Menswear designer Allyn St. George has made it his mission to vanquish the "dragons" of fashion - high clothing prices.
Fighting to keep prices down, however, is just part of the Saint's design philosophy. He also believes in practicality and prides himself on creating suits, sport jackets and such that are classic and traditional - perfect for the business world today.The clothes, however, aren't without their critics. Some say they're too traditional to be interesting. Some say they're so conservative, they're boring. But these critics are missing the point. Not every designer has to be wildly innovative or avant-garde. There's a definite place in the apparel industry for more down-to-earth talents as well - people who cater to the masses, not the minority.
"I've always considered it challenging to make clothing for the majority," says St. George. "I've worked very hard at it over the years, and I'm going to be perfectly honest, it has hurt to never have the effort recognized. Whenever awards have been passed out within the industry, someone doing clothes for the high fashion market has always received them. Designers like me, who cater to the average customer, have been largely ignored."
That's why being nominated for the Cutty Sark Outstanding U.S. Designer Award a while back was such a gratifying experience for the Saint. At last the American fashion press had come around! And even though top honors eventually eluded his grasp, the satisfaction of that moment hasn't diminished.
"The nomination - that was my dream come true," he says with sincerity. "It made everything worthwhile. To hear them announce my name was the most exciting experience of my professional life."
St. George's professional life began early - at 15, to be exact - when he took a part-time job at a local haberdashery. But even before that, the Brooklyn-born designer was fascinated by fashion and loved to dress to the nines for any and every occasion.
By 18, he had landed a job with L. Greif and Brothers and had impressed the boss with his natural business ability and affinity for the rag trade. When an opportunity arose to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology and further his education in the apparel field, St. George considered quitting. But his employer, not wanting to lose such a promising young star, had an alternative plan. The young man could work for him during the day and attend school at night. That way the practical training could continue as he accumulated credits toward a degree.
"I wanted to get that degree," the designer recalls, "but I also felt an obligation to this man who had been so helpful and taught me so much - and, quite frankly, I needed the money. So, I tried the night school plan. Most of the time, I'd leave the office around 6, go to FIT for my classes and then return to work at the office until 2 a.m. Eighteen hours a day wasn't a bit uncommon, and sometimes it was seven days a week."
After five years of working and studying almost around the clock, St. George received a degree in fashion merchandising. And for the next 17 years, he remained with Greif doing everything from cutting swatches in a windowless room to selling the line himself. But finally the time came to seek new career horizons.
"For a long time I'd felt this country needed an American designer who was concerned with the average businessman and his clothing needs," says the Saint. "There really wasn't anyone who was providing smart, traditional clothing that was affordable. You had budget merchandise and top of the line apparel and very little in between. So, I decided to step in and fill the void by launching my own menswear line."
About the same time, the designer decided to change his name. George Allyn didn't really sound right for someone who was sallying forth on a fashion crusade. He played around with it for a while and eventually got the idea off incorporating saint in the title. George St. Allyn? No, that wasn't quite right. But Allyn St. George _ well, that was perfect! He'd take the name of that legendary saint who slew the dragon, and the "dragons" he'd go after were the high prices and inappropriate styles that glutted the menswear marketplace.
In 1977, national distribution of St. George's clothing was begun through Intercontinental Branded Apparel, a division of Hartmarx. Subsequently, other apparel licenses were arranged. And today an ever-growing array of merchandise, running the gamut from smart suits to snappy accessories, can be found in department and specialty stores nationwide.
From the beginning, as has been stressed, practicality has been the Saint's guiding light. And early on, he billed himself as America's Classic Designer. The same guidelines and mottos still apply, but recently the line has taken on a far more contemporary and stylish look.
Called American Couture, the new and updated collection focuses on more dramatic shapes, bolder fabrics and refreshing creative touches.
For the coming fall season, it spotlights stronger lines, greater definition in silhouette and noticeable patterns in black, white, silvery-taupe, pinked-grays, olive, warm ivory and navy. Nailheads, sharkskins, multistriped and verigated herringbones, boucles and elongated plaids are predominant, and many have a touch of silk that adds luster to surfaces. Shoulders on jackets are slightly broadened to balance increased chest emphasis with somewhat wider lapels. Smoother hip lines are indicated by a return to plain-front trousers. There are side-vented jackets in the line, and many six-button, double-breasted suits.
To produce the couture collection plus all his other design projects keeps St. George as busy as he was in his student days at FIT. He's also busy these days doing store seminars and advising customers on dressing well.
"I talk with a lot of men who hate to think about investing very much in a business wardrobe," the Saint says. "I tell them they're looking at this thing all wrong. After all, in the corporate world, clothes aren't just something to wear. They're tools to help you get ahead _ tools every bit as essential as typewriters and calculators. A man needs them in order to succeed."
The Saint also believes a man needs at least five suits in his closet _ one for every work day of the week. He might consider a navy stripe, a gray stripe, a midgray glen plaid, a tan suit and a suit in blue.
To this core wardrobe can be added a couple of blazers and/or sport jackets, several pairs of slacks, shirts in a variety of plains and prints; ties and hats.
Every man in America should wear a hat, especially in the winter, he says. Twenty-five percent of our body's heat escapes through the head, so a hat can help prevent colds. A hat also does wonderful things for a man's face _ and his entire image.
In 1985 the Headwear Institute of America honored St. George's continuing crusade for the chapeau by naming him "Hat Man of the Year."
Other honors and affiliations of which he is proud: the Mortimer C. Ritter Award, presented by the FIT Alumni Association; the AMY Award, given by the Young Menswear Association for service to the menswear community; membership on the Men's Fashion Association board of directors and the advisory board of the High School for Fashion Industries in New York.
Such fashion-related activities, along with his demanding job, don't allow for much leisure. When he does manage to relax you'll find him at his wooded, 20-acre retreat, called "Saintland," in Colt's Neck, N.J.
About 55 minutes from Manhattan, the retreat's complete with a home, small lake, private island and a variety of wildlife. The Saint shares the idyllic spot with his wife and daughter and four felines: Priscilla, Mandy, Whitey and Oscar de la Renta.