by STANLEY MARCUS
IN ANY civilized society, not bound by rigid social taboos, there are always a few people who are leaders and who demonstrate their leadership by asserting their desire for self-individualization. Others, not so bold, will respond to this leadership in polities, ethies, or dress. They are the followers who emulate their more courageous brethren.
In earlier days, fashions were often set by court decree. A Cleopatra tiring of Egyptian garb revived the classic Greek gown. A Josephine, pregnant at the time, ordered the ladies of the court to follow the lines of her maternity dresses; hence, the generally unflattering fashion known as the Empire silhouette. In later times, women of great taste, prominence, and wealth could, by their selections, influence the fashion in clothes. (The same process, of course, exists in men’s fashions as well. Even the names of some of the male fashion setters have gone into our lexicon for the art icles of clothing that they favored. Hence, we have t he “ Inverness “ cape, the “ Norfolk” jacket, the “Cardigan” coat, the “Raglan ” sleeve.)
Clothes were custom-made and consequently very expensive until the turn of the century when the manufactured garment came into existence. The manufactured garment was, of course, influenced in its styling by the trends set by “them” — a handful of prominent women — but throughout the country the manufacturer’s name began to carry with it a certain element of authority. A cloak by “Beller,” a suit by “Hickson,” a gown by “Edward L. Mayer,” became assurance to women that they were “in fashion.”
Now women all over America could get fine, beautiful clothes at home instead of having to travel to the custom-made houses in Paris or New York. The further democratization of fashion came when rayon became the common material for women’s dresses in the late twenties and brought about the development of inexpensive daytime dresses in good fashion. Mass fashion publications educated women over the land in the parlance of fashion and the barometry of the hem line.
Coincidentally, the two wars exacted a toll from those whose great wealth permitted them to be the experimenters and the dictators in fashion. Today we have no dictators in fashion who can sway the mode in one direction or another. No single fashion magazine is the arbiter of taste or of fashion. Some report fashion extremely well, but for the most part they are either glorified mail-order catalogues or trade journals sold to the public so that manufacturers and retailers can impress each other by their advert isements.
As a result of mass production, mass publications, and mass distribution, the general level of fashion in America is pretty high — certainly the highest in the world. As fashion became democratized, the education of public taste did not keep pace with the production and distribution of merchandise in good fashion. Good taste implies a knowledge of appropriateness and an understanding of when and where to wear a garment and what to wear with it. In all strata of American life this understanding is sadly deficient. Most women don’t know, and some know that they don’t know. So when in doubt they wear that little black dress — whether they’re disembarking from the Queen Mary at noon in July or whether they’re attending a morning musicale. Certainly, the black dress has its place, if only it were kept in its place.
One day I was put to the acid test; principle versus expediency. One of our salespersons was waiting on a man and his sixteen-year-old daughter for a fur coat. I was asked to come into the fitting room to pass on a mink coat that the father had just about decided to buy. In those days a mink coat sold for two thousand dollars and the salesperson was elated over her prospective sale. I discovered, as I checked the fit of the coat, that the daughter was going to a fashionable school in the East for her first year. It seemed inappropriate for a sixteen-year-old girl to go away to school with a mink coat, and I could foresee the social ostracism she would face when her new associates first saw her in her mink coat. I tried to switch her interest to a muskrat or to a beaver coat, either of which would have been more appropriate. The salesperson shot black looks in my direction, the child pouted, and the father got mad. i explained my position to him, whereupon he arose and walked out with his tearful daughter. For the sake of good taste, I had lost a two-thousand-dollar sale.
The next day, however, I was called to the fur department. The father was back, and very contrite. He apologized for his attitude the previous day and explained that when he told his sister what had happened, she had said, “ Mr. Marcus was right. A sixteen-year-old girl has no business going off to school with a mink coat. Go back and buy the one he tells you to.” So I sold him a muskrat coat for $295 and I made a customer for life. Six years later when the daughter married, I sold him a mink coat.
