Whatever Happened to Contempo Casuals? A Brief History

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The recent revival of padded shoulders, retina-burning neon hues and palazzo pants as “fashionable” have sparked nostalgia for those halcyon days of the big-haired ‘80s. But as much fun as leg warmers…aren’t, the truth is, there can never be a full revitalization of ‘80s style, since one of the era’s biggest icons has gone the way of New Wave and huaraches (remember those?).

Contempo Casuals

Contempo Casuals, once the go-to store for all your jelly shoe and patterned jam pants needs in the 1980s and early ‘90s, supplied fashionistas across the nation with looks that ranged from edgy to inspired, culled from icons of the day like Madonna, Whitney and yes, even Jesse Spano. Contempo Casuals was a mid-priced store that sported the latest fashions that graced the pages of Sassy (the magazine that would have been a blog today) and became the godmother of stores like Urban Outfitters and American Apparel.

Contempo Casuals II

Plus, the store had cool shopping bags with geometric line drawings and Andy Warhol-esque graphics.

So What Happened to Contempo Casuals?

Wet Seal

Our fashion tastes improved? (Just kidding).

Contempo got its start in the 1960s by the Neiman Marcus Group, but the chain’s 239 stores were later sold to Wet Seal after multiple bouts of soft sales. Still, Contempo operated under its original name until 2001, when its remaining stores were converted to Wet Seals And Arden B. Since then, the Contempo Casuals name may have died out, but the memories live on.

And if you’re still mourning the loss of the store that gave you the looks that made you think, “Not even Kim Cattrall’s mannequin could pull this off so well,” don’t fret, just turn to Facebook. Contempo fans can reminisce about and smile for the old days and of course, compare notes on just how many buttons you could actually fit on a jean jacket.

Tell us about your favorite Contempo or Contempo-inspired look! (Bonus points for pictures!)

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  • Emily F.

    I used to “shop” (really just browse) at the Contempo Casuals at Brookdale Mall in a suburb of Minneapolis. I don’t think I ever actually bought anything there because I was always broke, but I used to spend a lot of time looking and dreaming. I miss Contempo Casuals, Brookdale Mall, and the early 90’s. Wonderful memories.

  • marie

    i remember buying my stripper/dance clothes there! You could always find a sexy short dress there like Christina Applegate would wear on The Bundys.

    • Catherine Brock

      Ha! I remember Kelly Bundy’s wardrobe — all bodycon, all the time!

      Thanks for stopping by!

      ~Catherine

  • Niccole Whitfield

    Contempo was really just another version of the ultimate 80’s store, Merry Go Round. Except that Merry Go Round had guys clothes as well….that was the store that first carried Jamz…….the pants version, that were brightly checkered flannel for guys. Contempo was the store that was meant to be just for girls. One of the things I got there that would still be in style, was my collection of awesome vinyl jackets and matching micro minis. (Ok maybe not IN style, per se, but cool enough to wear and give zero fix what stupid, self appointed,so called FASHIONISTAS, think—wait,I never cared what those lanes thought anyway!Lol) Mom stole most of these outfits and I will be damned if I knew what she did with them!!

  • PSG

    …crocheted…

  • PSG

    I also worked at Contempo in the early ’90s, and still have a few pieces, but not everything that I now wish I’d kept to hand down to my daughter (lots of black velvet, oversized gab jackets and tails, the heavy-duty, absolutely opaque ribbed leggings, and yes…one mauve babydoll dress, that I wore with granny boots and layered crochets tights).
    I even had the velvet Four-Non-Blondes floppy top hat, that I sold on eBay close to twenty years ago.
    A less fond memory would be having been written up for wearing faded black. In the middle of all things Grunge, my tunic sweater wasn’t as dark as my leggings…

  • KJ

    Im watching clueless and there was a line about contempo casuals, a flood of memories came rushing back. I had totally forgotten about that store. Fun times, i recall me and my bestfriend getting lace gloves. Forgotten and fun times…..

  • Suzanne

    A beautiful but forgotten style that Contempo featured: clothing inspired by the movie “Amadeus” – gorgeous brocades, lace, and prints. Wish I’d hung on to the delicately patterned brocade jacket, but I do still have a dress, a shimmering purple with a black velvet collar (a size too small now). I’ve done internet searches and can’t find any reference to this style

    • Niccole Whitfield

      A lot of places had this style….now remember the other thing very popular at this time….Prince and The Revolution. Between him and Amadeus, these styles were everywhere. I had quite a bit myself. Try looking up under clothes sold at Merry Go Round…..Also, Lipservice was doing this look too and those clothes are built to last. If you add these things in your searches, you will find what you are looking for.

  • Monique

    Ohhhh GOD, I used to buy ALL my clothes their when I was a young teenager…..I was the most mature looking, fashionable 12 year old I knew!!! SOOO MANY FUN SHOPPING MEMORIES (sighs)…..I even remember my most favorite jacket ever: white linen jacket ala Janet Jackson-esque style, belted at the waist, with tons of asymmetrical zippers and heavy hardware. The back was cut out entirely, and replaced with a peekaboo white lace panel……good times!!!!! ?

