Trailblazer; Edith Flagg
Words: Kaelan Hollon & Imagery courtesy of Josh Flagg
I succumbed to the purchase, like the millions who came before me, the second I saw Edith Flagg’s sweet, small dress. In a pink that flamingos merely aspire to, it flirted hazily with memories of bygone stewardesses of the Pan Am era. A clean Peter Pan collar and clipped A-line shape sealed the deal; the Pepto-hued Crimplene© promised universal flattery, ease of care, a jaunty excursion into iron-free vintage clothing. Edith Flagg had done it again.
The well-cut polyester shift dress remains an impeccable symbol of the feisty genius of Mrs. Flagg, a Romanian-born WWII survivor and Dutch Resistance fighter whose business savvy and work ethic paid by amassing a quiet fortune, thanks to her role as the first importer of polyester in the US. When Flagg arrived in the US in 1948, the slight woman brought with her a husband and young son and but a scant few dollars in her pocket. After working her way through the design industry as a seamstress, the Flaggs quickly pooled a $2,000 investment and Edith began designing dresses locally in Los Angeles. Not long after she saw the investment potential of a material used mostly for British parachutes in WWII, she had transformed her small family-run storefront in downtown Los Angeles into an international design house with offices in New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Cleveland, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Dallas, Charlotte and London, and a factory in Hong Kong.
Early media coverage heralded Flagg’s keen eye for polyester fabric as a quasi-feminist fashion opportunity for women of the 1960s. An affordable, iron-less, dirt-disguising, easy-care fabric meant ladylike shifts could be had by all, and sales. One of the first major media stories of Flagg’s fashion line, “Clotheshorse in the Jet Age,” in the Los Angeles Times, lauded Crimplene© as a “miracle fabric,” a veritable housewife’s assistant, whose easy upkeep and care provided more fashionable travel bags. The Times’ models flaunted across the page riding horses, leaping across ship decks and hanging adroitly from moving cars, a testament to their Crimplene’s mod new standards.
While her business acumen as an importer and designer won her fortune, it is Flagg’s rich history and feisty personality that won her legion fans. Born into a well-to-do family in Romania and educated in fashion design at a school in Vienna, Flagg left her schooling when the Nazis invaded Austria, to work on a Dutch farm. Presumed to be safe from the war, the German invasion of Holland surprised many and forced Flagg into hiding, where she joined the Dutch Underground. The nineteen-year-old spoke such fluent German (as well as six other languages) she capably survived the Holocaust by assuming the identity of a deceased woman and hiding in plain sight.
“My experiences in Holland did not change me as a human being. I was born the way I am today.… It was what it was, though, and I could not let it get me down,” Flagg explains to C&W of her experiences. “I just had to pick myself back up again.”
That tirelessness served her well. Once the war ended, Flagg made her way to New York City and later Los Angeles in 1948, working as a seamstress for 35 cents an hour, and carefully honing her business chops.
Flagg finagled her way into ever-higher salaries by working her way through every aspect of the garment industry. She moved from the seamstress position to costume designer, amid sundry other retail and design jobs, then headed to LA for work in the garment district where she hit her stride. As only the most talented sharks know how, she kept her head on a swivel while moving up the industry ladder, all while squirreling away savings to start business on her own. By 1956, she was ready.
Flagg saw innovation before others did and pounced, thanks in part to her working knowledge of the nooks and crannies involved in business from the ground up. Her knowledge of seven languages was a boon during European trade shows, and those connections combined with a keen eye served her well in honing the latest design technology into Middle American fantasy. She was better than smart; she was ingenious. Double-knit woolens, early pantsuits, the first polyester to hit the American streets; Edith Flagg perceived what American women needed before they needed it, and, in turn, the dead presidents just rolled in.
At 93, Flagg remains insouciantly feisty and incomparably confident. She explains her business savvy with impeccable self-assurance. “You have to be in the right place at the right time,” Flagg told Cake & Whiskey. “Never think you are anything less than the best at your trade. [If] you believe in yourself, so will others.”