Influential Images: London Fog Raincoats
August 26, 2011 § 3 Comments
With the possibility of a hurricane on the way, I thought that posting this famous London Fog ad from 1966, which replicated Noah’s Ark, seemed timely. I’m not sure even a weatherproof trench will protect anyone if the storm really does arrive to the East Coast on Sunday.
In 1923, a 16 year old named Israel “Izzy” Myers, a former stenographer and state champion in shorthand, switched jobs and began working at the Londontown Clothing Company in Baltimore, Maryland. The company, which became Londontown Clothes in 1927, was known for menswear and outerwear. When Londontown Clothes closed during the Great Depression, Myers saw an opportunity and purchased the company name and property. He opened Londontown Manufacturing and began to produce his own menswear.
During WWII, along with many other American apparel manufacturers, Londontown Manufacturing was given a military contract and asked to produce 10,000 raincoats for U.S. soldiers. This large order sustained the company’s growth, and catapulted them into the 1950s, when they began to sell military-style trenches to stores like Sears and J.C. Penney.
In 1951, Myers began to think waterproof fabric was the key to Londontown’s future. He began to blend Dacron with the cotton in his coats, and eventually partnered with DuPont to create an entirely waterproof fabric. The men’s London Fog Maincoat, introduced in 1954, was the first of its kind to have a removable liner. The all-weather, sleek silhouetted coat was a runaway hit. It sold out at Wanamaker’s Department Store in Philadelphia, where it was first sold, and at Saks Fifth Avenue. The London Fog Maincoat retailed for $29.95. Londontown continued to innovate in terms of design features, and patented a button-strengthening process and a coat liner.
The launch of the women’s London Fog Maincoat cemented the company’s success. In 1961, Londontown Manufacturing went public. In 1969, Izzy’s son Jonathan took over the company’s reins, and gave the brand a refresh. He created additional fashion categories outside of rainwear, including luggage, children’s wear, eyewear and apparel. He began producing a lower-priced rainwear line called Clipper Mist. He also advertised the London Fog coats on television. It was a first for a clothing manufacturer; traditionally all apparel ads were co-ops with major retailers. Jonathan stayed with the company as CEO, and eventually as Chairman Emeritus, until 1990.
By the 1970s, two-thirds of all raincoats sold in the U.S. were London Fog, leading the SEC to take a look at whether or not the company was monopolizing the market. During that decade, Jonathan opened London Fog retail stores before selling Londontown to Interco (who owned Florsheim) in 1976. He and his brother-in-law stayed on and continued to oversee the company’s day-to-day operations.
The 1980s were a more tumultuous era for Londontown. Interco was forced into bankruptcy, and the company was shuffled back and forth between various financial entities. This has been the case for so many family businesses in manufacturing; once the company is sold, it’s in the hands of people who might mismanage it or might not care as much as the original owners did about the soul of the brand. It’s unclear from research who ran these Stefanie Powers commercials for London Fog, but they are cited as “wildly successful”. *Update! My good friend Hardy just let me know that his father, the amazing fashion photographer William Helburn, shot this commercial. Hardy was there and remembers Ms. Powers as being very kind.*
In the 1990s, the owners of the brand expanded into Europe and opened 25 stores in China. An early adopter, I’d say. Iconix Brand Group bought London Fog in 2006, and the company still resides there today.
Although London Fog’s current ad campaigns feature sexy images of celebrities in raincoats, the most memorable cultural mention of the brand for many people was on TV’s Mad Men in 2009. In the show, adman Don Draper gives new life to what’s described as a fuddy-duddy brand with his racy concept for the “Limit Your Exposure” ad campaign:
London Fog’s real adman of the 1960s, Richard Gilbert, of Gilbert Advertising, has argued that the brand was inaccurately portrayed, and that London Fog was not a washed-up company in need of such dramatically provocative advertising.