Through the aughts, Ann Taylor, like many other ready-to-wear retail heavies of the 90s, watered down their brand caché by opening thousands of mall locations and shopping center discount outlets (think Loft, think Loft Outlet). Churning out cheap trends in ever increasing numbers in a (failed) effort to compete with new Fast Fashion giants like H & M, Forever 21, Zara and more recent online horror shows like Shein and Wish. The Covid pandemic sealed the deal for the already floundering labels, and Ascena Inc., (Ann Taylor and Loft's parent company) filed for bankruptcy in 2020, closing over 1000 retail locations.
But before the nebulous "working mom chic" synthetic blend aesthetic the brand is currently known for, Ann Taylor was a little edgy, and of above average quality for the aspirational, independent woman. Working our way backwards a bit, if you have ever owned Ann Taylor made in the 80s or 90s, you probably know they produced some excellent mid-range pieces; not just women's suiting and office attire, which they helped pioneer, but also interesting casual pieces and elevated basics. If you come across an older Ann Taylor label in the wild, there's some value in that find! It will likely be well-constructed, durable, and made with natural fibers like wool, cotton, rayon, and silk. Here are a few of the older labels to look out for (top right is 1960s/early 70s, from we, mcgee archives, others via vintagefashionguild.org:
While the 80s may have defined the Ann Taylor brand legacy for many people- with their tailored power suits and silk "admin assist" dresses (you know the ones)- the company itself was actually founded 3 decades prior, in 1954, by a man named Richard Liebeskind in New Haven, Connecticut. He named his company for the best-selling dress style at his father's clothing store: the "Ann," a cotton fit-and-flare with button front and belt. He added Taylor because it evoked a sense of timelessness and smart "tailored" looks. That's right! Ann is an idea, not a real life person.
From there, things took off, and the label found its foothold in the 60s and 70s, as more women stepped out of the home into 4 year college educations and careers. The company's line of classic clothing geared towards this emerging group proved popular and they opened new shops primarily in northeastern college towns including Providence, Boston, Cambridge, and Georgetown.
Ann Taylor became a go-to destination for trend-setting styles for professional, fashion-forward women. It played a major role in solidifying the concept of trousers and pants as part of everyday/office wear for women. They carried pieces and exclusive collections from other upscale designer labels, including fashion newcomer/innovator Perry Ellis. It was a brand for the young and upwardly mobile: the newly-minted Mary Tyler Moores of the world.
"Describing a 1978 Ann Taylor catalogue, one writer for Working Woman magazine noted…‘a duo of well-dressed working women ganging up on a would-be mugger, hitting him with their Ann Taylor purses. The message: The Ann Taylor woman might wear silk and cashmere, but watch out--she's taken karate.’”
So trendy was Ann during these decades that one of their 1978 shopping bag designs was added to Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum's permanent collection.
And this is where the label for this Marimekko dress in our latest collection makes its entrance. I had seen the 60s/70s Ann Taylor Sportswear label before, but was confused when I found it inside what is clearly a Marimekko design! Several vague internet sources state that Ann Taylor "collaborated" with Marimekko in the 60s. However, the Keidas or "oasis" print on this dress is well-documented as being developed by Marimekko designer Annika Rimala in around 1967, and features on many of their designs of that era. There are extant examples of the same print and same silhouette retailed solely by Marimekko at the same time.
So my thinking is this was less of a true collaboration and more of an "imported for/retailed by" situation: one of their exclusive upscale European labels they offered at the time. So how did Ann Taylor, a brand with decidedly preppy/New England roots, end up carrying pieces by a still relatively obscure Finnish brand with a reputation for bold colors and "architectonic" silhouettes?
Just up I95 in Cambridge, MA, Design Research had begun retailing Marimekko clothing in 1959. One year later, Jacqueline Kennedy bought seven Marimekko dresses to wear on the 1960 presidential campaign trail. She appeared in one such dress on the cover of Sports Illustrated that year and the label became an "overnight sensation" in the US -according to Marimekko's website.
Jacqueline came from a different (affluent) social set than the typical Ann Taylor customer, who were largely white collar/working class. But she wanted to present herself as youthful, fashionable and approachable: living a life that was extraordinary, but also within reach of the average woman. It makes total sense that only a handful of year later trendy (but not exactly avante-garde) Ann Taylor, just down the way in New Haven, would see the potential in retailing Marimekko to their educated, aspirational young customers.
And that, dear readers, is at least the partial story of this pairing of two iconic but seemingly disparate fashion labels, decades before the now-ubiquitous "collab" trend brought Bart Simpson and Balenciaga together.
The Spirit of a Dress", The Kennedys, Auguststraße 11-13, 10117 Berlin-Mitte, Germany, until 17th February 2013, Opening Times: 11.00 a.m.-7.00 p.m.