Stanley Marcus: The Merchant Prince of the Fashion World
Written by: Rebecca Canfield | Photos Courtesy of: Neiman Marcus
There is something called salesmanship, that when done really well, is a bit more like showmanship; it is the difference between convincing someone to buy something and allowing them to experience something. There is a broad contrast between having a press pass, which allows someone to view a special celebrity from behind the curtain, and being allowed the experience of feeling important in one’s own right.
Good salesmanship, like Bob Fosse’s Razzle Dazzle, is an experience in itself. It has a bit of flash and flare, but with none of Fosse’s nefarious plot, of course. It is the knowledge that successful selling is not measured simply by what someone purchased, but by how they feel about that purchase, before, during, and after the sale.
“There is never a good sale for Neiman Marcus unless it’s a good buy for the customer,” Herbert Marcus, co-founder of Neiman Marcus often declared.
Herbert’s son, Stanley Marcus, the marketing guru behind much of the success of the famed women’s specialty boutique Neiman Marcus, was not the store’s founder, but the mark he left upon Neiman Marcus, the city of Dallas, and the fashion industry as a whole is quite mind-boggling. Part of this was due to business knowledge, and part was due to his being born into a fashion empire, but most of it was Stanley’s (or Mr. Stanley, as he was called by most people) understanding of how to sell not just a garment, but more importantly an experience.
Founding Fathers of Dallas Fashion
The original idea for Neiman Marcus began developing back in 1907, shortly after siblings Herbert and Carrie Marcus, along with Carrie’s husband, Al (Abraham Lincoln) Neiman, decided to start their own business together. At the time, Herbert was a buyer for the boys’ clothing department at Sanger Brothers, and Carrie was a top saleswoman at A. Harris and Company. Carrie’s husband, Al, convinced the pair to move to Atlanta and begin a sales promotion business. With a newborn son of six months, and a pay-rate insufficient to provide for the family, Herbert still heartily agreed.
Their business was designed to help rural merchants raise funds by staging special sales. This often included stringing flashy sales banners across streets and then hiring bands to draw crowds, who would then become buyers. The business, which was a resounding success, earned the trio two opportunities to sell the fledgling business to interested buyers. One opportunity amounted to $25,000 cash, and the other was the chance at a franchise for an unknown soft-drink at the time, now called “Coca-Cola.” Not to be duped by a questionable new soft drink company, the trio took the $25,000 back to Dallas and began the Neiman Marcus Specialty Women’s boutique.
Before the creation of Neiman Marcus, there were few places for ladies to purchase off-the-rack clothes, especially in Texas. The norm for wealthy women of that era was to go to Europe or New York to have their clothes made to order. Ready-to-wear garments, as Stanley explained in his memoir, Minding the Store, were considered inferior. Sensing a shift in the market though, the adventuresome trio fortuitously predicted that ready-to-wear would soon be the norm. Desiring to get a jump on the competition, Neiman Marcus placed a full-page ad in the Dallas Morning News prior to their opening, announcing an “exclusive shopping boutique for fashionable women.” This store would house only the finest quality, best fitting, off-the-rack garments to be found, and these clothes would be offered at a supreme value. The shop, a first of its kind, was a resounding success.
Also at that time, while a few garment makers offered off-the-rack items, the fashion industry had not yet mastered accurate and uniform sizing, which would allow for proper fit without major alterations. Carrie Neiman, alongside newly hired buyer Moira Cullen, guided the garment makers into producing the more accurately sized and better-quality garments that women would want to purchase, and by doing so, changed the climate toward ready-to-wear clothes. This played a hand in Neiman Marcus’s success in selling ready-to-wear garments as a viable option.
Another policy that Neiman Marcus pioneered was the idea to pay manufacturers more to improve product quality instead of the traditional buyer’s tendency toward purchasing marked down items. Neiman Marcus, even in its early stages, understood the difference between quality and quantity and wanted their customers to get the full “fine-quality garment” experience that they advertised, even if it meant spending more. Neiman Marcus also became known as the store of value; if an item was purchased by a buyer at 50 percent off, Neiman Marcus would pass that savings on to their delighted consumers.
