Category Archives: First Person Stories

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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Interview with Illustrator Kasia Charko

The logo above was drawn by my latest blog discovery, Kasia Charko.  Her name may not be familiar, but I’m betting that you will recognize the work she did for Biba, the London store and mail order company owned by Barbara Hulanicki in the 1960s and 70s.  What makes Kasia’s blog so good is that she is telling the story of the early 1970s fashion scene in the UK as only an insider could tell it.

Kasia graciously agreed to answer a few questions for me.


1.  Tell us about your training as an artist.

  I trained in graphic design at Leicester College of Art,  England from 1969 -1972.   All commercial art was taught, editorial illustration for magazines and book publishing,  typography and some photography, illustration for advertising e.g. posters and ad campaigns.

2.  How did you land the position at Biba?

One of my tutors was Adrianne Le Man who was the Art Director for The Illustrated London News at the time .   She taught us one day a week, and when I moved to London we kept in touch and she alerted me to the fact that the Biba graphics team  was  looking for an illustrator as the one they had was not working out.   I was already working for various magazines doing fashion illustration  and other drawings in an Art Deco style.   Much to my surprise I got the job.

3.  What were your responsibilities there?

The design team was Whitmore Thomas;  they designed the interiors of the new store and Steve Thomas led  the graphics team as well.  The day I started he gave me the brief which was to come up with ideas and drawings for all logos for each department that was going to be in the new Big Biba store.   He then went to Los Angeles for a couple of weeks. It was nerve wracking to say the least , but when he came back he liked what he saw and took the drawings to a meeting with Barbara Hulanicki who made the final approvals  and we were on our way .  Now we had the look , Steve and I expanded the work to include all kinds of  things like postcards, badges, food packaging – it was never-ending.  I did not really deal with Barbara, I hardly ever saw her, but she gave final approval of all work.

4.  How did Art Deco become so much a part of the imaging of Biba?

  I think that is explained better in Barbara Hulanicki’s autobiography ‘ From A to Biba’.   In the early 70’s in Britain there was a great nostalgia for old things from Victorian right through to the 1940’s. This was seen in fashion , graphics, music.  I think it was in America too.   I touch on this in some of my blogs.  Also old clothes , furniture, etc. was still available very cheaply  and clothes in particular were much sought after.  Biba clothes had that old glamorous look.

5.  How were you personally influenced by the Art Deco movement?

   I was influenced unconsciously at first by an old Art Deco cinema around the corner from my house when I was a kid.  You can see a photo of the interior on my first blog.    Those three Art Deco ladies certainly made an imprint on me.   I did not know what Art Deco was but I loved it. Also we were exposed to an enormous amount of old Hollywood  movies on the T.V. as kids in the 60’s.  At college I studied all aspects of Art Deco and loved it, still do.

6.  After your work at Biba was finished, did you continue to work as an artist?

When Biba ended it was very strange because a door had definitely closed on that style of work, there was a lot of change in the air.  I still got work but felt a bit typecast.      The situation in Britain was very bad , very gloomy so my husband and I had a break and went to Canada . We worked mostly in advertising,  I got into childrens’ book     illustration in the early 90’s which I am still doing today.
Many thanks to Kasia for taking the time to tell us about her experiences at Biba.  And to read more, be sure to visit her blog, Kasia Charko.

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Remembering a Young LouLou de la Falaise

It’s been a sad month so far in the world of fashion.  First, on November 4th, Theodora van Runkle, the designer of the fabulous costumes for the 1960s classic movie, Bonnie and Clyde, died of lung cancer.  The next day the death on October 12 of James van Doren, the creator of the Vans skateboarding shoe was reported.  And later that day we learned that French designer and Yves Saint Laurent muse, Loulou de la Falaise had also passed away.

Much has been written in the past week of the contributions of these people, so I’ll not go on about how each in his or her own way was influential.  But, as incredible as it might seem, I have a friend who was a teenage friend of de la Falise, and she has graciously agreed to share a few memories.

