The original skinny jeans
Winnipeg-made pants proved popular with teens
IN 1966, the catchphrase, “Jay is out; Kay is in,” could be heard everywhere after local garment manufacturer Monarch Wear switched the name of its popular brand of blue jeans from Tee*Jays to Tee*Kays.
Launched with great hype in 1964, Tee*Jays instantly became a teen phenomenon. You just weren’t “in” unless you wore the slim-fitting Winnipeg-made jeans. Every teenager wore them. Local rock bands appeared at dances and promotional events decked out in Tee*Jays, while radio DJs exhorted listeners to buy them. You weren’t wearing jeans or even Tee*Jays jeans; you were simply wearing Tee*Jays.
Yet a mere two years later, Tee*Jays (short for Teen Jeans, in case you were wondering) were gone, replaced overnight by virtually the same style of jean, only now marketed under a new name: Tee*Kays. But would teens jump for the new brand name? The promotional gambit and clever slogan worked with Tee*Kays, eclipsing its predecessor in both popularity and sales.
The story behind these two jean brands, with their distinctive orange MW label, offers a fascinating glimpse behind the birth of teen-directed marketing and promotion, as well as the growth of a once-local garment giant.
Monarch Overalls began making work wear for Canadians in the 1920s. The company was started on Cumberland Avenue in Winnipeg’s garment district by Harry Steinberg. (I went through high school with his grandson Lawrie Steinberg). Julius Berkowitz was marketing manager.
During the Second World War, the company expanded production to make uniforms for the Canadian
Every teen had to have a pair of Monarch Wear jeans Forces. Following the war, with production capacity increased and no more uniform orders, the company moved into children’s wear. In the mid-1950s, Monarch Overalls struck a licensing deal with the Walt Disney Company to produce and sell children’s overalls with Disney characters silkscreened on the bib.
But by the ’60s, there remained a vast untapped clothing market in teenage baby boomers. It was here that Berkowitz set his sights.
“My dad always had the idea that you had to promote your products, not just sell them,” his son, Ivan Berkowitz, said.
Born in 1936, Ivan began working at Monarch Overalls as a youngster in the summer months. By the early ’60s, in his mid-20s and armed with a business degree from Harvard, he went to work for what was then Monarch Wear, located at 136 Market Ave. in the old Marshall Wells building. (It was also the location of Canada West Shoes, owned by Maitland Steinkopf, hence the incorrect assumption Steinkopf owned Monarch Wear). As vice-president of marketing in charge of liaising with retailers as well as promotional media, Ivan would become the man behind Tee*Jays and Tee*Kays.
While Lee’s and Levi’s blue jeans had been around since the late 1800s, they were made and marketed as work wear for men and were most often loose-fitting. In the ’50s, teens adopted jeans as part of their rebellious image. The ’60s was the dawn of jeans designed with teenage boys’ and girls’ body shapes in mind: fashionable, slim-legged jeans. Monarch Wear set its sights on serving that market by developing a quality brand of jeans at a reasonable price (around $5) that appealed to fashion-conscious teens.
“The product was uniquely styled and coloured for the teen market,” Ivan Berkowitz said.
Jeff Black was men’s wear buyer for the Bay’s three stores in Toronto.
“It was just when perma-press fabric was developed for boys pants,” he recalls. “The main attraction was that Tee*Jays jeans were always wrinkle-free and stayed neat-looking. You didn’t even have to press them. They could come right out of the drier and you could wear them. They were the next generation in boys clothing.”
A further factor in their appeal to teens was the tight, straight leg and butt-hugging design.
“Those jeans were as tight as you could get,” said former Monarch Wear salesman Peter Thiessen. “That’s the way the kids liked it. If you farted, you blew them apart.”
As ’60s teenager Susan Hastings remembers, “They were like the ‘skinny jeans’ of today. My girlfriends Sharon Davis and Maureen Largy and I wore our Tee*Jays with white bobby socks and penny loafers with dimes in them. We were always identically dressed. We three girls thought our jeans and loafers look was pretty cool. We wore them every Friday and Saturday night to the Winnipeg Roller Rink. How we skated in those jeans that you had to peel off is still a mystery to me,” she laughs.
“That was our uniform,” said Jackie Savoie. “Tight Tee*Jays and black turtleneck sweaters. My friends Corinne, Angie and I, we were the Deveron Girls, following the band around from community club to community club, and that’s what we wore.”
I, too, thought I was a rather groovy dude in my Tee*Jays.
The initial challenge for Monarch Wear was how to get teens into their jeans.
“We started with a DJ at CKY named Jimmy Darin,” Berkowitz said. “He became our Mr. Tee*Jays, if you will.”
The radio connection was an obvious one. Teens were glued to their transistor radios.
“We bypassed the usual advertising mediums. Advertising of teen clothing on radio was almost unheard of, so we started buying radio spots on CKY. Jimmy Darin would just ad lib 15-, 30- and then 45-second spots, no scripts,” Berkowitz said. “DJs were major celebrities back then. It was an extension of radio, by using them to wear the clothes. We never paid them to do that. We wanted them to be seen in the clothes, and the whole thing just took off.”
“I liked Ivan right away,” said Jim Hilliard (a.k.a. Jimmy Darin) from his home in Florida.
“They had a great product but didn’t know what to do with it. So together, we threw around some ideas to get it started. Ivan gave me so much latitude to do it the way I saw it would work, and we pulled it off. What we started was a snowball that became an avalanche. Tee*Jays became a fad. We created a fad. And all I did was direct the commercials demographically. We focused on the ones who were potentially going to buy the product. Instead of a shotgun approach, we used a rifle. More focused. You had to wear Tee*Jays or you weren’t cool. Create the demand, and the kids will knock down the walls to get the product. No matter how much you promote it, if a product is bad, it’ll bust. This was a good product.”
