While there are few unbreakable rules in advertising, most agencies would advise against using images of Adolf Hitler in association with your clothing brand. Nazi iconography tends to turn off potential buyers.

The exception? Members Only.

The men’s outerwear brand famous for its tablecloth-like fabrics, ribbed bottoms, and shoulder epaulettes was one of the biggest success stories in 1980s fashion—so successful that they actually grew bored with their celebrity endorsements and decided to use their advertising dollars on anti-drug and pro-vote campaigns. Instead of paying for models, the company paid for public service announcements about drug-addicted infants and violence against police officers. During the 1988 election year, they rolled off footage of Hitler as a way of inciting voters to take an interest in the country’s political future. 

Some markets refused to air the commercials, but Members Only and its two owners had built a $100 million clothing empire by bucking trends and defying convention.   

After a stint in the Marines, Herb Goldsmith went to work for his father’s outerwear company, Chief Apparel, in the late 1940s. Packing orders and stuffing inventory full of moth-resistant camphor balls, Goldsmith developed an eye and feel for men’s fashion. (Mostly a feel: Goldsmith was color blind.)

Although his father was content to keep Chief in the Northeast, Goldsmith thought the brand had potential in other markets. He hit the road and sold buyers on sports jackets, eventually enlisting actor Tony Curtis to endorse their products. When he came across Velcro in 1958, he immediately struck a deal for kid’s coats to be fastened with it, knowing that their lack of fine motor skills often left zippers hanging.

Not everything was a success—Velcro wasn’t a smash, and he once passed up a deal with two obscure designers named Dolce and Gabbana—but Goldsmith knew the apparel business.

Following his father’s death, Goldsmith joined with partner Ed Wachtel to buy out the import company Europe Craft in 1961. The two sourced designs from overseas and worked on more daring menswear designs than American companies had been offering. Their Convoy Coat became a big seller; later, they enlisted television star Telly Savalas to help design and endorse a line of suits. Although Savalas was a snappy dresser, his fans apparently weren’t big on buying formal wear; Europe Craft discontinued the line within a year.

By the late 1970s, Goldsmith and Wachtel were being cautioned by their retail buyers that customers were looking for slimmer cuts in their jackets: Young men weren’t responding to the square-shouldered suits their fathers wore.

On a buying trip in Munich, Goldsmith spotted a jacket that had a knitted bottom and epaulettes—the straps on the shoulders common in military uniforms. In New York, he discovered a chintz fabric that was thin, shiny, and came in 40 colors. At the time, outerwear had a muted color palette; the idea of offering a jacket in green or a blinding white was contrarian. And that’s exactly what Goldsmith wanted.

Blending the fabric and design while adding touches of his own—like a strap around the collar—Goldsmith needed a brand identity. While at a country club in Long Island, he noticed a large sign outside of the entrance: Members Only.

Later, he took note that Diners Club cards had a key on their logo; for Members Only, he added a keyhole. It hinted at access and exclusivity, provided you had the good taste to purchase one.

After a few rough drafts, the completed, $55 retail Members Only jacket debuted in 1980. It was a modest success. Retailers couldn’t display as many colors as Goldsmith had available, and he had to petition them to get rid of the typical “pipe rack” display common with most jackets of the time. Members Only selections were displayed in a cascading, tiered rack, so buyers could get a complete look at the design.

Taking note of the free gifts common in cosmetics purchases, Goldsmith also introduced ancillary Members Only items like tote bags and watches to act as a sales incentive. Before long, the jackets were being paired with Izod golf shirts and Levi’s jeans for entertainment attorneys flying from coast to coast; the style was being passed around the country in circles that could prove to be influential. Before long, Members Only jackets were showing up—unsolicited—on movie and television personalities.

Goldsmith still needed to mount a purposeful ad campaign. When he was mulling over a celebrity endorsee, his daughter told him to contact soap opera actor Anthony Geary, at the time a hugely recognizable performer on ABC’s General Hospital. While most men didn’t care about Geary, Goldsmith knew that women frequently drove apparel choices during shopping excursions.

Members Only signed Geary in 1982. In television commercials, he suggested that, “When you put it on … something happens.”

That “something” was a jump to $100 million in sales by 1984. During personal appearances, Geary was mobbed by up to 5000 shoppers and protected by police barricades. Members Only had become a leading brand in outerwear, with Goldsmith adding women’s sizes, more colors, and winter versions with quilted lining. An estimated 15 million men sported the jackets.

Everything was such a smashing success that Goldsmith could take chances. And for his 1986 ad campaign, he would take one of the biggest.

The press that had been assembled to screen the new ad campaign for the hottest outerwear brand in the country didn’t know what to make of it. Musicians and athletes—like Nets star Buck Williams—were ranting about the evils of drug addiction. One spot depicted a police shield riddled with bullets, collateral damage in the drug war. In form and function, they were public service announcements, with a “brought to you by Members Only” button coming only at the very end.

Goldsmith had committed his entire $6 million ad budget to the idea, which was born out of President Ronald Reagan’s high-profile crackdown on drugs. The Members Only spots aired on radio, on television, and in print, minimizing the brand in order to deliver a potent anti-drug message.

"We've done a good job of getting our name known,'' Wachtel told The New York Times in 1986. ''We want to use the fact that we are well known, and see if we can stop people from using drugs for the first time, which is our goal.''

There were some in the industry who thought the two had lost their minds, but in 1987, sales jumped 15 percent. Some individual stores reported increases of as much as 82 percent. Local markets who wanted to support the message even gave free airtime to the company. Goldsmith had struck a perfect balance between community service and commercial success. First Lady Nancy Reagan wrote him a letter of thanks.

The downside of the approach is that it made it difficult for Members Only to return to the comparatively more superficial celebrity testimonials. In 1988, Goldsmith and his ad agency, Korey Kay, decided to build a new campaign around voter registration. In a series of a spots, Members Only reminded apathetic voters that the country's political process is what keeps "idiots" like Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin out of power. Footage of German concentration camps were shown. Some found the ads offensive, but Members Only retained their share of the apparel market: More than a quarter of all outerwear sold bore the brand's label.

With Wachtel having retired in 1987, Goldsmith finished a five-year deal with new owners Marcade in 1992. Increasingly, retailers were less interested in fashion and more interested in bypassing labels to source cheap clothing with overseas suppliers. An excess inventory of 90,000 jackets was once bartered for advertising and travel credit.

Members Only never regained the cachet it enjoyed in the 1980s, beginning to pop up as an ironic accessory in popular culture. When Tony Soprano was maybe or maybe not whacked in the series finale of The Sopranos, it was a man in a Members Only jacket who likely did him in. (The ambiguous end was contrary to the brand’s slogan: Fans thought nothing happened.)

Members Only lives on today as a lifestyle brand, the original design joined by modern interpretations. It's unlikely the line will ever again reach the heights it did three decades ago. For customers who shopped the cascading racks in the ‘80s, nothing less than tablecloth fabrics and Joseph Stalin will do.

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