O What a Lovely War!!!

Nothing is too lavish if it helps Neiman's and Sakowitz sell a few odds and ends here and there.

February 1973By Comments

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) and builds a 40 feet by 80 feet facade for their downtown store duplicating the Duomo Baptistry in Florence. That’s just for starters.

At this latest Renaissance festival, Sakowitz displayed original masterpieces by Michelangelo, Leonardo, and Titian, plus working-scale models of Leonardo’s mechanical devices. (Some public relations wag queried “Would Leonardo have been an Aggie?”). All this was billed, depending on which PR release you read, as $2 to $4.5 million of Renaissance art on loan. Just as Dallas Neiman’s transformed their first floor to a version of the Versailles Hall of Mirrors for their cocktail party benefitting the Dallas Theater Center, similarly Sakowitz held their ball benefitting the Methodist Hospital neurological clinic in their Renaissance ballroom recreated from the Palazzo Vecchio of the Piazza della Signoria in Florence.

On Houston turf, the competition gets even more interesting. For there the two Harvard-educated merchant princes, 34-year-old Bob Sakowitz, executive vice president of Sakowitz, and Larry Marcus, 55, executive vice president of N-M, slug it out—all very friendly, of course. And they are opponents worthy of one another. Bob drives an $18,000 Lamborghini, Larry a $25,000 Rolls. Bob collects 17th-century Dutch paintings; Larry tends towards contemporary art, especially sculpture. Bob is married to a gorgeous wife; Larry, divorced, squires about a string of good-looking gals.

The Sakowitz family has it hands down on tradition, because, after all, Houston has been home base for them for over half a century. Bob’s great-grandfather, Louis, operated a small men’s store in Galveston before the turn of the century. Louis Sakowitz’s sons, Tobias and Simon, opened the first Sakowitz in Houston in 1908 and expanded several times (the Galveston store closed in 1917), passing management operations eventually to Bernard Sakowitz, Bob’s father.

So Bob Sakowitz is the fourth generation member of what he will quickly remind you is the “last family owned specialty store in the country” (since Broadway Hale chain bought Neiman’s in 1968), a store which began in men’s clothing (“we sold Denton Cooley his first pair of short pants,” says Bob proudly), expanded rapidly until it now has four branches in Houston, two in Amarillo (they bought the old White & Kirk firm), one in Scottsdale, and the St. Laurent Rive Gauche boutique opening in Dallas this spring.

In comparison to Bob Sakowitz, Larry Marcus is a come-lately; although when he came, he came with Class. Whether Larry was, as one rumor has it, banished to Houston in 1955 after a divorce or simply given a chance to try his wings as all baby brothers must (he is 12 years younger than Stanley), is a matter of some conjecture. A friend of Larry’s speculated recently, “I wonder if Stanley would have relinquished control of the Houston store if he’d realized the punishment would turn out to be the prize.”

Part of the prize money has come from South of the Border. Wealthy Mexicans and South Americans tend now to shop in Houston rather than Dallas, partly because it’s slightly nearer, but often because they arrange shopping sprees to coincide with trips to their doctors at the Texas Medical Center. It is not at all unusual for such customers to spend thousands (cash or charge) in one day in Neiman’s, Foley’s and Sakowitz: They buy, say, a year’s supply of linens, two dozen pairs of shoes, a fur coat for a teenager, complete wardrobe for a baby or child, etc. The Foley’s and Sakowitz downtown stores have nurtured this clientele over the years (favorite hotels for the Spanish speaking have been the Lamar and the Rice, a convenient walk to these two stores, both of which deliver to the hotels). With the advent of the posh new Houston Oaks Hotel at Galleria, however, and with this hotel’s special pitch to the Spanish-speaking, Neiman’s, Joske’s and Sakowitz in Post Oak-Galleria have picked up some of this trade. All three stores have bilingual personnel.

Neiman’s regularly sends their fur and jewelry salesmen South of the Border. Richard Burton laid out $125,000 in Puerto Vallarta to buy Liz her Neiman’s Koja mink. For that money, Neiman’s was happy to send their man down with the coat so Liz in her bikini could pose in it on the beach, and later to fly their fur fitter to California to alter the coat (as well as her mink poncho with sable tails).

