Trademark: 5 Major Brands You Didn’t Know Were Polish
default, An exhibition of a private collection of Patek-Philippe watches, ‘The Art of Watches’, New York, 2017, photo: Craig Barritt / Getty Images for Surface, center, patek_philippegettyimages4.jpg
The timeless Patek Philippe watches, the iconic Wrangler jeans, the cool Randolph sunglasses, the star-endorsed Max Factor cosmetics and the chic Helena Rubinstein beauty products are extremely famous, international brands. What you might not know is that these brands were all founded or co-created by industrious Poles! Discover the backstories of these successful entrepreneurs: from their Polish roots, their most important products, all the way to their rise to prominence.
The oldest brand on our list is Switzerland’s high-end watchmaker Patek Phillpe, founded in 1839. Plenty of people have heard of this company, fewer know it was started by a Polish émigré by the name of Antoni Patek. Born in 1812 in the Polish town of Piaski Luterskie, Patek was only seventeen when he participated in the November Uprising, an armed insurgency against the Russian rule over part of partitioned Poland. After the fall of the uprising he had to leave his homeland to avoid persecution, and so he came to France, where he soon found employment as a typesetter. In the 1830s, he moved to Geneva where he studied painting, while supporting himself as a wine trader.
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In Switzerland, Patek eventually developed an interest in watches, to the point that he decided to open his own watch-making company. As a result, in 1839, together with another Polish immigrant, Franciszek Czapek, he established the company Patek Czapek. Patek was responsible for the design of the watches, putting to use his artistic education, and creating chronometers of exceptional beauty.
Patek made plenty of watches for the Polish aristocracy living both in Poland and abroad. That’s why he adorned the exteriors and interiors of the cases with representations of Poland’s national heroes – duke Józef Poniatowski, Tadeusz Kościuszko – and symbols of the old [Polish-Lithuanian] Commonwealth – the Polish Eagle and the Lithuanian Pahonia. (…) Naturally, on watches for foreign clients he would place symbols relating to their identity.
‘Wielcy Zapomniani Polacy, Którzy Zmienili Świat’ (Great Forgotten Poles Who Changed the World) by Marek Borucki, 2005
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In the 1840s, French horologist Adrien Phillipe took over from Franciszek Czapek as the comapany’s technical director, and in 1851 the company changed its name to Patek Philippe. Phillippe brought with him cutting-edge technical solutions e.g. the key-less winding mechanism, which was an original invention of his.
Being now both highly stylish and technically advanced, the watches started to attract a very distinguished clientele. Among those who purchased Patek Phillipe’s watches were Great Britain’s Queen Victoria, the Danish Queen Louise and the Portuguese Queen Maria Pia. Through association with such clients the company became an international symbol of prestige and luxury. It maintains such an image to this day.
In 2001, the Patek Phillipe Museum opened in Geneva. There you can admire some of the original watches made by the Polish immigrant. Antoni Patek passed away in 1877, leaving behind a timeless brand.
Next on our list is one of the oldest jeans brands in America, Wrangler. Its history goes back as far as 1897 when C. C. Hudson, the prospective founder of its parent company, Blue Bell, first became involved with the clothing industry. However, it wasn’t until 1947 that Wrangler broke out thanks to its famed 13MWZ model designed by the Polish Jewish immigrant, Bernard Lichtenstein.
Lichtenstein was born in 1894 in the Polish city of Łódź, a textile manufacturing hub. As a child he loved to read Karl May’s swashbuckling westerns filled with stories of cowboys and Indians. This love for the American West stuck with him as an adult, when he was working as a tailor in Łódź – one time he even made his son a cowboy outfit for the Jewish holiday of Purim (a joyous holiday during which children and adults alike dress up).
