New York Times Style Story - what's old is new again

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  1. Hooked on a Feeling
    New York Times

    PHYLLIS HAND is something of a pack rat, selectively hanging on to the fashions she wore as a teenager. Her wardrobe, a repository of high-hippie regalia dating from the early 1970's, forms an unbroken chain to her past. "I still have my original puka-shell necklace," Ms. Hand, a society photographer in Houston, confided. "All my turquoise jewelry, I still wear that."

    Gone missing over the years, though, were her Kork-Ease, rugged platform sandals that funkily complemented her wardrobe of Mexican peasant blouses, swirling skirts and cut-off jeans. So the news that a local merchant planned to reissue her favorite shoe sent her into orbit. "You're bringing them back?" she remembered gushing. "You're kidding me! I'll be lined up, the first to get a pair."

    The brand is but the latest in a string of shopworn or forgotten fashion labels that have been given a new life, having been positioned and marketed to attract the same consumers who embraced them in their heyday. It also helps that these names, which resonate with the original consumers' children and grandchildren, serve as markers that defined an era.

    "What people are reacting to the most is that they had the best times of their lives in some of these brands," said Mickey Rosmarin, the Houston retailer who bought the rights to the Kork-Ease name last year and is just now distributing versions of the original cork-soled hippie sandals — the equivalent of today's flip-flops — to stores across the country.

    In marketers' minds, that wisdom extends not only to shoe brands like Kork-Ease but also to a growing lineup of newly galvanized labels. They include Ben Sherman, the old-time outfitter of the British rock establishment; Biba, the fabled 60's London fashion house, resurrected and updated by its new designer, Bella Freud. Add to this group designers who are embarking on second careers, among them Norma Kamali, who recently raided her archives to unveil new collections for Everlast and the Spiegel catalog; and Sonia Rykiel, fashion doyenne of the Paris runways, whose daughter, Nathalie Rykiel, has dusted off the label.

    "There are more of these revivals than there ever have been," said Marshal Cohen, chief analyst at the market research firm NPD Group. Mr. Cohen estimated that their number has jumped in the last five years to nearly 100 from fewer than a dozen, attesting to a desire among marketers and consumers alike to connect with the echo-boomers, the children of the baby boomers. "What a wonderful way to get parents into purchasing products for themselves and for their kids, by taking them back in time," he said.

    Consumers, it seems, invest such lines with a credibility and an authenticity that, in their minds, distinguish them from the come-latelys.

    "Authenticity is becoming the new buying criterion," said B. Joseph Pine, a business consultant and an author of "Authenticity: The New Consumer Sensibility," to be published next year by Harvard Business School Press. As old-fashioned or ungainly as some resurrected brands may seem, "If people remember them from their youth, they perceive them as authentic," Mr. Pine said. "That's when they formed much of their own self-image. Their identity matches the product's identity."

    Retailers count on those perceptions to fuel sales. For the consumer, familiar labels "represent an added value," said Khajak Keledjian, the owner of the Intermix chain, which sells updated interpretations of several labels. "It's easier to take the essence of an older brand and tweak it and expose it than to take an emerging designer and have to teach consumers who he is."

    In resuscitating moribund brands, fashion appears to be taking a page from the automotive and housewares industries, which in recent years have reissued modified versions of the Mini Cooper and marvels of mid-century kitchen wizardry like the Mixmaster, revived in splashy colors.

    A similar strategy led to the regeneration of tarnished or near-extinct luxury giants like Gucci, Burberry and Louis Vuitton, which in the last decade used marquee designers and slick marketing campaigns to restore their cachet.

    In contrast to those behemoths, the latest revitalized brands are far more modest and accessible. "What we are doing is a miniversion of those revivals, one that is more cultlike," Mr. Rosmarin said.

    One such label was Diane Von Furstenberg, whose emblematic wrap dress of the 70's, once relegated to vintage and consignments shops, was reissued in the late 90's. That success provided impetus for a spate of revivals: jeans brands like Jordache and sportswear labels like Le Tigre, Fred Perry and Original Penguin; footwear brands like Frye Boots; and handbag labels like Coach and LeSportsac. Handbag specialists like Carlos Falchi, known for his exotic skins, and Roberta di Camerino, whose velvet-textured bags were once a style badge of the jet set, have also attracted a new audience.

