“In Search of Authenticity”

Marlon Brando wearing the Schott Perfecto jacket in the movie The Wild One
Photo: schottnyc.com

In anxiety-provoking times such as these, it’s natural to feel threatened and mortal. There’s something reassuring about fashion items that are honest, enduring, and have provenance. There’s a reason why timeless basics are appealing. With so much choice out there, the customer is gravitating to authenticity. Being the trusted original is an advantage in a crowded market place.

What makes a fashion item authentic? It is its enduring value. It continually meets a need and cannot be improved upon. The theme of Friday’s “Vogue Global Conversations” was “The Future of Brick and Mortar.” Tory Burch CEO Pierre – Yves Roussel, observed that timeless iconic products would be even stronger in times of crisis.

I wanted to highlight some of these enduring products and the iconic brands that have cemented their place in pop culture and inspired fashion designers for decades. In many cases, they are well over 100 years old and still going strong. It is proof that making something newer, more complicated, and more expensive doesn’t necessarily make it better. But that hasn’t stopped fashion designers from trying. The ones who are most successful will stay as close to the original as possible and focus on tweaking the cut, fit, and fabrication rather than striving to make it “fancier.”

Marlon Brando and The Wild One biker gang wearing the iconic Schott NYC Perfecto jacket
Photo: Schottnyc.com

Any discussion of the iconic leather motorcycle jacket must begin in 1913 with the founding of Schott NYC by second-generation Russian immigrants Irving and Jack Schott. In 1928, the Schott Perfecto—named after Irving’s preferred type of cigar—was first introduced. It was immortalized in 1953 with the premiere of The Wild One, featuring a brutish, effortlessly cool Marlon Brando as Johnny Strabler.

The jacket’s popularity continued throughout the ’50s, and in 1960, 24-year-old Yves Saint Laurent unveiled his “Beat” collection for Christian Dior, inspired by the existentialists of Paris’s bohemian Left Bank. It was almost all black and featured a black leather jacket embossed with a crocodile pattern and lined in mink. It marked the first time a fashion designer was openly inspired by youth culture. To this day, the Saint Laurent label makes what is perhaps the fashion world’s most covetable example of the black leather motorcycle jacket.

Tuskegee Airman wearing Schott’s A-1 style flight jacket

At the start of WW2, Irving Schott was commissioned by the U.S. Air Force to produce a “bomber jacket” that would keep aviators warm while flying at high altitudes in unheated cockpits. The styles made to meet military specifications such as the A-2 leather bomber for the Army Air Corps and the G-1 leather flight jackets for the Navy Pilots. Priced from around $150 – $1200, they are offered for men and women and continue to inspire fashion designers around the world.

The original Schott NYC pea coat
Photo: artofmanliness.com

The British Royal Navy first introduced the pea coat in the 18th century, although its origins date back to the 16th-century sailors from the Netherlands. The pea coat’s distinctive features — wool fabric, short length, slash pockets, double-breasted cut, big round buttons, tall collar, and large lapels — were initially developed to meet the needs of sea-faring mariners. Schott NYC’s classic Melton wool naval pea coat enabled service members on deck during WW11 to keep out the cold. And they still do, priced between $250 – $350.

A Burberry trenchcoat advertisement circa WW1 era

The trench is an outerwear icon. This gender-less wardrobe workhorse evolved from war staple to fashion staple beginning in the late 1800s, and it is one of the most enduring articles of clothing. The trench is the undisputed cornerstone of the 21st-century wardrobe.

Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca
Photo: thefilmstage.com

The first time a trench coat appeared as a fashion item was when Humphrey Bogart wore it in his role as Rick Blaine in the 1942 movie Casablanca. Audrey Hepburn officially put the trench on the map with Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) Charade (1963), and Two for the Road (1967).

While Aquascutum and Burberry both claim the creation of the first trench coat, the Burberry trench remains the standard-bearer and the most iconic, The company, which produced outdoor attire, was founded in 1856 by Thomas Burberry. It was not until 1879 that Burberry presented his trademark water-resistant yet breathable gabardine fabric. There are dizzying iterations available and at every price range, but the original tan versions by Burberry are still the best.

Frye Harness Boots
Photo: stylecourt.blogspot.ca

John A. Frye originated the Frye Company in Marlboro, Massachusetts, www.thefryecompany.com. Founded in 1863, it is the U.S.’s oldest continuously operating footwear company. Long before “artisanal” became a catchphrase, this company traditionally emphasize on craft and artisanal quality. During the 1960s, Frye made custom boots for Jackie Kennedy, Bing Crosby, Jerry Lewis, Barbara Streisand, Liza Minelli, and President Richard Nixon.

