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When Vogue Says No: Beyond The September Issue

Below is a piece I wrote for Vogue. It did not appear in the September issue (or any issue, for that matter). But you can read my blog on the Huffington Post about The September Issue here .

Label Matters

Growing up near South Carolina’s apparel factories in the label-crazy 1980s helped me define a personal style – and learn the real value of a designer’s name

by Kristi York Wooten


Whenever I go home to visit my parents, I rummage through my mother’s things in hopes of finding the perfect accessory. Decades of printed scarves, skinny belts and Earth shoes await reclamation in the deepest recesses of her overstuffed walk-in closet, and she’s happy to share. This past Christmas, I found caramel-colored suede boots and a wooden handbag covered in decoupage birds. But the velvet goldmine of vintage loungewear hiding behind her holiday blouses intrigued me more: there were pieces by Bob Mackie and Geoffrey Beene, plus a Bill Tice maxi-dress with quilted shoulder plackets and an Oscar de La Renta two-piece set with wide-leg trousers and a matching kaftan. While my discovery of these machine-washable wonders wasn’t particularly unusual, the fact that most of them were manufactured within a short radius of my parents’ house reminded me of the heyday of designer licensing –– and all those years my hometown was considered the “textile capital of the world.”

Growing up in Greenville, South Carolina, I remember the city’s conversation pieces well: ours was the home of both the legendary baseball player “Shoeless Joe” Jackson and the less-celebrated civil rights activist Jesse Jackson; a teenaged Joanne Woodward had honed her craft in our local community theatre in the 1940s before setting her sights on Hollywood; important works by Jasper Johns and Andrew Wyeth filled the walls of our art museum; and, long before George W. Bush made a campaign stop at Bob Jones University in 2000, that school’s evangelism dominated much of our mostly conservative population. We lived in a perfect dichotomy of mini-metropolis and working-class Bible Belt. (Case in point: our town’s where Michelin produced both the world-famous restaurant guides –– and tires.) Yet, above all else, Greenville was known as a textile mecca. Well-documented are the old mill villages and smokestacks that dotted our landscape after the Civil War and later became the backdrop for the 1950s class struggles in Dorothy Allison’s 1992 novel, Bastard Out of Carolina. But more interesting, perhaps, is Greenville’s other textile history –– in which it served as the epicenter of a multi-state region that produced the gamut of licensed designer apparel in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Local company Swirl Manufacturing’s deal with Oscar de la Renta was a big hit at our house. Like so many of mom’s wardrobe choices from that era, the two-piece set I found in her closet last December personified 1980s Southern suburban sophistication –– elastic-waist comfort offset by luxurious fabric, bright color, and sparkly trim. (Whether this semi-flashy style, quite different from the designer’s usually light-handed approach, was intentional or merely a licensee taking liberties, I’ll never know). Yet, one swipe of my fingertips down the well-worn knap of the kaftan’s sleeves transported me back to a time when I needed as many crushed-velvet hugs from mom as I could get, no matter how scratchy the metallic rickrack at her neckline. After all, in 1984, I was 15 and a goofy choir nerd; my high school was named after a Confederate cavalry general; and the popular sport of guzzling Boone’s Farm malt in the Burger King parking lot on Friday nights was completely lost on me. I preferred to sit at home and devour gourmet ice cream while watching Duran Duran parade across my TV screen in their silk Antony Price suits. The glorious androgyny and exotic locales of music videos expanded my aesthetic horizons, but let’s call a spade a spade: many of my style influences were born and bred right outside my front door.

Covered in golf courses and with a climate built for casual living, South Carolina was ripe for the wild proliferation of designer sportswear in post-Bicentennial America. Imports had begun to unravel our state’s 100-year stronghold as a major producer of apparel, and licensing deals with famous names were seen as a good opportunity for local manufacturers to revive waning profits. T-shirts, underwear, loungewear, jeans, ready-to-wear, linens, bedding – you name it – in those days, a large laundry list of labels was being produced within 90 miles of Greenville in every direction. All those Ralph Lauren outlets scattered today along interstate highways had yet to exist, so we found our bargains in cluttered backrooms, up loading dock ramps to makeshift dressing areas, or in warehouses filled with designer “irregulars” –– like my pair of Gloria Vanderbilt jeans with the wrong hem thread color or that raspberry Izod Lacoste sweater with the slightly misaligned alligator. I remember sharpening my Ms. Pac-Man skills on the video game consoles inside the 100,000 square-foot “World of Clothing” in neighboring Hendersonville, NC, after scouring its huge tables piled high with designer denim. If second-quality Calvins cost the same as first-quality Wranglers, who wouldn’t want to be more like Brooke Shields than the Marlboro man, even if it meant the stitched swoop on the back pocket wasn’t quite right?

