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!

Good Fortune: The Story of Miss Cleo's $1 Billion Psychic Empire

The woman sat behind a table, tarot cards in front of her, a turban wrapped tightly around her head. In Jamaican-accented patois, she invited viewers to benefit from her gift of second sight. “Call me now,” Miss Cleo said, and she would reveal all.

Mostly, respondents wanted to know if a lover was cheating on them, though there was no limit to Miss Cleo's divinity. No question was too profound. She could speak with as much wisdom about concerns over financial choices as she could sibling rivalries. Her only challenge was time: Miss Cleo could connect with only a fraction of the people looking for her spiritual guidance, leaving callers in the hands of other (potentially psychically-unqualified) operators.

Still, Miss Cleo became synonymous with psychic phenomena, a way to consult with a medium without getting off your living room couch. From 1997 to 2002, she was a virtually inescapable presence on television—the embodiment of a carnival stereotype that annoyed native Jamaicans, who bristled at her exaggerated accent. It was nonetheless effective: Roughly 6 million calls came in to Miss Cleo over a three-year period, with $1 billion in telephone charges assessed.

Not long after, the companies behind Miss Cleo would be forced to give half of that back amidst charges that they had misled consumers. Despite being a cog in the machine, Miss Cleo herself was vilified. Of the $24 million her hotline raked in monthly, she claimed to have earned just 24 cents a minute, or approximately $15 an hour.

Most people didn’t know she was born in Los Angeles, not in Jamaica; that her real name was Youree Dell Harris; and that her late-night infomercial promising psychic assistance was little more than performance art.

 

Harris may have been raised in California, but Miss Cleo was born in Seattle. While living in Washington in the 1990s, Harris tried her hand at playwrighting, authoring a play titled For Women Only under the name Ree Perris, which she performed at Seattle's Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center. In it, Harris wrote and portrayed a Jamaican woman named Cleo, a clear predecessor to the character that would later pop up in television ads.

After producing three plays, Harris left Seattle amid allegations that she had taken grant money from the Langston Hughes Advisory Council, leaving some of the cast and crew unpaid. (Harris later said she left Seattle due to wanting to distance herself from a bad relationship. She told colleagues she had bone cancer and was leaving the area but that they would be paid at a later date.) She ended up in Florida, where she responded to an ad seeking telephone operators. Harris taped a commercial in character as Cleo—the hotline added the “Miss”—for $1750 and then agreed to monitor a phone line for a set wage. Operators made between 14 and 24 cents a minute, she later said, and she was on the higher end.

Psychic premonitions can be difficult to validate, though Harris never claimed to be a medium. In her own words, she was from a “family of spooky people” and was well-versed in voodoo thanks to study under a Haitian teacher. The Psychic Readers Network and Access Resource Services, a set of sister companies that used workers sourced by a third party for their hotlines, recoiled at the word voodoo and declared her a psychic instead.

If Harris was the genuine article, many of her peers were not. As subcontractors who were not employed by the Psychic Readers Network or Access directly, some responded to ads for “phone actors” and claimed they were given a script from which to work. (Access later denied that operators used a script.) The objective, former "psychics" alleged, was to keep callers on the line for at least 15 minutes. Some customers, who were paying $4.99 a minute for their psychic readings, received phone bills of $300 or more.

When the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) began responding to complaints in 2002, it was not because Harris was portraying a character or because she may have not been demonstrably psychic. It was because the Psychic Readers Network and Access were accused of deceptive advertising. Miss Cleo would urge viewers to call a toll-free 800 number, where operators would then refer them to a paid 900 line to reach a psychic. Miss Cleo also pledged that the first three minutes were free. That was true, though those first three minutes were largely spent on hold.

When people began to dispute their phone charges, Psychic Readers Network and Access were alleged to have referred accounts to collection agencies. Even if a telephone carrier like AT&T canceled the charges, customers would still find themselves subject to harassment over unpaid debt.

Individual states like Missouri and Florida sued or fined the companies, but it was the FTC that created the largest storm cloud. Of the $1 billion earned through the hotline, $500 million remained uncollected from stubborn or delinquent consumers. In a complaint and subsequent settlement, the FTC ordered those debts canceled and imposed a $5 million fine on the companies. Psychic Readers Network and Access did not admit to any wrongdoing.

As for Miss Cleo: Harris was only briefly named in the Florida lawsuit before she was dropped from it; the FTC acknowledged that spokespersons couldn’t be held liable for violations. But the association was enough, and newspaper reporters couldn’t resist the low-hanging fruit. Most headlines were a variation of, “Bet Miss Cleo didn’t see this one coming.”

 

Outed as a faux-Jamaican and with her Seattle past further damaging her reputation, Harris faded from the airwaves. Her fame, however, was persistent. She recorded a voice for a Grand Theft Auto: Vice City game for a character that strongly resembled her onscreen psychic. Private psychic sessions were also in demand, with Harris charging anywhere from $75 to $250 per person. Her Haitian-inspired powers of deduction, she said, were genuine.

