It was high noon, high season and hurly-burly last week on that nondescript stretch of Manhattan’s Seventh Avenue that is the fount of American fashion. In scores of clangorous workrooms, dressmakers tacked and stitched round the clock filling orders for spring and summer lines. Designers and assistants were feverishly sketching the fall collections that will go on show in May. On the street, whose signs proclaim it FASHION AVENUE, traffic was all but paralyzed by porters pushing wheeled racks of garments from shop to shipper. The end product of all this activity festooned stores large and small across the country, as window displays and clothes departments bloomed with the bright fresh crop of U.S. fashions.
Shoppers lingered longingly over jumpsuits in gung-ho cuts and colors, carefully fingered exotic fabrics. At Bloomingdale’s in Manhattan, swimsuits and playclothes were selling as if August were around the corner. At I. Magnin in San Francisco, suavely tailored pants outfits and evening pajamas vied for attention. Many of the designs, such as Calvin Klein’s apron dress and Oscar de la Renta’s rhumba number (see color pages), are deftly droll. There were raincoats that managed to be practical and chic as well, T shirts that could be worn to the opera, sportsuits that could enhance a dinner table as easily as the driving range.
The clothes, like those casual, comfortable, contemporary Americans they are made for, will not only be bought and worn at home but will be noted and copied in Rio and in Rome, on the Ginza and the Avenue George V. After more than a century of obeisance to Europe’s high priests of couture, American designers have won worldwide respect as creative interpreters of a way of life—and style. It is a rebellion and an achievement that has been building since World War II. But it has, in the eclectic fashion world of 1976, undeniably come of age and attained a new level of élan and confidence. “I think for the first time that the attitude that the American woman has about dressing is the concept most admired and emulated in the world,” says Grace Mirabella, Vogue’s editor in chief. “It is because she is on to something—a certain way and kind of dressing, a demand for ease and a kind of good looks, a simplicity of looks.”
Certainly American fashion today is much more than pretty clothes. Says Geraldine Stutz, president of ultra-chic Henri Bendel in Manhattan and one of retailing’s shrewdest oracles: “Fashion is a much broader concept now. It’s not just from the chin to the ankles. Fashion now means health, good looks, being in shape, good skin, beauty care. It means wine, furniture, needlecraft, growing things. Fashion today means the environment as well as clothes.”
The distinctively American style has emerged only in the past few years. Its spirit is free and frisky, its emphasis on casual comfort. Rejecting the rigid formalism of European haute couture, American designers rediscovered the body. They started making versatile, flexible attire that can carry a woman through the day and past the evening. The ready-to-wear lines are virtually ageless and classless, and are within the reach of most women. A trendy suit from a top designer can cost less than $200; T shirts, from $10 to $20; an eye-catching swimsuit goes for $25 to $60. Women can pay far more, of course. But the quality and durable panache of today’s off-the-peg clothes make them a sound investment at almost any price.
Fashion Doyenne Diana Vreeland, who reigned at Harper’s Bazaar and then Vogue for more than three decades and has always favored European designers, concedes that the men and women on Seventh Avenue today “have a great fastidiousness, simplicity, and everyday elegance that is wonderful and very American. For the first time, American designers’ ready-to-wear clothes are a perfect turnout.” The winning look is based on the almost all-encompassing range of clothes that are misleadingly labeled “sportswear.” In fact, the designation covers about 80% of the clothes women wear.
“These clothes work for people as uniforms do for certain sports,” Designer Geoffrey Beene maintains, adding wryly: “To survive today is a sport of sorts.” Beene has the impression that people the world over are working harder than ever before. Says he:
“Clothes today must fit into this supersonic pace of living. It’s an economic reality. The indulgence is over.” American chic is the country cousin who came to the city, the drop-in guest who stayed for a candlelight dinner. It has drifted in from the gold mines and cattle ranges of the Old West, from the wharves, barracks and boiler rooms of today, carrying a look as cleanly functional as sled or scythe. It is fluid, soft, supple, slithery, sexy and unstuffy. Says Consuelo Crespi, editor of Italian Vogue:
“It’s the effortless look, the throwaway chic that the Americans do so well. They can give a dinner party for eight, be up early next morning on the tennis court, and still look fresh the next day.” The great and relatively recent accomplishment of American fashion has been to take dictatorship away from the designer.
Acquiring separate items that can be mixed and matched, dressed down or up, the American woman can create her own look for all hours and occasions (see box). American women will no longer accept the abrupt style changes that characterized fashion until the great midi debacle of 1970.
