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Three Giants Pass On

A tribute to Marvin Traub, Eugene Ferkauf and Judy Niedermaier

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It’s not that I have an affinity for the morbid. It’s that I think the deaths of people from our retail design world shouldn’t go unnoticed because their footprints are all over everything we do.

So here’s recognizing the passing this year of three industry notables:

Marvin Traub: When I came to New York in the late 1960s, the Upper East Side of Manhattan was being transformed into “Bloomingdale’s country.” All you really had to say was “59th and Lex.” It was the place to spend a Saturday afternoon, the place to go for the growing number of fashion name brands – Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein and Donna Karan from the U.S., Yves St. Laurent and Giorgio Armani from Europe.

But Traub was more than a brilliant merchant and businessman (honors at Harvard and the Harvard Business School). He was a showman who understood the value of presentation: big in-store campaigns, great themed windows, Bloomingdale’s events that clogged the neighborhood sidewalks.

He loved the international venue. For the 1976 bicentennial, he escorted Queen Elizabeth through the store.

Eugene Ferkauf: At the other end of the retail spectrum was Korvette’s, the first of the mass-merchandise discounters. It’s said that Sam Walton studied Korvette’s operation before launching Walmart.

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What I find interesting is that Ferkauf launched discounting in the 1950s, when our national economy was pretty robust. But he anticipated a couple of important cultural trends: the extraordinary consumer mentality that the robust economy would spur, and the move to the suburbs. In the suburbs, people shopped by car, made fewer but bigger shopping trips and had new homes to furnish quickly.

Judy Niedermaier: In the old days of the NADI shows in New York, lots of companies had showrooms. Judy Niedermaier had a salon. Creative industry people gravitated to her suite, just to visit, sit and talk.

I can’t say I knew her well, but I always sensed this quiet confidence as she sat in the middle of her visitors and admirers, smiling and nodding.

All around was her high-end collection of mannequins and decoratives, eventually furniture, and her husband Dale – and, later, son Jeffrey – describing, persuading, convincing, filling orders. Judy didn’t seem interested in the business. She wanted the gossip, the conversation, the fun, the company.

But make no mistake. When there was business to be done – Christmas displays at Marshall Field’s, New York windows at Bergdorf Goodman and Saks Fifth Avenue, the launch of Cher's Uninhibited perfume in 1988 – Niedermaier’s design sense kicked into gear. She was all business then.

I’m not sure what any of these icons from another era would have done in our digital era of smartphones and digital commerce. But brilliant people adjust to their times. The times vary, but the brilliance is constant.
 

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