broadsideblog

The Ladies (and Men) Behind The Labels; A Few Labor Day Kudos

In business, Style on September 7, 2009 at 9:28 am
Lion cubs playing in the Serengeti

Image via Wikipedia

Do you know of Martin & Osa, a national chain of 28 clothing stores, elegant casual wear, a bit like J. Crew, usually found only in malls? I figured the name was made-up, since J. Crew isn’t a real person. Not so.

This fall, the Martin & Osa stores are finally honoring their namesakes, Martin and Osa Johnson, a husband and wife team whose books and films brought the world into the homes of Americans long before television. The stores are now carrying their best-selling book “I Married Adventure”, whose original zebra-patterned cover remains a favorite accessory in shelter magazine layouts. Their museum is in Chanute, Kansas and their website explains:

From 1917-1936, the Johnsons set up camp in some of the most remote areas of the world and provided an unmatched photographic record of the wildernesses of Kenya, the Congo, British North Borneo and the Solomon and New Hebrides Islands. Their equipment was the most advanced motion pictures apparatus of the day, some of it designed by Martin Johnson himself.

It seems a little sad to me that, in a nation often obsessed with designer labels, some of their best and most interesting backstories are lost to history, while multi-million dollar PR machines make sure we know the latest, not-so-great “stars” vying for our dollars. Lane Bryant, once a popular line of clothing for plus-size women, is named — mistakenly — for Lena Bryant, a Lithuanian immigrant whose name was misspelled by a bank official when she went for a loan. Widowed after the birth of her son by her second husband, David Bryant, a jeweler, in 1898 she sold her diamond earrings, bought a sewing machine and started making lingerie in Manhattan for pregnant women. I love her spirit and determination.

Nancy Talbot, who died August 30 at the age of 89, created a successful catalog and chain of red-doored stores selling a quality, Nantucket-y, classic look nonetheless affordable for many women.  At worst boring, at best classic, well-priced and durable, the clothes and accessories have a democratic spirit, bringing a clean, crisp style to a  mass market. There really were Brooks Brothers, the sons of the founder of that store, begun in 1818. As many know, the Lacoste crocodile on that 70-year-old sportswear line, named for a famous French tennis player, Rene Lacoste, honors his nickname, “le crocodile.”

And, in the town just south of where I live are the headquarters of Eileen Fisher, whose comfortable, simple clothing makes up an embarrassingly large part of my wardrobe, from my go-to washed silk LBD to a charcoal wool winter coat I look forward to wearing every year. There’s an inherent modesty to the clothing I like that reflects the ethos of the woman who designs it. I saw her recently, sitting at the table next to me at a restaurant beside her offices. I tried not stare, but it was so odd, and pleasant, to see the real person behind a brand so well-known and, by some, so well-loved.

This long weekend, I’m finishing up a terrific biography of Coco Chanel, a ferociously ambitious orphan whose name is still synonymous with Parisian chic, many decades later. She was clearly not a terribly nice woman, but what a survivor! A new film, Coco Before Chanel, starring Audrey Tautou, opens in theaters this month, focused on her early years in business.

I wear Prada and Gucci, but only their perfumes, and not because of the brand names, but because people I don’t even know very well happily sniff me, asking, “What is that wonderful scent?” If that’s as close as I get to wearing a Big Name Label, OK by me. It’s their stories I find most interesting anyway.

  1. Your story made me think of the few clothing items I have had tailored for myself. They weren’t made by anyone famous but I’ve enjoyed those that remain with me today. The story also made me think of department stores that were a cut above and carried designer clothing. A lot of them have faded from sight but I think every decent sized city had a Macy’s wannabe, some very elegant, that catered to people desiring the best. In the I.E. of SoCal “Harris Brothers” just went under after almost one hundred years in business. When I was a little boy in upstate New York my mother would only settle for Watertown’s “Empsall’s Department Store.” She recently gave my wife a leather purse with a huge chunk of tortoise shell for a clasp. She paid fifty bucks in 1945 – when she got back from serving as a nurse in WWII. Tom Medlicott

  2. Thanks, Tom…I have a coat I had custom-made and enjoy knowing no one else has anything like it. I just loved Lena’s story and I enjoy knowing that when I wear Eileen Fisher it’s a real person not some corporate brand.

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