THE lady fiction writers would have a great time with Gerhard William Kennedy. Every time they sat down to describe a successful young sports-clothes designer as a rich, sophisticated, darkly handsome sportsman, an excellent shot, capable flier, expert golfer, they could just turn to Kennedy and they would be right on all counts. If they threw in a black Cadillac convertible they would be testing the endurance of any editor but, incredibly, they’d be right again.
Kennedy designs and manufactures sports shirts, slacks and ski clothes for men and women, that combine such appealing qualities as durability,
flattering fit, eye-filling colors, attractive cut and, a point to be considered, moderate cost. The material in the garment, as well as its color and cut, is originated by Kennedy, a factor that is relatively rare in Canada where most manufacturers select from finished fabrics.
He is president of the Northern Shirt Co. in Winnipeg, founded by his late father who for 40 years turned out the kind of work shirts and overalls that no farmer or working man could afford to be without. Today the company still turns out the earthy staples but, in addition, it owes half of its annual million-dollar production to Gerhard Kennedy’s sports lines, a division of the company he originated and developed entirely.
Kennedy’s work is admired by people who can’t
afford to be wrong. The sports-clothes buyer for Canada’s largest departmental store chain, who insists upon anonymity, a woman who has been traveling around the world since 1928 buying the kind of merchandise that keeps her sales graphs climbing, says: “Gerhard Kennedy does a great-
job of matching and blending fabrics. He goes right into the textile mills to work them out and have them made up. He skis and plays golf himself so that he knows what functional purposes the garments must serve. Their cut is excellent, their styling expert. He is what I call ‘high fashion.’ ”
Kennedy dresses the part of a high-fashion designer, too, and it is difficult to determine whether he might not be playing a role. Instead of a necktie he sometimes loops a small chiffon scarf around his neck and fastens the knot with a silver buffalo head the size of a half dollar. He’ll wear this with a dark-blue gabardine shirt and a light-brown, finely checked suit. In Eastern Canada’s blue-serge business circles this introduces a calculated startling western flavor that somehow is becoming. Perhaps this is because Kennedy, at 36, has the poise and demeanor generally associated with success or because, on him, his unusual combinations of clothes seem less ostentatious than colorful, albeit a little yeasty.
He rarely wears a hat and his black, curly hair generally needs to be trimmed.
The combination of his golf (he plays in the low 70’s, won the Manitoba Open championship in 1943), his flying (he has about 500 hours, a good record for a private pilot) and his convertible (only hail and high water can get the top up) have produced a salubrious tan that most executives can match only with their desks. Kennedy, whose first name is pronounced as though it were spelled Jerrard, does not eschew the sociable drink, smokes an occasional cigarette and is virtually bereft of small talk. His conversation, during which he leans far forward and which he delivers with an intensive, almost staring, forcefulness, excludes virtually everything but textiles, fashions or an immediate business problem, either his own or the world’s.
There is no arrogance or affectation about Kennedy. He recognizes that he still has much to learn about his business. He likes to say that he knew a good deal more about textiles before he got to know a lot about them. To explain this apparent paradox, Kennedy points out that the pilot who has just soloed feels flying is a cinch until his ability permits him to advance into fields he had never known existed. That’s the position Kennedy feels he is in today; he has advanced so far in his own business that he is beginning to think he doesn’t know very much about it.
“The field is so vast,” he says, somewhat resignedly, “there are so many things you can do with fabrics that you realize every day you didn’t know very much about it yesterday.”
He presented an exhibition at the World Trade Fair in Toronto last summer, and after it was over he concluded that Canadians have a long way to go before they can impress world markets with their salesmanship, the presentation of their products and, in some cases, even their products. And yet he insists that the more shortcomings he recognized there, the more determined he became.
“What we need is to persist,” he says. “Until now, the technical skill of the weaver, the dyer and the printer has been imported. But we’re on the way. We’re young enough to be educated and we’re enthusiastic enough to learn well.”
Why the New Look?
IT IS when Kennedy is asked what determines fashion, how a fad like the New Look can zip through women’s heads over half the universe, that he reveals how profoundly he has studied his subject.
“Paris probably determines fashion,” he says, “but only because the world looks to Paris for leadership, because Paris designers are thinking in terms of leadership and guidance. They try tc interpret a mood and produce clothes to match it.
