The Fashion Flight was a venture that produced the first all-American fashion show to be held in Europe. It took place in 1947, the year that Christian Dior launched the New Look.
It brought together designers, manufacturers, models and a Hollywood actress. Their mission was to negotiate a deal between San Francisco and Paris, “two queens who will share the sceptre over the fashion world” – or at least that’s how San Francisco World Trade Center president Leland Cutler saw it as he toasted the flight in champagne and poetry.
This is the story of how The Fashion Flight came about, how it went and what it achieved.
The Fashion Flight – one man’s vision
The Fashion Flight is the brainchild of Adolph P Schuman, the son of a Hungarian Jewish immigrant who arrived in America in the 1880s. In 1933 Adolph gets a loan of $800, which enables him to start a wholesale women’s clothing company in two rented rooms. He names it the Lilli Ann Company, after his wife, Lillian. Adolph has a great deal of get-up-and-go, and becomes president of the Manufacturers’ and Wholesalers’ Association of San Francisco.
His idea for The Fashion Flight is to combine French design with US manufacturing techniques, thereby creating a win-win for both sides. From the get-go, he’s eager to set the minds of the Parisian couturiers at rest. He makes it clear that:
California manufacturers showing spring styles in Paris do not intend to copy the styles of Parisian couturiers or offer competition as a world style center. We manufacture sports and play clothes and day-long livable types and hope to buy from Paris accessories, ornaments and perhaps ideas for trends to add to our lines.
The plan is welcomed by Henri Beaujard, French commercial attaché. Totally underestimating the insecurity and suspicion of the Paris couture industry, he assures participants in the venture that France will welcome The Fashion Flight as:
…a breath of fresh air, which will be given the full support of the French Ministry of National Economy. The expedition will be a tremendous benefit in stimulating exports of French silks, brocades and accessories to be used by the apparel industry. It will also encourage a free flow of ideas.
The expedition will cost some $65,000. Adolph sweet-talks the city into contributing $5,000 and other members of the Manufacturers’ and Wholesalers’ Association to join him in financing the rest.
The Fashion Flight – Americans in Paris
On the evening of 10 October 1947, two Matson Skymasters take off from San Francisco bound for Paris. The 63 passengers include designers and manufacturers, movie star Joan Leslie to add a bit of Hollywood glitz (Esther Williams was down for the role but has to withdraw owing to an ear infection, doubtless picked up in a swimming pool), models and journalists. The clothes (spring 1948 collections) are sent over on special racks so there’s no need to press them when they arrive. After a brief stopover in New York, the flight touches down in Paris on 14 October.
The models are taken aback by the wolf-whistles, ogling and propositioning they immediately encounter.
First thing when I came out of the hotel this morning I heard this whistle – and there was the nicest young Frenchman with one eyebrow reaching for the Eiffel Tower. “You let me show you Paris, yes, no? he asked. “Yes, I mean no,” I said. “Oh, mademoiselle, how can one so beautiful be so cruel in Paris on such a day as this?” he said. I thought those California boys were pretty fast, but these Frenchmen are positively dripping.
The nice young Frenchman sounds like nothing so much as Warner Bros’ cartoon character, Pepé Le Pew!
The Californian girls in their long skirts inspired by the New Look turn heads as they explore the city. 19-year-old Pat Emery notices that “Parisians are looking at us queerly on the streets. It is not a question of the ‘old eye,’ either. They look at our clothes and spot us as Americans right away.” Hardly surprising, given the privations of 1947 Paris. The San Francisco Chronicle reports a conversation with a professor at the Sorbonne:
My wife has not had a new dress for seven years. It is a long time for a woman to go without a new dress – even a woman who is not vain and who spends most of her time in the kitchen. I could afford to buy her a dress for $14 if there were such a dress in the whole of France. But dresses today in France are only for the tourists and those who have made new money on the black market.
This is typical of the contrasting fortunes of the haves and have-nots in Paris after World War II.