Remembering a Young LouLou de la Falaise

“In the early 60’s I was in the tenth grade and ended up at a private school in Switzerland.  My best friend there was an American fromTexas.  She and I were ‘tomboys’ and spent most of our free time exploring the local farms, while the other students went to the village for tea and rendezvous with area boys.

“One of the students at that school was Loulou de la Falaise.  Loulou and my roommate, who was also French, were best buddies.  They were both paper thin and waifish. I remember Loulou as being free spirited and always looking somewhat tousled.  The school was international with French being the spoken language.  Loulou certainly had a presence and an individual style, but she kept a low profile and stuck close to her few French friends.  She was a bit of a sprite, always curious and ready to try something new.

“Nobody paid attention to anyone else’s background/families at the school, so I knew nothing about her mother or her past history.  I read now that there was a messy divorce and Loulou lived with foster families until she was seven, at which point she was shipped off to private schools.  No wonder she seemed a bit aloof to me. I was the class clown and I could tell that while my antics amused her, she also found me a bit uncouth.

“I read online that she was expelled for keeping a St. Bernard in her room.  I am in touch with her roommate from those days and she says that’s not true.  I was wondering why I remembered nothing about a dog and Loulou’s expulsion.

“We did not keep in touch.  I was happy to see her develop her jewelry line over the years and hope that her life was happy and fulfilling for her.”

Thanks to my friend for sharing her memories.  The photo is a long time favorite of mine.  It is from the January 1971 issue of Vogue; photo by Jack Robinson.  Interestingly, The Berenson sisters were also students at the school.

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Enid Collins: An Interview with her Son, Jeep

I’m very pleased to be able to share with you an interview with Jeep Collins, the son of famed handbag designer and maker, Enid Collins.

*  How did Collins of Texas get its start?

Soon after World War II Frederic and Enid Collins came to Texas  and bought a small ranch close to the town of Medina.   Struggling to make a living as ranchers they began to use their talents and training to make things they could sell.  Enid studied fashion design and fine art at Texas Woman’s University and Frederic studied engineering at the University of Michigan and was also a sculptor.  Together they began to make leather handbags which she designed and he built on their kitchen table.  Frederic sculpted brass ornaments for the handbags.

* How were ideas for new designs developed?  Did Enid work as the sole designer?

She was the primary designer but Fred was also creative and had input especially in the ornaments.  He was good at figuring out how to make things, first by hand and later when he built the factory he invented various jigs to make production easier.  His father’s father was in the carriage building business in Michigan and his father invented things used in the early auto industry.

* My favorites are the box bags.  Did Collins of Texas make the wooden boxes used as the handbag base?

At first they had someone make the boxes.  When suddenly that source dried up Fred quickly acquired a large tent, until he could build a workshop, bought  woodworking equipment and began producing them himself.  The stock number prefix for the box bags was HH which stood for “high hopes.”  The success of the box bags was a major step in the growth of the company.

* I know Collins was a family business.  How were the Collins children involved in it?

Cynthia and I both worked summers in production.  Later Cynthia modeled for a series of ads run in The New Yorker.  She later went to Puerto Rico to train workers there in the factory.

*  What were some of the most unusual bags produced?

The early leather ones were very unusual.

* What were some of the most popular designs?

“Money Tree” comes to mind.  Enid did so many designs.  Every season she would have new ones ready to come out.

*  Over the years I’ve found some unusual Collins of Texas items.  What are some of the things, other than handbags, that the company produced?

Early on they made whatever they could sell.  Frederic made bronze horse sculptures, bronze ashtrays (I have one of these from his maternal grandfather’s business, Alamo Explosives), and other bronze items.  They also made leather belts with brass ornaments, leather sandals, papier mache mirror frames, paperie mache waste baskets, and papier mache broches.

*  How big a problem were knock-offs and copycats?  Did Collins of Texas ever try to take action against any of these copiers?

There was always much business discussion at home and I remember my mother especially discussing it but I do not think there was ever any action taken.  Their philosophy was to always stay ahead with new things coming out constantly.

*  Did the company copyright the designs?  I know there is a copyright symbol on some bags under the “ec” signature.

