A man of many names- Chas. Kuperstein and Koupy
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Selfridges advertisement for a Koupy suit, 13 June 1945
Today I am turning to another of the key figures of the wholesale couture trade, Charles Kuperstein. I’ve been interested in Kuperstein since I embarked on research for my MA back in 2013. Like many of the other figures I have researched, Kuperstein had a long and successful career in the industry, as I will go into in this post. Fashion Trade Weekly suggested in 1946 that the Model House Group, the leading group of wholesale couturiers in operation between 1946 and 1959, was actually ‘inspired largely by Charles Kuperstein.’ Of course, this means garments by his company will be featuring in my book, but here I will delve a little more into Charles Kuperstein himself and the brand names under the company umbrella of ‘Chas. Kuperstein Ltd.’
When trying to research the man behind Koupy, I kept hitting dead ends and at one point I felt convinced that he was going to prove totally illusive and I would actually have to give up altogether. Well, it appears perseverance and the London Gazette pays off in the end!
When I wrote about the company Simon Massey I referred throughout to the founder as Harry Massey, as this was the name he chose for himself, Kuperstein on the other hand presents something of a more complicated problem, as he went by so many different names, as I will illustrate in this post.
Kuperstein legally changed his surname to Charles in 1939. In fact, the notice for this name change appeared in the London Gazette just a week after the notice for Harry Massey’s name change. I’ve decided to quote this notice in full as it demonstrates the complexities of name changing:
NOTICE is hereby given that CHASKIEL KUPERSTEIN known as Chaskel Charles Kuperstein of 105, Brondesbury Park in the county of London intends for himself his Wife Mary Kuperstein his children and remoter issue after the expiration of twenty-one days from the date hereof to renounce and abandon -the use of the said surname of Kuperstein and the said Christian names of Chaskel Charles and to retain the Christian name of Chaskiel and to assume the surname of Charles, and to evidence such change of name by deed poll.
The London Gazette, 12 December 1939
What interests me about Kuperstein is that both post and pre WW2 he went by a varied combination of these names. Sometimes his surname is ‘Kuperstein’ and at other times ‘Kupferstein’ Certainly there are articles quoting him as ‘Charles Kuperstein’ or ‘Chas. Kuperstein’ but his first name is sometimes spelt ‘Chaskel’ and at other times ‘Chaskiel’. All in all, this makes tracing this successful fashion manufacturer quite hard. Unlike Massey, who seemed to re—invent himself in a fashion sense around the time of WW2, Kuperstein retained the same identity, just under different names when or where it seemed appropriate.
Kuperstein was born in Warsaw (now Poland) in November 1891. It is unclear when he moved to Britain, and records suggest that he spent some time living in Germany. Certainly, I cannot find him at all on the 1911 census. Kuperstein, I believe, was married three times (I can’t find many details on his first marriage which I believe took place in Germany).
My first evidence of Kuperstein in the UK is actually the registration of his marriage, in early 1922, to Mary Harris- the registration document lists his name as Chaskel Kupferstein. Kuperstein had three sons with Mary and I’m not wholly sure whether all three of them played a role in the business- however, it was certainly run post Kuperstein’s death by his son Anthony Charles (born 1942). His third wife was Adelaide Hartnoll. She had travelled with Kuperstein through the late 40s and 1950s on business trips to the US, with her profession listed as a ‘sales executive’ suggesting that she too played a role in Kuperstein’s fashion business.
Charles Kuperstein, Women's Wear Daily, 31 December 1937
According to an article in Women’s Wear Daily, Kuperstein established the firm Chas. Kuperstein Ltd in 1928. Whilst I think this is probably broadly accurate, the same article incorrectly reported Kuperstein’s age, which indicates the difficulty with using magazines and newspapers as the primary source when tracking such firms. Prior to 1928 he had certainly established another fashion firm as a notice in the London Gazette (8th May 1925) illustrates:
NOTICE is hereby given, that the Partnership heretofore subsisting between us, the undersigned, Abraham Marks Kessly and Charles Kuperstein, carrying on business as Ladies' Gown Blouses and Jumpers Designers and Manufacturers, at 49-53, Poland-street, Oxford-street, in the county of London, under the style or firm of KESSLY AND KUPERSTEIN, was dissolved as and from the 30th day of March 1925, by mutual consent.
I cannot find anything about this company (Although I believe the same Kessly was later listed as a gown manufacturer in Prestwick). This does however indicate that as early as 1925 Kuperstein was already an established ready-to-wear manufacturer.
