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Breaking Boundaries: The Story Behind the Leisure Suit and 4 Lessons for Entrepreneurs Today to Make Money

I’ve always been fascinated by fashion and aesthetics, even from a young age. As a child growing up in New York during the 1950s and 60s, every day I noticed the ways that people on the city streets expressed themselves through clothing and stood out from the crowd with their own personal sense of style. The way we dress makes a statement to the world about our personality, our values, and our perspective on life. Clothing is a way for people to show what they care about, signal to groups and subcultures that matter to them, and demonstrate their creativity. People’s “fashion sense” is ultimately about our sense of self.

As a young man, I started my career in fashion retail. One of my biggest career success stories was something that became an iconic part of popular culture during the 1970s: the leisure suit. My experience inventing the leisure suit, and navigating the blockbuster success that followed, has stayed with me throughout my life. Anyone who wants to launch a successful business, build a new brand, or bring a new idea into the world can learn something from the leisure suit.

Let’s look at a few lessons that other innovators can learn from this fashion trend from the Days of Disco: 

1. Explore Untapped Markets

Remember the 1950s and 1960s “Mad Men” style of men’s clothing? Back in those days, if you were a man with an office job, you wore a gray (or navy, or black) flannel suit. And that was about it! I believed that menswear didn’t have to be so limited and conservative – it could be more colorful, varied, and flexible. Why couldn’t men be individuals in how they dressed, and enjoy the same kind of freedom of personal style that women had? In a way, the Leisure Suit was also striking a blow for unisex fashion, because it was made from a material that was originally used for women’s knits – but the men didn’t know that!

When I started out working in the fashion industry, I had a job as a wholesale fabric salesman. I’ve always been fascinated by different kinds of fabric and texture and what they mean for clothing design, and I found a unique type of material called “Warp Knit” that was used for women’s knit clothing. I believed we could sell this fabric to the men’s clothing market. But my boss didn’t believe me – at first.

I was opening a whole new market full of fresh opportunities. All the clothing manufacturers loved this unique style of fabric. We got a big boost from a story by Clara Hancock, who was at the time the most influential writer for Men’s Wear Daily, the industry’s largest trade paper. Soon, Johnny Carson began wearing the leisure suit on The Tonight Show, and we were featured in multiple issues of GQ. Everyone wanted a leisure suit. It changed the men’s fashion world. 

In your career, if you have opportunities to open a new market, synthesize different concepts into a new design, or do something that’s not been done before – even if it seems “crazy” at first – go for it. That’s where some of the best success stories come from.

2. Be Brave, Be Curious and Maybe a Little Foolish!

I didn’t deliberately set out to create the leisure suit, but I had the beginnings of an idea. I found a special type of fabric that could be made into a different kind of garment; I didn’t know how big the idea would become, but I knew I had to try.

The important thing was, I didn’t know enough to know better – I was young and inexperienced, but I believed that this new type of knit fabric could be applied to menswear. My industry partners were excited about it too, and the orders started rolling in. We led the market in a new direction. 

But not everyone believed in me! My boss didn’t – he even made me take a salary cut and accept a larger commission, so I could “bet on myself” and lower his financial risks. Lots of people might have thought I was crazy, and that I should’ve played it safe. But I had a clear vision that I wanted to pursue. I had something new that I wanted to bring into the world.

Lesson for other innovators: don’t listen to the nay-sayers. Not everyone will believe in your vision, not every idea will succeed. But it’s that spirit of inventiveness that’s going to lead you in the right direction.

3. Don’t Just Sell a Product, Sell an Idea

The leisure suit might have humorous or kitschy connotations to people today, but back in the 1970s, it was revolutionary. It changed cultural perceptions. This product wasn’t just a new way to dress, it was an emblematic idea: a change in how people thought about fashion and about themselves.

Suddenly, almost overnight, we shifted the culture of how men dressed, and how they presented their individuality. Monotonous gray or navy suits and ties were for squares; men were discovering a whole new type of freedom for how to dress and express themselves through fashion. We’re still seeing permutations of this in the broader culture today, with the growing acceptance of non-conformity in fashion.


Guiding principle for innovators and entrepreneurs: many of the most successful products have a sense of “mission” and purpose behind them. You’re not just selling a product or service. You should be trying to sell a spirit of change and trying to make a larger difference in the world.

4. Stay Humble and Be Ready to Pivot

During the heyday of the leisure suit, I worked 24/7/365; I barely slept for six years. There was so much demand for our product, and I was having so much fun and making great money. I felt like a rock star, and I had fantastic experiences working with great partners all over the U.S. fashion industry.

But all good things come to an end, customer tastes change, and the fashion industry can be particularly fickle. One day, without warning, my corporate bosses decided to stop investing in my team and our division. Suddenly, along with my dedicated team of salespeople, I was out on the street.

This could have been devastating, but fortunately, I quickly found a new path: I embarked on a new journey of entrepreneurship. The leisure suit was not the end of my career, it was just the beginning of even bigger successes and other fulfilling, inspiring projects.


The taekaway: every innovator, entrepreneur, or anyone who is trying to have a creative career is going to run into obstacles and disappointments. Jobs end. Companies downsize. Budgets get cut. You will encounter problems and hardships for reasons beyond your control – it’s the nature of life and business.

But you just need to be agile, and pivot in a new direction. It’s never too late to change your career path. Keep seeking the creative buzz of new ideas and new momentum. After I left the fashion industry, I went on to a new career as a real estate developer, restaurateur, and (most recently) a green energy entrepreneur – I’m the developer of one of the largest solar power farms in the Northeastern United States. In life, even when you encounter disappointments or failures or dead ends, just keep pushing – jump on the next train!

Want to hear more colorful stories of my career in fashion, real estate, restaurants, and climate entrepreneurship?

Check out my new book, Jump on the Train.

Jump on the Train Book Cover