The Fashion Flight – the show and its reception
The visitors are here to impress. The fashion show is staged in the Grand Ballroom of the prestigious Georges V Hotel. The runway is decked out with 1,600 lbs of Californian chrysanthemums, and illuminated by a blinding battery of klieg lights used for movie production.
500 guests are expected, including fashion writers from the US and Europe, representatives of the US and French governments, Parisian couturiers and textile manufacturers.
The show starts with bathing suits followed by “rough-and-tumble play clothes” (goodness knows what the Parisians make of these), dressmaker suits and afternoon dresses and finally Joan Leslie in a long-trained white wedding gown. “Eyes pop when, with a blare of trumpets, two of the models prance through the crowd in cowboy fashions – Levis, gold shirts and 10-gallon hats by Levi Strauss.”
The San Francisco News, with typical American understatement, reports:
3000 GASP AT DAZZLING DISPLAY OF LOCAL STYLES
California, which can make a production out of the opening of a supermarket, put on a fashion show here last night with all the trappings of Hollywood, and the French couturieres [sic] – those who were able to get in – went away bedazzled. It was the most terrific fashion show that Paris has seen. The French mobbed the George V Hotel in such numbers that many of the invited notables, including some of the leading couturieres were unable to get through the crowd.
After it was over, French designers came up with some talk that might be called heresy in their league.
“We were amazed by the show, by the clothes and by the music,” said Philippe d’Asten of the Jacques Faith [sic] Dress House. “Well, you know – everything was so different. Perhaps this will influence French styles.”
Well, it sounds like Philippe might have been almost lost for words and doing his best to be diplomatic.
But a culture of secrecy pervades the Paris salons and the couturiers are paranoid about the Americans ripping off their designs. They feel threatened by such a bold publicity stunt. They refuse to show up at the visitors’ fashion show because they are “afraid of being influenced by American fashions.”
The following day, when they learn about the California price tags (from $15.00 to $79.95 retail compared to an average of around $600.00 per garment for their own pieces), they do a volte-face. Schiaparelli and Jacques Fath throw cocktail parties. A round of dining and lunching follows. Jean Gaumont-Lanvin, president of the Paris Couturier Syndicate, admits:
It is true that we were doubtful about you at first, but we wish to welcome you now and in the future. You have been here a week and we have had no indication that you are here to copy our clothes or compete with us in our market. Perhaps you and the world will always need Paris to set world trends in women’s fashions. We are superb. Yes, we really are. Your styles are practical. And the prices! We couldn’t begin to match them. Yes, we are not competitors. Perhaps we can even help each other – in a small way. You produce clothes so differently. You make clothes for the masses at prices they can afford. We admire you for that – and you do not attempt to set world trends – for which we are happy with you.
The truth is that, judging by the photos here, there’s a world of difference between the Parisian originals and the American garments that follow in their wake. And the couturiers are, by and large, astute businessmen well able to spot an opportunity.
By the time the visitors embark on their return trip, the marriage of Paris and California fashions is sealed by the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne and the San Francisco Manufacturers’ & Wholesalers’ Association:
- Any San Francisco designer may go to Paris and view any couturier’s upcoming collection for a fee of $250, giving them a six-month lead on the silhouettes and lines of fashion Paris will be introducing next season.
- Any San Francisco manufacturer wishing to reproduce new Parisian designs for the mass market can buy a model garment for $1,800. The style will be sent to San Francisco under bond and without duty, to be returned to Paris after reproduction.
- The Paris couturiers will make a reciprocal visit to San Francisco, financed by the city, the following October for three public showings of their autumn collections.
For his part, Adolph Schuman starts adding “Paris” to his firm’s label. He buys many textiles from French companies, thereby helping to save many from closing. He also shows European weavers how to modernize their systems.
Want to know more about The Fashion Flight?
This article is based almost entirely on a small archive of photos and news cuttings, which, I believe, once belonged to Pandora Hollister. There are no other relevant sources I’m aware of apart from a biography of Karl Romaine and a brief history of Lilli Ann.