A Brief History of Members Only Jackets

Style Stash via Etsy
Style Stash via Etsy

While there are few unbreakable rules in advertising, most agencies would advise against using images of Adolf Hitler in association with your clothing brand. Nazi iconography tends to turn off potential buyers.

The exception? Members Only.

The men’s outerwear brand famous for its tablecloth-like fabrics, ribbed bottoms, and shoulder epaulettes was one of the biggest success stories in 1980s fashion—so successful that they actually grew bored with their celebrity endorsements and decided to use their advertising dollars on anti-drug and pro-vote campaigns. Instead of paying for models, the company paid for public service announcements about drug-addicted infants and violence against police officers. During the 1988 election year, they rolled off footage of Hitler as a way of inciting voters to take an interest in the country’s political future. 

Some markets refused to air the commercials, but Members Only and its two owners had built a $100 million clothing empire by bucking trends and defying convention.   

After a stint in the Marines, Herb Goldsmith went to work for his father’s outerwear company, Chief Apparel, in the late 1940s. Packing orders and stuffing inventory full of moth-resistant camphor balls, Goldsmith developed an eye and feel for men’s fashion. (Mostly a feel: Goldsmith was color blind.)

Although his father was content to keep Chief in the Northeast, Goldsmith thought the brand had potential in other markets. He hit the road and sold buyers on sports jackets, eventually enlisting actor Tony Curtis to endorse their products. When he came across Velcro in 1958, he immediately struck a deal for kid’s coats to be fastened with it, knowing that their lack of fine motor skills often left zippers hanging.

Not everything was a success—Velcro wasn’t a smash, and he once passed up a deal with two obscure designers named Dolce and Gabbana—but Goldsmith knew the apparel business.

Following his father’s death, Goldsmith joined with partner Ed Wachtel to buy out the import company Europe Craft in 1961. The two sourced designs from overseas and worked on more daring menswear designs than American companies had been offering. Their Convoy Coat became a big seller; later, they enlisted television star Telly Savalas to help design and endorse a line of suits. Although Savalas was a snappy dresser, his fans apparently weren’t big on buying formal wear; Europe Craft discontinued the line within a year.

By the late 1970s, Goldsmith and Wachtel were being cautioned by their retail buyers that customers were looking for slimmer cuts in their jackets: Young men weren’t responding to the square-shouldered suits their fathers wore.

On a buying trip in Munich, Goldsmith spotted a jacket that had a knitted bottom and epaulettes—the straps on the shoulders common in military uniforms. In New York, he discovered a chintz fabric that was thin, shiny, and came in 40 colors. At the time, outerwear had a muted color palette; the idea of offering a jacket in green or a blinding white was contrarian. And that’s exactly what Goldsmith wanted.

Blending the fabric and design while adding touches of his own—like a strap around the collar—Goldsmith needed a brand identity. While at a country club in Long Island, he noticed a large sign outside of the entrance: Members Only.

Later, he took note that Diners Club cards had a key on their logo; for Members Only, he added a keyhole. It hinted at access and exclusivity, provided you had the good taste to purchase one.

After a few rough drafts, the completed, $55 retail Members Only jacket debuted in 1980. It was a modest success. Retailers couldn’t display as many colors as Goldsmith had available, and he had to petition them to get rid of the typical “pipe rack” display common with most jackets of the time. Members Only selections were displayed in a cascading, tiered rack, so buyers could get a complete look at the design.

Taking note of the free gifts common in cosmetics purchases, Goldsmith also introduced ancillary Members Only items like tote bags and watches to act as a sales incentive. Before long, the jackets were being paired with Izod golf shirts and Levi’s jeans for entertainment attorneys flying from coast to coast; the style was being passed around the country in circles that could prove to be influential. Before long, Members Only jackets were showing up—unsolicited—on movie and television personalities.

Goldsmith still needed to mount a purposeful ad campaign. When he was mulling over a celebrity endorsee, his daughter told him to contact soap opera actor Anthony Geary, at the time a hugely recognizable performer on ABC’s General Hospital. While most men didn’t care about Geary, Goldsmith knew that women frequently drove apparel choices during shopping excursions.

Members Only signed Geary in 1982. In television commercials, he suggested that, “When you put it on … something happens.”

That “something” was a jump to $100 million in sales by 1984. During personal appearances, Geary was mobbed by up to 5000 shoppers and protected by police barricades. Members Only had become a leading brand in outerwear, with Goldsmith adding women’s sizes, more colors, and winter versions with quilted lining. An estimated 15 million men sported the jackets.

Everything was such a smashing success that Goldsmith could take chances. And for his 1986 ad campaign, he would take one of the biggest.

