The men’s clothing entrepreneur Herb Goldsmith had an instinct for capturing the public eye.
In the 1950s, when he was working for his father’s apparel company, he was among the first to use celebrities, among them Tony Curtis and Bing Crosby, to sell clothing. In the 1980s, he again used well-known figures to sell his Members Only racing jacket. Soon, stars like Frank Sinatra and Johnny Carson were sporting the jacket, as were Presidents Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush.
Then Goldsmith did something that few if any brands had ever done: He stopped all conventional advertising of his apparel and devoted his entire ad budget to public service announcements.
The first public service campaign addressed the crack epidemic of the 1980s, using sports figures like Lou Piniella, the manager of the New York Yankees at the time, and the country singer Larry Gatlin of the Gatlin Brothers, who struggled with addiction.
The second campaign urged people to vote by showing footage of Hitler and suggesting that voting was the way “to keep fools like these out of our government.”
The Hitler ads and some of the graphic anti-drug spots were risky. Some television stations refused to show them. But they received Clio Awards from the advertising industry, Members Only won millions of dollars of free publicity, and sales climbed 25% over four years.
Goldsmith died on Feb. 22 at a facility in Roslyn, New York, on Long Island. He was 92. His daughter Ileen Goldsmith said the cause was lymphoma.
Goldsmith’s flair for design and marketing helped change the look of men’s outerwear and jolted the advertising landscape.
First he came up with a catchy name for his clothing line. One day in the 1970s at his Long Island country club, he looked up and saw a sign that said, “Members Only.” To him it conveyed quality and exclusivity.
“We knew we needed a snob-appeal label,” he told Crain’s New York Business in 1989, because he was hoping to compete with designer brands like Pierre Cardin.
On a trip to Germany in 1978, he saw a jacket with epaulets and a Nehru collar. Using a shiny chintz fabric from Japan, he designed his own version of it, with a slim fit, knitted ribbing at the waist and cuffs, and a strap at the collar. He offered it in a rainbow of colors, though he was colorblind, with a discreet “Members Only” tag stitched below the breast pocket.
He recruited Anthony Geary, one of the stars of the soap opera “General Hospital,” to appear in his ads, with the tagline “When you put it on, something happens.” Sales took off.
“The single most important factor in planning my advertising and marketing strategies was the realization that fashion is show business,” Goldsmith wrote in his memoir, “Only the Best Will Do!” (2012).
Herbert Martin Goldsmith was born on Sept. 3, 1927, in the Bronx. His father, Irving, was a traveling salesman and worked for Chief Apparel, a garment company. His mother, Ethel, was a homemaker.
He grew up in the Bronx and Brooklyn. Toward the end of World War II, he joined the merchant marine. In 1946 he was drafted by the Army and sent to Northern Italy. He talked his way into a job as a disc jockey on Armed Forces Radio, where he introduced live programming to replace the canned material.
After the war, he went to Long Island University on the GI Bill, graduating in 1950 with a degree in marketing. Two years later he married a fellow student, Dolores Turkel, a speech therapist. She died in 2009.
In addition to his daughter Ileen, he is survived by his second wife, Myrna; two other daughters, Gail Case and Michelle Kessler; and four grandchildren.
After college, Goldsmith worked for his father, then founded his own apparel company, Europe Craft Imports, with a friend, Edwin Wachtel. They later adopted the name Members Only.
Goldsmith said that by the mid-’80s, he felt his celebrity campaigns had grown stale. His agency, Korey Kay & Partners, proposed public service announcements. He quickly committed the company’s entire $6 million advertising budget in 1986 and $12 million the next year.
“You want to wreck your life with cocaine?” Buck Williams of the New Jersey Nets asked in one spot. “Then I got news for you, buddy: You’re a loser.”
Other ads, which mentioned Members Only just in a quick tag line at the end, showed a crack-addicted baby crying and twitching in a crib, the funeral of a police officer killed during a drug arrest, and a police badge being shot full of holes.
The ads were lauded by politicians, sports figures and celebrities, including Nancy Reagan, who said they meshed well with her own “Just Say No” campaign. Local and national media outlets donated $70 million more in print advertising, airtime and billboards.
The campaign helped push jacket sales to $125 million annually in the late ’80s. Goldsmith said Members Only became the No. 1 men’s outerwear company, accounting for more than a quarter of total department store sales, outselling its top four competitors combined.
Excited by the effect of the anti-drug campaign, he started a new campaign to increase voter turnout for the 1988 presidential election.
This time, Goldsmith used grainy footage of Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini spewing propaganda as an announcer said, “Two hundred years ago, the Constitution of the United States suggested a very simple way to keep fools like these out of our government.” The screen faded to black with the words “There is no excuse not to vote.” It concluded with “A reminder from Members Only.”
The images grabbed viewers’ attention.
“Our philosophy was to associate the brand name with a company that cared about critical issues,” Goldsmith wrote. “The results proved that we were right.”
He said that sales continued to climb and that, with the help of the League of Women Voters, the campaign registered thousands of people around the country.
All along, Goldsmith was inspiring his sales force by turning the company’s routine sales meetings into theatrical extravaganzas, using Broadway singers and dancers as models. The meetings became ever more elaborate, taking place at hotels in the Catskills or discos in Manhattan.
“These productions reignited my taste for show business,” Goldsmith wrote.
He left the garment business in 1992 and became an investor and producer or co-producer of Broadway shows. His company, Herbert Goldsmith Productions, shared in Tony Awards for a 2005 revival of David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross,” starring Liev Schreiber and Alan Alda, and the 2007 production of “Jay Johnson: The Two and Only!” a one-man show starring Johnson, a ventriloquist.
While the clothing company was sold, Members Only jackets are still being made and have enjoyed a resurgence. Part of the cultural landscape, they have cropped up on television, including on “The Sopranos” and on “Will & Grace,” where the maid Rosario proudly owned Members Only jackets in an array of colors.