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Amid health and business pressures, Roy Colton and Harry Bernard, who built a fashion and retail consultancy and were life partners, committed suicide in their San Francisco apartment this month.
The deaths were believed to have occurred on Feb. 7, and the bodies were found five days later, according to a short statement on the Web site of their company, Colton Bernard Inc., which has ceased operations. The posting said Colton and Bernard requested there be no memorial service, and that contributions in their memory may be made to the charity of the donor’s choice.
This story first appeared in the February 20, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Friends and colleagues said Thursday that Colton, 67, and Bernard, 78, may have been planning the double suicide for some time because of health issues for both and a business that was getting tougher to run. Bernard was believed to have been losing his vision after a bout with cancer earlier in the decade. Colton had worsening circulatory problems.
The pair, who had been together 43 years, were said to have read “Final Exit,” a book that details how to commit suicide written by Derek Humphry, founder of the Hemlock Society.
Police did not release details about the suicides. The case is under investigation, said Stephen Gelman, an administrator for the San Francisco Medical Examiner’s office.
“We’re all trying to make sense of it,” said a friend, who asked not to be identified. “None of us have closure. We may never know why or what really happened, but we believe they were planning this for a long time. The economy is really changing. The recruitment industry is really changing. There were health issues, and this was all changing their lives. They wanted to choose their way to go, and to be together when they went. They had done everything else in their lives together.”
The source noted that the two were very caring in their personal and professional lives, and even left a check for their cleaning lady in the apartment with a note saying that her services were no longer required.
Colton and Bernard didn’t view their business as being purely search, though they recruited top executives and other managers. Their services also involved consumer research, brand building, management assessments and market analysis. Among the companies they listed as clients over the years were: Calvin Klein, Louis Vuitton, Fruit of the Loom, VF Corp., Levi Strauss & Co., Gap Inc., Ermenegildo Zegna, Sean John, Zac Posen, Ocean Pacific and Perry Ellis.
Bernard wasn’t always the first, but he was often a most audacious proponent of ideas and big picture trends. He warned of America’s overstored condition and foresaw the current weeding out process. He also advocated steps that companies had to take to become “must-have” resources in a business climate that was becoming increasingly hostile to “me-too” vendors.
Among his most provocative ideas was that stores and their suppliers agree contractually to do away with markdown money and instead earmark those funds to improve in-store presentations and marketing of branded products. He called it “investing in success instead of underwriting failure.” Realistically, he didn’t expect anyone to adopt the idea, but he liked taunting the market, including his own clients, to get them to think differently.
The partners had a reputation for being extremely deliberate in their research and eager to put their ideas through the filter of retailers, vendors, other consultants and consumers. They also had a knack for synthesizing sometimes complicated concepts into easy-to-understand ideas for the market.
“It’s a damn shame,” said Elaine Hughes, president of E.A. Hughes & Co., a New York executive search and management consulting firm. “These were two very nice guys. Colton Bernard distinguished themselves by taking a unique approach to the consulting and search practice. By serving their clients in a variety of ways, they created an intimacy.”
The partners celebrated their wedding for the second time in San Francisco last October, when same-sex unions became legal. Colton and Bernard, who entertained frequently, enjoyed vacationing in St. Barth’s, where they often rented a home, as well as traveling through Europe. In addition to their San Francisco home, they maintained a New York office-apartment, where they traveled once a month for business.
Colton was the firm’s president and chief executive officer. Bernard was executive vice president and chief marketing officer.
Kenneth Wyse, president of licensing and public relations for Phillips-Van Heusen Corp., worked for Colton Bernard Inc. before joining PVH and, like many in their circle, stayed in contact with them. He recently arranged tickets to the opera for them in New York.
“Harry and Roy were great fans of opera and the arts and, when you think about it, their deaths were very operatic and dramatic,” he said.
Dawn Robertson, president of Sean John and former president of Old Navy, which utilized Colton Bernard for recruiting and rethinking design and design talent, said: “They did everything in their power to help people and encourage people.…It was never just about filling a job. It was more. They formed a relationship with you. They were warm, wonderful guys, and great communicators.”
Robert Wichser, principal of The Yucaipa Cos., an investment firm, said he had known Bernard for 35 years, but saw no indication of trouble.
“I got a call at seven in the morning yesterday [about the deaths]; I was completely shocked,” he said. “I had lunch with Harry and Roy three weeks ago in New York and Harry called me [recently] saying he had a retail business I might be interested in and wanted me to take a look at it.…Their life was about business and each other. They did everything together.”
Bernard was gregarious and known for his over-the-top, theatrical personality, while Colton was a behind-the-scenes, quieter individual.
“They were so devoted to each other and to our industry,” said Richard Cohen, ceo of Richard Talbott, and former ceo of North American operations for Zegna, and ceo of St. John. “Harry was larger than life. He had a joie de vivre. He loved to enjoy himself. His skill was communications. Roy was the great listener and Harry was the great communicator. They played off each other.”
“Frankly, in my 30 years of being in America, Harry and Roy were those two shadowy partners in my career,” said Cohen, who arrived in the U.S. from the U.K. “They were there every step of the way with support and advice, even if I didn’t want it. They were young thinkers and they adapted to the times.”
Dick Baker, chairman emeritus of the Surf Industry Manufacturers Association and former ceo of Ocean Pacific, who was also a personal friend, said the pair was highly respected “and it’s quite a shock to everybody. Roy was more the business guy and Harry was more the brand and front guy.”
Edward Jones 3rd, chairman of Jones-Texas Inc., said both men were his “dear friends.” He recalled that when he and his wife “were moving to San Francisco in 1988, Harry called me to say that I had to trust him. The apartment across the hall from he and Roy was available but we had to commit that day. Harry said he would take his check to the manager to secure it for us. The apartment was the mirror image of theirs except we had the view of the Golden Gate Bridge. A top-floor, pre-war building in Pacific Heights on Lafayette Park — what a score.”
Citing a recent conversation, Jones said: “Roy had been ill but they both convinced me that he would be fine. I can only guess that they were having a tough time of it — you would never know from talking to Harry because he sounded good. In fact, Roy was in a particularly sparky mood. They were excited to be renewing their vows after the state disallowed the wedding that they had with the hundreds of others in San Francisco.”
Barry Miguel, ceo of Tracy Reese, added, “Roy Colton and Harry Bernard, besides being personal friends, were mentors for me in the industry for over 25 years.” He said they believed strongly that the fashion business was about the merchant and the product. “They truly embodied that.”