Style-setter for the slack and plus-four set is Gerhard Kennedy. His dreams of today will adorn the ski hills and golf links of tomorrow
Take the era we’re in now. During the war incomes rose and so did restrictions. The pace of life made people want a lot of things in a hurry that they couldn’t get: With war’s end they still wanted
them because it was a prosperous mood; stocks were high and so, generally, were all incomes. The mood of the people was for easier, better, finer living. The rich wanted long, slinky convertibles, good wines in the cellar and a summer home. People generally had the money to do things in their leisure time and they wanted those things, because of the war’s restrictions, to be good things, finer things. That type of philosophy makes you design something a little more old-fashioned because that’s the type of thing people used to enjoy. Nostalgically they associated good things with old things. They wanted streamlined things in their boats and cars but they wanted the story books in their living. Well, short dresses, for example, just don’t go with that sort of thing. They have to be longer, slinkier, more representative of the mood.
Hence, the New Look, which, actually, is the oldest look that modern people know.
“Similarly in sports clothes. People don’t want a sports jacket simply because it’s a sports jacket. It must be functional. It must do things that, the clothes, because of restrictions, didn’t do during the war. You want a shirt for sailing, say; you want a navy-blue ground with a closed front, a white collar and short sleeves. You don’t want to roll up your sleeves and you don’t want an old sports shirt. Well, who interprets that? It’s not my business to tell you what to wear; it’s my business to figure what you’ll want. I cater to a group that knows and understands sports, not necessarily a highand not necessarily a low-income group, just people who know what they want for traveling, golf, tennis or lounging. But they must be smart clothes, too; it isn’t enough that they be functional. So 1 try to give clothes the cut or the twist that will make people feel they are smart clothes. I look for the fabrics that will make up into smart materials; I
look for colors and color combinations that will be smart.”
Retailers admire the job he has done. Hye Lewis of Alton-Lewis, a smart., pine-paneled women’s sportswear shop in Toronto, calls Kennedy’s presentations “most exciting.” “He excels in originality of ideas,” expounds Lewis, “particularly in ski clothes. And he not only sells you, he ties up his garments with your promotion and advertising. Most houses show you their merchandise and let it go at that; with Kennedy you also get a smart advertising campaign, clever promotion and every detail of a sales campaign.”
Kennedy, incidentally, works out his own advertising presentations; he does not, like most industries do, hire an advertising agency for his ads and promotion ideas.
He travels widely, covering Canada at least twice a year and visiting the United States frequently. He is interested in people, listens to their commendations and condemnations of their clothes. He sifts and weighs their desires. He knows the people engaged in the fabricating business, the researchers who can keep him in touch with new fabric developments. When he runs into a fabric with the qualities he seeks—wind resistance, appealing color, attractive finish—he immediately pigeonholes it as ideal for a specific purpose, perhaps for ski slacks or a different type of sports shirt.
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States furnish more ideas than trips anywhere, but trips to the United Kingdom keep him sane, he says. "Americans are better equipped than anyone in anything,” he points out. "Their armies had everything, their houses have more gadgets. So they’re conscious of the things they want. For instance, I’ve hunted and fished with Americans whose fish jackets have a pocket within a pocket for a pair of little scissors. So Americans provide more practical ideas for functional clothing than anyone. But continental people, or British people, have a deeper background of good living. They’re more sophisticated in what they want and what they wear. So I try to make my clothes practical like they are in the States and, at the same time, give them the look or the cut of continental sports clothes.”
A designer works six months ahead; Kennedy today is beginning to think about next fall’s lines because, between now and then, he must talk over projected patterns with his chief designer in Winnipeg, plan colors, cut, style, fabric. The materials, if it is not already piled in great bales in the basement of the four-story, square, brick building in which the Northern Shirt Company’s 300 employees turn out the finished garments, must be ordered, probably from eastern fabricators with whom Kennedy worked out details last summer. The finished product must be packed and distributed to retailers across the country by midsummer so that it is on the market about the time that most buyers come swelteringly home from summer vacations. From all of Kennedy’s travels and his conversations with hundreds of people will come the conclusions regarding what he thinks the public will want in its sports clothes next fall. By the time people are wearing them, Kennedy will be endeavoring to give them what they’ll want in the spring of 1950.
As an example of a designer’s endeavors to take the public pulse at long range, Kennedy points to the fairly substantial number of male golfers who festooned themselves in plus fours, or knickers, last summer. Knickers hadn’t been worn for a couple of decades except by the occasional old pro and they probably wouldn’t be now had not Bobby Locke, a South African links wizard, toured the United States tournament circuit in 1947 with a success unparalleled by any foreigner. He won around $25,000 in prize money and he wore billowing, smartly tailored knickers. His success attracted thousands of spectators and miles of headlines. People came to watch his golf and rarely failed to comment on his knickers. Golf writers talked about his knickers and his birdies in the same paragraph.