THE public today is often befuddled by a combination of retail sales-promotion, fashion columnists’ advice, and motion picture fashion precept, but leaders in fashion aren’t dead, for the instinct for self-individualization can never die in a free society. These leaders aren’t the society leaders of yesterday; they aren’t the ten best-dressed women the newspapers select annually. The leaders are anonymous and their voices do not carry the authority of a Mrs. Belmont or a Mrs. Vanderbilt. Today these women of taste who are the leaders of fashion are in the colleges, in offices, in homes, among all classes. They are fighting against mass regimentation by daring to try out a dress cut low or high, a skirt long or short, a hairdress clipped or curled. They make mistakes in fashion judgment, but through their experimentations new trends evolve that develop into mass fashions. They obey no dictates of retailer or designer. They take ideas from both; they supply them with many.
The merchant who is close to his business must watch for these signs of fashion experimentation by his customers. He must fan the spark of selfindividualization, for that is how fashion is born. Certain women or men are what is known in retail parlance as “hard customers.” They are hard because they are not easily satisfied; they know more, they want more. In my personal experience as a retailer, I have learned more from such customers than I have from the so-called “easy ones.”
I have spent hours trying to help a customer find a dress for $50, because I was learning from her what she expected in color, fabrie, and silhouette. Her purse was limited, her taste was superb. She would make no compromise between what she wanted and what she could afford to pay. Either she found her dress or I would order one for her to satisfy her exacting taste. One such woman gave us the cue for an entirely new shade of yellow, simply because she had a feeling for a buff-yellow that she had seen in a painting. The shade was not commercially available, so we had a whole piece of fabric dyed in order to deliver a dress to her for $39.50. The following year this particular color became a popular success.
At the end of the fur season, I “invest” a great deal of time with women who are buying fur coats. From the reactions of some women 1 am able 1o sense the trends that our next season’s fur collection should take - the size of collars, the shape of shoulders, lengths, and types of sleeves. Often these reactions are completely involuntary, for the customer may not know exactly what she’s looking for. It is important, however, to recognize that she is looking for something that does not exist at the moment.
An alert retailer learns to evaluate his patrons and to know which ones he must watch. We, in our store, believe that if we can satisfy our most discriminating customers, we shall have little difficulty in pleasing those who are less demanding.
I was expounding this credo one day to a manufacturer with whom we had been unable to do a large business. He had been content to make an average product and had never demonstrated any desire to lift himself above the level of mediocrity in the fashion business. Suddenly, as if a vision had passed before him, he exclaimed, “Why, if that works for you, why shouldn’t it do the same for me?” I told him it would if he wanted to work at it hard enough for a long enough period of time. From then on, he never said no to a single demand we made on him. If we criticized a model, he made as many corrections as we thought necessary; if we didn’t like his colors, he dyed new ones; if we didn’t care for his fabrics, he procured those we wanted. Slowly the character of his business changed. Our volume with him grew from a few thousand dollars a year to several hundred thousand. Other good stores throughout the nation became aware of him and clamored for his product.
Not long ago we were recounting the original conversation that had revolutionized his business life. “You know,” he said, “if I had to lose money on the goods I sell you, it would be worth it, because I know that if I can please you, I can satisfy any store in America.” By creating a set of standards for him, we made him a better manufacturer, we developed a better resource for ourselves, and our buying public profited by getting a better product.
In the nineteenth century most articles of apparel were made to order by custom makers for 1 hose who could afford them, or made at home for those of limited means. The twentieth century has witnessed the development of mass manufacturing of every article of clothing at prices to fit virtually every pocketbook. Some of the articles thus made and offered to the public are well designed and in good taste, others are poorly designed and in bad taste.
The consumer faces a dual challenge. First, there is the selection of those things in good taste as opposed to those in bad taste; second, there is the problem of combining the various articles of the wardrobe to reflect good taste in the ensemble. I have observed that most people have less difficulty in selecting the good from ihe bad than they do in getting the right things together. To help our patrons at 1 his point, we assemble the costume with all its accessories in one of our private selling rooms. Our sales staff is trained to suggest tactfully a change in color or detail, and recommend conscientiously the correct thing without regard to any mercenary interest of a larger sale. Mrs. Neiman, my brothers, or I may be called in to pass final judgment. We have no hesitancy in “ killing” a sale if we feel that the customer is buying the wrong dress or fur or hat.