Working with local impresario Fred Glazerman, Monarch Wear organized Tee*Jays Dance Party events. The first, in the summer of 1964, featured Chad Allan & the Expressions (later the Guess Who) outside the Simpsons- Sears store at Polo Park.
“It was a perfect spot, with its parking lot,” said Ivan. “There were hundreds of kids, and they were buying the jeans.”
Another such event followed, this time with the Jury and hosted by CKY’s Gary Todd and Dean Scott.
“All I remember,” said Jury guitarist George Johns, “is girls were screaming and pushing us into tables of jeans, which were falling over. Fun times.” The Hudson’s Bay Co. was onboard early. “The Bay already had a shop for teens but needed merchandise to stock it,” Berkowitz said. “They embraced the promotional possibilities of Tee*Jays right away.”
The concept, Ivan said, was to merchandize the advertising; having product where the advertising was targeted. If kids heard the ads or attended the events, you had to have the product in stores or on hand.
“Monarch Wear put together a really strong package with advertising, fashion shows, promotional events and giveaways,” said Black. “We put them on the shelves, and I’ve never seen a product sell so quickly. It was a phenomenon. It absolutely took off. I don’t think the company was even prepared initially for how big the demand was so quickly.”
With the success of the brand, Eaton’s eventually approached Ivan to jump on the bandwagon. Besides Western Canada, Quebec and southern Ontario became strong markets for Tee*Jays.
On Nov. 12, 1965, Glazerman launched the MW Tee*Jays Cavalcade of Stars show, promoting the line with a series of concerts beginning at Winnipeg’s Civic Auditorium before moving on to Portage la Prairie and Brandon. Featured performers included the Deverons (featuring a teenage Burton Cummings), the Jury, the Shondels, Kenora’s Satan & the D-Men and folk duo Jack & Jill, along with the MW Tee*Jays dancers. The shows included merchandise giveaways and drew packed halls at each stop.
Soon after, the manufacturer was alerted its registration of the Tee*Jays name was subject to a legal challenge from an American clothier that owned a T. J.’s brand. Rather than start from scratch building a new brand, the jeans were simply rebranded Tee*Kays and the tag, “Jay is out; Kay is in” was launched in early 1966.
“That turned out to be a brilliant idea,” said Berkowitz. “That became a slogan the kids liked.”
When the company went in search of a model to represent the new brand, it found 16-year old Lucille Emond (now Merritt) from St. Boniface. She became Miss Tee*Kay.
“I travelled all over Canada and modelled their clothes,” Merritt said. “I did it for three years. They just shuffled me from event to event each week.” Her picture appeared everywhere, making her a celebrity.
“I also had to sing with other bands to promote the clothes,” she said.
“I sang with the Pink Plumm (featuring Fred Turner of BTO), the Cordells, Friday the 13th — all of this while I was still in school. They gave me a salary of $100 a week.”
An attempt to get Neil Young’s Squires on the Tee*Kays bandwagon by backing Merritt ran afoul of the band’s mercurial leader.
“Neil didn’t want a girl in his band,” she laughs. “It was awful, but I did do a couple of community club gigs with them. It just was not meant to be.”
Merritt did double duty as a regular on CBC TV Winnipeg’s weekly Music Hop show. “I was making more money than my parents were.”
In return for Monarch Wear outfits, the Jury included the line “Now I can wear my new Tee*Kays” in their 1966 single It’s Been A Long
Time. Satan & the D-Men wrote All Canadian Boy with the lyrics, “So listen close cats to what I say; you’d better get a pair of new Tee*Kays. Slim legs, cool style, show ’em off. Yeah, you’ll like ’em, get a pair today.” Monarch Wear even released an album, Music To
Wear Tee*Kays By, manufactured by Columbia Records Special Products and featuring music from Simon & Garfunkel, the Byrds, Cyrcle and Paul Revere & the Raiders. Quebec group the Chantels were commissioned to write and record a 45 single distributed exclusively at Monarch Wear promotions in Quebec and Ontario.
The company promoted numerous teen-oriented events, including radio contests (a trip to London, England and flights over Winnipeg) and the Red River Exhibition’s annual Teen Fair. In the summer of 1966, it launched Krazy Kloth with a big promotional event called the TNT Show at the Garrick Theatre. Miss Tee*Kay appeared with the Cordells and host CKRC’s Jim Paulson all kitted out in the new outfits, which boasted you could write on them. A brief foray into socks and shoes failed to catch on.
Monarch Wear found markets as far away as Japan for their jeans, while in the U.S., the fledgling Target chain embraced Tee*Kays with significant orders. The brand continued into the 1970s, but by the middle of the decade increased competition from American jean companies in Canada and difficulty getting acceptable indigo denim from Canadian textile makers forced Monarch Wear to sell out to HIS jeans in 1976. “We lost our uniqueness,” said Berkowitz. Surprisingly, the man behind Winnipeg’s coolest clothing fad of the ’60s didn’t wear his own product.
“They were for skinny kids, and I wasn’t skinny,” Berkowitz laughed.
As for the music that was so closely associated with his company’s brand, Berkowitz said, “I went to plenty of these teen promotional events we had, but I never cared for rock ’n’ roll music. It was too noisy and too loud.”
Lucille Emond (now Merritt) performs with the Cordells during a promotional event for Monarch Wear products at the Garrick Theatre.