The press that had been assembled to screen the new ad campaign for the hottest outerwear brand in the country didn’t know what to make of it. Musicians and athletes—like Nets star Buck Williams—were ranting about the evils of drug addiction. One spot depicted a police shield riddled with bullets, collateral damage in the drug war. In form and function, they were public service announcements, with a “brought to you by Members Only” button coming only at the very end.

Goldsmith had committed his entire $6 million ad budget to the idea, which was born out of President Ronald Reagan’s high-profile crackdown on drugs. The Members Only spots aired on radio, on television, and in print, minimizing the brand in order to deliver a potent anti-drug message.

"We've done a good job of getting our name known,'' Wachtel told The New York Times in 1986. ''We want to use the fact that we are well known, and see if we can stop people from using drugs for the first time, which is our goal.''

There were some in the industry who thought the two had lost their minds, but in 1987, sales jumped 15 percent. Some individual stores reported increases of as much as 82 percent. Local markets who wanted to support the message even gave free airtime to the company. Goldsmith had struck a perfect balance between community service and commercial success. First Lady Nancy Reagan wrote him a letter of thanks.

The downside of the approach is that it made it difficult for Members Only to return to the comparatively more superficial celebrity testimonials. In 1988, Goldsmith and his ad agency, Korey Kay, decided to build a new campaign around voter registration. In a series of a spots, Members Only reminded apathetic voters that the country's political process is what keeps "idiots" like Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin out of power. Footage of German concentration camps were shown. Some found the ads offensive, but Members Only retained their share of the apparel market: More than a quarter of all outerwear sold bore the brand's label.

With Wachtel having retired in 1987, Goldsmith finished a five-year deal with new owners Marcade in 1992. Increasingly, retailers were less interested in fashion and more interested in bypassing labels to source cheap clothing with overseas suppliers. An excess inventory of 90,000 jackets was once bartered for advertising and travel credit.

Members Only never regained the cachet it enjoyed in the 1980s, beginning to pop up as an ironic accessory in popular culture. When Tony Soprano was maybe or maybe not whacked in the series finale of The Sopranos, it was a man in a Members Only jacket who likely did him in. (The ambiguous end was contrary to the brand’s slogan: Fans thought nothing happened.)

Members Only lives on today as a lifestyle brand, the original design joined by modern interpretations. It's unlikely the line will ever again reach the heights it did three decades ago. For customers who shopped the cascading racks in the ‘80s, nothing less than tablecloth fabrics and Joseph Stalin will do.

Additional Sources:
Only the Best Will Do!

Traumatic Episodes: A History of the ABC Afterschool Special

BCI / Sunset Home Visual Entertainment via Amazon
BCI / Sunset Home Visual Entertainment via Amazon

My Dad Lives in a Downtown Hotel. The Toothpaste Millionaire. Me and Dad’s New Wife. She Drinks a Little. Please Don’t Hit Me, Mom. High School Narc. Don’t Touch. From 1972 to 1996, no topic was too taboo for the ABC Afterschool Special, an anthology series that aired every other Wednesday at 4 p.m. Each of the standalone, hour-long installments highlighted issues facing teens and young adults, from underage drinking to the stress of living in a foster home. For the millions of viewers tuning in, it might have been their first exposure to a difficult topic—or the first indication that they weren’t alone in their struggle.

The Afterschool Special originated in the early 1970s, when programming executives at ABC had an epiphany: While there was a lot of content for families and adults during primetime, soap operas for adults in the daytime, and cartoons for children on Saturday mornings, there was relatively little content directed specifically at teenagers and pre-teens. The network saw an opportunity to fill that gap by airing topical specials midweek, when parents watching General Hospital might leave the television on and stick around to watch some TV with their adolescent children.

Initially, the network solicited a mix of fanciful stories and serious, issue-based melodramas. In the animated Incredible, Indelible, Magical Physical Mystery Trip, two kids were shrunk down to the size of a cell to travel through their uncle’s body. In Follow the Northern Star, a boy ushers a friend through the Underground Railroad to escape slavery.

 

Not long after the series debuted in the fall of 1972, ABC executives—including Brandon Stoddard, who was initially in charge of the show and was later responsible for getting the landmark 1977 miniseries Roots and David Lynch's quirky Twin Peaks onto the air—realized that the more puerile stories may have been working against them.

According to Martin Tahse, a producer on dozens of these specials, it was rare for older teens to watch programming intended for younger children. Pre-teens, on the other hand, would watch content meant for an older audience. By season three, the specials were largely made up of topical content. In The Skating Rink, a teen skater overcomes shyness borne out of stuttering. In The Bridge of Adam Rush, a teen copes with a cross-country move after his mother remarries.

The ABC Afterschool Special was an immediate hit, drawing an average of 9.4 million viewers between 1972 and 1974. Many episodes were based on young adult novels, like Rookie of the Year, which stars Jodie Foster as a girl struggling to find acceptance on a boys’ Little League team, or Sara’s Summer of the Swans, about a young woman searching for her missing, mentally challenged brother.

