Born: Washington D.C., 3 November 1955. Education: Studied at Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, New York, 1972-74; graduated from Parsons School of Design, New York, 1977. Career: Part-time assistant to Ralph Lauren, New York, 1972-74, and to Calvin Klein, 1974-76; designer, Nik Nik, 1976-77; designer in New York for Concorde International, Alixandre, Merona Sport, 1977-circa 1980; launched own menswear company, 1980; introduced boyswear collection, 1980; formed joint venture for designer line with Takihyo Inc., Hong Kong, 1988; design consultant, Herman Geist, New York, 1990; designer, Jeffrey Banks label for Hartz & Company, New York, beginning in 1984; Jeffrey Banks menswear, neckwear, and eyewear licensed for production in Japan, beginning in 1982; menswear consultant, Bloomingdale's, New York, beginning in 1993; extended sportswear collection with Johnnie Walker, 1998. Awards: Coty American Fashion Critics award, 1977, 1982; "Earnie" award for boyswear, 1980; Cutty Sark award, 1987. Address: 12 East 26th Street, New York, NY 10010, USA.
Trachtenberg, Jeffrey A., Ralph Lauren: The Man Behind the Mystique, New York, 1988.
Bloom, Ellye, "Jeffrey Banks: To Boyswear with Love," in Teens and Boys (New York), October 1979.
Kleinfeld, N. R., "Jeffrey Banks Suits the Mood," in the New York Times Magazine, 2 March 1980.
Gruen, John, "The Designer's Eye for Timeless Fashion Photography," in Architectural Digest, September 1989.
Gite, Lloyd, "Breaking into the Fashion Biz," in Black Enterprise (New York), June 1997.
White, Constance C.R., "Patterns," in the New York Times, 16 June 1998.
Wells, Melanie, "Johnnie Walker's First Nips at Apparel Strut to Shelves," in USA Today, 19 October 1998.
At the age of 15, Jeffrey Banks was working as a salesman at the menswear store Britches of Georgetown, where he had already been a regular customer since he was 12. "He was surely the only high school student in Washington, D.C., with his own subscriptions to Daily News Record and Women's Wear Daily, " recounts Jeffrey Trachtenberg in Ralph Lauren: The Man Behind the Mystique. Banks is the consummate clothing aficionado and stylist, one who is positively obsessed with fashion. For some, apparel is simply the family business or narcissist's self-realization. For Banks, clothing is an ecstatic vocation.
A devoted movie fan since childhood, Banks has made his cinematic dream come true in clothing that evokes the golden age of Hollywood, in nuanced references to such stars as Audrey Hepburn (later a friend) and in a styling of menswear in the tradition of the debonair man about town. When Ralph Lauren visited Washington, Banks was chosen to pick him up at the airport. Fully dressed in Lauren clothing, Banks appeared as a precocious high school student and was asked by Lauren to come see him for a job when he came to New York for design school. While still in art school, Banks became Lauren's assistant and protégé in fulfillment of his interpretation of the traditional in menswear and in continuing development of his talents as a designer and stylist.
Banks subsequently designed furs for Alixandre, apprenticed with Calvin Klein, and designed for Merona sportswear. Even at Merona, his style was considered spectator sportswear, meaning the extended vision of sportswear but also the sportswear edited by Banks' keen eye to what is being worn and how it can be subtly improved. His deepest affection has always been, however, the romantic tradition of tailored clothing, a debonair style burnished by a sense of artisto nonchalance. In sportswear, Banks' strong sense of color is notable, but even for color his tailored clothing is his more natural medium. He calls himself a romanticist, but the term is weak for one so smitten by a passion for traditional clothing—a tradition that works for the most conservative gentleman but can be assembled with panache for the urbane sophisticate. Even more outside his own country, Banks' clothing in Japan epitomizes the grand sensibility of menswear brought into a fresh American focus.
Walt Whitman argued that American democracy promotes uniformity, even a sense of unimportance in individual citizens. American menswear in the second half of the 20th century was internationally effective in seeking distinction within the homogeneity of modern appearance. Designers such as Lauren and Banks addressed the social need for a traditional demeanor that would not disturb the standard of uniformity, albeit with a kind of smartness of detailing that is distinguished without being dandified. Both have, of course, learned a great deal from images in film and photography as well as keenly observing men of classic style. They then reinterpreted and refined that style.
Some would argue that a designer's transformative skill is honed in part by being an outsider—by observing that which cannot be possessed in its present form and by inherently needing and seeking change. Banks has given significant personal inflection to inbred, rarefied traditions of menswear, often connoting class. His customer— probably younger, because of his palette, than Lauren's—buys not to climb socially but to fit into a fantasy of best-dressed nattiness, perfect in effortless grooming, and informal high style.
Yet Banks' preppy, "dressed for success" image cannot be attributed to his look alone. The designer has more than just fashion sense; he has a proven business sense. He learned many things from his former mentor Ralph Lauren, and one was how to run a business. Although most designers tried to make it on their sketches, hoping to catch the eye of anyone who would look, Banks told Black Enterprise in June 1997, "Fashion is not art. It often comes very close, but at the end of the day it's commerce."
Planning and investing have been key elements to success for Banks. He may be one of a growing number of African American designers, but what separates him from others is his ability to secure sales of his designs to major department stores. Studies show African Americans spend more money on clothing than any other race, yet only a handful of African American designers have developed successful lines. Banks' $20 million companies, Jeffrey Banks Ltd. and Jeffrey Banks International, speak volumes.
After a lengthy hiatus, Banks came back in full swing in the fall of 1998. Teaming up with liquor company Johnnie Walker, Banks extended his line of rugged sportswear and accessories collection. Sold exclusively in Bloomingdales, the collection's signature trademark resembled a silhouette of a man in a top hat with a cane—not quite Johnnie Walker's ever-popular scotch liquor label. "That is the guy two years ago who wore his baseball cap backwards, drank beer out of a can and wore baggy jeans," Banks explained to the New York Times. "He now wears a $1,000 suit and is working on Wall Street, and he wants to look as good on the weekends as he does during the week."
updated by DianaIdzelis
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