Genius fashion designers catapulted into fame, fortune, and even debauchery in the 70s and 80s. Their excessive talent changed the fashion world forever. Many of these extreme creatives worked and lived in beautiful, over-the-top settings, revelling in some of the best unabashedly engaged in heavy drinking, excessive drug use, and free-wheeling sex. Studio 54 was a metaphor for the time.
What was it that enabled them to become fashion legends? Sure, they were creative and had great taste, but it took a lot more to change the landscape of the fashion business. Many of their brands are still a significant force today. This behind the scenes story has never been told in its entirety. I was there and the events of 50 years ago without a doubt had the most important impact, by a wide margin, on this huge industry that in turn impacted society as a whole.
The Original Designer Influencers
The 1970s was the first time in fashion history that designers became as important as the clothes they made. Historically, designers who owned their own companies were very rare. Coco Chanel, for example, became a brand just as much her clothes. In the 70s/80s, designers, their personalities, relationships, the way they decorated their homes, how they entertained, what they did for fun, what they drank, what drugs they used, and even their ideas on social issues became interesting to a wide segment of sophisticated followers.
The revolution in the press was led by the vigorous fashion coverage of Women’s Wear Daily and featured, for the first time, titillating, close to tabloid-style coverage of the designers themselves. WWD, as it was called, was an importing driving force behind making designers into big stars. Many of them acquired extreme wealth, and they certainly knew how to live over the top. I remember Valentino saying, “I can do three things, make clothes, decorate a house, and entertain.”
No one lived higher than Valentino. WWD called him, “The Chic.” For many of these designers, their egos kept pace with their newfound fame and wealth, even if they were, at times, out of control. As the editor in chief of WWD, as well as its consumer sister, W Magazine, and then CEO of Fairchild Publications, I was right in the middle of everything for 30 years. I had front-row seats at shows in Rome, Florence, Milan, London, Paris, and New York on a regular basis. I participated in the incredibly free, permissive lifestyle of the era that often reached beyond the parameters of the fashion community.
Defying traditions, these colorful superstars led café society, becoming gurus and trendsetters. Their talent in marketing, through creative advertising and superior public relations, made them household names.
A Perfect Storm
There are those rare periods in history when fate and destiny seem to make everything fall into place. The 1970s and the 1980s were one of those times for the designer fashion world. The perfect storm consisted of a willing consumer base of relatively wealthy customers, coupled with the emergence of fashion-savvy baby boomers and a group of brilliant designers with creative business partners.
A prelude to this two-decade era was the newfound freedoms unleashed in the 1960s. Many American and European youth lived by new values and beliefs, resulting in dramatic cultural changes. It was the beginning of independent thinking that translated into radical fashion expression. The assassinations of President John Kennedy, his brother Robert, and civil rights leader Martin Luther King, as well as the Vietnam War, resulted in a noisy reactionary culture.
The birth control pill liberated women resulting in profound lifestyle changes. It became a symbol of both the sexual revolution and women’s lib. Previously, it was more difficult for women to compete with men as long as they were child bearers first and employees second. The pill levelled the playing field.
What’s more, the space race between the United States and Russia opened up a new dimension of forward-looking visions. The whole world was rocked with a taste of freedom and blurred boundaries. The fashion media called it, “the anything-goes sixties.”
Living to Extremes
It was a confusing time for the world’s established designers in the early 1970s. They had to deal with leftover fashion chaos from the 1960s. A fashion revolution had broken out on the streets of London, resulting in The Mod Look. That, combined with the American Beatnik Look, presented extreme and certainly chaotic fashion statements. Some so-called fashion experts said it made up for what it lacked in good taste and sophistication with an opportunity to do, “Your own thing.”
Another extreme trend, the miniskirt designed by English designer Mary Quant, which caught on all over the world. Shorter and shorter miniskirts were everywhere. Rudi Gernreich, a futuristic designer, gave us the topless bathing suit and the thong. Skinny Twiggy, a British model, became one of the most important fashion influencers of the day. Andre Courreges designed space-age clothes that included not only miniskirts but also topless pants ensembles.