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In the 1930s, financial difficulties prompted Lichtenstein to emigrate to America, where he and his family settled in Philadelphia. There he opened a tailor shop and his fondness of western themes soon attracted rodeo show performers, earning him the nickname ‘Rodeo Ben’. His shirts with snap fasteners instead of buttons were especially beloved by the cowboys. If such a shirt would get stuck on a bull’s horn the snaps would open, allowing the cowboy to escape. Buttoned shirts were not easy to get out of rendering them much less safe. But Lichtenstein wasn’t only creative with fastenings, he also had flair for design:
Rodeo Ben was inspired by decorative motifs on Polish folk dresses and costumes from his native land. He combined these designs with cowboy styles to produce distinctive costumes that were covered with old-world embroidery. He designed pants with fancy belt loops and smile pockets, and his shirts were characterised by extensive piping and incorporated embroidered pictures of horses, flowers and birds.
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In 1947, Blue Bell asked Rodeo Ben to design the ultimate rodeo jeans, which he did in cooperation with riders Jim Shoulders, Bill Linderman and Freckles Brown. After a number of attempts he came up with the famed 13 MWZ model (meaning: 13 tries, man’s western zipper), which had a long-rise fit (making the jeans more comfortable in the saddle), flat rivets, double seams (providing superior durability), straight legs, deep front pockets (suitable for storing cowboy gloves) and a zipper instead of buttons. The model was called Wrangler and jumpstarted the immense popularity the brand enjoys to this day. Thus, this Polish Jewish immigrant is considered a father of Wrangler’s success. Lichtenstein, who enjoyed the status of a celebrity tailor thanks to the iconic 13 MWZ, passed away in 1985 in Philadelphia.
Wrangler is already an American icon, the sunglasses manufacturer Randolph Engineering is just becoming one. Randolph is an official American military contractor, which makes glasses for navy pilots as well as other soldiers. But the brand is also popular in Hollywood. Civilian versions of Randolph’s eyewear have been worn in many films, e.g. by Tom Cruise in American Made or Woody Harrelson in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. And they are also increasingly popular with non-celebrity clients outside of the US Army. Randolph was founded by an immigrant from Poland by the name of Jan Waszkiewicz.
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Waszkiewicz was born in the year 1918 in the Polish village of Mławka. As a young man he pursued an education in the field of mechanics but his efforts were interrupted by the outbreak of World War II. He decided to leave Poland and, through Romania, he made it to England where he became a navigator for the Royal Air Force. In that capacity he participated in 32 bomber missions. In 1951, he moved to Boston where – after completing his technical education – he became an engineer at Northwestern University. In 1973, together with another Polish immigrant, the machinist Stanisław Zaleski, he opened a sunglasses factory in Randolph, Massachusetts.
Having plenty of technical prowess the duo were capable of manufacturing extremely durable eyewear, which eventually led them to landing a contract with the US Army. In 1978, Randolph started making the HGU-4/P Aviator model for fighter pilots and the firm has been involved with the military ever since. For many years the company was known chiefly in military circles but in the 2010s they made a successful foray into the consumer market. The shades Randolph offers to civilians have (almost) the same nifty design as the military models, but since they don’t need to withstand combat conditions or the extreme forces encountered in a jet plane they’re not constructed to meet the same, highly rigorous, standards. Today the company is run by Jan Waszkiewicz’s son, Peter, and attracts plenty of well-deserved hype. For example, Forbes described it as the producer of ‘the coolest sunglasses made in the USA.’
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Jan Waszkiewicz passed away in 2014, the same year his son said the following about him in an interview for the Boston Globe:
(…) He definitely was a big mentor in the way I run my life personally and in business. He always said your reputation is everything... He stressed always maintaining the quality and integrity that got us where we are.
standardowy [760 px]
Maksymilian Faktorowicz (Max Factor) giving advice to the actress Renée Adorée, photo: Hulton Archive / Getty Images
The next brand on our list is also associated with film stars, including ones from the Golden Age of Hollywood. Its founder, Max Factor, made a name for himself by making-up actors for movies. Among his clients were, Rita Hayworth, Charlie Chaplin, Marlena Dietrich and Frank Sinatra. Today the cosmetics company Max Factor is one of the best-known make up companies in the world.
