Talented Fashion Mavericks

May 27, 2015


Those who take an idea and risk everything to make it work are often fascinating individuals. In this blog, I’d like to take a look at five companies that began with modest resources and ultimately found great success.

BANANA REPUBLIC was co-founded by Mel and Patricia Ziegler in 1978. A number of years ago, I interviewed Ziegler in San Francisco via phone from New York and found him to be charming and personable.

Catalog – Banana Republic

He said, “We began with the idea of taking military surplus and selling it as safari clothing. We had almost no money and we knew nothing about direct marketing.” When I asked Ziegler who wrote his “adventure journal” catalogs, he replied, “I did. I’m a copywriter and my wife is an artist. It’s great to create a company with your spouse.”

CALVIN KLEIN After graduating from the Fashion Institute of Technology in 1962, Klein went to work in the garment district as a $75-per-week apprentice and, to make extra cash, helped out at his father’s grocery store. Four years later, with $2,000 of his own money and $10,000 from his friend, Barry Schwartz, he founded his company.

His big break came when a buyer from Bonwit Teller got off the elevator on the wrong floor and wandered into Klein’s workroom. This resulted in a $50,000 order. The ensuing publicity in Vogue put him on the map.

DIANE VON FURSTENBERG Like Mel Ziegler, I also interviewed Von Furstenberg a number of years ago in her palatial Park Avenue co-op. In my prep research, every write-up I came across stressed her jet set lifestyle and her marriage to a prince. But, what struck me most of all, when I met her, was how smart she was.

“No one was making a little bourgeois dress, so I did,” she says. She took her jersey dresses in a suitcase and presented her idea to Diana Vreeland, the editor of Vogue who declared the slinky dresses “absolutely smashing”. This laid the groundwork for the official launch of the iconic wrap dress in 1974.

KATE SPADE, a fashion editor, started her company with her husband, Andy by designing a square bag. “I quit my job in 1992,” Spade says, “I sat down with some tracing paper and knew immediately what the shape should be – a very simple square. At that time no one was doing anything that clean.”

She made a model of the bag out of tape and construction paper and then looked in the back of Women’s Wear Daily for a handbag pattern maker. Then she went to the Yellow Pages for a company that made potato sacks. She bought burlap from them and created bags out of it. “At our first trade show we came out with an order from Barneys,” she says.

RALPH LAUREN grew up in the fifties in a tough neighborhood in the Bronx where he developed a fondness for the Anglo-influenced preppy look of Brooks Brothers.

In 1964 he went to work as a tie salesman. “I had no credentials, but I decided to design some ties for myself anyway,” he says. “So I asked the company if I could and they said, “The world’s not ready for you, Ralph.” Lauren left and found a manufacturer who produced 3 1/2-inch ties that he named “Polo”. In 1967 the ties took off and he began creating men’s shirts and suits. Four years later he was named America’s best menswear designer.

- Shaun Nelson-Henrick

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