Former state official and historian Geoffrey Connor has written a soon-to-be-released book on the history of Houston’s rise as an international city. Here he takes a look at the unlikely 1960s alliance between NASA, French designer André Courrage and the Houston-based Sakowitz luxury department store… when science met fashion.
Photos courtesy of Archival, NASA and Shutterstock sources
FIRST THERE WAS SCIENCE
Rome was not built in a day, and neither did Houston become a global city overnight. But from its founding in 1837, Houston experienced a remarkably quick rise during its first century to become a major international trading port and a world center for oil and gas. During World War II, the M.D. Anderson Foundation attracted the state’s first cancer hospital, which quickly grew into the Texas Medical Center and soon became the world’s largest medical center. But by 1960, Houston had the wealth, political power, and reputation for entrepreneurship and advanced technology to be selected as the site of NASA’s Manned Space Center. It was perhaps this latter accomplishment that most clearly affirmed Houston’s rank in the nation and the world.
Several thousand NASA employees transferred to Houston, and the federal government spent billions to build the Space Center that would coordinate man’s first landing on the Moon. Houstonians began speaking in the vernacular of space – terms such as Vanguards and Pioneers, and Projects Mercury, Gemini and Apollo. In fact, Houstonians and their companies rolled out the red carpet for the heavy inflow of federal workers by offering special deals on real estate, cars and utilities, as well as gifts including home furnishings and Stetson hats to complete their look in their newly adopted state.
The whole world frequently heard of Houston in press releases issued from the Space Center. Astronauts were heard to make comments from space like “that’s Galveston Bay right there” and “we’re looking right down on Houston – I’ll get a picture.” The astronauts were especially made to feel right at home and were often fêted at civic and political events, attended parties and galas and were welcomed by Ima Hogg to her prominent suite at the Houston Symphony.
Houstonians vied for opportunities to host astronauts and NASA officials in their homes. “We knew them all,” said Houston-bred socialite and philanthropist Lynn Wyatt, “and we loved to entertain them and make them love Houston as we did.” The influence of the Space Center, along with the international connections of Wyatt and her brother Robert Sakowitz would soon elevate Houston in a very new and unique way.
The new image of Space City permeated Houston’s society and culture and tapped into a national and international fascination with outer space, and the emerging culture and tastes that reflected that new obsession. Fashions of the 1960s became more minimalist and sleek, and even incorporated modern materials like plastic, vinyl and metals.
André Courrèges, the French fashion designer who first joined Balenciaga in 1951 before launching his own line a decade later, was making waves in the fashion world that were bound to seem otherworldly. His modern designs and new fabrics evolved into his “Space Age” collection with shorter skirts, high boots, sleek fabrics and “a palette of astronaut-friendly white and silver.” Buoyed by international acclaim, Courrèges debuted the mini-skirt, a minimalist skirt set four inches above the knee, at the 1965 spring fashion show in Paris.
In the audience to see the new miniskirt and the entire Courrèges collection was Lynn Sakowitz Wyatt of Houston who later met the designer at a dinner party hosted by mutual friends. She was dazzled by his spectacular designs and his completely new take on women’s fashion. She suggested he should bring his mini-skirts and futuristic clothes to Houston because “it was the Space City and the best ‘launch site’ for such innovative new designs.”
Wyatt then called her brother back in Houston, Robert Sakowitz, the buyer for Sakowitz department stores, the most upscale retailer in the city. Lynn had grown up the daughter and granddaughter of Houston’s luxury retailers, Tobias and Bernard Sakowitz, and she obviously knew a good opportunity when she saw it. Robert flew to Paris and, in his proficient French, made his pitch to Courrèges. Courrèges was very intrigued with the opportunity to launch in Space City, to tie his collection to the NASA Space Center and to do so through a retailing family already known to him.
Despite Courrèges’ willingness, it was quite a stretch for a major European designer to think, in the 1960s, in terms of launching anywhere in the U.S. but New York. The Big Apple was the center of the American fashion market and the location of major stores and buyers. However, Robert Sakowitz offered something never done before: he told Courrèges that instead of paying him only for his original couture, which would be copied by someone else, Courrèges would be paid for the design and then would also be able to produce it in his own production shop to the sizing specifications of Sakowitz stores.
Courrèges seized on this new concept, thereby starting a now common trend among other designers to produce their own fashion designs and market them, not simply sell the original. Sakowitz took out half-page ads in the New York Times, both in New York and in its Palm Beach editions, in addition to heavy advertising in Houston about the new fashions coming to Space City for the 1966 spring season.
STYLE FOR MILES
The business coup by Sakowitz of Houston, and the impact of the advertising campaign, aroused the resentment of other retailing competitors. New York’s Bonwit Teller sent a representative to Paris offering to buy three times as much product as Sakowitz if they could have the exclusive. Robert Sakowitz returned to Paris to urge Courrèges to keep their deal. In the end, Courrèges agreed to give Sakowitz a two-week head start on Bonwit Teller, which was all the Texas retailer needed. The New York Times sent a reporter to Houston to cover the fashion debut at Sakowitz and history was made and recorded: ready to wear fashion directly from a top European designer’s own production shop to a Houston retailer.
Sakowitz very successfully marketed the new Space Age clothing lines to the residents of Space City playing into the city’s attitude of modernity and playing on such popular cultural themes as the TV hit show Star Trek, which debuted in September 1966. Robert Sakowitz would later repeat this successful formula with Rive Gauche by Yves Saint Laurent, which also made its U.S. debut at Sakowitz.
Houston still feels like the perfect Space City to contemporary eyes although its position as a global city was established many decades ago. It is a remarkable historical drama to review how Houston engineered its port and ship canal into the largest international shipping center, used Spindletop and the Texas Oil Boom to grow itself into the Energy Capital of the World, built the world’s largest and most advanced medical center and then built the Space Center which put men on the moon.
Through it all, Houston was the platform for a prodigious list of international political, business and social leaders. But certainly, the story of how Lynn Wyatt and Robert Sakowitz merged the worlds of space technology and international fashion to the benefit of Houston is one of the great insider stories of one of the world’s great cities.