Additionally, Neiman Marcus employed a customer-first policy. “We want to sell satisfaction, not just merchandise,” the founders often said. If a customer had an issue with a garment, Neiman Marcus would often replace the garment even if it meant suffering a loss on the item. This policy of putting customers’ needs first, and occasionally of losing a sale in order to steer a customer away from a product they would not be happy with in the long run, caused the popularity of the store to grow, even in times when money was scarce.
Growing Up in the Neiman Family
Herbert’s eldest son, Harold “Stanley” Marcus, practically grew up in Neiman Marcus. A two-year-old tot when the flagship store was founded in Dallas, young Stanley’s earliest memories included hours spent making toy carts out of spools and thread boxes in the dress department. Stanley recalled in his memoirs that his experiences at Neiman Marcus were “from the floor up.” Perhaps Stanley’s best lessons in salesmanship occurred during those formative years.
In elementary school, however, Stanley was privy to a very different type of lesson, as for the first time his heritage was the cause of turmoil. Anti-Semitic taunts followed behind Stanley as his classmates chased him home from school, threatening him and calling him a “little Jew boy.” It would be his first, but certainly not his last, time experiencing discrimination. According to Stanley, however, it left no real scars.
His next experience with antisemitism did not happen until college, when during his first year at Amherst College, he found that being Jewish disqualified him from pledging for a fraternity. Displeased with being shut out of social events, Stanley transferred to Harvard the following year. During his summers he went back to Dallas to get sales experience in the ladies’ shoe department of the store.
When Stanley did graduate with his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1925, his father made it clear that he was expected to join the family business at Neiman Marcus, which displeased Stanley greatly. Stanley, who did not want to be restricted in his political viewpoints and self-expression, made his feelings known. Herbert, however, assured Stanley that he would always have the freedom to speak out politically without fear, a fact that would displease some of the store’s patrons in the years to come. True to his word, Herbert Marcus always allowed Stanley the freedom of self-expression, a decision which at that time was considered taboo for merchants who did not want to offend potential customers.
Stanley enrolled in Harvard’s Graduate School of Business Administration where his focused studies continued to prepare him for a business career. Classes in accounting, statistics, advertising, and finance helped prepare him for the role in the family business that was to come. The following year, as Neiman Marcus was preparing for expansion, Stanley returned home and entered the family business full time.
During Neiman Marcus’s expansion period, Stanley longed for greater responsibility, and so he came up with an idea that he could implement, and thus, prove his worth. He thought of hosting an over-the-top weekly fashion show on the terrace of the swanky new rooftop garden of the Baker Hotel, an event that would encourage shoppers to come downtown and shop, in spite of boiling summer temperatures. The shows, hosted and emceed by Stanley, became the-event-to-attend and were a monumental success.
Stanley also came up with further successful ideas in several subsequent areas of the family business that had been thus far left untouched, such as updating the graphic design of the Neiman Marcus packaging and creating a Neiman Marcus trademark. By 1929, Stanley’s drive had earned him the position of merchandising manager of all apparel divisions.
Breaking His Own Rules
In 1932, Stanley met the pretty new sports shop manager who had been hired while he was out of town. He described Mary “Billie” Cantrell as blonde, charming, graceful, and competent. Although the company policy against dating fellow employees was implemented by Stanley himself, he broke his own rule and began dating the young woman.
To his family’s dismay, the young lady was Christian, instead of the daughter of a prominent Jewish family as they had hoped. Her entrance into the family was met with mixed-emotions, but the affable young Billie was eventually able to win them all over. The pair were soon married and Billie bore their first child, a daughter named Jerrie, in 1936. Billie promptly retired from Neiman Marcus and devoted her attention to full-time motherhood. Two years later, the couple were surprised when their second child turned out to be twins, a boy and girl they named Richard and Wendy.
The happy couple remained married until Billie’s death in 1978. A year later, the widower married his second wife, Linda Robinson, a librarian at Dallas Public Library. The pair remained together until Stanley’s death in 2002.
The Legacy of Stanley Marcus
In 1934, at Stanley’s suggestion, the family became the first specialty store to advertise in national magazines such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, a resoundingly successful idea. In 1935, Stanley became Executive Vice-President of Neiman Marcus. In 1938, however, the brilliant media mogul came up with the idea to create the Neiman Marcus Award for Distinguished Service in Fashion, an event which would attract both big-name celebrities and designers to the brand. Often called “the Oscars of Fashion,” the Neiman Marcus Award is still a coveted distinction today. Stanley’s flash and flare really shined at the awards ceremonies and fashion show, and his ostentatious side attracted buzz the world over.
