A department store all others would model themselves after. Swimwear that changed every vacation for the rest of time. A little shoe idea that would become one of the most recognizable brands on earth. An indie revolution that helped put the Y in DIY. Since Portland’s birth 170 years ago, the innovations of our designers and business owners have changed the fashion industry forever.
It’s 1870, and folks are flooding into town thanks to the Oregon Donation Land Act 20 years prior, which stripped local Tribes of the land they’d occupied for thousands of years and incentivized white settlers to move in. The women are in corsets and long plaid dresses with ruffled hemlines and chic lace at the throat. Men don top hats and woolen waistcoats—it’s simultaneously elegant and magician-like.
The 19th century changed fashion in numerous ways, starting with Isaac Singer’s popularization of the home sewing machine, which allowed (almost always) women to make garments and home goods for their families. On the shopping front, one simple phrase changed buyer behavior for decades to come: “department store.” Before the novel idea to contain all the goods in one central location, you’d hit the cobbler for shoes, a dressmaker for garb, a milliner for hats, and so on. Then, voilà, true one-stop shopping.
Here in town, Meier & Frank became the store to rule them all. Opened originally under Aaron Meier’s name as a general store in 1857 when Portland was a village of a thousand settlers primarily pursuing the fur trade (Emil Frank joined a few years in), the company saw the potential to go big. In 1878, Meier & Frank installed its first telephones. Soon the switchboard was the largest and busiest in the entire West. The store eventually made its way from Front Street to its final location at Fifth and Morrison, where its 10 stories overflowed with everything. In addition to clothes for all, it had a hosiery department, a bridal salon, candle and flower departments, an optical center, umbrellas, bakeries, cheese, thread, shovels, on-site restaurants, musical equipment, you name it. A pre-fame Clark Gable famously hawked ties at the counter in the 1920s, gobsmacked children ogled the annual epic Santaland Christmas displays, and for a while it was the largest retail outlet west of the Mississippi.
RISE OF THE MILL
By the latter part of the 1800s, Oregon was a massive producer of wool. Our climate and large swaths of land made for sheep ready to be shorn, with their fluff then carded or combed and spun onto spindles for weaving. At the turn of the century, now-ghost town Shaniko (located just down the road from where the Rajneeshees took over) even earned the moniker “Wool Capital of the World.”
Over in Eastern Oregon, Pendleton Woolen Mills opened a new production mill in 1909 that allowed for the efficiency and growth it needed to become the mainstay it is today. Using a new jacquard loom technology, the company perfected its signature brightly colored geometric patterns some say are inspired by, and others say are appropriated from, the Native community.
Pendleton’s patterned blankets flourished thanks to Tribes such as the Nez Perce, Navajo, and Hopi, who adopted them for trade and ceremonies. The company built another mill in Washougal in 1912 that gave it space and equipment to focus on suiting and shirting wools, continuing the expansion of the line now worn by grandparents, Big Lebowski lovers, and cool kids alike.
In 1918, Carl Jantzen and brothers Roy and John Zehntbauer began a company makeover that would literally change beach day forever. Step 1: Drop the blah name Portland Knitting Company for the pizzazz-filled Jantzen Knitting Mills. Step 2: Begin a national advertising campaign buying up billboards in big cities that showcase a signature “Diving Girl” in a sexy red virgin-wool bathing suit, matching wool cap, and knee-high swimming socks. Step 3: Adopt the fiery slogan, “The suit that changed bathing to swimming.”
But it wasn’t just ad jargon, it was true. Prior to the form-fitting, relatively quick-drying wool number they invented, the main option for women was a baggy flannel swim dress that hung on the body like an X-ray safety-measure lead cloak. To get the word out, Jantzen went on a mega blitz that snapped up fans every step of the way: Multipage ads in Esquire with titillating illustrated pinup girls, celebrity endorsements from Olympians, company catalogs with up-and-coming movie stars like Ginger Rogers and Loretta Young, radio adverts, pre-movie commercials, and throngs of Portlanders happily employed. The Diving Girl was on top of the world.
READY TO WEAR
Yes, you probably already know the iconic light-up sign at the end of the Burnside Bridge, the one that sparkles in the night as a silhouetted buck leaps over the words “Portland, Oregon.”
But long before it became an Instagram staple, that sign represented one of the most ubiquitous sportswear lines in the country: White Stag. After starting the skiwear company in the 1930s, owner Harold Hirsch decided in the ’50s to expand from clothes people wore on the mountain to clothes people would want to live their lives in.
