Shortly after the debut of the sewing machine, the California gold rush of 1848 led to the establishment of what became the largest apparel advertising account in the U.S. at the turn of the 21st century: Levi Strauss & Co. The company's namesake founder arrived in California with a supply of fabric to sew tents for miners but found a better use for the material making work pants. In the 1920s, responding to complaints that the rivets in its jeans scratched furniture, Levi's engaged in its first brand advertising, promoting covered rivets
Retailers first pushed mass-produced clothing onto racks and into newspaper ads, with big-city department stores leading the way. John Wanamaker, a Philadelphia dry-goods merchant, brought about many early innovations in retail and apparel advertising while promoting his department store.
Wanamaker's was the first major retailer to place page ads. Mr. Wanamaker also pioneered such concepts as fixed prices and money-back guarantees. He promoted those innovations in ads that departed from the simple, agate type used in newspaper ads of the time. In 1890, Mr. Wanamaker hired John E. Powers, the first full-time department store copywriter, to direct his advertising efforts.
Men's shoes and clothing brands were among the first advertisers in the fashion segment. New England shoemaker William L. Douglas, billed as "The Three-Dollar Shoe Man," was the first to advertise a small line of mass-produced men's shoes in the late 1800s. His Brockton, Mass., factory began its newspaper advertising with a $10,000 budget at Boston agency S.R. Niles. The account, which spent most heavily in rural weeklies to boost mail-order sales, grew to $175,000 in annual spending by 1894.
Another footwear company, Red Cross Shoes, was a contributor to the development of marketing research. Stanley Resor, at the time president of J. Walter Thompson Co., sought to figure out national retail distribution patterns for his client to help manage the account. He commissioned a study that listed retailers by state and by category, a structure that became the basis of modern market research.
Arrow Shirts pioneered the use of humor in advertising in 1932 with a series of ads from Young & Rubicam. Each ad used a humorous anecdote to tout a different shirt feature. The best-known execution used reincarnation as the setup to promote Arrow's shrink-proof shirts. "My friend, Joe Holmes, is now a horse," voice-over said. A horse pulling a milk wagon happily agreed: "I am now wearing a comfortable collar for the first time in my life."
World War II presented an opportunity for U.S. designers and apparel brands. With U.S. consumers cut off from Parisian fashions during the was, Lord & Taylor President Dorothy Shaver led U.S. retailers in promoting clothing from American designers, whose names were featured in ads. Such efforts led to the rise of a generation of American designers such as Geoffrey Beene, Bill Blass and Halston.
Icons and images
In the first half of the century, apparel advertising was mostly practical and utilitarian, focusing on product benefits. With the arrival of TV and new photographic technologies, advertising became more visual and image-oriented. Photography replaced in ads, and models and celebrities began a rise to fashion icon status.
In the years after the war, legendary adman David Ogilvy at Hewitt, Ogilvy, Benson & Mather created a campaign called "The Man in the Hathaway Shirt. Inspired by images of Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, Mr. Ogilvy's ads featured an urbane, eyepatch-wearing gentleman (nicknamed "The Baron") who hunted big game, conducted orchestras and painted pictures. The campaign first began in The New Yorker in 1951 and ran for four years; it is often hailed as a milestone in "aspirational" image advertising.
Image was everything in the 1960s, when the Great Lakes Mink Association hired Trahey Advertising to create a campaign to sell its extra-dark mink furs. Agency President Jane Trahey, one of the first women to run her own agency, took the group's acronym and created the glitzy Blackglama brand. Ms. Trahey and VP-Marketing Director Peter Rogers created the tagline "What becomes a legend most?" and enlisted stars such as Bette Davis, Carol Channing, Barbra Streisand and Lauren Bacall. The spare ads featured only a photo, the tagline and the Blackglama name. The campaign broke in 1968 and ran for almost three decades.
The designer-jeans craze of the late 1970s was a prime example of the power of advertising to turn a utilitarian product such as blue jeans into a fashion statement by branding it as such. Jordache spent most of its $250,000 ad budget in 1978 on TV buys to air its "Jordache Look" spot. The commercial, with its catchy "You've got the look" jingle, projected a fun, sexy, fashionable image that made Jordache into a brand with $130 million in sales and a $9 million advertising budget by 1980.