Eventually, enough time passed for Miss Cleo to become a source of nostalgia. In 2014, General Mills hired her to endorse French Toast Crunch, a popular cereal from the 1990s that was returning to shelves. Following both the Grand Theft Auto and General Mills deals, Psychic Readers Network cried foul, initiating litigation claiming that the Miss Cleo character was their intellectual property and that Harris's use was a trademark and copyright violation. General Mills immediately pulled the ads. (The argument against Rockstar Games, which produced Grand Theft Auto, was late in coming: Psychic Readers Network brought the case in 2017, 15 years after the game’s original release. The lawsuit is ongoing.)

Unfortunately, Harris’s continued use of the image would shortly become irrelevant. She died in 2016 at age 53 following a bout with cancer. Obituaries identified her as “Miss Cleo” and related her longtime frustration at being associated with the FTC lawsuit. “According to some articles, I’m still in jail,” she told Vice in 2014. Instead, she was where she had always been: Behind a table, listening, and revealing all.

When 'Courage' Caused Controversy for Dan Rather

Kevin Winter, Getty Images
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

In early 1981, Dan Rather was profiled by a number of media outlets as he prepared to take over as news anchor of CBS Evening News that March. The venerable news program had been headlined by Walter Cronkite for the previous 19 years, with Cronkite typically signing off each broadcast by telling viewers, “And that’s the way it is.”

Speaking to journalists, Rather didn’t give any indication if or when he might adopt his own signature closing statement, a tradition in news exemplified by Cronkite, Edward R. Murrow (“Good night and good luck”), and Charles Osgood (“See you on the radio”), among others. But in one October 1981 interview, Rather did mention that one of his favorite words was courage.

“[Ernest] Hemingway thought that courage was grace under pressure,” Rather told The Boston Globe. “When it comes to courage, I have not been put to the test.”

Just five years later, Rather would find himself the focus of a situation that, while not necessarily requiring courageousness, tested his resolve in the face of public ridicule. It started when he concluded a summer newscast with a pithy send-off that was part self-help advice, part personal message, and somewhat confusing.

“And that’s the CBS Evening News for this summer-ending Labor Day,” he said. “Dan Rather reporting from New York.”

Rather paused, then added, “Courage. Good night.”

That an innocuous, two-syllable word like courage could cause such a stir is attributable in part to the landscape of the news media of the 1980s. In addition to newspapers, Americans got their information primarily from the three major networks: CBS, NBC, and ABC. Fox, which launched in 1986, didn’t offer primetime news programming; CNN, which debuted in 1980 and pioneered the 24-hour news cycle, didn’t hit its hard news stride until the 1990s (it was regularly referred to as the Chicken Noodle Network during its first decade on the air). As a result, the networks placed great emphasis on the approach and style of their news programming.

Contrasted against his counterparts—Tom Brokaw at NBC and Peter Jennings at ABC—Rather was considered a stern presence on television. The Rather “stare,” as one television critic put it, defied viewers to question the veracity of each report. Management urged Rather to lighten his tone, first by getting him to wear V-neck sweaters, then by interjecting misplaced quips into his reports. (“Ready, set, Gorbachev!” Rather declared before one segment on the then-Soviet Union leader.)

Still, an emphasis on human interest stories and audience loyalty kept the CBS Evening News on top of the ratings during the first few years of Rather’s tenure. The broadcast finished first among the three news programs for 200 straight weeks.

Then, in the summer of 1986, it fell behind. In the mercurial world of news, there was no one specific reason. Brokaw, whose program took the lead, was well-liked; but Rather bristled at suggestions of adopting a lighter tone and was adamant about returning to harder news.

When he came back from an August vacation in time for the Labor Day broadcast on September 1, 1986, he had decided to take a new approach to concluding the broadcast. “Courage” was added before Rather told viewers to have a good night. To some, it was peculiar. To media observers, it was a sharp departure from the kind of objectivity expected of journalists. Was Rather advising viewers to grow a backbone? Was he dismayed at the state of affairs? Others used it as fodder for comic takes in editorials.

Attempts to parse his use of the word went unaided by Rather himself, who cautioned people not to read into it. “Don’t overanalyze it,” he said. “There’s no deep, hidden meaning.” It was just a salutation he had used with friends for years and one that also happened to be one of his father’s favorite words. Rather used it to sign off on some of his radio broadcasts in the 1970s.

“If feels right to me and I think the audience will be comfortable with it,” he said.

CBS executives tried to talk him out of it. “I’m the only one who likes it,” Rather said of the internal response. Howard Stringer, a CBS Evening News producer who had just been named president of the CBS news division, said it was Rather’s “right” to close the broadcast however he liked, but stopped short of endorsing the habit.

Rather did it on Tuesday of that week, and again on Wednesday, but with a twist: Following a Bill Moyers report on the Texas-Mexico border, Rather said coraje, the Spanish word for courage. When that was met with derision, he labeled it an “ill-advised lark.”

Ultimately, Rather's sign off experiment was short-lived. It ended that Friday, with the anchor again wishing “courage” on his viewers. The following Monday, it was back to business as usual, with reports claiming that executives were finally able to convince the broadcaster to abandon his closing statement. September ended with the CBS Evening News again trailing the NBC Nightly News by one-half a ratings point.

Rather had the last word—of sorts—when he ended his tenure as the CBS Evening News anchor in March 2005. For his final broadcast, he looked into the camera and made one final statement. “And to each of you, courage,” he said.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER