American knitwear company
Founded: in Portland, Oregon, as the Portland Knitting Company by John A. Zentbauer, C. Ray Zentbauer, and Carl C. Jantzen, 1910; renamed Jantzen Knitting Mills, 1916, and Jantzen, Inc., beginning in 1949. Company History: Introduced first rib stitch swimsuit, 1913; North American sales extended to Mexico and Canada, beginning 1920; company went public, 1921; introduced diving girl logo, 1923; added knitwear and foundation lines, 1938; established separate men's and women's divisions, mid-1960s; company became a wholly owned subsidiary of Blue Bell, Inc., Greensboro, N.C., 1979-86, then a division of VF Corporation, 1986; opened first retail store, Portland, 1992; began designing and manufacturing Nike brand swimwear, 1995; added SwimFit Website to assist women in finding desired swimsuit styles, 1997; discontinued sportswear collection, 1999. Awards: Six Woolknit awards for men's sweater design, 1965-80. Company Address: P.O. Box 3001, Portland, OR 97208-3001. Company Website: www.jantzen.com.
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Eight decades ago, the struggling Portland Knitting Company developed "the suit that changed bathing to swimming." Due to a burgeoning fitness craze, their new knit swimwear found a ready audience. The renamed Jantzen Company quickly became an international name and gained a commanding position in the leisurewear industry by expanding its markets and manufacturing sites overseas.
Jantzen's success story and long-term fashion influence spring from its innovative merchandising and promotional programs as well as its appealing apparel. The firm led the way in creative, comprehensive marketing campaigns aimed at the mainstream market. The initial springboard product was a one-piece wool bathing suit in an elasticized rib stitch, made on knitting equipment used to make sweater cuffs. Like the improvised suit Australian swimming celebrity Annette Kellerman wore in 1907, the Jantzen suit eliminated the encumbering yardage of the standard bathing costume of the late Edwardian era. Men and women who wanted to swim, not just dunk and splash, embraced it.
Jantzen's subsequent designs combined fashion and function; new cutting and patented assembly methods achieved a better fit for ease of swimming movement and figure enhancement. The basic style— the so-called California style—of long shorts attached to a sleeveless clinging skirted top came in vibrant colors with accent stripes for all members of the family. Jantzen soon offered new styles, colors, and novelty knits. The company fostered swimming (and swimsuit sales) with its "Learn to Swim" campaigns.
Jantzen's clinging and increasingly abbreviated swimwear at first outraged local moral authorities and helped crumble recreational dress restrictions. This coincided with the evolving corsetless streetwear of the 1920s. Jantzen's swimwear lines tended toward the sporty, athletic look while adapting to technological and sociological changes. An advertising campaign with catchy phrases heralded each new style.
The eight-ounce "Molded-Fit" swimming suits knitted from "Miracle Yarn" elastic were akin to "nude bathing." Famed illustrator George Petty's 1940 "Pretty Girl" suit was made in "new superb-fitting Sea-Ripple with live all-way elasticity." Lastex fabric of rubber-cored thread made possible suits "with the figure control qualities of a foundation garment." French designer Fernald Lafitte designed textured knits "with a Paris flavor."
In the annals of fashion, Jantzen's Red Diving Girl symbol is notable as one of America's first pin-up girls and first memorable apparel logo. She leapt from the cover of a 1920 catalogue to make a sensational splash on groundbreaking billboard advertisements and as a sometimes-banned decal on millions of car windshields. Jantzen hired artists like Alberto Varga to update her figure periodically. The Red Diving Girl graced all advertising and countless advertising giveaways and gadgets. She was embroidered or sewn on Jantzen swimsuits for over 60 years.
Like the other major West Coast sportswear companies, Catalina and Cole of California, Jantzen created advertising featuring Hollywood celebrities. Collaborative promotions with First National and Warner Brothers included Loretta Young as Miss Jantzen in 1931. In 1947 independent campaigns used a teenage "Mr. Jantzen," actor James Garner, to model swim trunks, and a young Marilyn Monroe modeled the "Double-Dare" two-piece suit with peek-a-boo cutouts on the hips.
Jantzen often emphasized color coordination in their ads and in-store merchandising. For a smart fashion-conscious beach look, in 1928 customers turned to authority Hazel Adler's "Jantzen Color Harmony Guide." In the 1950s, Jantzen went in with Revlon for a "Love that Red" campaign and based a swimwear collection on a bright red line of lipstick and nail polish. Jantzen expanded its lines to include bras and foundation garments as well as a wide range of men's and women's leisurewear in interchangeable parts of coordinating and contrasting colors and fabrics. The "Darlings from Jantzen," traveling fashion consultants, prepared personalized color charts to encourage customers to buy flattering color-coded Jantzen wardrobes.
At times, Jantzen provided suits and sponsorship of both the Miss America and Miss Universe beauty pageants. Two modified suits gained mystique as lucky "supersuits," because whoever wore them won the swimsuit competition and often the Miss America crown or runner-up status. Jantzen's pioneering merchandising programs as well as fashion innovations put it into the forefront of influential American apparel manufacturers. Through its overseas operations it exported American West Coast-and Hollywood-inspired fashions to a worldwide audience. The Red Diving Girl logo, involvement in major beauty pageants, and Learn to Swim and recent Clean Water Campaign programs significantly contributed to American recreational and popular culture. The company was also quick to harness the power of the Internet—by the spring of 1997, it had created the SwimFit Website to allow women to experiment with swimwear styles before ever setting foot in a store to reduce frustration when purchasing a suit.
Today, Jantzen is the leading brand of swimwear in over 100 countries, although a tough business climate forced the company to lay off workers, move some production operations to Latin America and the Caribbean, and discontinue its sportswear lines. In the 21st century Jantzen focused on expanding its swimwear business, in part by designing and manufacturing swimsuits for major fashion labels like Nike.
—Debra Regan Cleveland;
updated by Carrie Snyder