Golf In Long Skirts
“A far-seeing designer figured there’d be people among the thousands who watched Locke who’d buy a pair of knickers if they saw them at their haberdasher’s,” surmises Kennedy. "He was interpreting a mood; he figured—and, as it turned out, rightly —that knickers, like long dresses, had been out of style so long that they were a distinct novelty. He drew up a design, not of the old, form-fitting ‘plus twos’ but of well-cut, comfortable, functional plus fours. He was dead right. Fully a third of the tournament pros wear knickers now and the public is buying more of them every day.”
Sometimes the designer guesses
wrong. Thinking along the same lines as the man who turned Locke’s trappings into a fad, another designer came up with a woman’s golf skirt that outNew Looked the New Look. It barely cleared the tops of unreplaced divots. An accessory was a floppy, widebrimmed hat. The combination did not catch on, although one woman showed up at. the Ontario Ladies’ Championship in it.
Kennedy explains: “The New Look is impractical in sports; garments must be functional. Regardless of how beautiful or how costly a pair of ladies’ shoes might be, they’d look out-ofplace at a toboggan party.”
The Open That Closed
Kennedy guessed wrong once, himself, in endeavoring to fathom the public fancy in advance, although his prescience did not go entirely unrewarded. This was in the summer of 1946 and had nothing directly to do with his clothes. He staged, by way of advertising his product, the first of what was to be a series of annual professional golf tournaments for the Gerhard Kennedy trophy. The event was held in August and it attracted Ben Hogan, the current United States Open champion; Sam Snead, one of the American circuit’s most colorful golfers; and a score or more of other name pros, as well as most of Canada’s top professionals and amateurs. Hogan had planned to play in the St. Paul Open a week prior to Kennedy’s tournament, skip the Winnipeg clambake in favor of a rest prior to the United States national PGA match play competition at Portland, Ore., the following week. Kennedy induced Hogan to bypass the St. Paul Open instead and as bait he offered Ben and his wife a week’s holiday, all expenses paid, at a swank resort in the Lake of the Woods, 150 miles east of Winnipeg. Hogan said a rapid farewell to the St. Paul Chamber of Commerce and clasped Kennedy firmly to his bosom before he could get away.
Where Kennedy lost out was with the Winnipeg public which, discouraged by leaden skies, stayed away from the golf course in staggering numbers. Kennedy lost $11,000 on the deal because he personally had underwritten prize money of $10,000 as well as all tournament expenses, but he figured he got $20,000 worth of publicity for Gerhard Kennedy’s label out of it. His father, then alive and president of the firm, didn’t exactly agree with him and, while it was announced in 1947 that the second annual Gerhard Kennedy Open Golf tournament had been canceled because the St. Charles Golf and Country Club’s board of directors had voted against permitting the pros to scar their blue-blooded turf, it was held likely that Kennedy, Senior, had said "NO!” in quotes, capital letters and with an exclamation mark.
The senior Kennedy established the Northern Shirt Co. in Winnipeg in 1905, had been in business seven years when Gerhard William was born Feb. 1, 1912, and was an established, successful manufacturer of utilitarian work clothes by the time his son was spending the summers of his teens at the family summer home in the Lake of the Woods district, 150 miles east of Winnipeg. Here Gerhard met people from border states in the U. S. and the acquaintanceships prompted him to attend the University of Wisconsin.
There was no doubt that he would go into his father’s business, although the elder Kennedy often became perplexed when Gerhard would plague the plant’s workmen to make him up shirts and slacks out of materials and patterns of his own design the like of which
they had never seen. These he carted to Wisconsin and they turned out to be even more sensational in the ivy league than a coon coat. Classmates offered money that folded for his gear and Kennedy proved a student who would give them the shirt off his back—for a price. Every time he visited his parents in Winnipeg Gerhard loaded up his steamer trunk with clothes, and during his first year at Wisconsin he picked up $1,000 selling them.
Inventor in Clothing
When Kennedy graduated his father placed him in charge of the junior department—a small line of kiddies clothing—and he persuaded his parent to permit him to dabble in sports clothes as a sideline.
He devoted the next few years to a furious pursuit of knowledge of every phase of the textile industry and his skiing, golfing, hunting and riding were his source of ideas. He learned early that smartness could be attained through good plain tailoring rather than through lavish designs, and he combined this with a good fit and unusual fabrics in his garments.