Frye first produced boots for plowmen. During the late 19th century, pioneers trekking toward the western American wilderness wore Frye, and later WWII soldiers’ feet were protected by the boots. Frye’s icons made in the USA include the Harness boot, which was inspired by Union cavalry in the Civil War. They are priced in the $200- $350 range and available worldwide. Other popular styles are the Engineer, Campus, Riding, and Western boots.

Clarks Desert Boots

Clarks Originals is an iconic English brand founded in 1821. It has become a household name with a global cult following across many cultures. The label is associated with moderately priced products that have simple, minimalist constructions, high-quality leathers, crepe soles, and are known to be incredibly comfortable. Clarks has not only gained and preserved high esteem within the footwear industry; they’ve cemented themselves into popular culture.

One of the most iconic pieces of footwear in pop culture is the versatile Clarks Originals Desert Boot designed for British soldiers serving in North Africa. Paul Weller and Steve McQueen were among its devoted high profile fans. This unisex ankle boot is readily available all over the world, and at around $120, it is moderately priced. Karl Lagerfeld, who found a way to put the CC logo on everything, created his version of the humble desert boot for Chanel. It did not make it look better.

Clarks Wallabees Ad

Like the Desert Boot, the Wallabee, born in 1967, has gained a cult following within many subcultures, particularly in hip-hop. Its construction is based on an old German moccasin called the ‘Grasshopper.’ The distinctive Clarks sole makes for an eye-catching and instantly recognizable silhouette. It attracted Nicholas Guesquiere enough to inspire him to design his iterations for the Louis Vuitton Fall 2019 ready to wear collection.

Photo circa 1936 by Bettmann/CORBIS

The Converse Rubber Corporation, founded in 1908, initially made galoshes and other work-related rubber shoes, The Converse All Star sneakers were first released in 1917, and basketball star Charles “Chuck” Taylor became a Converse shoe salesman in 1921.

Converse Chuck Taylor All-Star High-Tops

Within a year, he inspired a restyling of the brand’s basketball shoe, which led to the nickname “Chuck Taylors.” Converse also added Taylor’s signature and the all-star patch to the side of the shoe as a reference to the athlete who inspired them. Chuck Taylors were the official shoe of the Olympic Games from 1936 to 1968. Designers have been updating these iconic sneakers through the years, but you cannot do better than the originals, which will only set you back $55.

Levi Jeans circa 1930’s
Photo: Levi.com

Almost nothing is as authentically American as blue jeans. Levi Strauss is the oldest jeans company in the world. It was founded in 1853 by a German Jewish immigrant who’s civic and philanthropic contributions were fundamental to San Francisco’s municipal development. Levi is one of the first brands everyone looks to when they think about jeans because they were the first brand to invent jeans. Their 5 pockets 501 jean were made for gold miners and laborers in the late 1800s and has today evolved into an affordable wardrobe staple for the entire world.

Women wearing Levi’s in the 1930’s
Photo: fashionista.com

In 1934, the first jeans called the Lady Levi’s appeared, made of pre-shrunk denim, and constructed with many of the same features of the men’s 501 jeans. However, they owed their feminine allure to a fashionably high, nipped-in waist.

Coincidentally, an exhibition showcasing the life of Levi Strauss and the worldwide phenomenon of the now-iconic blue jean, Levi Strauss: A History of American Style, opened at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum in February and it runs through August 9, 2020. There are over 150 items from the Levi Strauss & Co. archives featured, including garments, advertisements, photographs, and ephemera. The museum is open for virtual tours.

By the way, in 2015, Alicia Keyes was named a brand ambassador for Levi’s. She said at the time her motto was, “If it ain’t tight, it ain’t right.” The one thing I would probably refrain from ordering online is jeans. Unless you have a ridiculously fast metabolism or are incredibly disciplined, you will most likely have gone up a size or two by the time you are ready to wear them out.

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Marilyn Kirschner

I am a long time fashion editor with 40+ years of experience. As senior market of Harper's Bazaar for 21 years I met and worked with every major fashion designer in the world and covered all of the collections in Paris, London, Milan and New York. I was responsible for overall content, finding and pulling in the best clothes out there, and for formulating ideas and stories.

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