The most important address in Houston in 1985? Without a doubt, it was 515 Rusk Street, a cream-colored building with a grid of square portholes that was home to the federal bankruptcy court for the southern district of Texas.
After years of low oil prices, Chapter 11 was endemic in the city. But no bankruptcy had the emotional reverberation as that of Sakowitz, Inc, Houston’s high-end clothier of choice, led by one of Houston’s most committed boosters, Robert Sakowitz. As the city grew richer with each passing year in the twentieth century, so did the clothes Sakowitz sold. When growth spilled into the suburbs, Sakowitz followed, selling its clothes near the new houses. And when the price of oil collapsed, the demand for ready-to-wear fashion and two-piece suits plummeted.
On the cover of Texas Monthly’s December 1985 issue, there is Sakowitz, wearing a beautiful suit, an expensive tie, and a rueful smile. For years, he had helped shine the city’s image as the Golden Buckle of the Sunbelt. If Sakowitz—the man and the store—could survive, there was hope for a city that had been beaten down by three consecutive years of depressed crude oil prices. If Sakowitz could avoid the public disgrace of a liquidation sale with its garish everything-must-go signs, then perhaps there were better days ahead.
When Texas Monthly staff writer Alison Cook asked for an interview, Sakowitz agreed. “I wanted to tell my side of the story,” he says. He wanted to send the message that the store would survive both ill-fated plans to expand to Tulsa as well as the decisions made by OPEC ministers in Vienna. “In ’83, people said stay alive ‘til ’85,” he says. “Then oil prices fell to $8 in ’85.” The city was ready to capitulate. That wouldn’t do for either Bobby Sakowitz or his company. Chin up, chest out. Sakowitz says he agreed to the interview because he wanted to spread a positive message. The medium for his message, he hoped, would be Texas Monthly.
“This is cyclical, we’ve been up and down, and Houston is going to continue to grow,” he recalls thinking. What better way than to talk about how his stores, founded by his grandfather “are Houston and Houston is us,” he says.
For Texans who were born in the last 30 years, or who moved to Texas since 1990, Sakowitz might be an unfamiliar name. But in its day, it was the department store where Texans bought clothes that expressed their desire to be recognized for their growing wealth and worldliness (along with its Dallas-based rival Neiman Marcus). Bobby Sakowitz was the embodiment of this desire. When, in 1969, he married a New York City “it” girl, the New York Times wrote up his wedding. But the paper could not resist taking a dig at his provincialism in its headline: “Pam Zauderer Wed to Robert T. Sakowitz, Houston Merchant.”
So at the end of 1985, “a year of hell,” Sakowitz says in the article, he opened up his books to bankruptcy court—and to Texas Monthly. The resulting article was about ambition and overextended bets. It was an article that reminded us that for all our smarts, in the 1980s, Texas lived and died by the price of crude oil. That he wasn’t ready to hang up his European-styled suits was clear.
The result of his trip to bankruptcy court? Sakowitz, Inc, was acquired by an Australian conglomerate. It survived, briefly. By 1990, it entered liquidation. That summer, the final Sakowitz store—in Houston’s uptown—closed. Everything was put up for sale, including the use of the Sakowitz name in retail.
Bobby Sakowitz bid to buy his name, but so did the store’s former fur buyer, Jerry Gronauer. Sakowitz says he struck a deal with Groneaur. “I own my name, he has the right to use it to sell furs and fur hats,” he says. In 2022, a generation after the last Sakowitz store closed, you can still go into Sakowitz Furs in Houston’s uptown and buy a fur, even when its nearly 100 degrees and humid. Because what would Houston be without a Sakowitz?