Granny gowns seem to have been custom-made for Christmas. They're perfect for warm, happy moments around the tree. They're ideal for snoozing on cold winter nights. But credit where credit's due. If it hadn't been for Werner Scharff, the venerable granny might never have offered cozy comfort during the holidays - or at any other time of the year, for that matter.
Scharff, who came to the United States with his brother Kurt to escape the scourges of Nazi Germany, dreamed up the idea.World War II was raging; finding apparel to fill the store they'd founded, and locating fabric to use in manufacturing, were almost impossible tasks. But Werner was determined to keep the enterprise going. He finally tracked down some inexpensive cotton flannel, copied his landlady's dress and designed a product that today has become the signature of the Lanz company.
The garment was designed to be sold as a dress. But when a store buyer commented what a cute nightie it was - well, that was opportunity knocking! The granny gown was born. And the granny has remained popular ever since (over 15 million have been shipped and sold, and there have been thousands of imitations).
Lanz of Salzburg, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, is duly proud of the demure bit of sleepwear. But there's much more to the venerable label's fashion story than snug styles for snoozing.
These days Lanz offers pretty party clothes, classic daytime dresses, and weekend attire and is launching a large size collection for spring. It's a complete line of ready-to-wear for the woman who likes to keep up with fashion trends, yet never dress in a faddy manner.
"We do clothes that can be worn by all ages and clothes that have a timeless appeal," emphasizes Liz Lahn, vice president of design. "By the same token, each season a real effort is made to update and freshen the collection so that customers won't become bored with the product."
Maintaining this delicate balance isn't easy. Indeed, she considers it her main challenge as a designer. But challenges have always been welcomed by the people at Lanz.
When Werner and his brother Kurt established the company, along with their partner Sepp Lanz, the odds definitely weren't in their favor. No matter, the Scharffs believed in the American dream; they had entrepreneurial spirit. And they were not easily discouraged. Living on about 15 cents a day (you could get by on that in 1938) the brothers and their partner, who was an Austrian immigrant, founded a store in Los Angeles. It wasn't long before movie stars discovered the retail shop and fell in love with the type of clothes it offered - primarily smart ski attire and charming dirndl skirts.
Outfitting Hedy Lamarr for one of her films and receiving credit on the screen really put the company on the fashion map. An old guest book from the store's early years still shines with the signatures of stars: Grable, Dietrich, Colbert, Temple, Crawford. . . .
In 1946, the Scharff brothers bought out Lanz and began really emphasizing the manufacturing side of their enterprise. Other retailers, intrigued by the practical, moderately priced merchandise, asked for the chance to buy the items and sell them in their own stores. Thus, the wholesale side of the company began.
Eleanor Scharff headed the design department for many years, focusing on the feminine and romantic image that's still associated with the label.Then the job fell to Liz Lahn.
President of the company is Peter Scharff, Eleanor and Werner's son, who directs operations at the firm's headquarters in Culver City, Calif.
Salt Laker Christina Gates has a franchise for the only Lanz store in the intermountain area, located in Foothill Village.