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Style Stash via Etsy

A Brief History of Members Only Jackets

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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.

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Only the Best Will Do!

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Hey, Vern: It's the Ernest P. Worrell Story
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Mill Creek Entertainment

In her review of the 1991 children’s comedy Ernest Scared Stupid, The Washington Post film critic Rita Kempley described the titular character, the dim-witted but well-meaning Ernest P. Worrell, as “the global village idiot.” As portrayed by Kentucky native Jim Varney, Ernest was in the middle of a 10-film franchise that would see him mistakenly incarcerated (Ernest Goes to Jail), enlisting in the military (Ernest in the Army), substituting for an injured Santa (Ernest Saves Christmas), and returning to formal education in order to receive his high school diploma (Ernest Goes to School).

Unlike slapstick contemporaries Yahoo Serious and Pauly Shore, Varney took a far more unusual route to film stardom. With advertising executive John Cherry III, Varney originated the Ernest character in a series of regional television commercials. By one estimate, Ernest appeared in over 6000 spots, hawking everything from ice cream to used cars. They grew so popular that the pitchman had a 20,000-member fan club before his first movie, 1987’s Ernest Goes to Camp, was even released.

Varney and Ernest became synonymous, so much so that the actor would dread going on dates for fear Ernest fans would approach him; he sometimes wore disguises to discourage recognition. Though he could recite Shakespeare on a whim, Varney was rarely afforded the opportunity to expand his resume beyond the denim-jacketed character. It was for this reason that Varney, though grateful for Ernest’s popularity, would sometimes describe his notoriety as a “mixed blessing,” one that would come to a poignant end foreshadowed by one of his earliest commercials.

Born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1949, Varney spent his youth being reprimanded by teachers who thought his interest in theater shouldn’t replace attention paid to math or science. Varney disagreed, leaving high school just two weeks shy of graduation (he returned in the fall for his diploma) to head for New York with $65 in cash and a plan to perform.

The off-Broadway plays Varney appeared in were not lucrative, and he began to bounce back and forth between Kentucky and California, driving a truck when times were lean and appearing in TV shows like Petticoat Junction when his luck improved. During one of his sabbaticals from Hollywood, he met Cherry, who cast him as an aggressive military instructor named Sergeant Glory in an ad for a car dealer in Nashville, Tennessee.

In 1981, Varney was asked back to film a new spot for Cherry, this one for a dilapidated amusement park in Bowling Green, Kentucky, that Cherry considered so unimpressive he didn’t want to show it on camera. Instead, he created the character of Ernest P. Worrell, a fast-talking, often imbecilic local who is constantly harassing his neighbor Vern. (“Know what I mean, Vern?” became Ernest’s catchphrase.)

The spot was a hit, and soon Varney and Cherry were being asked to film spots for Purity Dairies, pizza parlors, convenience stores, and other local businesses. In the spots, Ernest would usually look into the camera—the audience shared Vern’s point of view—and endorse whatever business had enlisted his services, usually stopping only when Vern devised a way to get him out of sight.

Although the Purity commercials initially drew complaints—the wide-angle lens created a looming Ernest that scared some children—his fame grew, and Varney became a rarity in the ad business: a mascot without a permanent corporate home. He and Cherry would film up to 26 spots in a day, all targeted for a specific region of the country. In some areas, people would call television stations asking when the next Ernest spot was due to air. A Fairfax, Virginia Toyota dealership saw a 50 percent spike in sales after Varney began appearing in ads.

Logging thousands of spots in hundreds of markets, Varney once said that if they had all been national, he and Cherry would have been wealthy beyond belief. But local spots had local budgets, and the occasions where Ernest was recruited for a major campaign were sometimes prohibited by exclusivity contracts: He and Cherry had to turn down Chevrolet due to agreements with local, competing car dealers.

Still, Varney made enough to buy a 10-acre home in Kentucky, expressing satisfaction with the reception of the Ernest character and happily agreeing to a four-picture deal with Disney’s Touchstone Pictures for a series of Ernest features. Released on a near-constant basis between 1987 and 1998, the films were modest hits (Ernest Goes to Camp made $28 million) before Cherry—who directed several of them—and Varney decided to strike out on their own, settling into a direct-to-video distribution model.

“It's like Oz, and the Wizard ain't home," Varney told the Sun Sentinel in 1985, anticipating his desire for autonomy. “Hollywood is a place where everything begins but nothing originates. It's this big bunch of egos slamming into each other.”

Varney was sometimes reticent to admit he had ambitions beyond Ernest, believing his love of Shakespeare and desire to perform Hamlet would be perceived as the cliched story of a clown longing to be serious. He appeared in 1994’s The Beverly Hillbillies and as the voice of Slinky Dog in 1995’s Toy Story. But Ernest would continue to be his trademark.

The movies continued through 1998, at which point Varney noticed a nagging cough. It turned out to be lung cancer. As Ernest, Varney had filmed an anti-smoking public service announcement in the 1980s. In his private life, he was a chain smoker. He succumbed to cancer in 2000 at the age of 50, halting a series of planned Ernest projects that included Ernest Goes to Space and Ernest and the Voodoo Curse.

Varney may never have gotten an opportunity to perform in a wider variety of roles, but he did receive some acknowledgment for the one he had mastered. In 1989, Varney took home an Emmy for Outstanding Performer in a children’s series, a CBS Saturday morning show titled Hey, Vern: It’s Ernest!

