It caught my eye because the fabric was exquisite, its condition pristine and the design unusual.
I tried it on and, like very few items of clothing can, it made me feel fabulous: grown-up and sophisticated. It was love at first sight.
I debated for a long time whether to spend $250 on a second-hand, very warm coat that would be worn only a handful of times in Southern California but I couldn’t get over how perfect it was, so the coat, and its story, came home with me.
Whenever I purchase vintage clothes, items that hang in other women’s closets, accompanied them on adventures locked inside their pockets, I cannot help but imagine who those women were. Would our shared fashion sensibility make us friends? Did these women work? Were they mothers? Did they have lovers?
That I will never know. The clothes mostly keep silent but, sometimes, they reveal more than I bargained for.
My new prized possession bears a prominent tag: Lilli Ann, San Francisco, an apparel company that thrived until the early 1980s and was known for the high quality and craftsmanship of their coats. Adolph Schumann, its president, and the son of a Hungarian immigrant who drove a milk truck, started the wholesale women’s company in 1934 with a $800 loan. It was valued at $40 million at his death in 1982. But his success is not the interesting story.
After the Second World War, both the French and Italian fashion industries were in tatters. Mr. Schumann, wishing to help, opened a showroom in Paris, where he organized simultaneous runways shows in France and San Francisco. His enormous purchases of fabrics from Italian and French textile companies helped the local fashion industries get back up on their feet and, at the same time, put Mr. Schulman in personal contact with designers such as Coco Chanel and Cristobal Balenciaga.
To thank him for his services, he was named a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor by France and received the Order of the Legion of Merit from Italy. More interestingly, some of the famed French designers gave him original sketches to produce Lilli Ann coats from.
Mr. Schumann was a lifelong Democrat, a friend to both John F. and Robert Kennedy, and worked tirelessly to help civic causes dear to his heart. Son of a humble Jewish immigrant, he would no doubt be appalled at what is happening in this country today.
I have no way of knowing if my coat was penned by Balenciaga or Chanel, but it does not matter. I love that it comes from the fashion house of a man who was offered great opportunities by this country and who gave back in equal, if not grander, measure when he was able to. I love that my little coat represents a link between the new and the old world.
At first I liked it because it made me feel strikingly different. Now I will wear it proudly knowing its genealogy and the beautiful story of the man behind it.