In the midst of all this, a fashion and media war broke out. The fashion bible, WWD and its publisher and CEO of Fairchild Publication, John Fairchild, hammered home—on a daily basis—a new, just-above-the-ankle look, called the midi or longette. He was trying too hard to return some civility to the marketplace. John, whom I was just getting to know as the new editor of WWD, got too emotionally involved in the mini/midi war. In retrospect, I can see it was his way of creating his own role in the fashion revolution.
During The Midi Crisis, anyone who showed a short or mini collection was harshly criticized in WWD. He even chastised his favorite designer, Yves Saint Laurent, when he showed a collection with short skirts. He called him “Homo Miserable,” in WWD. The Midi never really caught on, but caused a lot of upheaval in the fashion industry for a while. When I visited Seventh Avenue, I was attacked by apparel manufacturers because WWD constantly pushed the midi length. One man on an elevator told me the confusion over lengths gave his uncle a heart attack and he died. He blamed WWD for his death.
Behind the Curtain
It was certainly a dramatic period. Here is a quick look at some of the fashion designers who were major players.
- Yves Saint Laurent. He suffered several nervous breakdowns, was a drug addict, and passed out in discos. He is considered by many to be the most talented designer of all time.
- Giorgio Armani. He was a medical student in Milan, with a quiet personality. A late starter, he was 41 when his boyfriend, who became his business partner, gave him the confidence to enter big-time fashion and form his own company. He became the most transformative designer of the era. Giorgio gave the modern woman clothes that were elegant and feminine, but less gender specific.
- Karl Lagerfeld. He was an eccentric’s, eccentric from Northern Germany who dressed like an eighteenth-century gentleman. He revived the House of Chanel. His fortune teller told him to connect with a small, dark-haired woman, and according to Lagerfeld, “Coco fit the bill perfectly.” Lagerfeld invented the business model at Chanel that many of today’s designer brands follow.
- Gianni Versace. He designed clothes that some considered vulgar. He used to say, “I don’t like good taste.” However, when I visited him in his homes in Milan and Lake Como, they were tasteful and sophisticated. He had three personalities: One, the aggressive gaudy designer; two, the elegant gentleman; three, the one who wallowed in the seamier side of life. He was murdered in front of his hedonistic estate in Miami.
- Halston was a Studio 54 star, if not the biggest. He was known for making drug-enhanced entrances with a celebrity entourage after midnight. When I had lunch with him, he often didn’t make sense. He spoke about the billions and billions of dollars he was making. While not in the billion-dollar range, his business did flourish, and his design talent put him at the top of the New York fashion charts.
- Calvin Klein. Calvin designed simple, elegant clothes, designer jeans, and men’s underwear. He was a handsome, superstar fueled by drugs and was a regular on the nightclub scene in New York. He was often at Studio 54, which was partially owned by his good friend, Steve Rubell. His daughter was kidnapped, but he successfully ransomed her. His public gay life, in spite of two marriages to women, only added to his fascinating and complicated persona.
- Ralph Lauren. Born in the Bronx, Lauren is very short, speaks with a lisp, loves to dress up as a cowboy, and built a $7 billion company. He is a visionary, who more than any other designer, interpreted lifestyles to create his fashions, including the New England WASP look and Western fashion styles.
- Donna Karan. A New York City native, Karan listens to her psychic, revels in spiritual practices, and has been known to speak in tongues. Her fashions, while feminine, had a don’t-fool-with-me attitude, providing a new way for professional women to dress.
- Valentino. Called the Chic Queen, he wore more makeup than most women. I met him for lunch one day in Paris, and he arrived with big sunglasses on. He said, “Don’t you think I look like Jackie Onassis?” He had a sophisticated, wealthy clientele who worshiped his clothes.
The third installment of Fashion Madness will appear soon. In the meantime, order your ebook on Amazon.