Henry Carvill, chairman of the board of an Eastern textile mill, a man who winters at a South Carolina resort and summers in Connecticut, has been giving and receiving gifts from the Neiman-Marcus Christmas Catalogue for years, although he'd never set foot in Texas until recently. Mr. Carvill may be a yankee but he can spot a Neiman-Marcus Christmas wrap from across the room.
When Mr. Carvill came to Houston for the first time this winter, he went to Neiman's in the Post Oak-Galleria complex to buy his wife a diamond bracelet. After dropping several thou in Neiman's fine jewelry department, he went looking for some clothes for himself. Mr. Carvill just couldn't find any he liked at Neiman's. His companion, an old Houstonian, said "Come on across the street to Sakowitz. Almost every well-dressed man I know in Houston buys his clothes there." Mr. Carvill, who had never heard of Sakowitz until that day, did indeed find just what he wanted, two suits, in Sakowitz' men's department.
Since Mr. Carvill's experience is not unusual, then which store, Neiman-Marcus or Sakowitz, and which fashion family, Marcus or Sakowitz, can be said to reign supreme? Well, that just depends on who you talk to, who's keeping score and which turf you're sampling.
There is no full-size Sakowitz store in Dallas, although Sakowitz will open a St. Laurent boutique there in 1973, so there's no question who's ahead there. Besides, it's hard to separate the history of Neiman-Marcus and that of Dallas. In 1907, when Dallas had a population of just 86,000, Herbert Marcus, his sister Carrie Marcus Neiman, and her husband, A. L. Neiman (who later sold his interest to the Marcus family), opened their "store of Quality a Specialty store" for women. That same year, 60 miles away, oil was discovered in Corsicana. The new oil millionaires wanted the finest merchandise and the best clothes and Herbert Marcus and his sister went all over the world to get them.
Although three of Herbert's four sons entered the business as soon as they graduated from college, it was primarily Stanley Marcus, the eldest son, who masterminded the Neiman-Marcus image projection. Young Stanley decided back in 1932 to advertise in Vogue and Harper's Bazaar —an idea quite foreign at that time to any but stores located in New York—which put his store on the national map.
Stanley stressed a concept still important to Neiman's: personalized service. He rarely forgot a face. The daughter of a Tulsa millionaire recalls semi-annual trips to Dallas "with mother" to buy clothes for the season. She bought her wedding dress and trousseau at the Dallas store, then moved to New York. Fifteen years later, on a return trip, she and her mother bumped into Stanley at the store. "Why hello, Mrs. L...," he said without a moment's hesitation. "And I see that Nancy is still a size 12!"
Nancy and her mother are typical of many Neiman's customers. Like their counterparts from Texas, Arkansas, New Mexico, Louisiana, even Colorado and Missouri, and especially Mexico and South America, they are not comparison shoppers. No, Neiman's provides them with something besides merchandise: service, selection and the serenity that comes from thinking you're perfect.
"I know I'd find a bigger selection at Marshall Field's in Chicago," says a wealthy widow from Albuquerque, "whether I'm looking for crystal or clothes. And I'd probably find the same items for less money in New York, but who wants to do all that traipsing around? Neiman's makes the selection for me. Besides, when I call Mrs. M — at Neiman's and tell her I'm coming down to shop, she knows my taste, the ages of my children and grandchildren, and the color of my last year's coat; she knows my lifestyle and she 'gentles' me through my day of shopping."
Stanley Marcus gives his salesmen and women a tough training course which stresses their use of "clientele lists." "Get to know your customer and his or her special needs," he says. Typical example: a lady en route home to South America from Europe stopped over for the night in Dallas. She wrote ahead to Neiman's explaining her problem: no time for shopping at her favorite store since her connecting flight was at 9:00 A. M. the next day. Stanley's solution: Neiman's opened at the crack of dawn that morning, just for her. She made her plane and, of course, plenty of purchases.
Stanley also was in large part responsible for a series of merchandising and promotional devices, later copied by dozens of other stores (including Sakowitz), which brought in thousands of curious local shoppers, not to mention non-Texans by the mailbag and chartered planeful. Take, for example, their Christmas catalogue, featuring just what every conspicuously consumptive Texan needs: white mink cowboy chaps, an ermine bathrobe, "His and Her Airplanes."
Then there was the Foreign Fortnight, originated in 1957 with the "Quinzaine Francaise," a high-powered two week grande spectacle involving not only Neiman's, but the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, Dallas theaters, supper clubs and civic clubs. Ambassador and Madame Herve Alphand and similar vintage VIPS, BP's, Jet Setters and almost Everybody who was Anybody in Dallas graced that affair.
A hard act to follow, but the following 15 years of fortnights have been equally sensational. And just as Dallas's Neiman's thought Big, bringing in an entire opera from Palermo one year and the Old Vic Repertory Company the next, so Houston's Sakowitz began an annual series of idea-oriented festivals in Houston, the most recent (the ninth) being its Festival dei Due Mondi, two weeks of immersion in the Italian fifteenth and sixteenth century Renaissance.
If Neiman's could bring to Dallas Givenchy, Jon Voight, the French Ambassador, Marie Antoinette's pearl and sapphire necklace, a LeMans racer, and a collection of Rodin sculptures, so who's impressed? Sakowitz counters with Edward Marshall Boehm's Bird of Peace (representing the Renaissance of today), one of three in existence (Chairman Mao and the White House have the other two)