The series also sourced material from magazine articles, short stories, and other venues. For 1983’s The Wave, which originally aired on ABC in primetime in 1981, the story of a high school teacher who describes fascism and Hitler’s rise to power by successfully convincing his students to subscribe to a dictatorial rule, was based on the real experiences of Palo Alto teacher Ron Jones.

The effect of the topical episodes could be potent. For a 1985 special titled One Too Many, which starred Val Kilmer as an underage drinker and Michelle Pfeiffer as his girlfriend, one viewer wrote in to the Los Angeles Times to explain how the show had impacted her:

After watching the ABC Afterschool Special titled One Too Many, a story of drinking and driving, I realized I have taken too many chances with my life. I always think I can handle myself and my car after I’ve had something to drink. Nothing has happened to me … yet. I’d like to thank ABC for showing a program that could possibly save the lives of my friends and me. I’ve realized that drinking and driving is not worth the price of life.

 

As Tahse explained to interviewer Kier-La Janisse, the specials resonated with kids because they rarely indulged in what could be considered a fairy tale ending. “It had to be real,” he said. “If kids watched any of my three specials dealing with alcoholic parents, they were never given a fairy tale ending. I saw to that, because I came from an alcoholic father and knew all the tricks and I wanted the kids who watched—many dealing with the same problem or having friends who had alcoholic parents—to know how it really is.”

The shows also picked up their share of awards. One installment, the self-explanatory Andrea’s Story: A Hitchhiking Tragedy, won five Daytime Emmys in 1984, a third of all the Daytime Emmys ABC won that year. A Special Gift, a 1979 show about a basketball player who takes up ballet, won a Peabody Award.

By the mid-1980s, the specials attempted to strike more of a balance between morality plays and lighthearted fare. The 1984-1985 season consisted of seven episodes, including three comedies and one musical. In The Almost Royal Family, Sarah Jessica Parker stars as a teen whose family buys a home outside the jurisdiction of Canada and the U.S. In Mom’s on Strike, an overworked mother decides to suspend her duties until her family can appreciate her contributions.

Gradually, the specials began leaning back toward hot-button topics. Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Productions took over producing the series in 1991. That season, Winfrey introduced the episodes, including two panel discussions about relationships and race relations. Though the series did revert back to fictional narratives, it gradually lost its footing in the wake of shows that had a more adolescent bent. A “Very Special Episode” of Beverly Hills, 90210 or Family Matters was essentially a stealth afterschool special. The series was canceled in 1996.

That the show endured for nearly a quarter of a century is a testament to the craftsmanship of producers like Tahse and the support of ABC, who rarely shied away from difficult topics. Still, Tahse—who died in 2014—believed that the series' broad appeal went beyond that.

“The only rule of storytelling that ABC required we follow was … the kid always had to figure out what to do and do it,” he said. “No finger-waving by parents, no lectures by parents. It was a kid who was in a situation and found, through his or her own efforts, a solution.”

Batmania: When Batman Ruled the Summer of 1989

JD Hancock, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
JD Hancock, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

“Flop” is how marketing research group Marketing Evaluation Inc. assessed the box office potential of the 1989 Warner Bros. film Batman. The big-budget production, directed by Tim Burton and co-starring Michael Keaton as Batman and Jack Nicholson as the Joker, was expected to be one of the rare times a major Hollywood studio took a comic book adaptation seriously. But according to the marketing data, the character of Batman was not as popular as the Incredible Hulk, who was then appearing in a slate of made-for-television movies. And he was only a quarter as appealing as the California Raisins, the claymation stars of advertising.

That prediction was made in 1988. The film was released on June 23, 1989, and went on to gross $253.4 million, making it the fifth most successful motion picture up to that point.

While Marketing Evaluation may have miscalculated the movie’s potential, they did hedge their bet. By the time profits from the movie’s merchandising—hats, shirts, posters, toys, bed sheets, etc.—were tallied, the company said, Warner Bros. could be looking at a sizable haul.

When the cash registers stopped ringing, the studio had sold $500 million in tie-in products, which was double the gross of the film itself.

In 1989, people didn’t merely want to see Batman—they wanted to wear the shirts, eat the cereal, and contemplate, if only for a moment, putting down $499.95 for a black denim jacket studded with rhinestones.

Batmania was in full swing. Which made it even more unusual when the studio later claimed the film had failed to turn a profit.

 

The merchandising blitz of Star Wars in 1977 gave studios hope that ambitious science-fiction and adventure movies would forever be intertwined with elaborate licensing strategies. George Lucas's space opera had driven audiences into a frenzy, leading retailers to stock up on everything from R2-D2 coffee mugs to plastic lightsabers. It was expected that other “toyetic” properties would follow suit.

