John Doyle Bishop operated one of Seattle's most fashionable retail establishments for three decades and positioned himself as a style leader in the city. He provided his customers with luxury ready-to-wear clothing, exceptional service, and personalized fashion advice. Through frequent national and international buying trips, Bishop created a connection between his Seattle customers and the top designers of the day. He was profiled in Women's Wear Daily and boasted friendships with designers such as Bill Blass and Pauline Trigère. His success showed that despite Seattle's reputation for casual dressing, there was a strong market for the kind of high style he sold. Bishop cultivated a reputation as a local personality and an eccentric. He was particularly known for his pride in his Irish heritage and his antics around St. Patrick's Day. His annual attempt to paint a green stripe down 5th Avenue routinely resulted in his arrest, but Bishop happily paid the fines and relished the media attention. He was the grand marshal of Seattle's first official St. Patrick's Day Parade in 1972. The "Laying O' the Green Stripe" is still done the night before the parade in his honor.
Fashion in the Wilderness
John Doyle Bishop was born in 1913 in Wardner, Idaho and spent his early years on a chicken farm. Later in life he would quip about his upbringing, "Although I like chickens, 'chicks' are my style" (Raleigh, "JDB Graduated ..."). He enrolled at the University of Idaho, but left before graduating to run the family farm after the death of his father. Unhappy as a farmer, he eventually moved with his mother to Los Angeles, where he worked as a grip at Metro-Goldwyn Mayer and later as a stock boy for the May Company department store. From Los Angeles he moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma to work at the Vandever Dry Goods Company, the city's leading department store. He then worked as an assistant in an exclusive fashion shop run by a woman named Kathryn Goodsene. From Oklahoma, Bishop moved to Juneau, Alaska to work at the department store B. M. Behrends. By the early 1940s he was the manager of Behrends.
While Juneau seems about as far as one could get from the center of the fashion world, it proved to be a good place for Bishop to establish himself as a local fashion leader, developing skills he would later use in Seattle. A childhood battle with tuberculosis left him unfit for military duty, so he did not serve during World War II. As store manager he made buying trips to select merchandise, sometimes travelling for several weeks and visiting New York, Chicago, Kansas City, St. Louis, and multiple stops on the West Coast. He would return not only with stock but also with fashion news that would be published in local papers. This included information about the latest trends, what goods would be difficult to acquire due to the war, and advice about how styles on the East Coast would translate back in Juneau.
During his time in Alaska he was interviewed by several reporters, and usually used the opportunity to brag about the sophistication of his store and his clientele. In a National Geographic feature about Alaska, Bishop was described as the man who "took fashion to the wilderness" (Raleigh, "JDB Graduated ..."). In another article Bishop was quoted explaining to "incredulous" buyers from Dallas, Denver, and Junction City, Kansas that "the woman that lives in Juneau needs more evening clothes than a woman in the States. The average woman there dresses more, especially for evening" (Taylor). After talking to Bishop, another reporter seemed convinced that Juneau was "a little city of sophisticated clothes," and that the women were just as fashionable, if not more so, than their peers in New York and San Francisco (Stiles).
Whether or not Bishop believed everything he said about the sophistication of Juneau residents and their fashion dominance over larger cities, his statements served another purpose. Bishop was selling clothes, but he was also selling an idea of big-city sophistication to his clients. He was persuading them that his shopping experience rivaled the most fashionable American cities and that, in turn, they were some of the most sophisticated shoppers in the country. This approach continued when he later moved to Seattle, where he frequently bragged about the well-dressed women of the Northwest and how the city should rank as one of the most stylish in the country.
Succeeding Seattle's "Fashion Dictator"
Eventually Bishop's success in Juneau led to an enticing job offer. He had been considering starting a business of his own, but was hesitant to go into competition with B. M. Behrends. During a buying trip in New York, Bishop met Helen Igoe, owner of the Helen Igoe Shop for Women in Seattle.
Igoe (1870-1962) had arrived in Seattle from St. Louis in 1903, and first worked as a buyer for the department store MacDougall-Southwick. In 1910 she opened her own store, which would move twice before settling at 1331 5th Avenue in 1932. Igoe sourced garments from the United States and Europe, even travelling annually to Paris at a time when such a trip from Seattle required more than a week of travel. In the 1920s, a Seattle magazine referred to her reverently as "The Fashion Dictator" for being the city's arbiter of "what to wear, when to wear it, and how to wear it" (Padden).
By the mid-1940s Igoe was in her seventies and looking to retire. After meeting Bishop she asked him to come work for her for a few years with the goal of buying the store and succeeding her in the business. They may also have felt a common bond in their backgrounds, as both were Catholic and of Irish heritage. In 1947 Bishop left Juneau and began work with Igoe and her staff. In 1950 Igoe retired, and in May of that year the name of the shop officially changed to John Doyle Bishop, Inc.
Only Fashion Spoken Here
Bishop inherited an aging clientele from Igoe but soon began to attract younger society women as well. His reputation grew quickly and so did the need for an expanded and updated space. In 1954 Bishop moved the store across the street and undertook a major renovation of the new space. The new location at the corner of Fifth and Union had previously been occupied by I. Magnin.
