Home Past Trends Read Perfect Pieces Material Matters Gallery Fashions Finest Journal

~ ALEX COLMAN ~

 

The Alex Colman label was one of the best of the many California clothing companies that opened during the post WWII period. They were known for their lovely prints and clothing for a casual lifestyle. The company was founded by Sade Colman and her husband Alex in 1947. The following is an interview with their son. Robert, who was the president of Alex Colman in the 1970s.
 
Until he joined your mother in her blouse manufacturing business, your father's fashion experience was in retail.  How did this experience help shape the direction the company took?
 
My father worked for Bambergers, Newark , New Jersey, Strawbridge and Clothier, Philadelphia, Pa and then the May Company here in Los Angeles before joining my mother in her business. He was the women's sportswear buyer at the May Co and found a blouse called the Dixie blouse that was a big seller at the May Co.  He gave that style to my mother and she started manufacturing it.  It was the beginning of Alex Colman Sportswear. My father left the May Co. soon thereafter and joined my mother in business.  His experience in retail was a big asset to their early success.

1949 Advertisement

 

from a 1952 American Fabrics  magazine

 

 

I've read that not only your mother, but also her 2 sisters, worked for Alex Colman.  In a 1952 picture I've seen they were all 3 very professionally dressed in suits.  Did they wear Alex Colman clothing in their leisure time?
 
It was truly a family business. In the first picture you see my father, my mother and my Aunt, Blanche Lefton.  She was our primary designer off and on for over thirty years.  She too had a retail background, working for May Company Los Angeles, then Meir & Frank in Portland, Oregon, Harris Co. San Bernadino and The White House in San Francisco.
 
The next picture encompasses both the top executives of the company, at that time, and most of my family that worked in the company. From left to right: Jules Yadley, my mother's brother in law who was sales manager. Next to him was my mother's sister Esther Novick, who was my father's executive assistant and worked in the Los Angeles Showroom. Seated is my father. In back of him is Esther's husband, Irving Novick, who was the controller of the company. He is still alive today. Then my mother and next to her Myron Landon, her brother, also alive today, who worked in the production department with my Aunt, Tommy Yadley, not pictured, who was Jules's wife and my mother's sister who was the production manager at that time. And yes, all the women wore Alex Colman clothing from time to time
 
I've always loved the vivid prints Alex Colman used.  Some of them look as if they were engineered to fit the garment.  Did the company have fabrics designed especially for them?  Or were they just very lucky to find such great prints to work with?
 
Blanche Lefton was truly an artist. All the prints you remember were all designed by her. She and I took many trips, to France, Germany and Italy for ideas and inspiration, and then would go on to Japan to work out our exclusive patterns with the printers, Kanebo and Toyobo.  Blanche was an expert at engineering prints so that the borders would match perfectly. Our ability to produce these exclusive prints was one of the primary reasons for our success. The Alex Colman company was one of the first, if not the first American manufacturer that was able to work direct with Japanese mills and not have to go through a converter. 
 
 

1955 Alex Colman California Ad

 

A Store Window Featuring Alex Colman Fashions.  Note the above dress, third from left.  1955  Company promotional photo, courtesy of Robert Colman

Most Alex Colman garments make a bold statement.  Did the company produce coordinates, or were most of the designs just separate pieces of sportswear?
 
Alex Colman Sportswear had an extensive line of both coordinates and separates, but overwhelmingly our coordinate part of the line accounted for the majority of the business. We would take our exclusive prints and team them with polyester coordinates. We did this for years. We were one of  Milliken's biggest customers. At one time we were receiving almost 80,000 yards a week of Millikens double knit polyester that we would cut into to coordinating, pants, skirts and jackets.
 
According to an article I read, you were eleven years old in 1952, and you told me earlier that you were the president of the company in 1976 when you left it.  What was your involvement in the company between those two dates?
 
As for myself. I joined the company in 1961 at the age of 20, first working in the shipping department and soon thereafter getting into sales, eventually becoming sales manager in 1965. By 1968 or 1969 the Alex Colman company went public. By then I was executive vice president, essentially running the company. 
 
In 1973, we were approached by Borden Inc. who was looking to  purchase a company in the apparel field. They liked us.  We merged with Borden, my parents retired and I became President of the company, continuing to run the company for the next three years, until I retired, in 1976.
 

 

1960s Alex Colman Dress

What do you feel is the most important contribution your family's company made to fashion?
 
As far as the Alex Colman's company contribution to fashion, I would say a few things and not in any particular order and not necessarily regarding fashion. There were probably many fashion lines that from time to time were better designed than Alex Colman.

1. The Alex Colman line was distributed extensively across the United States. Probably more than any other California based company. the only exception might have been Koret of California. Looking back, I would say that the Alex Colman Company was the Liz Claiborne of the 60's and 70's.

2. We did a lot for promoting the so called California look. Before Alex Colman, stores would carry,  for example in fall, only woolen fabrics from Eastern manufacturers.  We were able to show retailers that the lighter fabrics, and for the most part, in the 60's and early 70's, it was polyester,  were more comfortable and would sell better.  We also were able to show the retailers that California manufacturers were not just for brightening up their presentations for resort and summer, that we were, in fact, just as innovative and competitive as their resources in New York or Boston were.

3.  Obviously our unique prints set the standard.

4. Another major reason for our success, which had nothing to do with fashion, was a marketing tool, we used, where we would guarantee a maintained markup to our largest retail accounts, essentially guaranteeing that what they bought they would sell or we would take it back. This strategy which is ubiquitous today, as it has been over the last 30 years, was unique in the 60's and cemented a relationship with the retailers that kept our business growing and growing.

1970s Alex Colman Print Maxi Skirt.  Courtesy of  Joules at etsy.

 

Great Alex Colman 1970s print, courtesy of MC Lamb

 

In retrospect, I think, fashion wise, the Alex Colman company was more innovative in the 50's, when I was not around. I was a great believer that true fashion innovation did not necessarily sell around the country. Our weakest market was metropolitan New York, one of the fashion capitols of the World.

 
I would like to add two other thoughts, that contributed to the success of the Alex Colman Company.

1. As the company grew we were able to add some of the smartest and brightest people in the apparel industry. Beginning in the mid 60's most of the major positons in the company were held by non-family members. Before I left, in 1976,  we probably had 5 or 6 designers working on various aspects of the line under the guidance of a merchandiser, who we bought in from Robinsons Department Store here in Los Angeles.

2. The Alex Colman company was of the first companies to start manufacturing, in a major way, in Mexico. By the late 60's almost 25% of our production came from a factory we controlled in Mexicali. Between buying the fabrics direct in Japan and manufacturing garments in Mexico, we were able to produce a well designed product at a price that was competitive.

 

 

Robert Colman, interview via email, June 4, 2008.


Copyright 2008 Lizzie Adams Bramlett. All Rights Reserved.
Fuzzylizzie Home