The "Big 4" Male Designers of Late 20th Century American Fashion

Perry Ellis

Perry Ellis

Perry was born in Virginia in 1940. He graduated college with a degree in business administration before enlisting in the coast guard reserve to avoid the draft. Following this, he studied retail in New York and gained a master’s degree. 
He started out in his career as a buyer and merchandiser at a department store in Richmond, Virgina. He also co-founded a shop called A Sunny Day. Later, he joined the sportswear company John Meyer in Manhattan. By the mid 1970s, he was working for the ‘Vera Companies’ when they approached him to design a collection for them. He presented his first womenswear line in 1976 called Portfolio. He was initially known for his versions of the oversized, unconstructed, layered, natural-fibre, mid-1970s 'Big Look' or 'Soft Look' - a look originated by Kenzo. 
He founded his own company in 1978. He layered shoulder pads one on top of the other, which became common in the 80s. His cropped sweaters and pants and dimpled sleeves were also influential at the end of the seventies. 

Perry Ellis 70s sweater
He later developed Perry Ellis menswear and continued to expand. His men's fashions fit into the American preppy category. In the 80s, he was as prominent in US fashion as Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren. 

Perry Ellis menswear
He won the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s ‘designer of the year’ award in 1982. He served as the council’s president from 84 to 86.
His Fall 1984 collection for both men and women was an homage to artist Sonia Delaunay and focused on Ellis's trademark sweaters in Delaunay colours.

Perry Ellis Sonia Delaunay 80s blouse   Perry Ellis 80s sweater


Ellis won eight Coty Awards between 1979 and 1984, the last year that they were given.
Unfortunately, his career was to be cut short.
In 1985, rumours began that Ellis had contracted AIDS when he started to appear thin and frail. By May 1986, he had contracted viral encephalitis, which caused one side of his face to collapse. He had to be supported by two assistants as he bowed at his Fall fashion show that year. This was his final public appearance and he soon after slipped into a coma. He died on May 30th 1986.
CEO of the CFDA Steven Kolb defined Perry Ellis’ legacy with the following words: "In terms of men's fashion, he was the first to bring the idea of dressing up in a casual way to the American man". 
In 1986, the annual Perry Ellis Award—now known as the Swarovski Emerging Talent Award—was created to honour emerging talents in the world of men's and women's fashion designers.
The Perry Ellis brand was purchased by Miami based company Supreme in 1986 and continues to operate to this day as Perry Ellis International. 
Perry was given a bronze plaque on New York’s Fashion Walk of Fame in 2002.

We have two vintage Perry Ellis items available right now. Click the photos below to shop.

Perry Ellis sweater

 

Vintage 1980s Perry Ellis Pink Wool Bolero Style Jacket, B38"  

Calvin Klein

Calvin Klein

Calvin Klein was born in the Bronx, New York in 1942. He studied at FIT and worked as a sketcher with suit manufacturer Dan Millstein after graduating in 1962. He then spent 5 years designing for various companies in New York before launching his own company in 1968 with Barry K. Schwartz, initially called Calvin Klein Limited, focusing on coats. It operated out of the York Hotel and was soon stocked in Bonwit Teller and Saks. He made a million dollars in his first year of business. 
He became the protégé of magazine editor and socialite Baron de Gunzburg, whose influence brought Calvin into the New York elite fashion scene. 
One of his coats appeared on the cover of Vogue in 1969, following which he had his first fashion show in 1970- a roaring success. 

Calvin Klein coat Vogue cover 1969
He took over his old boss Dan Millstein’s space when that company suffered and rubbed it in his former employers face.
He received his first Coty award in 1973 and was voted into its hall of fame in 1975 at the age of 33, the youngest designer to achieve this.
In 1974, he became the first designer to receive outstanding design in men's and women's wear from the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) award show. He went on to receive many more awards from the CFDA over the years. 
Perhaps his most iconic innovation hit the fashion scene in 1976: a slim-fitting pair of jeans, with “Calvin Klein” embroidered on the back pocket. Klein was one of the very first designers to make jeans a high fashion item. He created a designer jeans craze. 

Calvin Klein 70s jeans
In 1980, Richard Avedon photographed and directed a Calvin Klein Jeans campaign that featured a fifteen-year-old Brooke Shields. Some of those advertisements were banned, including an infamous advert where Brooke asks, "Do you want to know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing!"