The new space was designed by local firm Bain and Overturf, with Harrison J. Overturf overseeing the interior decoration. A recessed entrance, featuring two 25-foot tall wooden doors, opened into a spacious interior decorated with elegant mid-century modern touches. For the store opening in December 1954, the front windows displayed three pale blue satin gowns: one from Rome's Eleanora Garnett, one from Hubert de Givenchy, and one from Christian Dior. While most of his merchandise was ready-to-wear, the store had a couture-house-like atmosphere. Instead of browsing racks, clients waited in the seating area until they could be seen privately. They received personal attention and tailors were on hand to perfect the fit. Bishop was more than a salesman, acting more as a personal fashion advisor and stylist for his customers. In addition to suggesting the right dress, he would make suggestions to complete the entire ensemble with a hat, jewelry, and handbag. He knew what he liked, and everything he sold in his store was a reflection of his taste.
Bishop was primarily a retailer rather than a designer. Embarking on multiple buying trips per year, Bishop attended fashion shows, met with designers, and selected both general stock and specific garments for his most devoted clients. While he purchased Paris couture models for his newly renovated store and Italian knits and leather goods from a New York importer, most of his merchandise was designed and made in the United States. Bishop felt that American fashion was better-designed and more appropriate for the needs of American women, particularly women of the Pacific Northwest.
While Bishop was not chiefly a designer, he did sell some custom products and influence some of the designs he sold. As he built relationships with designers, he was able to occasionally ask for changes to garments or even have "his own ideas for dresses be made up for the store" (Zak, 47). He had his own store-branded line of hosiery in the 1950s and early 1960s, and in 1968 he designed and sold a signature scarf with a chicken wire pattern. This witty reference to his upbringing on a farm was printed on pure silk in several different colors.
Part of the role of retailers like Bishop was to interpret the trends they were seeing in showrooms and make decisions about what the local population would buy. With so great a physical distance between them and the fashion centers of New York and Los Angeles, what many women in Seattle craved was guidance. Purchasing something from Bishop was like having a fashion guarantee. His taste was highly respected, so if he convinced a customer that it was the right thing to wear, then it was. "If he tells a woman a sleeve length is right, that's considered gospel" (Raleigh, "John's girls ..."). In 1964 and 1965 Bishop ran a series of ads with the tagline "John Doyle Bishop IS Fashion." One from 1965 boasted, "Only Fashion Spoken here ... No flippant interpretations founded in yesterday. John Doyle Bishop translates fashion into today ... Authoritative, analytical, articulate ... sensitive to fashion's every inflection. John Doyle Bishop speaks fashion fluently ... John Doyle Bishop is Fashion" (Bishop ad, 1965).
His clients were devoted. Seattle Post Intelligencer editor Sally Raleigh dubbed his followers "John's Girls" and the moniker stuck. In 1965 it was reported that 70 percent of his clients bought all of their apparel exclusively from him (Zak, 46).
Known in New York
The majority of Bishop's business was focused on the top echelon of American ready-to-wear. Names like Bill Blass, Adele Simpson, Geoffrey Beene, Mollie Parnis, Oleg Cassini, Ben Zuckerman, Maurice Rentner, Pauline Trigère, and Oscar de la Renta. Bishop built a strong rapport with designers, manufacturers, and fashion writers in the cities he visited frequently. One of his long-term connections was to Bill Blass. They met around 1940 when Blass was sketching for David Crystal, and then Bishop sold garments from Maurice Rentner during the period when Blass was designing there. When the company became Bill Blass Inc., Bishop continued to buy, and commented in the late 1970s that Blass was one of the few who could rival the best designers of the 1940s and 1950s. Bishop was also a friend of designer Pauline Trigère and would sometimes serve as her escort for a charity event or gala when he was in New York.
His fashion week observations were often quoted in Women's Wear Daily, and June Weir, fashion editor for WWD, visited Seattle in 1968 to speak on a fashion panel with Bishop. Weir profiled Bishop in 1968 for a full-page article titled "The Fashionable Bishop." It covered his history, the operation of his store, his opinions on current fashion, and his eccentric persona. "I have to work harder than my competition, since I am only an individual business," he explained; "the individual shop owner has to be quicker and infinitely more alert. He has to have a greater awareness of not only what's going on ... but what's coming tomorrow" (Weir). A second Women's Wear Daily profile came in 1971, with the article beginning on the front page. Writer Tom Ryan called Bishop Seattle's "Number One fashion retailer" who has scores of devoted clients in "the palm of his hand" (Ryan).
Perhaps the most compelling proof of Bishop's "in" with the fashion elite occurred in November 1972. Wearing a white and green plaid suit, Bishop waltzed into the spring Bill Blass show with none other than legendary couturière Elsa Schiaparelli on his arm. A photograph of Bishop and Schiaparelli ran in Women's Wear Daily, and the accompanying text explained that her presence was a surprise to Blass. A different photograph ran in The Seattle Times, showing Bishop, Schiaparelli, and Blass together. In both, Schiaparelli is wearing one of Bishop's chicken wire scarves.