Yes

*  I’ve read that the business was sold to Tandy in 1970, with Enid continuing to work for them for a short while.  What happened to end this arrangement?

The company took a new direction not wanting to be dependant on any one designer.  This was difficult for her as a person because she built the company and now had to let others run it a different way.  Being semi-retired she then began to use her artistic talents in other things: ceramics, painting, stitchery, and other media.

* And, most importantly, was a bag with a Scotty dog motif ever produced (please say yes!)?

Quite possibly, but I can’t say for sure.

A very big thank you to Jeep, and to his son Christian Collins for arranging the interview.  Jeep is a jewelry designer and maker.  Christian has a website dedicated to all things Enid Collins. 

And I’m still looking for that Collins of Texas Scotty bag!

Photo of Enid Collins in her studio courtesy of Christian Collins.

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Interview: Designer Deanna Littell


I’ve long been a fan of the design work of Deanna Littell, and so I was so pleased when she commented on a post here several months ago.  She had found the webpage where I’ve been collecting Young Designer Butterick patterns, including those of Deanna.

She very graciously agreed to an interview, which we conducted over the phone.  I wrote her responses in the third person just because I could not possibly capture the charming quality of her answers.  But at any rate, the story is there, and I’m sure you are going to enjoy this one!

Deanna is probably best known as one of the original designers for the 1960s New York boutique, Paraphernalia.   Along with fellow designers Betsey Johnson and Joel Schumacher she helped to establish the “Youthquake” of Great Britian here in the States.



1.  How did you first become interested in a design career?

Deanna  studied ballet at the High School for the Performing Arts in New York and after after high school continued studing ballet.  At night she attended Queens College.  But she was disappointed with ballet school, as it did not have the the artistic mix of students that she was used to in high school.  She began to have second thoughts about her career choice.

At Queens College she was in a dance troupe and had the opportunity to make the costumes for a performance.  Deanna had been sewing and designing her own clothes since she was 15, so why not a career in design, she thought.  She researched her options, and applied to Parsons School of Design.



2.  What was it like at Parson’s in the late 1950s?
It was very different from today; there was no Project Runway!  It was in a different location, 54th Street, far from the garment district.  The school was very strict and quite demanding.  Her class started with 60 people, but only 24 finished.  Parson’s had a kindly environment, but the instructors were realistic, and if you did not perform to their expectations, then you were asked to leave.  It was very intense instructionally, but students had less exposure to the fashion world. They were not invited to shows, and were much less sophisticated in the ways of fashion.  But the training was superb and comprehensive and included everything from drawing to draping, from patternmaking  to constructing a garment from start to finish like the Haute Couture.

3.  How did you get started in the design business?

The Parson’s graduates were well aware that the field was very competitive, and noone at the time expected to get a design position immediately after graduation.  Deanna won the coveted Norman Norell Award, which was a great honor, and brought her to the attention of Life magazine.  She and her prize winning garment were featured in a story.  From that story, she came to the attention of  Mr. Mort where she got her first job.  At Mr. Mort she was an assistant to the designer, doing tasks such as making phone calls, placing and receiving orders for sample fabrics and coordinating between the design room and the factory.  There was no actual designing involved, but she got to see how a workroom worked.

A salesman let her know about a job at Evan-Picone, which at that time was a well-known skirt and pants maker.  Deanna did pants with sweaters and tops to coordinate.  She learned so much from Mr. Picone, especially about the fit of pants, and how to manage a line of coordinating pieces.

Between 1962 and 1964 she worked for a sportswear firm called Harold Goldstein.  Her name was on the label, and this job brought with it a lot of recognition. Bloomingdales liked her work so much that gave her the entire Lexington Avenue windows to showcase her collection.  This was quite unusual for the time, as department stores were still sharply divided into departments, with different buyers for dresses, sportswear, separates, and so on.  And then her work was shown in Glamour magazine as well.  When her work was shown in Glamour magazine Bloomingdales was given the editorial credit, but it was difficult at the time to organize the buyers and get them to coordinate on this.

