Life as the textile expert at a regional history museum

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Keeping It Casual

This week I faced a serious clothing conundrum: What to wear to a meeting at the corporate offices of Tommy Bahama? I wanted to look professional, but I didn't want to show up in my favorite "I mean business" dress and discover that the person I was meeting with was wearing a sarong and flip-flops. I found the issue so comical and intriguing that I posted it to facebook and even uploaded one of those narcissistic pictures in the mirror of what I eventually chose.

To my credit: No duckface
The bottom line though was that I was really, really excited about this meeting...which made it all the more embarrassing when five minutes before I was about to leave I got an email saying they would have to reschedule. As I banged my head against my desk, one of the the people I work with said, "Well, I guess they have a casual approach to keeping appointments, too." Ooooh! BURN ON TOMMY BAHAMA.

So what was I so stoked about? Since when is "resort casual" my aesthetic? Well, it isn't. But I've only recently found out that Tommy Bahama is a Seattle-founded and Seattle-based company, which means it is suddenly fascinating to me. I mean, it seems strange that Tommy Bahama is from Seattle, right? Our region isn't exactly known for its warm, beachy climate. In fact, there is only one Tommy Bahama store in the city of Seattle, and it opened around a decade after the company was founded. So what gives?

Well, there is a much bigger story about the jeans and casual wear industry in Seattle. It started with Brittania in the 1970s and then Generra and Union Bay in the 1980s. Brittania is credited with being one of the first to market faded denim in the US, and all three were innovators in teen wear.   The companies took advantage of the port and Seattle's proximity to Asia, and they were some of the first to have designers stateside and production overseas. That particular innovation would eventually be devastating to the US garment industry, so while it is difficult to applaud, it is also impossible to deny that it was an important and influential business model. These days, almost all of our clothes are made overseas.

But let's talk about something more cheerful. Remember Hypercolor?

Original Hypercolor clothing was invented and made by Seattle-based Generra. And you thought our only contribution to 90s fashion was grunge!

Brittania and Generra have since fizzled, but Union Bay is still kicking and has its headquarters in a building on Lake Union. There are also several companies that have been started by former employees of the big three. Tommy Bahama has three cofounders: two of which had started at Brittania and then were major players at Generra, and one who was the former vice-president of Union Bay.

So it turns out Seattle wasn't a risky, off-the-map choice for Tommy Bahama, it was was an obvious and easy one. Seattle actually ranks fourth in the nation as a center for fashion design and apparel talent according this fascinating article.

The jeans industry and the companies that grew out of it is something I'd like to know more about, and I'd like to see that story represented in the MOHAI collection. Of course, recently-made casual wear is never what someone thinks to donate to a history museum. I think most people would be shocked to hear that I roll my eyes when I get an offer for yet ANOTHER 1880s wedding dress, but would jump for joy over some 1980s Seattle branded jeans.

Scratch that. Not jump for joy. I would do one of those dance moves from the Hypercolor commercial. Running man with extra side-order of flailing arms.

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