Sometimes, of course, the customer doesn’t take our counsel. Once a patron sent for me to advise her whether I thought a blue coat was more becoming than a red one. I expressed my preference for the blue one in no uncertain terms, whereupon she promptly bought the red one. While the blue coat unquestionably suited her coloring better, the red one filled some psychological yearning that I had missed. And in the fashion business, it’s as necessary to fit the mind as it is the body.
THE taste of the general public isn’t as good as that of the sophisticated minority, but it isn’t as bad as most manufacturers and retailers believe it to be. The public will buy bad taste in merchandise if it has no choice, hut it will usually respond to any product in good taste if that product is presented at the right time with authority. Public taste can be led astray by bad example; it can be elevated by consistent education and by the presence of a recognized set of standards.
We bring to our market the finest in design and quality from all parts of ihe world. We amplify these selections with fashion developments of our own, many of which have had an educational benefit as well as fashion success. Several years ago I was visited by two women from Oklahoma who had studied the dress of the American Indian and felt that here was an unexplored field for fashion inspiration. I was greatly impressed by their research and agreed to try to translate their source material into wearable modern-day dress. We suggested the idea to several of our leading designers, who created a wonderful collection of clothes and accessories.
Vogue devoted editorial pages to this story of Americana in fashion. Our displays and advertising showed both original costumes and modern derivations, thus opening new vistas of knowledge to a large group of people who might never have had the slightest conception that the American Indian was influenced in his costumes by the dress of his Spanish, French, and English conquerors.
So vast is the field of Indian inspiration that it could not be exhausted at one time. A few years later we took ihe colors and the designs of the sand paintings made by the Navajo Indians of New Mexico. We designed dresses embodying the corn motif, ever present in Navajo mythology; we made printed fabrics inspired by v arious phases of sandpainting design. In our windows the clothes were shown against actual sand paintings reproduced in reduced scale. Not only were the clothes successfully received, but thousands of people who had never been to the Hogan in Santa Fe became acquainted with the lore of the Navajos.
Two years ago a brochure passed across my desk announcing that a special set of reproductions of the paintings of Paul Gauguin would be issued in 1048 to commemorate the centenary of his birth. Thereupon, we decided to prepare a collection of clothes made in colors taken directly from Gauguin paintings. These colors were dyed for us in wool, silk, and leather. To implement this presentation we gathered from collectors all over the country a group of twenty paintings by Gauguin, many of which had never been lent by the owners previously. These were shown in a special gallery, and reproductions of other paintings from which the colors had been taken were displayed in our show windows. Throngs of people came to see the exhibition, and school groups were brought in a body to see how art inspired industry. School officials later told us that the Gauguin presentation had created a greater interest in art in the schools than any other single event in their memory.
The five-hundredth anniversary of the invention of printing by Gutenberg led to the development of a scries of black and white prints, accompanied by an exhibition of pages from the Gutenberg Bible. The revival of the Dutch tulip industry after the war brought forth a collection of clothes inspired by the colors of five thousand blooming tulips which we had flown from Holland. This constant search for new ideas, for cultural inspiration, not only helps the sale of merchandise but it enriches the community we serve. And, besides, it’s a lot of fun.
Of course, not all of these creative fashion brainstorms are successful. We have our percentage of flops just as they do in the theater. Some of our mistakes are in judgment when we pick a bad color or a difficult silhouette. We err at times by being reactionary about an incoming fashion. Last year I misjudged the acceptance of the cinched-in waistline. I refused to believe that women would wear that device of torture known as a “minimizer,” and I discouraged our buyer from purchasing them. I soon found out that I was wrong, so I had to send her back to market to recoup my misjudgment. But most of our mistakes occur in timing, when we introduce a fashion before the public is ready. 1 gain no solace from being too far in advance of the times, for the real arl in retailing, as in politics, lies in keeping in time v. ith changing public sentiment.
