21-year-old makes fashion-forward twist for 1960s Contempo Casuals

| December 2, 2020 | 0 Comments

SHIRT DESIGNS from Contempo Tees. Photos by Max Rubin

Stylish women, popular girls, Cher Horowitz from the 1995 movie “Clueless” and every fashionista in between during the late 20th century flocked to Contempo Casuals, a pioneering giant in fast-fashion clothing. Both the brand’s future and aspects of its history are tied to Hancock Park.

Los Angeles couple Dottie and Wil Friedman founded the clothing company in 1962, soon after coming to Los Angeles. Although the chain disappeared in 2001, its flamboyant prints and trendy styles are being revived locally — on T-shirts. The Friedmans’ grandson and Hancock Park resident Max Rubin, 21, just launched “Contempo Tees.” Rubin is a graduate of Campbell Hall and currently is a college senior at Chapman University, where he is majoring in business administration and management.

Rubin’s grandfather Wil Friedman approached him with the idea to repurpose original Contempo Casuals advertisements for e-commerce. Friedman had been collecting his brand’s advertisements from billboards, newspapers and magazines throughout the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. Ultimately, Rubin selected three designs from his grandfather’s archives, digitized them and placed them onto T-shirts. Rubin plans to include even more designs in the future.

“[My grandfather] always worked for himself, started new businesses, taking on new challenges and loved to learn. I think this was him wanting to embark on another endeavor, and I know, throughout life, he always saw a similar drive within me,” Rubin said. “He always wanted to push that, and helped me get to that point, as well.”

The two were able to develop the concept together for a year before Friedman passed away in September 2019.

All genders

MODEL wears a Contempo Tee.

Rubin brings a modern twist to his grandparents’ old business. Unlike the flamboyantly feminine Contempo Casuals, Contempo Tees caters to people of all genders, prints only in monochrome and uses a white vintage T-shirt style.

“I want to not copy Contempo Casuals, but more modernize it — make it more applicable to fashion today and make it easy for people to accept and see what Contempo Tees is now versus Contempo Casuals,” Rubin said.

Part of Contempo Casual’s history has another local tie.

Philip Hawley

Hancock Park resident Philip M. Hawley, 95, said he saw the same marking of modernity in Contempo Casuals when his company bought it from the Friedman’s in 1979. Hawley was the chairman of Carter Hawley Hale Stores, a large retailer that also owned Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman. At the time of the purchase, Hawley recalls that Contempo Casuals was worth approximately $6.4 million in assets.

Hawley, a longtime local resident who has lived in Windsor Square and Hancock Park, and who has many offspring and their families living around Larchmont still, said in our recent interview that other people in the fashion industry were developing products to appeal to as many demographics as possible. The Friedman’s did not come from a fashion background — they were liquidators who got hooked on selling unsold women’s clothing — and so they developed a nontraditional approach to retail where they zeroed in on one primary demographic group.

“Contempo Casuals was, in my judgment, a very, very outstanding group of stores that were catering to young and fashion-conscious women,” Hawley said. “As I recall, when we bought them, they had perhaps eight or 10 stores, and every one of them was doing well and clearly their customer base was enthusiastic about the product offering they were making. We decided we would try to buy it and expand it dramatically, and we did that.”

Carter Hawley Hale turned Contempo Casuals into a nationwide brand with over 200 storefronts. By 1985, Contempo Casuals had exceeded the $100 million mark in sales.

Sealed the deal

With other fast-fashion competitors catching up within the following decade, the chain was losing money and Carter Hawley Hale sold it to Wet Seal Inc. for $1 million in stock in 1995. Contempo Casuals remains the property of Wet Seal Inc., which now operates exclusively as an online retailer.

“Its potential to grow and contribute growth diminished over time because the base you were working to succeed with was not changing in size to the degree that we had grown the business,” Hawley said. “The growth potential, when you’re going that fast, diminishes over time. I didn’t have the upside multiplier potential in later years that I had had in earlier years.”

Path for the future

Rubin is charting his own path with Contempo Tees, even as he builds on his grandfather’s archives and advice. Once he graduates from college, he says he plans to devote even more energies into growing the company.

“I’m very fortunate to have my grandparents who developed that legacy that I think puts me ahead of competition right now, and I think there’s a lot of potential,” Rubin said.

“And besides any success from the company, it has been so valuable, what I’ve learned from this and the skills it has taught me.”

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