The revival of padded shoulders, retina-burning neon hues and palazzo pants have sparked nostalgia for those halcyon days of the big-haired ‘80s. But as much fun as leg warmers are…we’ll never enjoy a full revival of ’80s style. I say so because one of the era’s biggest icons — Contempo Casuals — has gone the way of New Wave and huaraches (remember those?).
A Store for the ’80s
Those of us in our 40s remember Contempo Casuals as the go-to store for all your jelly shoe and patterned jam pants needs, 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.
Plus, the store had cool shopping bags with geometric line drawings and Andy Warhol-esque graphics.
A Short History of Contempo Casuals
The Friedman era
Contempo Casuals was launched in the ’60s by husband-and-wife team Dottie and Wil Friedman. This resourceful couple spun a liquidated variety store called Bargain Town into a women’s clothing shop that specialized in fresh, hip styles. Dottie and Wil were not fashion experts — but they were passionate about delivering a different retail experience.
Most people would think it was a negative that we had no experience in retail or clothing, but I believe it was one of our biggest assets. What I mean is that for the most part many come out of department stores or such, and have a set of rules. We had zero rules. We did what we thought was right, not knowing that in many cases it wouldn’t be what the mainstream clothing people would do. We made many mistakes, but I was smart enough to acknowledge them and fix it.Wil Friedman, co-founder, Contempo Casuals
The Friedmans grew the brand from one store in Granada Hills, Calif. with pink walls and red carpet to a thriving chain. They marked their brand with hand-drawn, avant-garde advertisements depicting high-fashion women. From the mid-60s to the late-70s, women of all ages showed up at Contempo Casuals looking for the latest styles.
Visit ContempoCasuals.org for a very detailed account of the chain’s early years.
Neiman Marcus steps in
The brand grew so quickly that it caught the attention of national chains, and the Friedmans sold Contempo Casuals in 1978. Neiman Marcus Group owned it for a time, but the chain’s 239 stores were eventually sold to Wet Seal after multiple bouts of soft sales.
Contempo operated under its original name until 2001, when its remaining stores were converted to Wet Seals and Arden B. Both Wet Seal and Arden B. stores have since been shuttered. It may have been the end of the Contempo Casuals name, but the memories still live on — for multiple generations.
Celebrating Contempo Casuals today
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.
The next generation: Contempo Tees
Today, the Contempo name lives on in a t-shirt line called Contempo Tees. Contempo Tees, recently launched by Friedman’s grandson, aims to take a piece of the streetwear market. The collection includes t-shirts featuring the original hand-drawn illustrations that promoted Contempo Casuals all those years ago.
You might pick up a Contempo Tee as a clever holiday gift for any ’80s fashion girl in your life. Orders are shipped within one business day. If you want the piece to arrive by Christmas, be sure to place your order by December 18.
Note: Budget Fashionista originally published this article about Contempo Casuals in 2012. But an email from THE Mr. Wil Friedman prompted me to rewrite it. I promised him I’d get the facts straight, and here we are. In our original post, we said Contempo Casuals was a product of Neiman Marcus in the ’80s. After Mr. Friedman set me straight, I updated this post to include the chain’s history between 1960 and 1978.