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Max Factor, originally Maksymilian Faktorowicz, was born in the Polish town of Zduńska Wola in 1872. As one of ten children in an average Polish Jewish family, he began working very early in his life. Already as a nine-year-old he was apprenticing at a cosmetics and wig manufacturer in the city of Łódź, near his hometown. By the time he was fourteen, he had moved to Moscow where he found employment at the Bolshoi Theatre, making up opera performers. Thanks to his hard work, in the 1890s he opened up his own store selling cosmetics and wigs in the suburbs of the Russian capital.
Factor went on to gain clients from the local aristocracy and even got a job as a cosmetologist to the Imperial Court. However, he wasn’t satisfied with the demanding work conditions that position involved and decided to emigrate to America. Upon arrival in the United States in 1904 his name was misspelled by the immigration officer and Maksymilian Faktorowicz became Max Factor. After working for a while as a hairdresser, in 1908 he decided to go to Los Angeles to work as a make-up artist to actors.
There his skills and original cosmetics were quickly appreciated by the stars of the day and his business started to gain momentum.
Triumph followed triumph. (…) Max devised false eyelashes for Phyllis Haver, who was tired of having pies smashed in her face and wanted to move up to vamp roles. He created a yellow makeup to lighten Rudolph Valentino’s skin so that the actor, who ground pigments to help speed up the process, could escape bit parts as a swarthy villain. (…) Max invented ‘the first perspiration-proof body make-up.’
‘Makeup And Make-Believe’ by John Updike, The New Yorker, 2008
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Thanks to the endorsement of film stars and the high quality of the cosmetics he was manufacturing (lipsticks, foundations, etc.) by the 1930s his company was selling its products in a whopping 80 countries. The Polish immigrant not only introduced innovative cosmetics like the famed Pan-Cake, which defined the foundation segment, but was also on the forefront of packaging development e.g. by coming up with the idea to sell cosmetics in tubes. Max Factor passed away in 1938, leaving his prospering company to his son, Francis.
Another major, international cosmetics brand that was founded by a Pole is Helena Rubinstein. Like Max Factor this company was also named after its creator, a Polish Jewish entrepreneur born in Kraków as Chaja Rubinstein. It’s uncertain whether she came into this world in 1870 or 1872. However, it is clear that she had seven sisters and her family led a rather modest life. Still, her mother was resourceful enough to provide a little facial cream for her daughters and through telling them how to use it she planted in the young Chaja the idea of taking care of one’s appearance. After Chaja turned 18, her parents wanted to marry her off to a rich widower but she didn’t agree to the arrangement and instead went to Australia, changing her name to Helena.
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Down under she worked as a salesgirl in her uncle's grocery shop in Corelaine, until she realised that local women, with their sun-worn skin, were highly interested in the cream her mother had given her for the trip. Eventually she started to manufacture and sell her own cream named Valaze. Based on a mix of herbs, almond essence and (undisclosed) conifer tree extract, it became a hit. By 1902 she was able to open her first beauty salon, the Valaze House of Beauty in Melbourne, and three years later she already had new establishments in Sydney and in New Zealand. Apart from facial care, her salons would offer other beauty treatments, such as hydrotherapy and massages.
After dermatologic training in Europe, she began to offer new products: creams for different kinds of skin, tonics, etc. In 1908, she opened a salon in London (which became a great success) and a year later she did the same in Paris. After that she conquered the New World:
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In 1915, she opened a salon in New York, a year later in Boston, Philadelphia, Washington and Chicago. She travelled across the country, convincing salesmen to open stands selling her products, she introduced cosmetics into department stores in San Francisco and Cleveland and trained personnel, who taught women how to put on make up.
‘Helena Rubinstein’ by Violetta Szostak, Wysokie Obcasy magazine, 2007
Rubinstein’s business was very successful and made her a multi-millionaire. She owned houses and apartments in New York, Paris, London, Buenos Aires… In 1939, her company introduced the world’s first waterproof mascara. By the 1960s her products were sold in over a hundred countries and she employed over 30,000 people. She remained an active businesswoman all the way into her nineties.
Helena Rubinstein passed away in New York City in 1965 leaving behind a brand that remains one of the biggest cosmetics brands in the world.
Written by Marek Kępa, Sep 19