New Ventures and Challenges
Bishop decided he wanted to expand his empire when Southcenter Mall was built in 1968. Called "J. D. B. John Doyle Bishop Shop," this new store was targeted at a slightly younger customer, buying clothes at a lower price point. While prices that year in Bishop's downtown shop ranged from $80 to $550, the new store would have a target price range of $60 to $150.
For all of his talents, selling to younger clients may not have been Bishop's strong suit. He was able to attract a younger clientele when he started in 1950, but by the late 1960s the fashion scene was distinctly different. He believed deeply in timeless, elegant fashion, and wasn't so impressed with the upheaval that occurred in the late 1960s and 1970s. He didn't want to sell things that were "kookie" or "far-out," and wasn't an advocate for short hems or pantsuits. The Southcenter store lasted for just over a year.
The experience at Southcenter may have been a blow that made Bishop temporarily disillusioned with retail. Another came in 1972 when Bishop's store was one of several in Seattle involved in a labor dispute with the union of retail and display employees, which eventually needed federal mediation.
In 1974 Bishop sold his business to a company called Lady Albert Ltd. He planned to remain as a consultant, and let others run the day-to-day work of taxes, bookkeeping, and union negotiations. The relationship between Bishop and the new management quickly soured, and after only three months he severed ties with the store. Under the contract Bishop had signed during the sale, he was barred from going into any competitive business for 18 months. During that period he filled his time with involvement in charity events and teaching courses in fashion at Seattle Pacific College.
In August 1976 he opened the John Doyle Bishop Salon on the fourth floor of the Skinner Building (on the same block as his previous location). Lady Albert Ltd. continued to run a women's clothing store in Bishop's old location, but dropped the use of his name. The new store was decorated in his signature green, with crystal chandeliers and pure white carpets. Going in the opposite direction of his Southcenter store, the new shop sold even more expensive clothing than he had previously carried. Just as in the old store, there were no racks to browse, and Bishop claimed that he was eager to "get off the ground floor" and move up as "it has been done for years in Paris and other cities" ("Bishop: 'Timeless Clothes ...'").
He ran the store in the Skinner building until his death in 1980, at age 67.
When Bishop died, his obituary in The Seattle Times summed up with the heading "Bishop is Remembered as Flamboyant and Kind" (Kirkby, "Bishop is Remembered ..."). The obituary in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer called him "Seattle's resident character" and highlighted his prolific work with local charities (Gavin).
Bishop's eccentric personality was made visually clear with his personal style. While his taste in women's clothes tended toward the conservative and the classic, his own look became progressively more adventurous in color and pattern over time. Bishop had his suits custom made by Hickey Freeman in New York, with specific touches he dictated such as contrasting top collars and white-rimmed buttons. The look was always set off with the contrast of his snowy white hair and thick, dark eyebrows. In 1967 he was named as one of the 100 best-dressed men in the world by Harper's Bazaar and Men's Bazaar.
Bishop was also known as Seattle's "professional Irishman" (Gavin). Bishop loved his Irish heritage and celebrating St. Patrick's Day. Green was his signature color for his attire, the décor for his shops, and the ink he used for his personal correspondence. His annual attempt to paint a green stripe down 5th Avenue was widely understood to be a publicity stunt -- Bishop would happily joke around with the arresting officers and pay the fines. When Seattle finally established an official St. Patrick's Day parade in 1972, Bishop was the first grand marshal.
Bishop was known for his charity work, particularly with Catholic organizations such as the Seattle University Guild and St. James Cathedral. He supported a variety of other charities and nonprofits, often by narrating a fashion show for a fundraising event. The Seattle Times once commented that his witty commentary, "virtually guarantees the success of any event at which he appears" ("John Doyle Bishop -- A Fashion Leprechaun").
While Bishop's profession and personality made him a very public figure, his private life was kept private. The fact that Bishop was gay was never publically acknowledged but seems to have been an open secret. As a man in the fashion industry, he worked in an environment of semi-acceptance that was otherwise rare for the time. His female clients felt comfortable having him in the dressing room and husbands seemed to have no concern about such close contact. He was welcomed into the highest social circles but could never really be "out" or bring men as dates to society parties.
Bishop's final "event" in the city occurred after his death. In December 1980 an auction was held to distribute his belongings. Bishop had planned the event and designed the invitations. The event was open to the public on the condition that all attendees wore black tie or "Doyle green." On the auction block were enlarged photographs of Bishop that decorated his apartment, his four fur coats, and even his cat Shamrock. "John lived with class and died with class," remarked one attendee (Kirkby, "John Doyle Bishop auction ...").
After Bishop died, his store struggled. In the mid-1980s it moved around the corner, from the Skinner Building to the renovated Olympic Hotel. With the loss of its namesake, some questionable business decisions, and an aging clientele, the store was on the brink of bankruptcy by the late 1980s. It was then that Ruth Hill became the new store manager and began to revive it. She and her husband David purchased the store and renamed it Ruth Hill in 1990, and it is still in operation today  in the Fairmont Olympic Hotel.