Welcome to The Ivy League Look

This blog presents a historical view through articles, photographs, reminiscences, and advertisements, of an American style of men's fashion of the mid-20th century known as "The Ivy League Look" or "The Ivy Look."

This blog will not present modern-day iterations of this "look"; it will be shown in its original context as an American style worn during this specific era. Author commentary will be kept to a minimum.

This is not a commercial site and links to commercial sites will not be posted.

July 16, 2009

Corbin Ltd.

Corbin was a staple at men's traditional clothing stores across the country

Corbin Ltd. was founded in 1947. Howard Corbin, a bombardier/navigator aboard a B-25 during World War II, left the Air Force to enroll in business school at Columbia University. During his college years, he worked in his family's small trouser factory. By the time he had completed his degree the factory was producing a line of clothing soon to be associated with the "Ivy League Look".

Originally, khaki trousers were part of military uniforms. They became a staple of civilian dress in the years after World War II.

“There was no such thing as a casual trouser back then. Men either wore suits or they wore jeans,” said Jim Leddy, vice president of marketing for Corbin. The company was among the first to introduce sleek, military-style plain front khakis in the late 1940s and early 1950s - a time when voluminous, pleated pants were in vogue.
[Wilmington, NC Morning Star - 3/24/96]

As Corbin grew it maintained its status as a family-run business. Howard's son, David, eventually became the vice chairman of Corbin Ltd. He graduated from The Hill School and magna cum laude from Princeton University and received an MBA from Harvard University. He was also member of the United States sailing team that participated in the 1977 America's Cup trials.

Corbin Ltd.'s annual revenues grew to $50 million by 1988, the year that David Corbin charged his father with mismanagement and misuse of corporate funds. In a court complaint, David Corbin charged that Howard had "failed to recognize the distinction between what belongs to him and what belongs to the company." The suit cited several instances in which Howard allegedly used company funds to pay for personal indulgences, such as a Manhattan apartment.

Both continued with the company, and David Corbin was elected president by the company's board of directors in 1991. He succeeded his father, who continued as chairman and CEO.

At its peak, Corbin employed over 1,000 workers at plants in West Virginia and Kentucky. But in 2003, facing rising production and employee benefits costs, Corbin management decided to change its business model "from that of primarily a manufacturer to that of primarily a wholesaler of quality menswear." Corbin laid off 129 workers at plants in Ashland, KY and in Huntington, WV. In April 2003, Corbin filed for bankruptcy protection.

The following excerpts from an article published in the Charleston (WV) Gazette on 12/21/03 reveal some of the issues facing Corbin employees...

In 1997, the seamstresses at Corbin Ltd. gave up two years of raises so the company could create a self-funded health-insurance plan.

“We agreed to work for less so we could get our medical bills paid,” said Wynona Maynor, president of local 747 of the Union of Needle Industrial Trade Employees.

Then in 2001, the company quietly quit paying most of the employees’ medical bills. Nobody told the seamstresses.

By the time Corbin Ltd. declared bankruptcy in April 2003, it had saddled 444 former employees with at least $2 million in medical bills the company should have paid, according to a West Virginia Division of Labor audit.

Many of the seamstresses had pieced together pants at Corbin’s Huntington plant for more than 20 years. They found out Corbin had quit paying their bills when they got collection notices in the mail from medical providers.

“When Corbin didn’t pay the doctors and hospitals, the doctors and hospitals came after the employees,” Maynor said.

“We’d all signed those forms doctors’ offices make you sign, the ones that say if your insurance doesn’t pay, the patient owes it,” Maynor said. “Now we’re being sued by hospitals, our credit rating’s ruined or threatened, we’ve been turned down for loans, and we’re swamped with bill collectors.”

Some have filed bankruptcy, she said. Many are thinking about it.

There is no love lost between the seamstresses and the Harvard-and-Princeton-educated David Corbin. Six former employees told the Sunday Gazette-Mail that in the mid-1990s, Corbin assembled several hundred employees at the Huntington plant “and he stood up there and told us we were dumb, ignorant hillbilly women who were lucky to have a job, and he could move the plant to Mexico at the snap of his fingers,” said Juanita Johnson. The other five women said she reported his remarks accurately.

...Former employees speak affectionately of the elder Corbin, who set up a scholarship fund for children of company employees and started the company’s first health-care plan.

“It’s good he’s not here to see all this,” Johnson said.

Not long after Corbin declared bankruptcy, the Individualized Apparel Group purchased Corbin's assets. Corbin became, at that time, IAG's third major trouser brand (Asher and Hubbard, manufactured in IAG's plant in Shippensburg, PA, being the other two). David Corbin was not to be involved with the business going forward, and Corbin's two plants in Ashland and Huntington were not part of the purchase.

Mark Thiele, vice-president of sales for Asher Trousers, headed Corbin's sales and marketing for IAG. "We plan to keep the Corbin fit, models and fabrics. But our first priority is to revitalize the Corbin in-stock trouser and clothing programs, which have been the core of the brand." [quoted in Daily News Record - 4/7/03]


Brandt Ross said...

Pretty accurate recap other than it does not do justice to the great management team and wonderful employees in Huntington, Ashland and NYC who made the best apparel and grew the company from $25mm in sales in 1981 to $56million in 1988.

Mark G. Anderson said...

I agree with Brandt. Great people and a great company from bottom to top! Leading the industry in quality control, innovations, use of technology and so on.


I remember the huge sales at the factory in Huntington. They would sell off the end rolls. I was only in high school at the time (early 70's) but I loved to sew and create my own designs. I always looked forward to those sales. Still to this day, when I see mens suits I think of Corbin. Now I am making high fashion purses from the suits that have been discarded. It's sad to see that era declining.