Appealing as they are, ready-made clothes from the U.S. have yet to offer a serious challenge to the great European collections. Marc Bohan, 49, who for 15 years has kept the Paris house of Dior in the forefront of world fashion, has high praise for what he calls the Americans’ “relaxed, sportive way of putting clothes together.” However, like other Continental designers, he maintains that most innovations still come from Europe. Says he: “American designers work on ideas rather than invent them.”
That, of course, is an overstatement, as is the insistence by European designers that they are not influenced by their American counterparts. Incontrovertibly, the dynamics of American life and the clothes that reflect it have profoundly affected the way people dress around the world. Says Carrie Donovan, senior fashion editor of Harper’s Bazaar. “You really saw it last fall in the Paris ready-to-wear collections. They took wonderful stuff from the Army-Navy store, Bermuda shorts, parkas—it was the American way of dressing done with their particular style.”
Because of high Common Market tariffs and a curious lack of support from everyone in Washington, D.C., except Betty Ford, American manufacturers sell few clothes in Europe. In Japan, by contrast, the American look has taken the country by storm. While Oscar de la Renta showed his new collection at the Hotel Okura last week, Calvin Klein’s Japanese-made line was selling like sushi at Isetan department store, Tokyo’s Bloomingdale’s. Kashiyama, one of Japan’s biggest garment manufacturers, uses a computer system to adapt John Meyer designs to the Japanese figure. Other companies have signed about a hundred contracts with American firms. American-style clothes rang up some $300 million in sales to the Japanese last year.
No single designer speaks for the American look. None of the Americans, for example, as cunningly and consistently divines what women crave as France’s Yves St. Laurent; none shows the innovative brilliance of such younger Parisian stars as Japanese-born Kenzo Takada. Fashion historians will probably look back not on any individual but on American designer-entrepreneurs in general as the School of the ’70s—and a very savvy school at that.
At the head of the class is Halston, born Roy Halston Frowick in Des Moines 43 years ago. The first to take the “less-is-more” approach to designing clothes, Halston revived the once fashionable sweater set and sweater dress by using cashmere, argyle and matte jersey, and four years ago introduced Japanese-made ultrasuede, the most sought-after covering since the fig leaf. While he dresses some of the world’s most fashionable women,* Halston’s soft, tactile approach to sportswear has also won him immense success as a ready-to-wear magnate; his off-the-peg clothes sell for between $25 and $1,000. A three-time winner of the Coty Award (fashion’s Oscar), Halston believes “a designer should analyze the needs of the public and draw for all shapes and sizes. Our age group is anywhere from 18 to 80. It includes a businesswoman and a woman of leisure. It’s a mother, a daughter, Ms. America at large. It is someone tall and skinny and someone not so tall and not so thin. When I sit and do the collection, I think of everybody.” Not for every body, obviously, is his black satin “Savage” swimsuit (see cover), a spectacular $60 loincloth that at least four other designers claim to have brought out before Halston. In 1973, the Norton Simon conglomerate bought the Halston label for about $12 million; Halston Enterprises, which includes more than a dozen franchising businesses, did $90 million retail last year.
Calvin Klein, ten years Halston’s junior, is viewed by some experts as the most perceptive U.S. designer. A supercharged worker (13 hours a day), he graduated from New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology and opened his own house in 1968. His clothes are comfortable and uncluttered. Seemingly influenced early in his career by Yves St. Laurent—though he denies it —three-time Coty Winner Klein has the French master’s pipeline to the female fancy. Describing a typical Klein ensemble of skirt, skinny coat and cowled sweater as “the best basic look in fashion today,” Vogue last September pronounced: “If you were around 100 years from now and wanted a definitive picture of the American look in 1975, you’d study Calvin Klein.” His clothes will earn $40 million at retail this year; his licensing agreements, covering everything from furs to sheets, took in $12 million in 1975. “Some people take their cue from Jackie O,” he remarks, without naming Rival Halston. “I am more interested in the young American woman, and I watch her.” But he does not lack for celebrated clients. Among them: Elizabeth Ashley, Mrs. William Buckley, Faye Dunaway, Alexis Smith, Mica Ertegun and Ethel Kennedy.
Like Klein, Ralph Lauren, né Lifshitz, was born in The Bronx. At 36, in only his fourth year of designing women’s wear, he is perhaps the most purely American of all. For the “thoroughbred, American-looking girl who really takes care of her body,” he creates clothes that are “part of living, earthly, tweedy.” He is a masterful tailor and a lover of fabrics such as Harris tweed and British flannel. His slim, sleek adaptations of English blazers and hacking jackets are, he says, “unfashionable in a way, yet fun and exciting in their function.” His women’s wear brought in $10 million retail last year and Polo, his menswear firm, another $16 million.