3.  I love the wardrobes you designed for Butterick Patterns in 1964.
How did you come to the attention of Butterick?

At this time, people started to look at young designers, due to the “Youthquake” influence.  People were paying attention to what young designer were doing.  Butterick had seen her work through the recent exposure, and when they learned she was about to embark on a year-long trip with her then-husband, she was given the opportunity to design a travel collection for them.

After returning home she went to work for Zaccari, and the following year, in 1965, was part of a group of young designers that won the coveted Coty award for their work as “young” designers. Thid was a first for the Coty Awards – now known as The CFDA awards.



The travel wardrobe Deanna designed for Butterick.   From the Summer 1965 Butterick Home Catalog.


4.  Tell us about your experience at Paraphernalia.  How were you
selected to be on the design team?  What was it like working there?

Paraphernalia was conceived by Paul Young who was British, and who had recently come to the US.  Together with Karl Rosen at Puritan Clothing he put together a venture that capitalized on the youth craze.  The idea was to do a shop with young designers from London and from the United States.  Puritan would make the clothes, and a fun time would be had by all.

Paul Young approached Deanna with the idea, and offered her a position as designer for Paraphernalia. She replied that she could do what he wanted – basicly make kooky things for the young market – but that she had a consumer following she had built up, and wanted to continue to make more serious, but still hip, clothing.

The solution was found in another Puritan line, Mam’selle by Betty Carol.  They were looking to do a boutique line along with the more conservative things being turned out by Betty Carol.  So at the same time she was designing for Paraphernalia, Deanna also worked at Mam’selle where she did a line that ranged from double-knits in unusual patterns to floating georgette dresses.


5.  In reading about Paraphernalia, one gets a sense that the designers
had complete freedom to do anything they envisioned.  How true is that
perception?

The original designers at Paraphernalia were Deanna, Betsey Johnson and Joel Schumacher.   They were given a huge studio and a lot of freedom – sort of a Home Alone situation where almost anything went.  However, it was all done with the knowledge that the clothes had to sell.

It was interesting because they had the freedom to experiment with new fabrics and processes.  They took textiles that were not meant for the fashion trade and used them in clothing in new and ground-breaking ways.  For example, they were brought some artificial leather material that had been made in florescent colors like fuchsia and chartreuse.  Deanna used this material to make raincoats, with the addition of glow-in-the-dark white inserts and details.  She also made matching miniskirts and then found some buffalo checked taffeta in the same wild colors.  From it she made cowboy style shirts to go with the minis.  It was perfect gear to wear to go out clubbing.

The atmosphere fostered creativity.  Because clothing was made in small lots, the designers could take risks without a large investment, and so it led to a lot of amazing things. It was thrilling to work there, knowing one was in a sort of a test tube of fashion.

The first Paraphernalia store opened on Madison Avenue in 1965. The  Velvet Underground played the opening which was more like a disco than a store opening party.   Some of the British designers – Deanna remembers  Tuffin & Foale, along with Julie Christie  –  came to the wild opening.

The store did very well, so Paul Young had ideas to move the brand to the next level by opening Paraphernalia boutiques in department stores around the country.  At the time, this was unheard of.  The boutique within a store idea was totally new and untried.

The first collaboration was with a store in Philadelphia.  Paul Young gathered together a clan for the opening and they all took the train to Philadelphia.  As the group was crossing the street with the models, traffic came to a standstill to stare at the group and their crazy dress.  Betsey Johnson was wearing a tiny skirt with mesh stockings and silver tap shoes.  The others, including Deanna, wore wild colors in shocking combinations.


Deanna Littell for Paraphernalia, see label above.

6.  I’ve seen designs from the later 1960s and early 70s under a Deanna
Littell label.  Where did your career, and life, go after Paraphernalia?

In 1967, Geraldine Stutz of Henri Bendel had seen some dresses Deanna did for Mam’selle, and Ms. Stutz wanted her to design a  special private label collection for Bendel’s Fancy, as the “Designer” department was called.  This label was “Deanna Littell for Bendel’s Studio”, where money was no object.  Deanna designed for Bendel’s Studio for three years.

