FASHION: The American Look

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Salads & Mambos. Making clothes with the American Look is no simple trick. U.S. women, says President Hector Escobosa of San Francisco's I. Magnin, "don't want their sports clothes to look like overalls, but they want them to act like overalls." While Claire McCardell and other top designers lead the way, the U.S. fashion industry is now busy turning out garments to keep up with the fast modern pace—dresses that are as at home in the front seat of a station wagon as in the back seat of a Rolls, as comfortable in the vestibule of a motel as in the lobby of the Waldorf, as fitting for work in the office as for cocktails and dinner with the boss. Most of all, they must be practical. Sports clothes must swing as easily on the laundry line as on the golf course, and evening clothes must be designed as much for tossing a salad as treading a mambo.

The American Look has had its influence abroad, particularly in Italy, where it has profoundly influenced the designers of sportswear. Paris has also tried its hand at the style, believing, as Christian Dior said, that la mode sport in America is "beyond doubt excellent."

The demand for casual clothes has also become a mainstay of the vast and complex fashion business. It is a risky business, yet all over the nation upwards of 14,500 women's-apparel manufacturers are taking the risk. They employ 450,000 people and turn out $6 billion worth of goods a year. Of this total, Claire McCardell (through Townley Frocks, Inc.) accounts for only about $1,800,000 (plus $100,000 in royalties from such sidelines as sunglasses, gloves and jewelry). But she is one of the biggest names in the business.

St. Louis, Chicago and Philadelphia are all important garmentmaking centers. Around Dallas, some 70 firms are turning out $40 million worth of women's clothes a year and selling 35% of their output outside the Southwest. In California, where designers were once willing to try anything ("crazy pants" in wild harlequin designs and 6-ft.-round straw hats) just to get talked about, fashion has come of age. Now 1,200 women's-apparel manufacturers, including such leaders as Pat Premo, Rudi Gernreich and Georgia Kay, are grossing $350 million a year, and selling 60% to 75% of their wares east of the Rockies.*

But Manhattan is still the biggest fashion center of all, and Seventh Avenue (from 34th Street to 40th Street) is its hub. There 8,500 women's-apparel manufacturers do 67.3% of the business—and they are a harried lot. Piracy is a stock in trade, and fashion rumors (both true and false) are the currency. Are tunics in? Will Dacron last? Is the two-piece bathing suit coming back? Gulping pastrami sandwiches and dodging careering handcarts packed with their rivals' dresses, Seventh Avenue's denizens must decide. Their decisions are based on nothing more than the gossamer whim of the female mind, and if they decide wrong, they go broke.

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