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Above all, Claire McCardell designs are so functional that they stay in fashion; her basic designs, in fact, change but slightly from year to year. Two years ago Los Angeles Art Dealer Frank Perls decided that her clothes were so unique that he collected 20 years of McCardell fashions and put them on exhibition in his gallery. Recently Designer McCardell got a fan letter from a customer who bought a red wool McCardell dress, size 16, for $40 in 1948. It was altered to a size 12 in 1949, re-altered to a size 18 to take care of added weight in 1951, re-altered to a size 12 and then to a 16 again in 1952, and back to a 12 in 1953. It landed in the wash by mistake, suffered "considerable shrinkage," was cleaned several times, taken apart, stretched, pulled and realigned into a size 10. Last year a bottle of hair-tinting shampoo was spilled all over the dress. The owner's report for spring 1955: "Dress is navy blue with silver buttons, fits perfectly; fabric is as handsome as ever, the styling as chic as everand [it] draws comments from people all the time!"
Stick Men Gone Wrong. Claire McCardell works in a tiny cubbyhole above Seventh Avenue, surrounded by button boxes, swatches of material, scrapbooks and half-finished dresses. She has an artist's sense of color and a sculptor's feeling for form; wherever she goes, she keeps both eyes peeled for new ideas. "With these dames," says her partner, Adolph Klein, "you don't know where they get their inspiration. It may be from the crack in the wall." With Claire, most of the inspiration comes from the fabrics that salesmen are forever trying to get her to use.
She will feel a fabric, hold it to the light, pull it on the bias, pleat it in her
hands and crumple it. If she likes it, she will buy a few yards and put it on a shelf. When inspiration strikes, she dashes off a simple little sketch that looks, to the layman, something like a child's matchstick drawing of a man. But to the seven sample hands who work in the room next door to her cubbyhole office, the stark lines are enough directions for them to start draping.
As they do, Claire McCardell pops in and out of the sample room, making changes as her coats and dresses take shape on the dress forms. If a sample is not working out as she planned, she orders it junked; if it satisfies her, she sends it across the hall where patterns and dresses are made. (Outside contractors account for 70% of Townley's output.)
Since Claire McCardell, like all designers, works months ahead, she gets a hint of how well her collection will sell long before the public ever gets a chance to buy. The preliminary verdict is pronounced by buyers from all over the U.S., who crowd into the showroom of Townley Frocks and, order blanks in hand, watch models parade past in the newest McCardell creations. To Designer McCardell, the big moment comes when a buyer says excitedly: "That's wonderful, Claire. How soon can you deliver it?"