His clothes count among their adherents Shirley MacLaine, Barbra Streisand, Sally Quinn, Lola Redford, Diane Keaton and Lauren Hutton (who once said that she wears only jeans and Lauren).
Geoffrey Beene, 49, a three-time Coty winner from Louisiana, studied to be a doctor before deciding he would rather decorate women than diagnose them. An urbane high-fashion designer (up to $3,000 for a turnout), he has developed one of the world’s classiest lower-priced ready-to-wear lines. His Beene Bag collection features loose, lean clothes—notably big shirts and wide pants—that sell for between $12 and $200 and, he claims, are “on the same taste level as my couture.” After delving into the history of apparel since the 14th century, Beene decided that “the most enduring thing, lasting centuries, has been peasants’ clothes.” The keynote, he says, is “simplicity,” adding: “To arrive at simplicity without looking contrived is one of the most difficult things in the world.” In Beene’s bag are such fashionable women as Gloria Vanderbilt Cooper, Mary Wells Lawrence, Jackie Onassis and Olympia de Rothschild. He designed Lynda Bird Johnson Robb’s wedding dress.
Indiana-born Bill Blass, 54, started his own firm nine years ago with a successful menswear collection. “Women,” he recalls, “kept saying to me, ‘I wish you’d do things like that for us.’ ” So he did. His high-fashion clothes, which were launched in 1967 and sell for up to $2,000, and his less expensive Blass-port line ($25 to $350), started two years later, show the same jaunty lines that made his suits a hit with affluent suburban males—sometimes known as his “Scarsdale Mafia.” A supersalesman who, as one editor notes, “could sell the eyelashes off a hog,” Blass sells in Tokyo and Hong Kong and has one of the biggest accessory businesses of any American designer. His 1975 retail sales were $24 million. His fans include Anne Douglas, Nancy Kissinger and Socialites Anne Ford Uzielli, Charlotte Ford Forstmann, Chessy Rayner and Mrs. Joshua Logan.
Oscar de la Renta, 41, was born in Santo Domingo and studied art in Madrid. But his clothes are essentially and seductively Yanqui. Says he: “We Americans understand the concept and the role of the modern woman far better than anyone else. We have a far greater accumulation of know-how than our European counterparts.” He is particularly proud of his overseas popularity; he had retail sales of $2.5 million last year in Japan, Mexico and Canada. “Good fashion is good anywhere in the world,” he believes. “I’m gratified that Mrs. Ford and Mrs. Nelson Rockefeller and Mrs. Kissinger are among buyers of my clothes. But I’d like to see every Japanese woman follow suit.”
Mary McFadden, 38, is the most exotic of American designers. Long Island-bred, educated at Columbia and the Sorbonne, she started making clothes in Africa before hanging out her shingle as a designer in 1973. Working in Eastern silks, Javanese hand-painted batiks, Japanese pongee and Indian tussah, she draws inspiration for prints from modern paintings (Kenneth Noland, Sam Francis), African calligraphy, ancient Persian costumes and Ming porcelains. “Each fabric,” she insists, “should be as good as any painting in the Metropolitan.” McFadden emphasizes soft, flowing dresses. Says she: “I want my woman to float. The cut of my silks has a marvelous movement on the body.” For contrast, she also takes the “tubular” approach, using a woman’s shoulders as an architectural form from which to hang a dress or tunic. Her own best model, McFadden (5 ft. 4 in., 95 lbs.) boasts, “I cut all my clothes on myself.” In just three years, McFadden has staked out her own expensive (to $1,000) corner of the market, appealing to such clients as Diana Vreeland (who says that her other clothes are all European), and Socialites Mrs. William (“Babe”) Paley, Mrs. Pierre Schlumberger, Mrs. Jane Engelhard and Mrs. Rupert Hambro.
Diane von Furstenberg, 29, is a spectacularly successful entrepreneur whose American-accented, Italian-made clothes are marketed around the world. Belgian-born, she started out selling clothes in the U.S. that were made by Italy’s Angelo Ferretti, which still manufactures her entire line, and by year’s end expects to turn out 20,000 garments a week for the U.S. market alone. Her clothes and accessories will gross $60 million in 1976.
Adolfo Sardina, 43, came to the U.S. from his native Cuba in 1956 and opened his own house in 1962 with a $10,000 loan from Bill Blass. The loan was repaid within a year as Adolfo’s well-bred, expensive (up to $775 for Chanel-type hand-knit suits) couture clothes caught on. American style, as he sees it, “is an aura of comfort, elegance and youth. It’s a feeling.” The feeling is shared by such customers as Betsy Bloomingdale, Nancy Reagan, Gloria Vanderbilt Cooper, Mrs. Ray Stark, Babe Paley and Mario Thomas, who helped build Adolfo’s retail sales to $6 million last year.