An illustration of his inventiveness was produced two years ago, a ski jacket called a Parka Pack which could be rolled up and strapped across a skier’s back, forming a neat roll. The jacket, with an attached hood, was lined in brilliant color and had a drawstring waistline. Here, then, was an item that was attractively cut, arrestingly colored and practical in three ways; the hood kept out the wind and snow around the neck, the drawstring waist kept out the wind and the whole shebang never became a nuisance, like many another jacket did, when the heavy labors of skiing induced the skier to remove it. Then, when the noble athletes had skied enough, they were able to unwrap the jacket, put it on and cool out without risking pneumonia.
It wasn’t without opposition from his father that Kennedy’s sports lines were incorporated into a business that had flourished for 40 years on the sound precept that it should supply a demand. “The fellow who made the warmest shirt got the hard-earned western dollar was the way my father looked at it,” Kennedy recalls. “It was a sound philosophy and it built our business and I couldn’t have got anywhere with my own ideas without it. But for sports clothes I always felt, and I still feel, that you’ve got to turn that theory upside down. I think you have to develop a demand and then go out and supply it.”
Kennedy is invariably “long” on the market and frequently has thousands of dollars worth of designs being made up into materials for which there is, at the time, absolutely no market. As he has explained, he tries to deduce what people will want in their sports clothes when they walk into a shop to purchase same. What they find in there, bearing a Gerhard Kennedy label, is just the sort of thing they need. In other words, whereas his father’s customers needed work shirts and he supplied them, Gerhard supplies the sports clothes that he feels people will buy when they see them. This he calls a visual market. One of his more noteworthy developments along this line was the utilization of a sharkskin cloth for men’s and women’s shirts. Thousands of people who didn’t go into the shops to buy them, saw them, liked them and came away with them. And, of course, he developed a market for his ski ensembles by putting them in front of the public.
Just as he studied skiers and skiing to produce their toggery, so did
Kennedy try to meet the golfers’ desires. He created shirts and slacks ; that were smart, comfortable and practical on the golf course and, for lounging, boating or holidaying, he came up with the same kind of clothes for men who habitually climbed into baggy pants and old khaki shirts any time they were taking it easy. Kennedy’s research with fabrics and the introduction of new ones were slowed by the war but he is into full stride again now at his old Winnipeg plant and shortly will be at a new plant now under construction.
It is conceivable that Kennedy, if he is so inclined, could develop into one of Canada’s most colorful promoters. Despite his financial drubbing in his golf tournament he still feels the idea was sound. Primarily, he was interested in the advertising he’d get from references to Gerhard Kennedy Open in j newspapers across the country, but he also was, and is, interested in the betterment of the Canadian Professional Golfers Association, under whose sanction the tournament was conducted. Kennedy’s original idea was that all profits from the tourney would be turned over to the CPGA and he still proposes to do that trick—if he holds another tournament and if it makes money. He says right now that he’ll hold another, probably next summer.
What he did at this tournament was employ girls, 100 of them, as marshals to patrol the course with 3,000 feet of rope and bamboo poles with which to control the galleries. This was a sharp break from tradition, which holds that club members, male and invariably testy, serve as marshals. With the imagination typical of him, Kennedy dressed the girls like a chorus line in black, knee-length, sharkskin slacks, called pedal pushers; yellow gabardine shirts with red buttons; and red belts. Costumes by Gerhard Kennedy, incredibly enough.
Shirtmaker to Bing
Kennedy also induced one of the big department stores to throw a luncheon for the wives of the visiting golfers, complete with corsages, and he paid the shot for two suites, one in each of Winnipeg’s leading hotels, and the trimmings for a nightly soiree at which some of the world’s greatest golfers demonstrated some of the world’s greatest endurance as raconteurs, musicians, singers and gourmets.
The man’s connection with the CPGA has brought him into contact with a celebrated golfer, who sings on the side, Bing Crosby, an honorary member of the CPGA who missed the Kennedy clambake because he was making a picture. He had earlier telephoned his acceptance of the invitation and Kennedy, not missing a trick, had acquired Bing’s measurements and ran him up a few shirts in the Crosby tradition. The songbird, touring the golf course in a Kennedy shirt, probably wouldn’t have hurt sales at all. When Crosby couldn’t squeeze the tournament into his schedule Kennedy expressed him the shirts. Bing replied that he’d either don them at the next Kennedy production or wait for a wake.
Gerhard is married to the former Agnes Wakerman of Duluth, Minn., and they have three children, Gerhard William, who is 11, Anthony Arnold, eight, and Barbara Glen, three. What hobbies he has are closely aligned with his work, which is with him always. Golf and hunting are the major diversions these days and both of them provide an excellent setting for his favorite food for talk—what’ll they wear? ★