If any fashion trend were plotted on a graph like the index of building construction or steel capacity, a similar curve would result. From a low point the curve would ascend as the momentum of t he fashion grew, it would reach a peak, and would finally level off or fall abruptly. The greatest problem in fashion forecasting is to know when a given trend is in its ascendancy, when it reaches its peak, and when it is beginning to decline. We must watch a new fashion trend from its infancy, nurse it through its adolescence, play it strongly through its early maturity, and be wise enough to know when it enters its stage of senility.
A fashion is usually unprofitable in its primary period because not enough people want it. It becomes profitable at adolescence and reaches its full profit state of maturity when large numbers of people are clamoring for it. The length of this stage is the most difficult and the most important to forecast, for a wrong guess either way can result in substantial losses. If the fashion is played past its peak, surplus stocks accumulate which must be sold at great sacrifice. If the fashion is underplayed, customers go to a competing store having stock ot the wanted article.
I’ve had my share of successes and failures in forecasting the birth and deal h of fashions. Some of my prognostications were stillborn, and some outlived my prophecies by years. Gabardine entered the fashion picture about ten years ago, and by all the rules of fashion prophecy it should have died of old age. I thought it had reached its apex five years ago and so notified our buyers. Fortunately, our buyers did not follow my advice completely, for the demand continued. The following year I was certain the fashion was over. The demand still cont inued. This particular fashion has violated all the rules upon which we normally rely, so now I’m ready to consult a clairvoyant for guidance.
Some years ago we developed a fur garment known in the trade as a “sling cape.”We first made it in sable, then in chinchilla and mink. It was very popular, for it was generally becoming to women of all sizes and types. Demand forced us to copy it in less costly furs, so we began to reduce our stocks of the cape in the more expensive pelts. We were wrong, for the calls for this unique garment in mink continued unabated. Every season we start off by saying, “Well, we’d better go easy on the sling cape, for it can’t go on.” But it does go on, and we’re now convinced that it will go on until another garment is invented that will do more for the wearer than the sling cape. So far that replacement is not on the fashion horizon.
I misjudged the life span of the fleece coat, the color “Shocking,” and the open-toed shoe. All of this adds up to the fact that the fashion business is not a science, and that it is as difficult for us to score 100 per cent in fashion prediction as it is for the economists to forecast a bull market. The margin of success in both cases lies in being right much more often than being wrong. And you can’t be right unless you arc willing lo take a chance.
ON September 6, 1930, one of the great oil fields of the world “blew in ” in East Texas, transforming, by literal black magic, people of less than moderate means into millionaires overnight. Many of these millionaires had never had the money to buy fine clothes for themselves or their families — to provide comfortable, gracious decor in their homes. But because there was a recognizable authority in the form of a store a hundred miles away, they were able to avoid many of the pitfalls of the “new rich.” A few spent their money blatantly and in poor taste, but the majority displayed discernment and good judgment. They were willing to be guided because they recognized an authority upon which they could depend. Their tastes began to be molded and shaped by the clothes they wore and the furniture and decor selected for their homes, and in a relatively brief period it was difficult to distinguish them from any “old" money group in America.
We see this metamorphosis daily not only with our customers but with members of our staff as well. We employ a great many girls between the ages of seventeen and nineteen, who come to us from small neighboring towns, some of them directly from the farms. The first few days they may walk awkwardly, their clothes may he assembled with uncertainty, bul within a few weeks they begin to observe how the “older” members of the staff walk and dress. They imitate the way the mannequins fix their hair, they twist a string of simulated pearls around a neckerchief, t hey tone down their make-up. In three months it’s difficult to detect any signs of the farm, and in six months some of them are mannequins. Again, it is simply a case of exposure to environment.
Of course, there are some people whose taste will never improve however 1 hey are exposed. Some are born without a sensibility for beauty and proportion, just as some are born color-blind and without an car for music. Then too, early environment may have been so tremendously influential that no subsequent changes in surroundings can overcome early taste formations. There is a great unexplored field in education, from primary levels upwards, in the development of the sense of discrimination. Most schools are ugly, most schoolteachers are uncertain of their own tastes.