Manhattan-born Albert Capraro, 32, a onetime assistant to de la Renta, had a Ford in his future. After only six months on his own in January 1975, he was asked to show his collection to the First Lady. Betty Ford was soon joined as a customer by Daughter Susan and Barbara Walters, the current Miss America and three of her predecessors, Polly Bergen and Ambassador to Britain Anne Armstrong. Capraro’s brightly colored, low-priced jumpsuits ($100) and one-piece dresses (from $60) are as close to Middle America as Seventh Avenue can get—and last year Capraro clothes sold $14 million retail.
After his fifth year and one Coty, John Anthony, 38, a New Yorker of Italian descent who worked his way up in the trade, will have retail sales this year of $6 million, and can say: “I don’t want to go above that.” He explains: “I design for a small, strong audience. I’m a drop in the ocean, but my audience is select. She’s a celebrity, a movie star, she’s in society, she’s a President’s wife. She may even be a working girl who doesn’t mind having one or two outfits; not everyone can afford $200 to $300 for a dress. She is a very special lady.” The ladies also have to be slim and fairly tall (“I don’t want to be for Kate Smiths or Gloria Swansons”). Among those who qualify: Polly Bergen, Audrey Meadows, Lois Chiles, Nancy Reagan.
Carol Horn, 39, a Coty winner last year, also covers the world—Japan, Rumania, Guatemala, India—but on a budget. A native New Yorker who had no formal fashion training, she uses offbeat fabrics that “people want to touch,” and makes inexpensive multipurpose clothes such as a crinkled cotton caftan. “My ideal garment,” she says, “is one I can walk around the house in, toss over a bathing suit at the beach, dress up with accessories and wear out at night.” Her Habitat ready-to-wear line did $5 million retail in 1975, its first year, and is expected to grow 50% in 1976. Horn buffs include Goldie Hawn, Dina Merrill, Evonne Goolagong and Isabelle Adjani.
Britta Bauer, 29, German born and educated, was a model with no business experience when she started Cinnamon Wear in 1972. She and her partner Barry Lis, 31, have had a phenomenal success by breaking all the rules. Britta and Barry rarely advertise or hold shows, and carry basically the same clothes season after season. Reasons Bauer: “Often people will see something they like in a store, buy one, and go back for more of the same—only they can’t get it. We like to give women a chance to come back and get what they like.” Britta believes that “clothes should be fun”; and her sporty coats, pants and jackets bear her out. Cinnamon Wearers paid an average $30 a garment for a total of $10 million last year.
It is only in the past decade or so that U.S. designers have become celebrities in their own right. With a few exceptions, like the late Norman Norell and the late Claire McCardell, most designers used to work semianonymously for manufacturers. Today, says June Weir, fashion editor of Women’s Wear Daily, “customers are much more designer-conscious. So when a customer walks into a store, she’s heard of Bill Blass, Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein and is willing to pay a little extra to be able to say she is wearing designer clothes.”
Still, getting to the top and staying there is not, so to speak, for pantywaists. U.S. fashion is a $12 billion cottage industry; in the past two years, more than two dozen major U.S. garment manufacturers have folded. The rag trade is still much as Jerome Weidman pictured it in his 1937 novel I Can Get It for You Wholesale. Conspiracy, espionage and piracy are all part of the game. Even before a top designer comes out with a hot new look, his rivals are apt to be running off Chinese copies that will retail for perhaps half the price of the original.
Nonetheless, Seventh Avenue—part commodity market, part cloud-cuckoo land—is one of few remaining arenas where the bright, the brave—and the lucky—can win fame and fortune. Deservedly so, because of all businessmen and women in the U.S., few return so much to the consumer in pleasure and selfesteem. The point was made last week at a much ballyhooed Salute to U.S. Fashion in Washington’s Kennedy Center. Few of the honored designers were on hand to acknowledge the encomiums, however. Calvin and Oscar and Mary and Adolfo and Halston were all on the road. The real tribute was on the backs of the guests. Almost without exception, they were dressed by Seventh, make that Fashion, Avenue.
* Among them: Marisa Berenson, Carol Charming, Mrs. Gianni Agnelli, Mrs. Vincent Astor, Lauren Bacall, Raquel Welch, Ali MacGraw, Mrs. William Mc-Cormick Blair Jr., Mrs. Charles Revson, Liza Minnelli, Lee Radziwill and her sister Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who, at her first husband’s inauguration, wore a Halston’s pillbox hat—backward. Despite Jackie’s mistake, the hat became a rage and helped make Halston famous.
Garmento Note: Author Credit could not be found