    In the world of skin care and fragrance, once-trusted lines like Sea Breeze and Brut, and at the luxury end of the spectrum, Estée Lauder's Youth Dew, have regained prominence on store shelves.

    Mr. Cohen maintains that such products evoke an era that is perceived as more glamorous yet more reassuring than the present. Enamored of the past, the younger generation "is trying to find its own path," he said. "That it just happens to be colliding with where their parents once were is no accident. It creates a very good comfort zone."

    For baby boomers, venerated labels often evoke the unfettered high spirits and high times of youth. "Certain brands and certain music, like Santana, will do that," said Holly Moore, the editor and an owner of PaperCity magazine, a lifestyle monthly based in Houston. "You're just so influenced at that time in your life that you never get over it."

    But few such brands, however treasured by older consumers, are an instant hit with the young. Some wax or wane with the style trends that spawned them, or are irrelevant to modern consumers.

    John Hunnicutt and Marc Broccoli, who recently purchased the rights to Sea Breeze, Brut and Vitalis, a golden oldie of men's hair-styling products, acknowledged that Vitalis has been a tough sell.

    "Should the "Wall Street" look come back," Mr. Broccoli said, "it might have a better chance."

    Some brands flop, Mr. Rosmarin said, simply because their names leave customers scratching their heads. "You can't just put these things on a rack and expect them to sell," he said. "There is so much out there already that to get your attention a brand has to be advertised, promoted, buzzworded and celebrity-endorsed."

    And tweaked for currency. "You've got to be more creative these days as far as marketing," said Dana Dynamite, the entertainment marketing manager for Ben Sherman, the British brand best known, perhaps, for its short-sleeve button-down shirts.

    Ms. Dynamite enlisted a sprinkling of alternative entertainment figures like Danny Masterson, Damien Fahey of MTV and Mario Lavandeira, who runs the gossip blog, to act as billboards for the brand. And the Raveonettes, a popular retro rock band, were among the attractions for the March opening of the company's American flagship in SoHo.

    "Yeah, I'm giving away some clothes, but this is almost like getting free marketing," she said. "It's a win-win situation."

    Seth Horowitz, chief executive of Everlast, which markets the Kamali sportswear collection, reflexively credits the Kamali name and Everlast's long history as a maker of boxing gear with sparking a robust reorder business at stores like Bloomingdale's. They have "a strong emotional quotient," Mr. Horowitz said.

    Key to the success of the Kamali line, however, are some not-so-subtle stylistic innovations. For example, Ms. Kamali's signature sleeping bag coat is being offered in both in traditional street-length and in abbreviated variations.

    Sea Breeze, a skin cleanser that has been on the market for more than a century, has added ingredients like salicylic acid to treat acne in an attempt to appeal to a younger market. For Kork-Ease the twist lies primarily in what has been deleted from the line. Mr. Rosmarin has adroitly administered fashion CPR by eliminating models that teetered on six-inch platforms in favor of more wearable lower-heeled styles.

    The new collection is sold at 80 stores, including Bergdorf Goodman and Scoop in New York, Fred Segal in Los Angeles and Tootsies, Mr. Rosmarin's designer emporium in Houston. Mr. Rosmarin projects sales of sandals — they are priced at less than $200 — to be at about $3 million through June.

    Other merchants credit the Kork-Ease success to the brand's broad appeal. "People are coming in at all ages," said Jaye Hersh, the owner of Intuition, a Los Angeles boutique. "We've got the 13-year-old and the mothers and the grandmas wearing them, saying 'We'll buy one pair and we'll share.' "

    To young people who look back on their parents' renegade years with a degree of envy, old labels like Kork-Ease confer cool by association.

    "They definitely give you a sense of going back to that era," said Logan Levant, 25, a baker in Los Angeles, who recently tracked down three pairs of the sandals, one each for her mother, a friend and herself. "It's my way of emulating the look of those days, of getting involved and getting a piece of the past," she said.
  2. I ordered my first pair of Kork-Ease from Zappos today! My friend got TWO pair at a local boutique and was raving about them. Now, am I too YOUNG to remember the originals? I was born in 1959...
  3. What a great article. Thanks for posting.
  4. I loved her bags! I still have a tiny pouch thingy from her. You wouldn't recognize it... it didn't hold up.

    Interesting article! :yes:
  5. i'm (mid 30's), don't remember the original kork-ease. but bought a pair last summer. LOVE THEM! get compliments every time i wear them.