In 1970 she and her family went to live in the south of France.  In 1973 she started her own label, designing clothing that was made in France.  These clothes were sold first at Henri Bendel and Saks Fifth Avenues, and then across the country in upscale stores like Neiman Marcus and Marshall Field.

After she returned to the US, she worked for large companies like Jones New York, as head esigner.  She also worked at Albert Nipon as design director and Kasper as creative design director.


1970s Deanna Littell dress, Made in France
Photo courtesy of vintageous.com

7.  What led you into jewelry design?

Deanna had never had a charm bracelet as a girl, so she decided to make one for herself using vintage charms she collected over the years.  People admired it and wanted her to help them put together bracelets that were reflective of their own lives.  She met Ki Hackney who was writing a book on charms,  The Charm of Charms.  They traded informatiom about charms, and Deanna began to think of starting her own business using her vast collection of vintage charms to help others make tailor-made bracelets. Deanna Littell’s Charm School opened in 2005.  Today Deanna still works, helping others assemble a bracelet that is unique to the owner and that can be a continuing project.  Her latest venture is with HSN, where they are selling replicas of her vintage charms.  Catch Deanna on air on November 17!

Comments: 

Posted by Brenda:

Wonderful interview Lizzie and, as always, super history of vintage fashion designers!

Monday, November 8th 2010 @ 8:42 PM

Posted by Jonathan Walford:

There are a many designers who ‘were there’ in the midst of an era and are largely forgotten now. Ms. Littell was obviously at the forefront of the American youthquake movement and I am happy to know more about her role now. Thanks for the great interview Lizzie!

Monday, November 8th 2010 @ 8:47 PM

Posted by Couture Allure:

Fabulous interview, Lizzie! Thanks for all the hard work that went into it. I am especially thrilled to learn that I have a Mam’selle dress that was probably designed by Deanna!

Tuesday, November 9th 2010 @ 2:19 AM

Posted by Carrie Pollack:

What an information-packed interview, Lizzie! Not only does it help me understand youthquake fashion better, but there are fascinating glimpses into labels I’ve run across but never known much about. What a long, varied, and rich career Ms Littell has had!

Thanks so much, Lizzie!

Tuesday, November 9th 2010 @ 4:43 AM

Posted by KeLLy Ann:

thank you so much for this article.
I love history, and I love that second dress!

Tuesday, November 9th 2010 @ 8:47 AM

Posted by Carol:

Another great interview! Such an exciting time to be designing clothing.

Tuesday, November 9th 2010 @ 10:56 AM

Posted by Barbara Troeller:

That was great! THANK YOU 100 times for this. I remember when the first store opened and reading about it in the local NJ Sunday paper…I loved Paraphernalia …yes I am that old. I love Betsy too, and it was great to find out what was going on back then when everything was so new, fresh and exciting.

Those days are gone. It just can never be like that again. What a time it was!

Again, thank you, I adore your blog.

Barbara

Tuesday, November 9th 2010 @ 12:07 PM

Posted by MS:

What a wonderful interview, thanks so much!
My mother wore those Evan Picone coordinating outfits, I had no idea that Deanna had designed those, no wonder my Mother looked so stylish.Love your blog, I always learn something new every time I read it.

Tuesday, November 9th 2010 @ 12:44 PM

Posted by Catbooks1940s:

Ah, Lizzie, your blog is a delicious danger for me. I always have such a hard time tearing myself away!

Fabulous interview with Deanna Littell! I too loved Paraphernalia and am that old. But there was so much I didn’t know about Deanna and was fascinated reading all about her. So glad she found your blog, commented, and that you two could get together for this wonderful interview.

Thanks!

Joan

Tuesday, November 9th 2010 @ 12:48 PM

Posted by Pinky-A-GoGo:

Fantastic article!

I would give anything to go back in time to be at the Paraphernalia store opening on Madison Avenue in 1965.

Amazing fashion and The Velvet Underground–what more could a girl want!

Tuesday, November 9th 2010 @ 3:44 PM

Posted by Melody Fortier:

What a wonderful article! The progression of her carreer is fascinating. When I see the vintage from the designers and companies she worked for I’ll be wondering…Thanks Lizzie!

