Fashion is notoriously fickle. Jordache jeans — called “one of the brands that defined the ’80s” by NPR, were found in the Rollback section of Walmart as recently as 2018 but made a dramatic return at the 2019 New York Fashion Week. One minute, a brand is so hot stores can barely keep product in stock. The next minute it’s on the floor at a thrift shop, or at best on eBay. The biggest fashion brands symbolize their decade and their era, but tastes always change. These are the brands we may never wear again but will always miss.
In the 1980s, Benetton was a hip, fresh, and uniquely Italian fashion powerhouse that was defined as much by its socially conscious, multicultural advertising as it was by its endlessly colorful knit sweaters. In 2015, America’s last standing United Colors of Benetton location — its iconic flagship New York City location — closed its doors. In 2019, the brand opened a pop-up shop in Santa Monica, California, for four weeks between October and November, but offered no inventory. After looking at the clothes, you were invited to order online.
The Esprit brand was born in 1968, emerged in the 1970s and by the 1980s was a cultural phenomenon known across the world. By 1996, the iconic triple-bar “E” was familiar in 44 countries and Esprit ranked No. 28 on a list of the 100 most recognizable brands in the United States. By 2011, however, tastes had changed and Esprit reported a 98 percent drop in profits. The next year, the brand closed all 93 of its North American stores. Currently, customers from a host of countries ranging from the U.K. to Macau can buy at the brand’s website — but not the United States. You can get Esprit product, however, on the ASOS site.
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Genetically gifted and partially clothed young men greeting customers in stores. Outlets that felt more like nightclubs than clothing shops. An iconic catalog that could make the careers of aspiring models. This is what characterized Abercrombie and Fitch during its reign of fashion supremacy. The company built its empire on tight-fitting, high-quality preppy chic clothing, but the fickle whims of an ever-changing industry changed all that. A&F closed over 100 stores in recent years, including flagship stores in New York, Milan, and Fukuoka, Japan. Still, don’t count out the brand entirely — A&F execs say this is part of a move toward smaller storefronts and a bigger digital presence.
Anyone alive and paying attention to fashion in the late ’70s and early ’80s knew that Sasson Jeans was on the cutting edge of the era’s reigning fad, which was dominated by high-priced designer clothing. The tides of change were cruel to Sasson, however, and in 1986, the once-dominant brand filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
With megastars like Will Smith, Tupac Shakur, TLC, and Mark Wahlberg donning its unmistakeable threads, Cross Colours ruled the “urban wear” boom years of 1990-93. The brand’s unique style was backed by a potent cultural message. Billed as “clothing without prejudice” for an inclusive and ethnically diverse customer base, Cross Colours fell victim to changing fashion sense in the mid-’90s — and a wave of counterfeiting. If you’re feeling nostalgic, though, the brand’s website has ’90s reissues as part of its current collection.
In the 1980s, then-beloved television and comedy superstar Bill Cosby was so synonymous with wacky-patterned Coogi wool knits that they were affectionately dubbed “Cosby sweaters.” 10 years later in the mid-’90s, Heathcliff Huxtable’s cultural polar opposite, rap superstar Christopher Wallace — a.k.a. Biggie Smalls — endorsed the brand both in his style and in his lyrics. Fast-forward to today and Bill Cosby is a reviled former resident of a Pennsylvania state prison, it’s been more than 20 years since the Notorious B.I.G. was murdered in a cross-coast rap beef, and the loud colors of Coogi are the stuff of ugly sweater contests. If you still want one, though, they’re available on the Coogi site for around $600.
A socialite and heiress from one of America’s most powerful families, Gloria Vanderbilt launched a fashion empire. Thanks to her, women across the world were wearing jeans with her name and the trademark Gloria Vanderbilt swan emblazoned across their hips in the 1970s and ’80s. As the designer jeans craze subsided, however, so did sales. Today, the once-glamorous Gloria Vanderbilt brand can be found at Kohl’s, JCPenny, and Macy’s, where you can get most items for less than $50 and many for less than $30. Vanderbilt died in 2019 of stomach cancer, making her public persona (often as the mom of CNN anchor Anderson Cooper) and branding more decidedly past-tense.
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In 1989, fashion legend Gianni Versace gave his kid sister, Donatella Versace, a gift: the Versace brand’s first spin-off company, Versus Versace. The line, which debuted in Milan, launched Donatella’s career and made a major impact on how the in-crowd dressed and the accessories that they wore. The 2000s, however, saw the brand’s star power fade as a series of defections and takeovers battered the Versus image. After closing in 2005, Donatella resurrected the brand in 2009 with an emphasis in watches, leather goods, fragrances, and limited ready-to-wear clothing.
Wacky bands. Zany faces. That little rubber band that was supposed to protect the glass from impact damage. Swatch, which was the “it” watch for a brief time in the 1980s, was launched by legendary Swiss watchmakers whose market share was being gobbled up by cheap Asian imports. Artistic collaboration with a who’s-who list of the era’s biggest stars made Swatch the decade’s hippest watch. Today, however, Swatch is a relic from a bygone era — although you can still buy one if you want.
Bongo cashed in on the ’90s denim craze in a big way, thanks, in large part, to a string of memorable — but now horribly dated — ads featuring emerging star Liv Tyler. Today, however, the luster has worn off, and the only place you’ll find a pair of Bongos is in the discount section of doomed yesteryear retailers like Sears and Kmart.
You can still score a pair of (pre-owned) L.E.I. jeans at Walmart for less than $20. A bizarre link to L.E.I.’s former website reminds us that the acronym stands for “Life, Energy, Intelligence,” and alludes to L.E.I.’s heydey as a must-have brand of jeans for kids across the country. In 2002, the dream died when Jones Apparel bought the L.E.I. brand for $310 million.
In the early aughts, Bebe was a fashion standout for its chic women’s clothing and lowercase logo T-shirts. While you won’t find a Bebe store at the mall these days (the brand started closing all its retail locations in 2017), you can find the brand on its website. In a decidedly non-fashion-forward move, the company has recently announced the purchase of several rent-to-own franchises.
In the ’90s, Nine West was the place to go in the mall for dressy footwear and solid-quality weekend kicks. The company filed for Chapter 11 in 2018 with debts of over $1 billion and sold the Nine West and Bandolino brands to Authentic Brands Group. ABG owns Juicy Couture and Aéropostale, among others. You can still buy Nine West shoes and boots on its website.