The Tatler, 28 March 1934
It appears that Kuperstein established the ‘Koupy’ brand, for which he is best known for, in the 1930s. Indeed, this was initially the name of one specific type of garment produced by the brand, a raincoat. This can be seen in a rather lovely, classically 1930s advertisement in The Tatler in 1934. The advertising copy states;
New- these gay, debonair showercoats- splashes of brilliant colour when it rains in the World of Fashion- Dernier Cri [latest trend] among stylist women on the Continent. “Koupy”- so lightly silken, so porous and free from rubber. The smartest protection from rain and dust. How clumsy and gauche does the ordinary mackintosh appear beside a “Koupy”. How exciting to be one of the first to wear this pure silk coat- beautifully coloured, light as a feather, so dashing and chic. See these coats in many tantalising models and colours- they are priced from 4 ½ guineas.
This was one of a number of advertisements which appeared for similar coats under the Koupy brand name in 1934, but it seems that this brand name was used for all manner of ready-to-wear clothing by the firm from the mid 1930s onwards.
Britannia and Eve, 01 July 1940 (interesting piece on the increasing importance of the branded label- a phenomenon Koupy was certainly part of!)
America was extremely important to Kuperstein’s business. The ‘Koupy’ brand, certainly from the mid-to-late 1930s was run on American principles, much like Massey’s firms. Indeed, it is mostly through Kuperstein’s travels to and from the US that I have been able to trace so much information about him. With one passenger list indicating that he spoke English alongside French, German and Yiddish. Articles in Women’s Wear Daily suggest a two-way trade in operation with Kuperstein buying American garments to sell in Britain, under the Koupy label, but also selling British pieces to the American market. Whilst Kuperstein had travelled to America throughout the 1930s, he began selling Koupy garments in the US in 1937. I will now quote the majority of an interesting article from Women’s Wear Daily (31 December 1937) which discusses the American models Kuperstein bought to sell in Britain:
Charles Kuperstein, of Koupy (American dresses) Ltd. Company recently formed to import and distribute American made apparel on the British market, is sailing on a buying visit to the American market […] Mr Kuperstein says that his buying operations will principally cover dresses and two piece suits between $2.87 and $6.75 but he will also buy garments up to about $29.75. He will buy quantities sufficient to maintain a regular stock for the new company of some 10,000 frocks, he states.
The first section of the Koupy showroom and stockrooms will be ready on Jan 1, the entire area, amounting to 10,500 square feet of the fourth floor of his Poland Street headquarters being given over to the business. The floor should be completed before the end of January. It is a new floor that is being fitted out to receive American made garments.
On that floor will also be located ‘reconditioning rooms’ where a staff of girl workers will be regularly employed in finishing all garments imported from America. Mr Kuperstein declares that practically no American made dresses as received here direct from the plants can be dispatched immediately to British retailers. They have to be sewn over and generally reconditioned to suit British market requirements.
What I find really interesting about this is the concept of ‘re-conditioning’, which was precisely what Harry Massey also suggested. I wonder what it was about these American dresses that was not considered quite right for the British market? I’m also increasingly thinking that this purchasing of American ready-to-wear as a business strategy needs to be considered in the wider scope of the post war boom of wholesale couture. Certainly, from those firms I’ve considered so far in my return to research there was a real focus on American styled popular price ready-to-wear pre WW2, then a turn towards higher price clothing as soon as WW2 hit and imports from America were no longer possible on the same scale. I do want to make very clear that this was certainly a two-way trade, Kuperstein was certainly already selling British made garments to the US market prior to WW2 and continued to do so at an even higher-level post war.
Export was extremely important to wholesale couturiers’ businesses in the immediate post war period, and I was interested by a series of advertisements placed by Kuperstein in local and national newspapers in January and February 1950. They stated:
By selling 4879 KOUPY MODELS in the last accounting period to the Dollar and other “hard” currency export markets, KOUPY MODELS have brought home over a quarter of a million dollars ($276,135) to help close Britain’s export/import trade gap. For this reason KOUPY MODELS have not been available to all the stores and Speciality shops in this country. With our training scheme making skilled labour more available, the supply of KOUPY MODELS in the Home Market will be increased.
Despite Kuperstein having been a seemingly successful manufacturer I’ve only ever seen a small number of garments bearing the firms labels that pre-date the late 1950s (Koupy in the 1950s and 1960s had a ‘model’,‘couture’ and later ‘boutique’ label alongside a low price Koupycraft label). One of the loveliest examples that I know of by Koupy is in the collection at the Museum of London. A really rather special red CC41 coat, donated by Kuperstein himself.