Tuesday, November 9th 2010 @ 5:56 PM

Posted by Sarsaparilla:

Thank you for sharing this fascinating interview! What an interesting life she has led. Would have loved to have seen Velvet Underground playing for the opening of Paraphernalia.

I just visited Deanna’s “Charm School.” Her charm bracelets are incredible! And she’s got a fantastic blog too…

Thursday, November 11th 2010 @ 3:56 AM

Posted by Lizzie:

Thanks for all the nice words. And thanks again to Deanna Littell for sharing her story with us.

Thursday, November 11th 2010 @ 4:24 PM

Posted by Deanna Littell:

Thank you Lizzie for a wonderful article. It took me back in time too. I loved reading all your reader’s comments & the thrill of knowing that I have so many fans.Where’d you get that sequined dress? Could wear it now. Best, Deanna Littell

Thursday, November 18th 2010 @ 12:26 PM

Posted by b2:

tres bien lizzie!…u have truly captured the creative essence of deanna littell! she is a unique talent who adores life’s beauty & continues to inspire!!
it was such fun reading about her ever evolving life! merci!

Friday, November 19th 2010 @ 5:41 AM

 

 

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Filed under Designers, First Person Stories

Designer Sayde Weinberg



Courtesy of  metroretrovintage
Sayde Weinberg just may be the most fascinating fashion designer you’ve never heard of.  I was introduced to Sayde by a member of her family.  After years of searching for information about the Jerry Gilden label, a colleague at the Vintage Fashion Guild turned up an old newspaper article from the 1950s.  In it, Sayde Weinberg and her husband, Abe Weinberg were identified as co-owners of the Jerry Gilden line, with Sayde as the designer.
 
I used this information to write a short blurb for the VFG Label Resource, and then forgot about it until last month when I received an email from Sayde and Abe’s relative.  I called this family member, hoping to learn more about the Jerry Gilden company so I could write about it, but in just a few minutes on the phone with him I realized it was actually Sayde’s story that needed telling.
 
Sayde was born into a large family; she was in the middle of sixteen children.  Like many poor children of the early 20th century, she went to work early.  At thirteen she became a stock girl at the Blum Store: “Philadelphia’s Finest Apparel Store.”  But Sayde had some advantages.  Although she had little formal education, she was a naturally gifted artist who had a tremendous sense of color and an eye for design.
 
Her abilities were recognized as she worked her way up at Blum’s.  She eventually became the buyer for Blum’s Fifth Floor – their high fashion floor.
Before one buying trip to New York, her bosses at Blum’s told her to make sure she was clear in making the manufacturers know exactly what she wanted.  Sayde took them at their words, getting the clothing makers to make changes in the clothing they were presenting to suit her taste.  Over time Sayde became much more than a buyer; she was essentially styling the lines that the manufacturers were making, for not only the  Blum store but for all their clients.  Her influence on the image of the store was so all-encompassing that she even sketched the store’s print ads during the 1930s.
 
Besides buying  for Blum’s, Sayde became a design consultant – both formally and informally – to other companies.  This is a role she continued for many years. During the 1940s, while continuing to work for Blum’s, she also designed for her husband’s companies, first at Reggie Dress, and then at Teen Fashions.
 
In 1952 another opportunity presented itself in the form of Jerry Gilden Specialties.  Sayde and Abe bought into the company with Sayde being the designer, Abe the head of production, and Jerry Gilden the head of sales.  The production was so large that the factory, located in Union City, NJ, covered several city blocks.  They were a high volume producer, and Sayde designed everything in the several lines the Jerry Gilden produced.  She was also in charge of the sample rooms.
 
Sayde was a perfectionist.  She would work with a design until the fit, look and construction were perfect.  She had an eye for proportion and detail that made Jerry Gilden  a successful business. She would hold up the production of 10,000 dresses if she was not satisfied with the way a dart fell or with the quality of a button.
 