Fashion as lifestyle
The 1980s saw the rise of the star designer and fashion-as-lifestyle marketing best represented by American designers such as Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger. Lifestyles and image were to become the hallmarks of Ralph Lauren, who began his rise in the 1970s with a collection of ties made from upholstery fabrics. His company, Polo Ralph Lauren, pioneered the concept of the "lifestyle brand" in fashion, creating an all-over image, from clothing and fragrance to housewares. In the 1980s, Wells, Rich, Greene and Kurtz & Tarlow (later Tarlow Advertising) created ads that made the Polo brand synonymous with an upscale, preppy elegance.
Calvin Klein pushed apparel advertising to its limits. His 1980 campaign featured a teen-age Brooke Shields suggestively asking the camera, "Want to know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing." It was the first of many efforts from the designer to be condemned as exploitative, but it made Ms. Shields and Calvin Klein Jeans household words.
Nearly every Calvin Klein campaign since 1980 raised hackles among media watchdogs. In 1995, CRK Advertising, the designer's in-house agency, was forced to pull a jeans campaign after complaints that the TV spots too closely resembled outtakes from pornographic films. CRK also was forced to cancel a 1999 spring campaign for children's underwear after children's rights groups condemned b&w photographs of scantily attired boys as "kiddie porn."
Not all lifestyle advertising to emerge from the 1980s, however, was suggestive or status driven. Marketers such as Kenneth Cole Productions and United Colors of Benetton made often-controversial social statements with their advertising—at a cost. Cole's print and outdoor ads, created largely in-house, took stands on divisive issues such as gun control, abortion rights and domestic violence. In 1985, Mr. Cole was one of the first designers to draw attention to AIDS with an ad that featured a shoelace in the shape of an AIDS-awareness lapel ribbon.
In 1972, Benetton, then a small Italian company selling colorful knits to the youth market, hired Milan shop Eldorado to create a poster campaign. Ten years later, Benetton began working with a photographer from Eldorado, Oliviero Toscani, who subsequently became Benetton's creative director. Under Mr. Toscani, Benetton's advertising in the 1980s increasingly evolved into issue-oriented messages.
In the 1990s, Benetton's advertising was even more controversial, often not featuring the marketer's products but focusing instead on shocking images, such as a priest kissing a nun or a black woman breast-feeding a white baby. The ads initially succeeded in raising the brand's profile but eventually caused costly rifts with consumers and retailers.
Things came to a head in February 2000, when Benetton launched a series of ads featuring death-row prison inmates. Within weeks of the first ads, Benetton was hit by a lawsuit from the state of Missouri, which claimed Mr. Toscani and his colleagues lied to state officials to gain access to the inmates. Sears, Roebuck & Co. ended a joint venture to sell a private-label line, Benetton USA, after victims' rights groups picketed a Texas Sears store.
Reinvention of retail
Even as designers and fashion brands launched their own retail outlets and department stores' influence on fashion trends declined, some large retailers turned to fashion to reinvent themselves. Sears, for example, which had pioneered direct-mail merchandising of fashion products in the late 1800s, turned to TV in 1992 to promote its "softer side."
Some successful apparel brands in the 1990s were retailers in disguise. The Gap, Abercrombie & Fitch and Victoria's Secret combined a strong fashion sense with creative branding and savvy merchandising.
The Gap, which had begun in 1969 as a retailer of inexpensive Levi's jeans, reinvented itself via advertising in the 1980s as a sportswear shop. Its 1988 "Individuals of Style" campaign featured celebrities such as Arthur Ashe and Miles Davis modeling simple white shirts and turtlenecks and were shot by renowned photographers such as Annie Liebowitz and Herb Ritts. In 1994, Gap revived its khaki sales with its "Who Wears Khakis?" effort, which featured art and style icons such as Gene Kelly in vintage shots.
The Gap's parent company took over Banana Republic in 1983 and repositioned it in the early 1990s as a more upscale version of The Gap, offering sleek, sophisticated clothes. That positioning was backed with ads that reinforced the classic, fashionable brand image, usually done in-house.
Old Navy, Gap's kid brother launched in 1994, went for a more youthful, playful image in both its products and its advertising. It promoted itself with a series of kitschy ads using celebrities such as Morgan Fairchild, Joan Collins and the cast of the 1970s sitcom "The Jeffersons."
Suggestive ads from Shahid & Co. for Abercrombie & Fitch featured campus streakers and nude or nearly nude couples; its controversial spring 2001 campaign featured nude men and clothed women. Each successive A&F campaign encountered further opposition, but each succeeded in making the brand popular with teens, who were not put off by their parents' protestations about the marketer's prurient promotions.