For that matter, Neiman’s will send their fur and jewelry salesman anywhere and frequently do. “If we know someone in North Texas, or Boston, or Vermont or wherever who’s interested in a particular gem, we’ll make the trip,” says Tony Briggle, head of public relations at Neiman’s. A former Neiman’s jewel carrier recalls the time he was assigned to deliver a 227 carat black star sapphire to a small Texas community. He walked into one of the few shops in town and was asked, “Ain’t you that guy from the Neiman’s and Marcus?”

“Yes.”

“What’s that stone you got to show? Just how big is it?”

“227 carats.”

“Is that as big as a horse turd or a hen egg?”

The record does not show the reply, only that the gem was indeed sold.

Just as Neiman’s brings the mountain to Mohammed, so Sakowitz has reverse freebies. Consider a certain lady from Mexico City who checked into the Shamrock Hotel in Houston recently according to a routine of many years standing. A Rolls Royce limousine was sent to pick her up for an afternoon’s ($8000 worth) shopping spree. Her destination? Sakowitz, which remains a favorite of the Mexicans. Leta Lloret, Sakowitz’s Spanish speaking “consumer relations guide,” is often a house guest in Mexico City. She helped dress the daughter of the president of Mexico. In one prominent Mexican family, grandmother, mother and daughter all bought their wedding dresses, their trousseaux and most of their clothes at Sakowitz.

No story about Sakowitz would be complete without mention of the best piece of merchandise Bob Sakowitz and the dynasty ever acquired, namely his trendy, certified BP wife, Pam Zauderer, who would look beautiful in a union suit, and who, some say, brought pizzazz to Sakowitz for the first time. Bob and Pam, whose daddy, George Zauderer is said to have made millions in real estate, were married in New York in 1969. 10,000 yellow roses were flown from Texas to decorate the St. Regis Roof reception.

Bob and Pam work hard and play hard. In fact, work and play are quite entwined for them. They’ve been on the International Best Dressed List. They’ve vacationed in the Mediterranean on Charles and Lyn Revson’s yacht and attended a galaxy of parties everyone jets to get to—along with local luminaries such as the Rainiers, the Burtons, the Aga Khan and his entourage. On these trips, they regularly buy for the store in European markets.

Seldom does a week pass without Women’s Wear Daily’s EYE column mentioning Pam lunching at Pavillon or La Frogpond (La Grenouille) or partying with her glamorous in-laws (her sister is Mrs. Peter Duchin). Sure, Larry Marcus gets the occasional mention, but it’s Sakowitzes six to one, especially since Bob’s sister, Lynn (Mrs. Oscar) Wyatt, married to a wealthy Houston oil man, has moved out of the Houston social orbit and into the international society crowd.

When Lynn Sakowitz Wyatt gives a party, which she does frequently, Women’s Wear Daily’s Hazel Mosely is often there to cover it and to describe who’s wearing what. No one ever speculates “I wonder where she bought her clothes?” around Lynn. They know. And Lynn can wear a lot of clothes. On one weekend last year she wore, it was reported, two Diors, a Chanel, an Oscar de la Renta, Halston pants, and an Elsa Peretti silver belt.

Lynn’s houseguests may be Truman Capote one week and the tin rich Antenor Patinos the next. As Suzy Knickerbocker once put it, “oil and tin do mix…” Suzy describes the Oscar Wyatt pillared house in River Oaks in her Suzy Says column as “lofty…complete with curving staircase put together with Steuben glass and steel and that cute inty-inty wine cellar—the one Princess Grace and Prince Rainier were so crazy about…

Naturally, Lynn takes her friends shopping at—where else? Beatriz Patino, for example, just loves the Sakowitz Givenchy boutique (a Sakowitz exclusive, by the way, though Neiman’s carries Givenchy in Dallas). Wyatt dinner guests will include local Houston heroes (astronauts and doctors are very big in Houston, plus the just plain rich) and out of towners like Mr. Chito Longoria, wealthy Mexican landowner, and his wife who buys many of her clothes in Houston (she shops both Neiman’s and Sakowitz). So the two dazzling Sakowitz princesses, Pam Sakowitz and Lynn Sakowitz Wyatt, while apparently playing are, one supposes, in their own way just minding the store.