I’d now like to consider a little of Kuperstein’s fashion geography. When studying wholesale couture firms I’ve always been interested by the creation of a veneer of luxury through their showrooms. Whilst wholesale couturiers were producing ready-to-wear clothing, in reach of the middle classes, these pieces were often portrayed as luxuries- highlighted by the fact that many wholesale couture firms had their headquarters in central Mayfair. Interestingly the Koupy headquarters and showrooms were a little further out of this area, located first at 49-53 Poland Street in the 1930s before moving to ‘Screen House’ 119-125 Wardour Street (where many film companies had their headquarters). I’d assume that this choice of location was primarily about space. Kuperstein had very large central London premises, seemingly with a fair amount of manufacturing done on-site, unlike some of his other fellow wholesale couturiers who occupied only part of the buildings their showrooms were located within, with most of their workrooms in other, cheaper parts of London (or even further afield).
In the 1940s Kuperstein was manufacturing some of his garments in and around Nottingham. As far as I can tell he briefly had a showroom in central Nottingham. The first evidence I have of this appears in the Nottingham Evening Post on the 14th December 1940. It states:
Mannequin (for ladies’ gowns) of attractive appearance and good deportment, size bust 34in hips 36in- height about 5ft 8in., good wages, permanency- Apply in Writing to Charles Kuperstein Ltd. 9a Market Street, Nottingham
However, it appears the firm quickly decided against a showroom in the city centre, with an article appearing in the Nottingham Evening Post on the 12th July 1941 suggesting that this premises was available for sublet, described as a ‘beautifully fitted showroom (with or without furniture) suitable for gown, coat and suit trade, wholesale or retail.’
The firm, from December 1940, was also manufacturing outside the city centre at Harrington Mills in Long Eaton (which still stands today!). There are over a hundred advertisements placed by the firm in various local newspapers seeking employees. One such advertisement on the 14th May 1941 suggested;
Machinists, experience on sectional work of great coats, also Basting Hands, Under Pressers (female) Wanted- Charles Kuperstein, Harrington Mills. Leopold Street, Long Eaton
After a high number of articles requiring various workers in the tailoring and textiles professions (and requests for fur!) in 1940, 1941 and 1942 these advertisements cease promptly in March 1942, so I’m really not sure whether production continued in Nottingham post war. One thing I will say is that during the war Frederick Starke, Matita and Dorville (three other leading London wholesale couturiers) also moved their production, at least partially, to the wider Nottingham area. I don’t know (yet) if this is simply a matter of coincidence, or whether there was a wider wartime re-location of fashion firms to Nottingham. It’s certainly not something I can find any concrete information on… so if anyone has any answers I’d love to know!
Kuperstein died suddenly in 1960, aged 69, as Women’s Wear Daily (4th October 1960) reported, ‘at his office desk.’ The article also suggested that he was one of the ‘best known London ready-to-wear manufacturers.’ The West London Synagogue of British Jews, Register of Burials, indicates that he was buried at Hoop Lane cemetery. Returning to his name, its interesting that the Women’s Wear Daily obituary describes him as ‘ Charles Kuperstein’ rather than Chaskel Charles, the name he was using at the time. The article suggested that the youngest of Kuperstein’s three sons, Anthony, was ‘in the business and will continue as before.’
Anthony Charles outfit as featured in the Birmingham Daily Post, 12 April 1975
Anthony ran Chas. Kuperstein Ltd throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Although from c 1967 onwards began producing a label under his own name. An article in the Kensington Post (13th October 1967) implies that the Anthony Charles for Koupy line was newly introduced. Stylistically most of the Anthony Charles for Koupy pieces I have come across appear to date to the late 1960s and early 1970s. The article states;
The House of Koupy has for many years been a name synonymous with al that is best in High Fashion. In addition to an ever expanding home market, Koupy’s international reputation continues to grow, and the demand from abroad for these eminently wearable clothes has led to world-wide distribution wherever elegant fashion is appreciated. Now, by popular request, a new collection of gay young coats, suits , dresses and casual wear has been introduced bearing the label ‘Anthony Charles’ ensuring that the Koupy look is available for all age groups, with styling exactly right for the Modern Miss or the more conservative fashion conscious woman.
The Anthony Charles line continued into the 1970s. It seems the parent company of Charles Kuperstein Ltd. Was liquidated in 1985, although certainly there is little to suggest the company was still really operating in the 1980s.