I Believe In Labels!: Remembering the ’70s & ’80s Designer Jeans Craze

The designer jeans craze in the '70s and '80s was like some sort of mass delusion — the culture was brainwashed by the idea of a perfect-fitting jean we could disco-dance, roller-boogie and strut through crowded environs in, all the while wiggling, but not jiggling, our junkless trunks.

Maybe your body really is "only a good-looking place to keep your brain warm." (Image via Calvin Klein)

Kids of the '70s and '80s were not left unscathed, with major brands marketing directly to children by 1980, leading parents to struggle to figure out ways to purchase $75 dungarees for their suddenly status-conscious wee ones. One simply could not return to school the year after the craze started in anything but Jordache, Vanderbilt, Bonjour, Sasson ... something. It had to have a label!

Jordache's first TV ad featured a presumably topless woman. Major networks balked, but its airing in the NYC area caused sales to skyrocket. (Image via Marketing Communications)

For me, one of the most memorable labels belonged to Jordache. Who can forget that hypnotic jingle?! (You know which one.)

Note the simultaneous marketing to men and women. (Image via Jordache)

Jordache was launched in NYC 1969 by Israeli brothers Joe, Ralph, David and Avi Nakash, the name coming from a blending of all their names.

Jack Scalia (b. 1950) was one of the big names who cut his teeth in jeans ads. (Image via Jordache)

Interestingly, though their storefront was successful, it was the blackout of 1977 that took them to the next level — because the property was looted and burned! They used their insurance money the following year to turn to manufacturing and to invest in an extravagant ad campaign touting "the Jordache look."

They had the look ... (Image via Jordache)

Their saturation-advertising on TV and in print was nearly faultless — a gimmick involving a Jordache blimp literally crashed and burned in 1980 — helping to convince millions that they wanted the Jordache look. That we wanted it.

Pollak was hired because she looked like Molly Ringwald (b. 1968) but did not charge like her. Also, she had to say she was "a little overweight" in the ad, even though she most definitely wasn't!

By the '90s, Jordache was passé, mostly because it had become utterly ubiquitous, a good problem to have, but also because it had taken to creating stupefying ads like the infamous "I hate my mother" spot starring newcomer Cheryl Pollak (b. 1967), who went on to act in many projects, including The Dark Side of the Sun (1988) with pre-fame Brad Pitt (b. 1963) and Hotel Malibu (1994) with pre-fame Jennifer Lopez (b. 1969).

Jordache also had the dishonor of creating a jeans commercial in which young people fret over an old man they've been frolicking with in the park and who has, apparently, died on them. (Included in the video at the bottom of this post.)

Jordache still exists, offering a premium line as the owner of multiple related (Maurice Sasson, Fubu Ladies) and unrelated (real estate, aircraft) entities.

One of Jordache's biggest competitors was Gloria Vanderbilt (who died at 95 in 2019). The "poor little rich girl," a former model herself, licensed her name in the '70s, ultimately selling out to Murjani in 1978 so that she could be the facewoman of a line of sophisticated, tighter-than-tight designer jeans — Gloria Vanderbilt by Murjani.

In 1979, she was a hit, selling upwards of 6 million pairs.

Debbie Harry (b. 1945) of Blondie was yet another NYC-centric aspect of Gloria Vanderbilt by Murjani (Image via Murjani)

Her marketing relied heavily upon her upper-crust pedigree, including a TV ad in which Vanderbilt elegantly modeled her jeans on an Art Deco-inspired set as buddy Bobby Short (1924-2005) crooned a version of "You're the Top," amended with such lyrics as, "They're for girls who have chauffered Caddies ... they're for girls blessed with wealthy daddies."

Not long after, she sued when a co-op refused to let her buy there, claiming it was because she had Short, who was Black, as her friend. It was the beginning of a surprisingly sour period for a woman "born in a castle" whose name was on everyone's lips — and hips. She wound up suing her lawyer over her Murjani deal, and while she won over a million dollars, she didn't collect, and dealt with financial woes that seemed to have nothing to do with her image.