We lived in a haven for all things spun, woven, cut and sewn, yet were blissfully unaware that so many of the brands we loved were over-licensed. Even the fashion houses revered today as some of the world’s most exclusive –– Yves Saint Laurent and Christian Dior among them –– had joined the ranks of Pierre Cardin, lending their marks to hundreds of clothing lines, accessories, and household goods, some of which were manufactured in the textile heart of the Southeast. (It’s hard to believe that in 1980, 86% of Dior’s profits came from more than 160 license agreements, while at the same time, Yves Saint Laurent had extended around 500 licenses, and Cardin more than 800.)

In South Carolina, the laws of supply and demand dictated our fashion worldview, and it wasn’t about snobbery or money for us; we were all too keen to fact that the label you wore had less to do with your family’s means than how clued-in your mom was to the pleasures of shopping at warehouse sales. And, knowing that someone’s granny who worked on second shift at the factory across the way had sewn my jeans didn’t diminish their luster; if anything, wearing labels gave me the confidence to believe that, when it came to matters of style, maybe Greenville wasn’t so far behind the rest of the world, after all.

My ticket to that outside world was Vogue, and I faithfully collected every issue in big stacks in my bedroom, both for inspiration and information (and partly because a girl in my English class told me I looked like Renee Simonsen in Richard Avedon’s photo on the cover of the December, 1984 issue. Yes, that would be a big stretch. ). Drawing upon the joie de vivre of editorial spreads such as Steven Meisel’s “A Racier Beat” , it wasn’t long before I realized that a designer’s name was only as good as his or her designs –– licensed or not –– and I began to discern that what was readily available to me often looked quite different than what I saw in magazines. (This principle would also be evident to me years later when Target stores began partnering with designers to produce licensed apparel lines of varying quality to support its “Design For All” mantra.)

As an older teen, I imitated what I saw on the pages of Vogue (as much as my part-time job at the local record store would afford), but my personal style morphed into a reaction against the preppy-casual Greenville standard. Dressing in polo shirts and jeans struck me as a tad boring. Why not experiment with the Stephen Sprouse looks I saw on one of Andy Warhol’s “Fifteen Minutes” MTV specials? That’s when I started to wear a lot of black and big boots (and Estee Lauder’s All-Day “Parallel Red” lipstick). Yet, by the time I actually met Sprouse in New York in the early 1990s after college, my pendulum had swung the other way: I remember his sweet smile as he offered me a cigarette –– and my embarrassment about the very plain, long-sleeved, navy-blue boatneck T-shirt I was wearing. When it came time to get a job, my wardrobe was stuck somewhere below the Mason-Dixon line. After being politely turned down by Ingrid Sischy for a full-time gig at Interview, I scored an interview to be a personal assistant to Calvin Klein, my style idol. By 1992, I’d adopted Klein’s clean minimalist look (or so I thought), but I could never quite get it right. I wore a pale peach boucle´ fitted jacket and black wool crepe pencil skirt to his Seventh Avenue offices, and afterwards, a follow-up call from my headhunter confirmed what I knew all along –– that I would never be as simple and understated as the future Mrs. John F. Kennedy, Jr. (As the old saying goes “You can take the girl out of the South, but you can’t take the South out of the girl.”)

These days, I’m in Atlanta, where everyone is quite accepting of my blend of vintage bohemian and classic ensembles (and they don’t mind when I sport bright lips and ponytails). I’m forever a Calvin Klein fan, but have recently become addicted to Diane von Furstenberg’s happy prints, which suit my curves and personality. I still hunt bargains and refuse to pay full price for anything, although most of the apparel manufacturing industry has long since left the Carolinas and Georgia for Asia. But the recent news about the shuttering of Bill Blass Ltd. made me wonder how much of the reported $800 million dollars per year that company earned during its peak was the result of licensing deals at factories such as Springs Industries in Fort Mill, SC? Or how much Easley, SC’s Swirl Manufacturing made from its deals with Geoffrey Beene and de la Renta?

Whenever I see a “Made in China” label, I ask myself, “Does it really matter where a licensed garment is made?” If I take the time to consider the unknowns (safety issues and human rights aspects) of the manufacturing process overseas –– not to mention all the local folks in Greenville who lost their jobs –– then I say, “Yes.” But, if an outfit brings a little confidence, comfort, and happiness to the person who wears it, then why not? And besides, boycotting imports can only go so far. Otherwise we’d all be naked. (If that ever happens, it’s a good thing there’s still a locally-made, royal blue, gold-trimmed, crushed-velvet Oscar de la Renta in mom’s closet.)


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