Pam and her friends frequently wear Yves St. Laurent clothes. And why not! Sakowitz is the only store in the Southwest that carries them. Lest Dallas residents think there’s nothing out there in the retail world but Neiman’s, Sanger Harris and Titche’s, Sakowitz has a mailing list of about 2000 Dallasites. Stanley probably doesn’t like it, but Sakowitz even charters an occasional plane to bring Dallasites down for the St. Laurent showing, French luncheon, French wine and then home, all in a day. No one seems to know of anybody who goes from Houston to Dallas to shop.

Now back to Larry Marcus who, like big brother Stanley, is a very cultured man, and who has put together an important personal art collection. One friend of both Larry and Bob compared the two men this way “Larry is older and is more sophisticated: he has a well trained eye and buys what he loves—which is invariably superb. Bobby is still acquiring taste and, incidentally, his wife is one of his best teachers. She has great inborn taste.”

Larry admits that Neiman’s inauspicious start back in 1955 in a renovated “awkward, expensive” downtown building was a mistake. Houstonians just weren’t impressed. The Post Oak-Galleria store, opened in 1969, however, is another story. The $10 million, architecturally exciting “most costly retail specialty facility ever built” (to quote Larry Marcus) with translucent onyx exterior panels and a classy, airy, three story interior with marble and brick floors, Indian rugs, and smashing displays opened across the street from its smaller-sized competing Sakowitz Post Oak store (the Southern Colonial style building was promptly remodelled and enlarged). Says one observer about the two stores: “as far as presentation is concerned—the buildings, the displays, the decor—there’s no question that Neiman’s is top dog. You might as well compare Tiffany’s and Woolworth’s.” Ouch!

Comparisons may hurt, but everyone does compare—the stores, the prices (Neiman’s is generally considered to be “high”) and the personalities. Comparing Bob and Larry’s offices may (or may not) tell as much about them and perhaps about their stores as any interview or public relations handout could. Bob’s 12 feet by 12 feet cubicle in the basement of the downtown store is anything but impressive. Waiting in the Sakowitz executive reception area is depressing: early funeral home decor with double-tiered arrangements of plastic spring flowers, hospital tan walls, linoleum floor and a fenced-in switchboard girl whose back-drop is a sleezy bilge green drapery drawn skimpily across a doorway. This is Class?

Bobby’s own office is an incredible clutter of papers piled 15 inches high on his desk and on the table behind him. The sofa is covered with packages, books, paper bags, two African looking artifacts and assorted items, all of which looks like it had been there forever. Dingy rug. An office version of the average teen-ager’s bedroom. But Bob is there, looking out of place in these sloppy surroundings. Impeccably dressed. Natty, Yes, maybe he does have Class after all, and he’s so darned handsome. Vaguely resembles (but much better looking than) Eddie Fisher.

Bob smiles. A friendly smile. “What’s the difference between Sakowitz and Neiman’s? Well,” he answers slowly, and oh yes, warmly, “We try to be a little warmer. We have the best quality with a friendlier approach. Our customers are our personal friends. Neiman’s has more the snobbish appeal. That’s a perfectly valid approach, but it’s just not ours,” says the man who sold a jeroboam of Chateau Mouton Rothschild 1929 to a Houston housewife for $9600 at last fall’s third annual wine auction, an auction which he personally dreamed up.

Bob says Sakowitz wants to expand, but “we want to stay in the Southwest because we know the customer here. We’ll go as far west as Phoenix, as north as Denver or Kansas City and as east as Atlanta.” He makes much of the fact that Neiman’s is “going national,” now that it has been bought by Broadway Hale and already has stores in Atlanta, Bal Harbour (Florida) and one planned for Washington D. C., in addition to the Texas stores.

Larry Marcus and a chorus of Neiman PR people proclaim that the advent of Broadway Hale brought no changes except in accounting procedures. “They helped teach us things about management of resources, about cautious budgeting,” says Larry. “In fact, my two brothers have probably had more influence on Broadway Hale than the reverse. They know about fine stores and Broadway Hale now owns three: the other two being Holt Renfrew in Canada and Bergdorf Goodman in NYC.”

Not everyone agrees. A recently departed Neiman’s executive who wishes to be unnamed commented “When a chain oriented to volume and large profits buys a small store not so oriented, there are bound to be changes. They still carry the couture things, but at the lower end the merchandise just isn’t the same quality.”