You must admit that there was something tantalizingly unattainable about the Calvin Klein aesthetic. (Images via Calvin Klein)

Calvin Klein was a major player thanks to Brooke Shields (b. 1965). At just 15, she poured her lithe self into some jeans and, singing "My Darling Clementine," suggestively asked, "Do you know what comes between me and my Calvins?" Before the public's lewd minds could wander, she offered, "Nothing." Asked and answered!

Calvin Klein sold 15 million pairs of jeans that year, one million for each year of Brooke's life.

The spot was a sensation because it came in an era when the sexualization of youth — and, in later spots, of men, a novelty up until then — was a burning issue. Everyone was talking about the ad, about Brooke Shields (she and the spots were mercilessly lampooned) and about those perfect, perfect jeans.

It was also sensational because — like so many other jeans ads — it was borderline (by today's standards, way-over-the-borderline) ridiculous, shameless in its motivations.

There were many second-tier jeans from which to choose, of course, all replete with their own memorable advertising. In fact, most of the designer jeans companies were spending up to 10% of their revenue on new advertising. The entire concept was about appearances, so being seen was as important to the product as being seen in the product was to the consumer.

Bon Jour matches — 'cuz they're hot? (Image via Bon Jour)

Bon Jour — "the Action Jean" — screwed the pooch with its 1979 ad. Starring a New Wave couple, it had a Devo feel, and a vibe that hinted at barely restrained violence. Cold, if memorable, it apparently led to a slump in sales; the company rebounded with more romantic spots, though none as indelible as the failure.

When your jeans outlasted all your relationships ... (Image via Sergio Valente)

Sergio Valente Jeans — named for a nonexistent person — revved things up with absurdist, sexy ads that were checkered with the catchphrase, "Uh-oh! Sergioooo."

Christie Brinkley (b. 1954) would have looked good in anything. (Image via Zena)

Mom jeans? Sure! "Zena's for you — if you're a woman" was the slogan of Zena Jeans, a powerhouse by 1981. Launched by Zenaida "Zena" Gilbert and her husband Richard in 1978, the company was moving 2 million pairs of jeans in the early '80s by addressing women's concerns about jeans that actually fit (and stretched to do so) their actual bodies. She was 37 at the peak of her namesake jean's popularity, and her customers reflected that, even if her models were skinny young things.

Tight fit, tight fit, got to find me the right fit ... (Image via H.I.S.)

Speaking of fit, Chic — pronounced, maddeninly, "Chick" — stressed that theirs were "the world's best-fitting jeans." Manufactured by the venerable company H.I.S., they remained popular in Europe into the '90s.

They had the range! (Image via Sasson)

And let's not forget the catchy slogan, "Oo la la! Sasson!" Its manic ads (sometimes oddly devoted to sporting figures, like the New York Rangers, leading to a decidedly Playgirl aura) are among the era's most fondly remembered.

Doesn't get much more '80s than this! (Image via Sasson)

The company was sued by Vidal Sassoon (admit it — you thought they were the same brand) and, as the fad crested, filed for bankruptcy by 1986.

A late-breaking (1989) Robert Urich (1946-2002) Sasson ad (Image via Sasson)

So pervasive was the overall designer-jeans craze that by the end of 1981, Goodwill had begun sewing their own labels on used jeans to sell as ... "Goodie's" brand jeans.

Yes, that was a clue the end was near, as was the fact that jean advertising — so uniquely ostentatious and such prime examples of true camp — had been expertly parodied since at least 1980, when Gilda Radner (1946-1989) introduced Jewess Jeans on SNL, her movements perfectly capturing the sexual abandon of every disco dolly in a jeans ad.

The era of designer jeans is over, even if American culture has never gotten over the lust for status, or for celebrity names (Yeezy, anyone?).

As a parting shot, enjoy this collection of designer-jeans ads, which include some truly mind-boggling visuals:

2 Responses

  1. Does anyone know the shirtless model’s name in the top Calvin ad? I remember him sooooo well from when I was in high school.

  2. Does anyone know the name of the male model in the top Calvin ad?

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