They didn’t. Aside from 1982’s E.T., there was no direct correlation between a film’s success and demand for ancillary product. In 1984 alone, Gremlins, Ghostbusters, and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom were smash hits. None of them motivated people to flock to stores and buy Gizmo plush animals or toy proton packs. (Ghostbusters toys eventually caught on, but only after an animated series helped nudge kids in their direction.)

Warner Bros. saw Batman differently. When the script was being developed, producers Jon Peters and Peter Guber were urging writers to make sure scenes were aligned with planned merchandising. They scribbled notes insisting that no onscreen harm come to the Batmobile: It should remain pristine so that kids would want to grab the toy version. As Batman, millionaire Bruce Wayne had a collection of vehicles and gadgets at his disposal—all props that could be replicated in plastic. Batman's comic book origins gave him a unique iconography that lent itself to flashy graphic apparel.

In March 1989, just three months before the film's release, Warner Bros. announced that it was merging with Time Inc. to create the mega-conglomerate Time-Warner, which would allow the film studio to capitalize on a deep bench of talent to help drive the “event” feel of the film.

Prince was signed to Warner's record label and agreed to compose an album of concept music that was tied to the characters; “Batdance" was among the songs and became a #1 hit. Their licensing arm, Licensing Corporation of America, contracted with 300 licensees to create more than 100 products, some of which were featured in an expansive brochure that resembled a bat-eared Neiman Marcus catalog. The sheer glut of product became a story, as evidenced by this Entertainment Tonight segment on the film's licensing push:

In addition to the rhinestone jacket, fans could opt for the Batman watch ($34.95), a baseball cap ($7.95), bicycle shorts ($26.95), a matching top ($24.95), a model Batwing ($29.95), action figures ($5.95), and a satin jacket modeled by Batman co-creator Bob Kane ($49.95).

The Batman logo became a way of communicating anticipation for the film. The virtually textless teaser poster, which had only the June 23 opening date printed on it, was snapped up and taped to walls. (Roughly 1200 of the posters sized for bus stops and subways were stolen, a crude but effective form of market research.) In barber shops, people began asking to have the logo sheared into the sides of their heads. The Batman symbol was omnipresent. If you had forgotten about the movie for even five minutes, someone would eventually walk by sporting a pair of Batman earrings to remind you.

At Golden Apple Comics in Los Angeles, 7000 packs of Batman trading cards flew out the door. Management hired additional staff and a security guard to handle the crowds. The store carried 36 different kinds of Batman T-shirts. Observers compared the hysteria to the hula hoop craze of the 1950s.

One retailer made a more contemporary comparison. “There’s no question Batman is the hottest thing this year,” Marie Strong, manager of It’s a Small World at a mall in La Crosse, Wisconsin, told the La Crosse Tribune. “[It’s] the hottest [thing] since Spuds McKenzie toward the end of last year.”

 

By the time Batman was in theaters and breaking records—it became the first film to make $100 million in just 10 days, alerting studios to the idea of short-term profits—the merchandising had become an avalanche. Stores that didn’t normally carry licensed goods, like Macy’s, set up displays.

Not everyone opted for officially-licensed apparel: U.S. marshals conducted raids across the country, seizing more than 40,000 counterfeit Batman shirts and other bogus items.

Collectively, Warner raked in $500 million from legitimate products. In 1991, the Los Angeles Times reported that the studio claimed only $2.9 million in profit had been realized from merchandising and that the movie itself was in a $35.8 million financial hole owing to excessive promotional and production costs. It was a tale typical of creative studio accounting, long a method for avoiding payouts to net profit participants. (Nicholson, whose contract stipulated a cut of all profits, earned $50 million.)

Whatever financial sleight-of-hand was implemented, Warner clearly counted on Batman to be a money-printing operation. Merchandising plans for the sequel, 1992’s Batman Returns, were even more strategic, including a tie-in agreement with McDonald’s for Happy Meals. In a meta moment, one deleted script passage even had Batman’s enemies attacking a toy store in Gotham full of Batman merchandise. The set was built but the scene never made it onscreen.

The studio was willing to give Burton more control over the film, which was decidedly darker and more sexualized than the original. Batman Returns was hardly a failure, but merchandising was no longer as hot as it was in the summer of 1989. Instead of selling out of shirts, stores ended up marking down excess inventory. McDonald’s, unhappy with the content of the film, enacted a policy of screening movies they planned to partner with before making any agreements. By the time Warner released 1995’s Batman Forever, the franchise was essentially a feature-length toy commercial.

It paid off. Licensing for the film topped $1 billion. Today, given the choice between a film with Oscar-level prestige or one with the potential to have its logo emblazoned on a rhinestone jacket that people would actually want to buy, studios would probably choose the latter. In that sense, the Batmania of 1989 endures.

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