But the business closed around 1960.  Sayde then worked as a designer for several other well-known dressmakers, Lee Richards, and the Carlye division of Leslie Fay among others.  When she retired she didn’t completely leave the clothing business, opening stores in the Philadelphia area.  Eventually she retired for good and moved to Florida. She eventually moved back to Philadelphia where she died in 2005 at the age of 93.
 
I think it is remarkable that a woman who designed clothes that were worn by thousands of American women could have been so completely forgotten.  It’s a bit ironic that we remember the names of designers who worked to clothe the wealthiest women, but not those who produced beautiful clothing that most women could afford.
 
So the next time you are lucky enough to find a 1950s Jerry Gilden dress, think of Sayde and how her strong sense of design helped American women look their best.
 
A little taste of what Sayde did best, all from the mid 1950s:
Courtesy of yumyumvintage

Comments:

Posted by Mary Jane Enros:

Thank you so much for shedding some light on this company. I have always admired Jerry Gilden dresses. Knowing the background story about the wonderful lady who had such a keen sense of style makes it all so much more interesting. It’s always nice to know about what goes on behind the scenes. I will appreciate their dresses all the more after reading your blog.

Friday, August 27th 2010 @ 6:54 PM

Posted by Metro Retro Vintage:

What an interesting and in depth piece on Jerry Gilden. I especially enjoyed learning about Sayde and her successful rise to the top in her field. And thank you so much for featuring a Gilden dress from the shop. 🙂

Friday, August 27th 2010 @ 7:51 PM

Posted by Pinky-A-GoGo:

Wonderful and interesting piece.
Thank you for sharing her wonderful story with us!

Saturday, August 28th 2010 @ 5:30 AM

Posted by Em:

Great post!

Saturday, August 28th 2010 @ 5:44 AM

Posted by Couture Allure:

Fantastic article, Lizzie! I am so thrilled to know more of the history of Jerry Gilden, one of my all time favorite lines. Thank you!

Saturday, August 28th 2010 @ 9:09 AM

Posted by Sarah:

“It’s a bit ironic that we remember the names of designers who worked to clothe the wealthiest women, but not those who produced beautiful clothing that most women could afford.”

I couldn’t agree with you more. Excellent piece!

Monday, August 30th 2010 @ 12:34 AM

Posted by Renaissance Festivals:

the historical collocation amazing..with complete information about the dresses and costumes..

Thanks for great posting
Renaissance-Festivals.com 🙂

Tuesday, August 31st 2010 @ 12:51 AM

Posted by Lin:

chiming in late to say this is a fascinating life story – thanks for publishing it for all to read. And very much in agreement with Sarah and you on who are the most interesting ‘women of fashion’.

Wednesday, September 1st 2010 @ 3:08 AM

Posted by daisyfairbanks:

Wonderful bio! Interesting that she later worked for Carlye – I’m wondering if some of their early (and incredibly detailed) dresses I’ve seen were designed by Sayde.

Thursday, September 2nd 2010 @ 8:29 AM

Posted by Lizzie:

I’m glad you all liked this piece. It’s just so important to document these 20th century dressmakers while the information is still available!

I actually found a 1950s Jerry Gilden dress this weekend, and I’ll post photos of it later. It’s a very nice frock!

Sunday, September 5th 2010 @ 7:11 AM

Posted by sue:

Oh my goodness the dress with all the roses on it puts me in mind of a dress my mother used to ware that patterned exactly like it. I don’t remember if it had roses but I think it did. All I do remember is it was red and the exact same pattern. Now I wonder if it was a Sayde dress. If can find a picture of my mother in that dress I will e-mail it.

Tuesday, September 14th 2010 @ 7:02 PM

Posted by Lizzie:

Sue, I’d love to see photos if you find them!

Wednesday, September 15th 2010 @ 6:41 PM

 

2 Comments

Filed under Designers, First Person Stories, Vintage Clothing

Interview with Juli Lynne Charlot



As promised, I want to share what I learned from my interview with designer Juli Lynne Charlot.  Most vintage collectors know Charlot as the designer of some of the very best and most clever skirts to come out of the 1950s.  But there’s more to Juli Lynne than just decorated skirts.

