This interview originally ran in 2011, but the historic information on Gant, one of the most celebrated brands of the Ivy heyday, has evergreen value, and so today we pay it a revisit.
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With fashion in a constant state of flux, it’s no wonder apparel brands are less than assiduous when it comes to keeping company histories. But the heritage movement has given brands the impetus to better chronicle and curate their personal histories. Case in point: Gant. The company, which was founded in New Haven in 1949 and is currently owned by a Swiss firm, has been slowly rebuilding its clothing archives under the direction of designer Christopher Bastin. In the following email interview, Bastin discusses sourcing items for the collection, discovering voices from the past, the Ralph Lauren x Gant collaboration that never manifest, and reading transcripts of the Amalgamated Shirtmakers Union meetings. — CC
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IS: Tell us about the archive project and how it came about.
CB: When I started at Gant six years ago, we had a huge archive but it was entirely based on what had been produced for the European market. Nothing dated before 1980. I’m a total vintage nerd, so it was pretty much heaven for me to start hunting down vintage stuff from our 1949–79 New England roots. It helps having a CEO who understands the importance of our American heritage and exploring our origins. He pretty much gave me an unlimited budget to rebuild our archives.
IS: What is your goal with the archive?
CB: The end goal is to educate our customers and people within our company about the history of Gant. What sends a clearer message than showing someone an artifact? Unlike stories and pictures, holding an actual archival shirt in your hands is tangible and indisputable. Hell, even the smell is fantastic!
Rebuilding our archives also helps us put the pieces back together. Through the years we went through a number of different owners and a lot of our history has been lost along the way. Things like fabric swatches, sketches, patterns, sales books, sales guidelines, and advertising materials were basically thrown out. We’ve been able to relocate some pretty amazing stuff, but there’s still a lot to be discovered.
There has been a learning curve for me because I started this project from scratch. Understanding the different historical labels, how to date pieces, discovering old collaborations and co-branded products. You can tell how old a garment is from the stitching, label, fit and fabrication. But you have to know what to look for. To a large degree I’ve been drawing conclusions by comparing stuff I found against old ad material, looking up old stores that used to carry us, when they where in business, and so on. I’ve also been reading old transcripts from Amalgamated Shirt Makers Union meetings.
IS: Where are you finding the items?
CB: I’ve spent more time on online auction sites, in thrift shops, and rummaging through vintage stores than with my own family these last four years! I also work with a few high-end vintage dealers, mainly in New York, who keep an eye out for me. They’re silly expensive, but they find some pretty amazing pieces every now and then and believe me it’s worth every penny. You can’t put a price on having a true understanding of Gant’s history.
One time I bought a shirt from a random woman on eBay, and she ended up sharing with me that her dad ran a men’s shop for ages and was now selling his old stuff. Turns out he saved labels samples from all the brands he at once carried. I ended up buying a bunch of those early samples from Gant, Hathaway, Sero and Arrow from her. We are always on the lookout and always interested in hearing from collectors and people with personal connections to Gant from back in the day.
IS: What’s the most interesting thing you’ve discovered so far?
CB: We have hundreds of pieces by now, but there are a couple of gems that I take out and look at every now and then. There are a couple of shirts from our very first years, dating from 1949–52, when we still wrote Gant Of New Haven on the neck label, instead of Gant Shirtmakers. We also have whole bunch of deadstock 1960s shirts still inside their original plastic bags, neck tissue and all. That’s really cool.
Some other standouts are a few knit pieces that were made in Scotland, and the very first Ruggers from the mid ’60s are awesome. Rugger is the nickname that was given to our Rugby shirts when Gant started producing them. We were one of the first companies to turn this sportswear icon into a fashion staple. The Ruggers we did were (and still are) a more refined interpretation of the sport version, often with a fused placket and a lighter-weight fabric. Gant also manufactured a number of more West Coast and surf-inspired items during the ’70s that we have been working back into newer collections.
And we just uncovered several audio tapes of a two-hour interview with Marty Gant from 1985 that had been long lost. Marty and his brother Elliot were the sons of Bernard Gant, who founded the company in 1949. They joined Gant after World War II and eventually took over the business. The tapes were literally in a dusty box hidden away in a closet. No one had seen them for years. It sounds dorky, but that was a huge moment for me, to sit down and listen to one of the sons of our founder telling his story. Goosebumps.
And here’s a little gem no one’s ever heard: At one time during late ’60s a young man named Ralph Lauren met with the Gant family about a design position. The story goes that Mr. Lauren was very interested in working with Gant on the condition that his name be featured on the label. Marty Gant, who was running the company at the time, was quite surprised by this, and quickly turned down the idea. A partnership never materialized, but I wonder what would have been.
IS: How will the archive be used for marketing or design purposes?
CB: We’ve been around since the birth of American sportswear, but if we don’t know where we’re from, how are we suppose to know where we are going? The reissued Yale Co-Op shirts are the perfect example of something we could never have brought back to life if it wasn’t for our archives. So for projects like that it’s invaluable. We also did an amazing series of advertisements during the ’70s called “The Gant Attitude” just begging to be reworked. There’s also a treasure trove of hand-illustrated ads from the ’50s that feature what we are most famous for: OCBDs, Indian Madras and pullovers.
The archives are also essential to my work with Gant Rugger, as the line to a large extent is based on our original products. I use the archives pretty much every single day. Sometimes just for inspiration, sometimes to repurpose fabrics and colors, sometimes to look something up in old advertisements. Sometimes just to remind me that we where making shirts when Ralph was just a kid.