That meant in addition to the already popular wind tunics, ski skirts (!), and “tuck in suits” for snowy activities, White Stag branched out into preppy poplin blouses paired with high-waisted capris or full-swing poodle skirts for women. For men, it was canvas jeans and an Eisenhower jacket the company called “The Mister,” advertised as “the jacket for the kind of a life a fellow wants his jacket to lead. It’s a go-everywhere, have-fun, be-comfortable-in-any-weather jacket with as many admirable points as has his girl friend.” The switch led to explosive company growth, with sales jumping from $4 million to $14 million in an eight-year span, making White Stag not just the country’s largest retailer of ski clothing but a sportswear icon.
JUST DO IT
It’s hard to overstate the impact Nike has had on both Oregon and pop culture at large in its 57 years of existence. Now one of our largest companies with more than 12,000 Oregonians employed, it began as Blue Ribbon Sports in Eugene in 1964. It later changed to Nike and adopted the swoosh Portland State University student Carolyn Davidson famously designed for a whopping $35 payment.
In 1972 Nike launched its first shoe, and in 1979 it added clothing to the mix. By the time the 1980s were in full swing, with logo tees and color-blocked track suits standard attire, the brand hit a cultural frenzy thanks in part to the massive 1985 release of the first Air Jordan, a defining moment in the sneaker world. Soon to follow was a 1987 commercial produced by a young upstart agency called Wieden & Kennedy that, though a familiar trope now, was unlike anything released before: Black and white quick cuts of an army of swimmers marching into the waters, exhausted runners collapsing to the ground after crossing the finish line, dunks sinking into the net—all while the Beatles sing “You say you want a revolution / Well, you know / We all want to change the world.” The band had never licensed their music for an ad before (and there was some question to the legality of this use), but it was too late. Every triumphant ad for an athletic company to come after could arguably be traced back to this moment. All the world knew our shoe brand.
In the year 2000, designers Holly Stalder and Kate Towers opened a little shop on SE Belmont Street called Seaplane and started selling their handmade clothing. At the time, malls still reigned, e-commerce was a futuristic idea, and thanks in part to companies like Meier & Frank, Portlanders hadn’t regularly popped in to meet their designers face to face for a hundred years. The two women eventually tapped other designer names we now know well like Claire La Faye and Liza Rietz, each creating custom one-off pieces, often with elements of deconstruction that couldn’t be replicated on a large scale even if they wanted to (which they didn’t).
Soon the press and culture fully embraced Portland’s indie revolution. Designers moved here, studios popped up, and “put a bird on it” couldn’t be stopped. And then there was Project Runway. With Heidi Klum’s critiques and Tim Gunn’s endearing workroom mentoring, the show was a smashing success in the aughts, with thousands of designers clamoring to get on the air and trot their pieces out in front of bigger audiences. After Portlander Leanne Marshall won season five with her beautiful draped aesthetic in 2008, the show regularly mined our city for indie talent. Three more locals would go on to win in the coming years (plus two Project Runway All Star competitions), with several more as contestants.
TO THE FUTURE
With Portland’s storied history, is it possible to predict what our fashion future will look like? Yes. In a word: sustainable. From Gov. Tom McCall’s Bottle Bill of the 1970s to carefully sorting our plastic from our compost, Oregonians have incorporated acts of sustainability into our everyday life, and it’s likely the path forward for our fashion, too.
Look at lines like Church & State, which moved to preorder mostly for tailored items, so nothing is left over. Then there’s Mylo, a brand of mycelium bio-based fabric (more commonly called mushroom leather) made by San Francisco company (with a Portland office) Bolt Threads. This ethical, renewable source of “leather” already counts fashion design icon Stella McCartney as a client—she released a Mylo handbag last year.
On the event front, we already host not one but two international summits dedicated to sustainability. Folks fly in from all over the country to attend the Sustainable Fashion Forum’s spring panels where orgs like Fair Trade Certified and Fashion Revolution talk about what we can all do to be more conscientious consumers and players in the industry. Inside Fashion Design held its first Ethical Fashion Festival last October (all digital, thanks to COVID). Fashion students tuned in from Oregon State University to Parsons to Central Saint Martins to watch names like Simone Cipriani, United Nations officer and founder of the global Ethical Fashion Initiative, share insight on how we can all make tiny, actionable steps that result in lasting change for the health of the planet and its residents. Actions that we need to start taking now if we want Portland fashion to exist for another 150 years.