Calvin Klein Brooke Shields
By 1981, he was making $8 million a year. 
The company became famous for its underwear line in the 80s with the Calvin Klein name repeated throughout the waistband. The momentum kept up into the 90s.
Calvin Klein boxer briefs were made famous by a series of 1992 print ads featuring Mark Wahlberg. They have been called "one of the greatest apparel revolutions of the century." 
Kate Moss was also used (now iconically) in their advertisements in the early 90s at the start of her career. The company received backlash for overly sexualizing young girls in its advertisements. However, they were not deterred and continued to market their line to youth, placing ads on MTV and amping up the sex appeal.

Mark Wahlberg and Kate Moss for Calvin Klein
Klein was named "America's Best Designer" for his minimalist all-American designs in 1993.
In a classic scene from 1995’s Clueless, Alicia Silverstone descends a staircase as Cher in a tight white minimalist Calvin Klein dress, much to the disapproval of her father. 

Cher Horowitz Clueless Calvin Klein white dress
Calvin Klein Inc. was sold to Phillips Van Heusen Corp. in 2002 and Calvin himself continued with the company as an advisor only. 
In 2021, Calvin Klein global sales were estimated at $9.2 billion, continuing a tradition of luxurious simplicity, youthfulness and sensuality.

We have an 80s Calvin Klein skirt and shawl set available in the shop right now. 

Vintage 1980s Calvin Klein Tan/ Yellow Wool Tweed Plaid Skirt & Shawl Set, W29

Ralph Lauren

Ralph Lauren  

Ralph Lifshitz “Lauren” was born in the Bronx NY in 1939. He was one of several design leaders raised in the Jewish community in the Bronx, along with Calvin Klein and Robert Denning. After serving in the army, he entered the retail sales world, where he convinced his employer at Beau Brummell to let him start his own line of ties. 
He started the Ralph Lauren Corporation in 1967. Drawing on his interests in sport, he named his first full line of menswear ‘Polo’ in 1968. He seemed to take design cues from the fashion of early 20th century British aristocracy, as well as the lavish American economic “golden era” of the ’40s and ’50s. He worked out of a small showroom in the Empire State Building. 
By 1969, Bloomingdale’s were selling the Ralph Lauren line exclusively. The now iconic polo player emblem was launched in 1971 and he opened his own freestanding store in Beverly Hills the same year. 
The first full womenswear line was launched in 1972. 
The cotton polo shirt with the logo on the chest became emblematic of the preppy look and one of Lauren’s signature styles. 

Ralph Lauren polo shirt crest
In 1974, the male cast of the Great Gatsby were outfitted in Ralph Lauren.

Ralph Lauren 1970s Great Gatsby

In 1977, Diane Keaton and Woody Allen wore Ralph Lauren throughout Annie Hall.

Annie Hall Ralph Lauren  
He went international and opened his first store in London, England, in 1981.
His first flagship store was opened in New York in 1986. 
The ‘Polo Sport’ line was launched in 1992 and ‘Lauren Ralph Lauren’ in 1996. 
The Brooklyn Lo-life crew made the Polo Sport range huge in the 90s. The group's signature style of dress, called "lo down", meant wearing Ralph Lauren from head to toe. According to Lo-life founder Howl, "the clothes were made for the upper-class preppy kids from Yale and Harvard, and you know some kids from the ghetto just took it, remixed it, and we made it our own". From here it spread throughout Hip-Hop, with artists like Wu-Tang Clan and Nas sporting the brand. 

Lo Life crew Ralph Lauren
It also infiltrated in to skateboarding culture and Britpop in the UK. 
Ralph Lauren restaurants were opened alongside his stores in 1999, 2010 and 2015.
Rugby Ralph Lauren was launched in 2004 and specialized in preppy and Rugby inspired lifestyle. It became part of the Neo-prep ‘ivy-style’ zeitgeist of the 2000s. It ended in 2013. 

Ralph Lauren Rugby
Ralph Lauren as a brand has become known for a quintessentially American style, particularly defining American menswear. Smart-casual blazers, Oxford shirts, chinos and varsity sports references abound. “Ralph Lauren channeled references from film, music, sport, media and culture into a single, coherent language, creating a sartorial style that would come to define the very notion of elite academia.” - Highsnobiety.com 
In 2022, vintage (especially 90s) Ralph Lauren is an ever-popular streetwear style sought out at thrift stores and vintage shops alike. 
Ralph stepped down as CEO in 2015. 
He has won 4 COTY awards and 7 CFDA awards, among many others. He has received the key to New York City and was appointed a KBE by the British Crown. 
The company operates approximately 500 stores worldwide. His net worth is estimated at 6.9 billion USD. 

