The Swan. I had forgotten all about that swan and the role it played in so many lives in the 1980s. It was a status symbol, a badge, a side some people chose in a now silly but then important battle. It took just a passing mention in a show I watched last weekend to remind me. We talk today about cell phone, beer, and cola wars in advertising. In the 1980s, there was a blue jeans war and the Swan was a force.
The reminder came while I was watching “Nothing Left Unsaid” on HBO. In it, CNN’s Anderson Cooper takes a look at the life of his mother, Gloria Vanderbilt. The program had only a brief section devoted to her blue jeans company. The Swan was not only the logo on the front pocket of the jeans, it was also the play in which she had her first breakout acting role, her stage debut. Seeing the fleeting glimpse of the Swan on a mannequin wearing blue jeans was all I needed to be transported back to the 80s.
In that era, I was too young to be wearing anything other than what my Mom laid out for me each morning, so I only had a spectator’s seat in the blue jeans wars. But that does not mean I did not notice who was wearing the Swan insignia, and who was wearing the competitor’s denim. All I had to do was look across the street: the older kids on my block were fashion-conscious and made a big deal out of which blue jeans brand they wore – Gloria Vanderbilt, Calvin Klein, Jordache, or Guess? That is not a question, that is how Guess? punctuates.
On the women’s side, Gloria Vanderbilt’s blue jeans competed for air time and print space with Calvin Klein, Jordache, and Guess? jeans. Many of these ads made stars of their models while promoting images of sensuality, helping to sell millions of pairs of jeans.
Designer jeans cost about twice what the more pedestrian Levi’s cost. Designers created edgy – for the time – spots that were banned from air on some networks. They used flirty, pretty girls and gorgeous women, and sometimes men, to sell their brands. They spent 10% of their revenue (at that time, rare for fashion) on advertising, promising to make their wearers chic and sexy. And consumers bought the designer jeans in droves.
Brooke Shields was the face of Calvin Klein. She was just 15 when she worked with photographer Richard Avedon on the campaign. He captured the teenager seductively, without much dialogue. The entirety of the spoken portion is “Want to know what comes between me and my Calvin Klein jeans? Nothing.”
Carla Bruni was one of the many stars of the Guess? campaign. She went on to have a successful modeling career and is known more recently as the former First Lady of France, having married former President Nicolas Sarkozy. And even more recently, she became the sister-in-law of Mary-Kate Olsen, after her wedding to Nicolas’ brother, Olivier.
Jordache also used many models who were signed to Elite Model Management, but none were household names.
Gloria Vanderbilt and her jeans ads, though, deviated from those formulas. Gloria herself was in many ads for her brand, projecting an aura of superior social standing on those who wore her jeans.
Socialite-turned-designer Vanderbilt used her upper class pedigree to propel Vanderbilt to the highest selling brand in 1979, selling 6 million pairs of jeans. A year later, Calvin Klein leap-frogged Vanderbilt to number one in sales, thanks to the racy Brooke Shields spots. The next year, 15 million pairs of Calvins were sold – more than double Vanderbilt’s number from two years prior.