich clothing is strongly associated with a certain lifestyle.  I can remember that the brand was sold only at the very best clothing store in my town.  How was the “branding” of the company managed?  Did your father set out to give the company an image of Ivy League, or preppy?

They were very selective about the shops that would carry the line, and wanted to have their own department in the shops, so people could easily build the outfits of the matching components.  It was very affiliated with the Ivy League look.  In an interview my dad said, “We don’t sit in an office and wonder what someone would wear to Derby Day at Yale, or to the Regatta.  We’ve been there, we know”.  My parents were very proper, and believed that good manners in dress and behavior were very important.

10.  You were a child during John Meyer of Norwich’s strongest years.  Did you and your brother and sister have any input into the company and the clothing?

On weekend trips to our ski house in Vermont, our parents would show us samples of colors, and we would help name them.  I remember my brother seeing a dark pink and saying “razzleberry”.  The name stayed.  I apprenticed at the factory from the time I was 12 for a couple of years, but by then my father was quite ill, and the company had been sold to W.R. Grace.  As the oldest child I would occasionally accompany my parents for a fashion show or other event.  Most of my clothing was scaled-down versions of the dresses in the line.  They had a very successful dress called “the Lisa Dress” that came from a dress my mother designed, and had made up for me.  I am wearing it in this photo:

11.  Another company that seems to have had the same target audience as John Meyer was Villager.  Was there a relationship between the two companies?

In the early days, my parents and Max and Mary Raab from Villager shared an office and a showroom in New York City.  John Meyer made the “hard goods”; skirts, pants, suits, coats, etc. and Villager made the cotton blouses and dresses to match the colors of each season.  At a certain point Villager decided they could do it all on their own and the companies went their own ways.

12.  How much do think the changing political climate of the late 1960s affected the company?

The youth revolution was an important turning point in the company, when people started wearing jeans and hippie attire (myself included!) things got hard, and the college and youth market turned away from the traditional looks, and indeed, away from anything that looked like their parents’ generation. The name was changed to just John Meyer to downplay the country-club image, and the lines of 1969 and 1970 showed some very funky looks- tapestry long skirts and vests, patchwork velvet and bell bottom pants.  How Sgt. Pepper is this?

13.  Your father sold his company in 1969, but continued as president of the company until his death in 1974.  What happened to John Meyer of Norwich then?

My father was diagnosed with a rare and virulent cancer when he was only 43, and battled it until his death at the age of 50. Around 1969 he started Jones New York, which was taken over by Sidney Kimmel, and the John Meyer of Norwich label was sold several times, finally being acquired by Judy’s Group, who produce women’s wear under that label today, although the attitude or the style of the today’s line is not at all reflective of the ideals or look for which the company was known under my parents.

14.  You told me that you did not have any of your original John Meyer of Norwich clothing, but now you have amassed a great collection.  How were you able to assemble such a comprehensive collection?

Etsy! Ebay! Vintage shows and shops!… I am the goddess of google… some of my best finds have resulted from googling various misspellings!.  It does seem fascinating to me that the world of online vintage clothing shopping is a cottage industry not at all unlike the piecework and home sewing that supported families in the early days of the garment manufacturing industry. The wife of one of the salesmen of the company made a quilt with samples of some of the cotton goods, and using that I was able to ascertain the “provenance” of some dresses and blouses.

15.  What about the company archives?  Did any of it survive the closing of the company?

Not that I have found, although I have an album of the press clippings and newspaper articles.

16.  Do you have any pieces with a Meyer Brothers or a G&M label?

I don’t– I WISH I did.  I have one pair of very early walking shorts with a John Meyer of Norwich label, and another pair that looks and feels exactly like the description in the 1956 tear- sheet, but it has no label. I would be so appreciative if any of your readers could help provide this missing piece of the history!

17.  Any additional thoughts you’d like to share?

Going into this project I was hoping to preserve a bit of the history of the company– because I realized if I did not do it, nobody every would.  I never expected that the archive would lead to my historical discoveries.  I was only 19 when my father died, and he and my mother worked non-stop.  I really didn’t know that much about them, and was eager to learn more, but my mother, who died about five  years ago, never really wanted to talk about those days– she was widowed with three teenagers at the age of 42! I understand that it was hard for her to look back at their amazing achievements in the nine short years between that first pair of shorts and the sale of the company.

My thanks to Elise for such a great interview, and for the use of her photographs.  And if anyone come across one of those elusive  Meyer Brothers or a G&M labels, please be in touch so I can refer you to Elise.

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