A Dallas doctor’s wife thinks Neiman’s is “getting cheap” since the Broadway Hale merger. “When the A. A.O.O. [American Academy of Otolaryngologists and Opthalmologists] held their convention here last fall,” she says, “we asked Neiman’s to put on a fashion show for the wives. They’ve always done that in the past and God knows those wives spend plenty in the store. But this year, we had to pay them to put on a show. Sanger Harris, on the other hand, gave us a champagne reception and fashion show gratis.”

Larry Marcus’ office is on the garden level of the Post Oak store. Garden level—that’s chic for basement, although it is open on one side to a landscaped area so one can enter from the outside parking garage, walk through a spacious reception area to the elevators up to any of the three main floors. The executive offices are a far cry from those at Sakowitz. Space everywhere. Big leafy (real) plants in handsome brass and ceramic tubs. Chicly dressed model-types walk through. There’s a colorful contemporary wall hanging on one wall that looks like it belongs in a museum. Larry Marcus’ secretary is behind an opaque glass petition. The wait here is fun.

His office is large, about 20 feet by 20 feet, cluttered too, but even those piles of papers have handsome paper weights one would like to get a history on. The clutter turns out to be mostly maps and aerial photographs of land which Larry is developing outside Houston and Dallas. Art is everywhere. The place is sort of a confused museum. Lithographs, oils, several dozen small sculptures in wood, bronze, clay and glass.

Larry is attractive in an Anthony Quinn-handsome-ugly way. Clothes are OK but nothing super. He claps his hand and at once four wheels within a wire kinetic sculpture by Harry Kramer start going round. It’s hard to concentrate on the interview what with snatching glances at his etchings and trying (but not too hard) not to eavesdrop on a phone call which interrupts. (“Sorry, Bill,” says Larry, “I just wouldn’t be interested in plastic copies. I’d rather have the authentic real thing for $100,000 than copies for $200. That’s the sort of thing Foley’s or Joske’s might carry, but not us.”) Now, that is class!

A man of many interests which include community affairs, Larry, like his brothers, follows their father’s advice “to be successful, a man must be a leader not only in his business but in the city, state and nation in which he lives.” So Larry is on museum boards. He even gets involved in un-chic concerns such as the financing of water districts. Not that Bob Sakowitz, his wife, his mother and his father, aren’t Serving too. They are all on a long list of fund drives and boards, all doing their share, and more than their share, of Good Works.

But Larry does have that great house, that impressive art collection, and then, of course, he has polo. An invitation to have a drink at his house in Houston is, well, much like a chance for cocktails at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Statues everywhere, even poolside. An orchid greenhouse. Dramatic Howard Barnstone-designed house. In comparison, the young Sakowitz’s Colonial house, while attractive, is, like their store, simply not that dramatic.

But to that matter of polo, the dernier cri in snob appeal. Poor old Bob gets left behind at the post (he only has a ranch). Larry has his own 900 acre polo farm outside Houston where his trainer tends some 30 polo ponies. An expensive hobby, polo. Larry plays the game about once a week, usually with Will Farish III, whose grandfather was one of the rounders of Humble Oil Co. In the old days, the local players used Neiman-Marcus hat boxes as goal posts.

You know in your heart that a man who plays polo is not going to cheat you when he sells you diamonds, don’t you? Larry said once, “The entire jewelry business is a business of faith” and one suspects that he might well have omitted the word jewelry.

Just how impressed with Neiman’s and Sakowitz some Houstonians really are may be reflected in the fifth grade at River Oaks Elementary School, about four miles down the road from both stores, where a small girl whose mother bought her clothes at Target has been nicknamed “Target” by some class-conscious classmates. Such little girls, splendid in their Pappagallo shoes and I-bought-it-at-Neiman’s clothes are ruled already by shopping snobbism. Someone has told them—their mothers? their older sisters? who?—that it is terribly declasse to buy clothes at Target. For them, Neiman’s is The Ultimate. Sakowitz is OK. Sears and Penney’s: practical in a pinch but no panache. But Target? Yuck!

So when you read in the newspapers that someone has bought two $32,000 Caproni Jet sailplanes from Neiman’s Christmas catalogue and someone else has bought a bottle of wine from Sakowitz for a price nearly equal to a working man’s yearly income, then think of the schoolyard those people are playing in. If you can play in it too, that’s fine. Just be careful that you know all the rules. There may be some schoolgirls around waiting to pounce.

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