  • Ren

    Memories, I had the black nail head deep cut front cat suit. Plus the 2pc off the shoulder crop top with square cut outs along the sleeves with matching pull up tight pant with the same cut out along the mid thigh to the ankles. I wore those outfits with wild pairs thigh high boots. Contempo’s in the Houston Galleria was the spot, in my clubbing days…

  • kerstin

    I loved contempo back in the early 90’s. Most of my friends didn’t know about it because we only had 1 left in the city and it was kind of hidden. So i rarely bumped into someone wearing the same thing as me. I always got tons of compliments. I got super cute courderoy bell bottoms and sweaters and tops from there. Adorable sundresses…..Wet seal doesn’t hold a candle to the flame.

    • Shelley

      Once Contempo closed their doors, I fell into a “deep depressive” shopping state of mind!

      The very first time I brought myself to step foot over the threshold of Wet Seal, shopping as I KNEW IT was absolutely ruined for me!!

      The quality of Wet Seal product was ridiculously inadequate compared to Contempo!

      Shoppers who’s heart and soul had still remained with Contempo made it EXTREMELY difficult to try and shop somewhere else bc nobody else seemed to carry the same styles,, those styles that had a particular “edge” as Contempo!!!
      They were ONE OF A KIND!
      NOBODY could hold a candle to Contempo, NOBODY!!

      I STILL HAVE my black leather bad ass Motorcycle Jacket,, a pair of black Hot Pants, and my VERY colorful sheer half half blouse that have flouncy sleeves that have a super long flouncy tie that hangs down to the top of my jeans,, I’m so glad I kept those three items!! So nostalgic!!

      And I still wear them, BUT the hot pants I only wear under short skirts bc they are like cheerleader shorts..

      I’ll take photos of them and post soon..

      • Catherine

        Shelley,
        Looking forward to seeing those photos!
        Catherine

  • Noreen

    I shopped at Contempo in Los Angeles back in the seventies. They had the greatest clothes at the best prices. I kept their clothes for years. I was a professional singer and they used to carry the coolest gowns. I have pictures from that that are posted at. you tube under Noreen Jackson Jazz. I also used to buy clothes at Suzi Creamcheese in Las Vegas. What a fun time that was. We had style!

  • Sillygirl

    I loved Contempo and miss it a lot. I used to shop there for anything like black and white outfit for work, business casual outfit or just something simple. The price was kind of high for my budget but I always feel like if I like it and will wear a lot, I didn”t care about how much it cost. It was funny how my girl friend and I had excatly the same skirt and we had no idea that we both shop at this store and had the same taste in professional outfit style!

  • RubyBC

    I worked in the buying office after college. It was a dream come true. I worked in sweaters and loved it.

  • Public_Programming

    I’m wearing a Contemo Casual sweater right now! It still held up after all these years and I still get tons of compliments on it. It has a timeless look to it. You wouldn’t even know it came from Contempo although it does have a sort of cool design and eye catching colors.

  • Patti

    You are wrong about who started Contempo Casuals. It was started by a family named the Freedman and sold first to Carter Hawley Hale, and later to Neiman Marcus Group. When I left, we had 275 stores. It was an amazing place to work, I worked there for 10 years in stores and later Buying Office.

    • LISA

      BRING CONTEMPOS BACK !!!!!!

  • Samantha

    I LOVED Contempo!!! It was my go to place in the late 80’s. Oh how I miss the days of yesteryear.

  • Redgti9

    I still own a brown suede coat from Contempo! Still in style I SWEAR! I’ve always liked Arden B. Now it all makes sense why. Feeling nostalgic.

    • Public_Programming

      Yup I have a cute dress from Arden B.. They had one downtown, but I didn’t get a chance to shop there much.

  • Krispaternostro

    As a former employee of contempo casuals in New Orleans, it was one of the funniest times of my life!!! All my friends were envious because we got a really good employee discount!
    Yes, I still have a lot of the jewelry, bra tops and lacy gloves!
    How about those jeans with the leathers as they were called around here!

    • Mimi G

      I had a pair of the white jeans with the leathers!! I bought two tops that had the see through sleeves and the see through midriff. I bought them in black and white and I wore them with those jeans!! I got the most compliments on those pieces when I wore them. I MISS THAT STORE!!!!!!

  • My first job in retail was at Contempo Casuals during the early 90’s. I do miss the palazzo pants, grunge looks, and babydoll dresses.  I kinda wish I had kept some of those pieces!

    • Right? I just remember being in lovin with this baby doll dress I wore EVERYDAY day that I got from Contempo. Plus they had awesome accessories (and the best bags). I miss it.

    • NYSee

      The baby doll dresses!! <3 God, I miss 1992…

      • You and I both, my friend. 😉

    • Public_Programming

      I still rock palazzo pants from time to time. They never go out..

    • PSG

      I also worked at Contempo in the early ’90s, and still have a few pieces, but not everything that I now wish I’d kept to hand down to my daughter (lots of black velvet, oversized gab jackets and tails, the heavy-duty, absolutely opaque ribbed leggings, and yes…one mauve babydoll dress, that I wore with granny boots and layered crochets tights).
      I even had the velvet Four-Non-Blondes floppy top hat, that I sold on eBay close to twenty years ago.
      A less fond memory would be having been written up for wearing faded black. In the middle of all things Grunge, my tunic sweater wasn’t as dark as my leggings…

      • Catherine Brock

        Thanks for sharing!

  • I never knew this. Now that I do, I’m making all sorts of style connections between Contempo and Wet Seal. Contempo did foreshadow the model for a lot of clothing stores today, Forever 21, Urban Outfitters, etc. I wish I had some pictures to share, but I confess I may have hidden many. 🙂