In 1939, Stanley developed the annual Christmas Catalog, and in 1951, it began to showcase swanky and extravagant “his & her gifts.” The catalog, which became legendary in its own right, at times included matching beach-craft airplanes, Noah’s arks that included pairs of animals and live tigers, and other over-the-top items for his celebrity clientele to mull over, and the for the rest of the world to dream about.
Still, not everyone was pleased with the store’s swankiness. In Stanley’s memoirs, he recalled a Texas rancher who once stood baffled in the stores entryway and declared, “In all my time, I have never seen so many things a body can get along without as I have here!”
Some of Stanley’s accomplishments, however, have been out-shined by the celebrities that he has dressed over the years. For example, Lady Bird Johnson’s famous yellow inaugural gown in 1965 was a highly praised Neiman Marcus purchase as was her daughter Luci Baines Johnson’s wedding dress, and Grace Kelly’s bridal party gowns. He was often called upon to select purchases for royalty, such as a pair of stockings for the then Princess Elisabeth of England. One time, Stanley was even called upon to suggest a gift for a pet lion, to which he recommended an electric blanket for cold nights.
Yet Stanley was not always popular with everyone. During the 1950s, Stanley, who hosted and helped fund many civic and cultural events in Dallas, was elected President of the Board of Trustees of the Dallas Art Association. On one occasion the museum had booked a traveling art exhibit entitled, “Sports in Art.” A commotion had been caused by the inclusion of certain pieces of art whose authors were rumored to have communist affiliations, and the Dallas Patriotic Council was up in arms. Undeterred, Stanley enlisted the help of certain reporters who held lofty opinions on freedom of expression, and thus numerous articles were published in favor of allowing the paintings, which depicted fishing, ice skating, and baseball, to be viewed as a part of the display.
At the time, actions like this caused Stanley to be labeled as a radical and a left-winger, a distinction which Stanley shrugged off with little concern. However, once again in the 1964, Stanley’s opinion would land him in hot water with some of his clientele after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas, when Stanley published a controversial article in The Dallas Morning News. The article was an attempt to address the guilt, shame, and negativity that was running rampant in the city resulting from the chaos that had occurred during and following the president’s death.
In addition to pioneering marketing campaigns and fashion shows, Stanley, as was the habit of the entire Marcus clan, was heavily involved in civic leadership. For example, the Marcus family contributed to the founding of Dallas’s Temple Emanu-El, one of the largest reform synagogues in the Southwest. He was also a member of the American Council for Judaism. He helped found the Dallas Opera and was credited for saving the Dallas Symphony from financial ruin.
In 1969, Stanley finally stepped down from the board of directors for Carter, Hawley, Hale, Inc., the corporation that Neiman Marcus merged with during their expansion years. He retired as Chairman emeritus in 1975, and his son Richard took over.
Despite his official retirement, Stanley was a close adviser even into the last weeks of his life. He went on to establish a sideline retail consulting business and also spent time writing for the Dallas Morning News, in addition to several retailing books and his own memoirs. He was an avid art collector and an excellent photographer, as well. Many of his images can be seen in a book put together by his granddaughter, Allison V. Smith, entitled, Reflections of a Man. He died on January 22, 2002.
Before Stanley Marcus, New York was the place to go for fashion. Stanley single-handedly took Dallas from a sleepy, Southern town and created it as a mecca of style and sophistication. He contributed rather liberally to many charitable causes and civic organizations and was involved in the Easter Seals and the American Council To Improve Our Neighborhoods (A.C.T.I.O.N.), to name a few. He was heavily involved in preserving the arts in Dallas, and took a personal interest in the affairs of the city in which he lived. He directed the Better Business Bureau of Dallas and was a member of the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts. Yet one of the most important but least recognized contributions of Stanley, not only to Dallas, but to the world as well, was the way that Stanley allowed people to step outside of the dreary doldrums of everyday living and dream of a world that not only looked more beautiful, but felt more beautiful as well.
The legendary Stanley Marcus lived a full and avid life. He wore many titles and bore many names but what people remembered the most about him was the uncompromising way he loved life and loved people, and the dramatic flair with which he did practically everything.
“None of us is made of gold,” Stanley used to say, “We’re made of brass, but we can look like gold if we keep polishing ourselves…”