“It’s a blessing and a curse,” he told the Orlando Sentinel in 1991, “because it's as hard to escape from it as it is to get into it.''

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The Time Freddy Krueger Became a Nightmare for Will Smith
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Stephen Shugerman/Getty Images

Fans of Will Smith’s music career may think they’ve heard every album and seen every music video from the actor’s days as one half of the hip-hop duo DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince. Thanks to one ill-timed and poorly conceived effort, however, there’s one performance that aired only a handful of times before being permanently pulled. It has never resurfaced on compilations, on MTV, or even on YouTube. And the fault lies solely with Freddy Krueger, who used something even more dangerous than his razor-fingered glove: a small army of lawyers.

A promotional image of Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger
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Back in early 1988, Smith and his musical partner Jazzy Jeff (a.k.a. Jeffrey Allen Townes) released their second album, He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper. It would eventually go platinum, selling 2.5 million copies through 1989 and spinning off the duo’s most successful single, “Parents Just Don’t Understand.”

In late 1987, Townes composed another single, “Nightmare on My Street,” that played with the premise established by the A Nightmare on Elm Street series. In the song, Smith’s dreams are haunted by a scarred bogeyman named “Fred”; a voice modulator mimics the raspy delivery of actor Robert Englund, who portrayed slasher movie icon Freddy Krueger in the Nightmare on Elm Street films. After his run-in, Smith tries calling Jeff to warn him of the threat but it was too late: The killer has gotten to his partner.

Zomba, the parent company behind the album's label, decided the song might be of interest to New Line Cinema, the studio behind the Nightmare film franchise. With the fourth installment, A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, due to hit theaters in August 1988, Zomba executive Barry Weiss approached New Line with the possibility of collaborating and forwarded a tape of the song.

Weiss’s timing was spot-on. New Line had recently conducted research that indicated that 40 percent of A Nightmare of Elm Street's audience was black, and they felt that tying Krueger into the burgeoning rap and hip-hop industry would help cement his appeal to the demographic. But New Line and Weiss couldn’t come to a financial agreement. Instead, the studio went with The Fat Boys and granted permission for the song “Are You Ready for Freddy?” The video, complete with an appearance by Englund (in character), was released just a few months prior to A Nightmare on Elm Street 4 to raise awareness of the sequel.

Although New Line found their collaborators, Zomba didn’t appear willing to give up on the idea of a Freddy takeoff. “Nightmare on My Street” remained on the album, and Smith and Townes recorded a video intended for distribution on MTV. In it, Smith is stalked by a Freddy-like character who appears in a trench coat and has a wrinkled face. Smith’s lyrics make overt reference to a Krueger-esque appearance. (Fred is “burnt like a weenie.”) The eerie house Smith calls home even bears a passing resemblance to the house in the original Nightmare film.

If Zomba thought they could declare the song and video a parody and be safe from legal action, they were mistaken. Almost immediately, New Line's legal team sent a stern letter demanding the music label recall all copies of the song. When that didn't happen, the studio next sought a preliminary injunction to prevent “Nightmare on My Street” from being aired on MTV or elsewhere, citing copyright infringement and a concern that the video would detract from their collaboration with The Fat Boys.

"We own both a character, Freddy Krueger, and the theme music from Nightmare on Elm Street, both of which are protected under the copyright laws," Seth Willenson, New Line's senior vice president of telecommunications, told the Los Angeles Times in August 1988. “By using Freddy in the Jazzy Jeff song, they've infringed our copyright. We're protecting our rights the same way that George Lucas does, because as far as we're concerned, Freddy Krueger is the Star Wars of New Line Cinema."

Weeks before the release of the film, a judge in New York’s United States District Court would have to decide whether Zomba was entitled to a fair use exemption over a fictional child murderer.

Will Smith appears at the Grammy Awards
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To Zomba’s dismay, judge Robert Ward didn’t buy their argument that “Nightmare on My Street” was nothing more than a Weird Al-style satire. Screening the entire first installment of the film series and the music video, Ward noted that the latter drew considerable influence in tone, mood, and characteristics from the feature. Fred’s voice was scratchy like Englund’s; his glove, though it featured phonograph needles instead of razors, was obviously meant to invoke Krueger’s weapon of choice. Where Zomba saw parody, Ward saw little more than a derivative work of a copyrighted property.

“It is in this month that many individuals will make their decision whether Nightmare IV is a film that they are interested in viewing,” wrote Ward in his decision. “Thus, the telecast of the lower quality DJ Jazzy Jeff video with the somewhat silly and less frightening Freddy could dissuade an unspecified number of individuals from seeing the film.” The injunction was granted, with a full hearing to be held at a later date.

That didn’t happen—both parties settled out of court. While the song remained on the record, it began to ship with a disclaimer that it wasn’t associated with New Line; the video, which had aired only briefly on MTV, was pulled, and the court ordered that all copies be destroyed. Whether or not that happened is hard to substantiate, but if the video is lurking in storage somewhere, it has never been excavated. “Nightmare on My Street” has never resurfaced.

If Smith and Townes were bothered by the outcome, they didn’t voice it publicly. Smith even dressed up as Krueger in a 1990 episode of his sitcom, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. But there is one additional bit of film trivia to come out of the case: In seeking to resolve the issue, New Line offered DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince a two-film option. If they accepted the roles, their salaries would be deducted from the settlement payout. One of those projects was 1990’s House Party, which the two declined. The roles eventually went to Kid ‘n Play.

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