Juli Lynne didn’t set out to be a clothing designer; she had a beautiful voice and studied for the opera.  Along the way she sang with Xavier Cugat’s orchestra, was soprano with the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera Company, and played straight “man” to the Marx Brothers while performing at military bases during WWII.

As a performer, Juli Lynne had strong ideas about how she wanted to look.  She designed her stage wardrobe even though she could not sew.  She hired a professional dressmaker to bring her designs to life.

Harpo Marx and Juli in a dress of her own design.

As the war came to a close, Juli Lynne met and married Philip Charlot.  She gave up performing to be a post-war wife.  In 1947 two seemingly unrelated events came together to start her career in fashion.  First, fashion changed dramatically with the New Look.  WWII fabric restrictions were lifted and hemlines dropped and skirts got full.

About the same time, Philip Charlot lost his job.  Juli Lynne was a young woman who wanted to be in fashion but she had no money for the new styles.  So she decided to make her own skirt for Christmas that year.  Since she could not sew, she got some felt.  It was the only fabric wide enough to cut a full circle skirt without making seams.  Fortunately, her mother owned a factory which used felt, so she had a free source of it.  Juli Lynne added some Christmas motif appliques and the result was so attractive that she made three more which she took to a Beverly Hills boutique.  The store put them on the floor, and they quickly sold.  The store reordered.

Juli Lynne today with a replica of the first poodle skirt

After Christmas the store requested a non-holiday design.  They figured that dogs were popular so it was suggested that Juli Lynne make a dog-themed skirt.  She came up with the idea of three dachshunds: two females and a male.  The first dog was a flirty girl, the seconds one was a girl with her nose stuck in the air, and the third was the male who was trying to get to the flirty girl.  But all the leashes became intertwined so the boy dog could only get to the stuck up girl.

The boutique loved the skirt and then requested a similar one with poodles.   And so the iconic poodle skirt was born.  Within a short time the president of Bullocks Wilshire called Juli Lynne.  He had seen the dog skirts and he wanted her to do skirts for Bullocks.  Not only that, he gave her the windows on Wilshire Boulevard to decorate with her skirts.  She did a series of six designs for the windows.

Before long, Juli Lynne had orders from all over the country – Stanley Marcus at Neiman Marcus in Texas and Andrew Goodman at Bergdorf Goodman were early customers.  By the time Juli Lynne was 24, she had a clothing factory and 50 employees.  She decided it was time to learn to sew and so she started design school.  She was so busy that she didn’t have time for the classes, so she quit, and then hired her sewing teacher.  She learned how to sew on the job from this teacher turned employee.

One thing that made Juli Lynne Charlot skirts special was that, like the first dog skirts, they told a story.  Juli Lynne wanted her clothing to be conversation starters.  She made sure that the stores buying her clothes knew the stories behind the skirts so they could tell them to the customers.

Summer design from 1954

To go with her skirts, Juli Lynne made matching bustiers, stoles, boleros, halter tops and sweaters, and there were hats and handbags decorated to match the clothes (this was the 1950s, remember!)  The factory also did custom work, as it did for Madeleine Haskell, magician’s assistant.  In 1952, Leading Designer Patterns, a mail order pattern company, released one of her designs.

Photo copyright Madeleine Haskell

Although she is best known for her wonderful full skirts, Juli Lynne has had other clothing enterprises in her long life.  Her last design venture started with a trip to Mexico in 1980.  While there Juli Lynne fell in love with the classic Mexican wedding dress.  She decided to do up-dated variations on this dress, bought a manufacturing plant in Mexico City to produce them and began exporting the dresses around the world.  Everything was going well until the Mexico City Earthquake of 1985.  Her factory collapsed, and though she tried getting her dresses made in New York, it was too expensive and so the business was lost.

Today Juli Lynne still lives in Mexico and is working on her memoirs.  Now that’s a book I’ll gladly buy!

All the photos of Juli Lynne are copyright Juli Lynne Charlot

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Filed under Designers, First Person Stories, Vintage Clothing