Last year the Teachers Art League of the Dallas public schools recognized this deficiency and asked us to conduct a special educational fashion show for its membership, to dramatize taste in dress. In t his show we pointed out some of t he common errors in coordinating a costume, in mixing colors, in appropriateness. Since teaching is an underpaid profession, many members of the teaching profession excuse mediocrity of appearance on the grounds of inadequate income. There is no question that they are underpaid, but we proved it is possible, even on a teacher’s salary, to look attractive. Courses in taste will come naturally when teachers’ taste reaches a higher level.
Recently I met a very distinguished woman from France. She had been in America during the German occupation and she related her impressions of France upon her return after the liberation. We eventually came to the subject of the French couture and how it fared during the war. She told me that when she saw her first French couture collection in 1946 she was appalled. All the fine discrimination of pre-war days had disappeared. She called for the head of the firm and asked what had happened. He replied, “Madame, we have not lost our designers or our workers, but we have lost our critics. During the war our most discriminating customers were out of Paris. Our patrons were the Germans and the black-marketeers. They were willing to buy anything, and without our critical customers our standards have suffered.”
The retailer in America who felt a responsibility to maintain his standards of quality and taste during the war had a different problem. He didn’t lose his “critics,” but he was overwhelmed by demand caused by shortages and increased income. Anything he bought would sell. Some stores succumbed to the lure of the dollar, but throughout the country were notable examples of retailers who preferred to limit their business to merchandise of their customary taste and quality level as well as they could under wartime restrictions.
To maintain a standard of taste in any field is difficult. It is even more difficult in a retail establishment which is dealing with large and diverse groups of people. A couturier restricts his clientele to those who like his particular type of designing. He may even limit entree to his establishment to those whose social background he approves. A retail establishment is open to anyone who wants to enter the portals. Its buying is not done by a single person but by a staff of buyers whose tastes vary. Its selling is done by an even larger staff. The management, in the form of one or several persons, must undertake to establish a standard of taste by which ii is content to be judged. It requires courage and a certain amount of presumptuousness to be willing to say, “This is good, that is bad.” Such a decision implies a readiness to let some portion of business potential go elsewhere, for not all customers will be satisfied with what the retailer believes to be good.
In the fashion business it is necessary to maintain an eclectic attitude, for taste changes with the times. What might have been considered bad taste in one era becomes good taste in another. A buyer must always be careful to prevent his personal likes from warping his judgment of objective good taste. When Countess Mara came from Europe to this country she visited me to show her new ideas for men’s ties. I have always had a personal predilection for small-patterned ties, so I wasn’t enthusiastic about her bold patterns. Furthermore, I was adamant in my belief that men would never be willing to wear a tie with a crest advertising the maker on the front of the tie. The fact that the crest was that of a woman made it even more unacceptable.
I expressed myself in no uncertain terms to the Countess who, undaunted by my criticism, proceeded to design her ties according to her original plans. To my astonishment men of good taste swung from small patterns to the larger patterns and expressed no resistance to the Countess’s crest. In fact, they liked it. When I realized how badly I had misjudged the changing taste of the masculine world 1 had to go to the Countess in great repentance and confess my error. She very indulgently forgave me and sold us the ties which I had erroneously predicted would be a complete failure.
Despite the fact that a store may have from ten to a hundred buyers, a homogeneity of taste can be achieved if the management knows what it wants and determines to enforce its concepts. In our own store we have frequently withdrawn from sale merchandise which we believed our buyers had erred in buying. We have lost thousands of dollars in business on a certain type of handbag, simply because we were unwilling to sell a bag that did not represent our taste. We rejected an offer of a manufacturer of costume jewelry who was willing to put a stock in on consignment and guarantee us a profit of $25,000 without risk on our part. We would have made money, but would have felt a sense of shame every time we saw one of our customers wearing one of the overornamented bracelets or pins. We don’t think of ourselves as retail heroes for passing up the profit. We think it good business to lose one dollar to make three. We know our business is greater because our customers have confidence in us, and we know that no sale is a good one that doesn’t satisfy our “critics.”
It has been interesting to see how an institution can affect the tastes of a whole community, including those it doesn’t serve directly. Some of our fellow retailers emulate us, just as some of our customers emulate the fashion pace-setters. Stores are just a group of people in corporate form responding to that dynamic force — self-individualization.