We have a RL Polo 80s blazer and a shirt available in the store, as well as patterned socks. 

1980s Vintage Wool Herringbone Navy Men's Blazer, Polo Ralph Lauren Pocket Crest, C42S 

Tommy Hilfiger

Tommy Hilfiger Kate Moss

Thomas Hilfiger was born in New York in 1951. The visionary designer has an instinctive understanding of the American image, which lead him to become one of the most influential designers in the world.
He co-founded a chain of jean and record stores called People’s Place in 1968. Despite initial success, it had gone bankrupt by 1977.

Tommy Hilfiger People's place

He then studied commerce and worked for Jordache Jeans before setting up a company called Tommy Hill in 1979. His early work was influenced by 1960s counterculture. In 1981 and 82 he founded additional companies called 20th Century Survival and Click Point. 
‘Tommy Hilfiger’ was eventually founded in 1985 as a preppy, modern Ivy-look menswear line. 
Hilfiger hired advertiser and graphic designer George Lois to make a billboard for the centre of Times Square in New York City. Instead of models, the ad featured the initials of three well-known fashion designers—“PE” (Perry Ellis), “RL” (Ralph Lauren), “CK” (Calvin Klein), and announced that “TH” (Tommy Hilfiger) was the next great menswear designer.

Tommy Hilfiger Times Square ad 1985
Another campaign, in 1990, compared Hilfiger’s American style with other “iconic American” classics, such as the 1955 Thunderbird and the 1940 Harley-Davidson bike.
By the early 90s, Hilfiger was designing baggier, more casual clothing that became popular in the hip-hop scene. When Snoop Dogg wore a Hilfiger sweatshirt during an appearance on SNL in 1994, it sold out of New York City stores the next day. Hilfiger courted the new hip hop market in general, and rappers like Puffy and Coolio walked during his runways shows. 

Tommy Hilfiger Snoop Dogg SNL
He was named menswear designer of the year by the CFDA in 1995. 
He launched womenswear in 1996 and published a book entitled ‘All American: A Style Book’ in 1997. He went on to write another 5 books on style and pop culture. 
His collections are often influenced by the fashion of music subcultures. They are also marketed in connection with the music industry. He was the main sponsor for a number of pop artists’ tours including for Britney Spears’ Baby One More Time tour in 1999. 
R&B artist Aaliyah became the Hilfiger spokesperson in 1997. He opened his first standalone store that year, in Beverley Hills. 

Tommy Hilfiger Aaliyah
Specific items like Tommy Hilfiger carpenter jeans became particularly popular in the late 90s with his trademark logo positioned on the hammer loop of the jeans.
His work has also drawn inspiration from American icons such as Grace Kelly, Steve McQueen, James Dean, JFK and Debbie Harry to name a few. 
He had a cameo appearance in Zoolander in 2001. 
By the mid 2000s, the brand was back to its original American classic cool look. 
In 2005, a CBS reality show called ‘The Cut’ tracked the progress of sixteen contestants as they competed for a design job with Tommy Hilfiger and their own fashion line under Hilfiger's label.
He sold his company in 2006. It is currently owned by PVH, the same group that owns Calvin Klein. However, Tommy is still the principal designer of the brand. 
Starting in 2010, Tommy Hilfiger Corporation launched the advertising campaign “The Hilfigers.” The campaign features a fictional family of Hilfigers wearing the brand's clothing in fun, preppy venues. The first campaign, for Fall 2010, was a photoset of a college football tailgate, followed by photoshoots at a tennis court, a rustic holiday party, a camping trip, an Ivy League college, and the beaches of Malibu.

The Hilfigers campaign
The brand created the publicity tour "Prep World” in 2011, which featured specialty pop-up shops around the world. Hilfiger made personal appearances with author and Official Preppy Handbook author Lisa Birnbach, as well as designing a special clothing collection to support the initiative.
He received the Geoffrey Beene lifetime achievement award in 2012 from the CFDA.
He published his memoir in 2016.
Today, there are approximately 2,000 Tommy Hilfiger stores worldwide with global revenue of $9.3 billion in 2021.

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