Services will be held Wednesday morning at Riverside Memorial Chapel in New York for Lillian Vernon, a trailblazer in the catalogue business.
Vernon, 88, died Monday at the NYU Langone Medical Center due to a stroke and pneumonia, according to her son, Fred P. Hochberg.
Aside from building the Lillian Vernon business from the ground up — starting out with an affordable monogrammed leather bag and coordinating belt and eventually creating nine catalogues, outlet stores and e-commerce that generated nearly $300 million in annual sales — in 1987 Vernon became the first woman to have the company she founded be listed on the American Stock Exchange.
In the span of her career, Vernon donated personally and through her company to more than 5,000 charities. “If a charity needed products for an auction or table prizes, she was always first in line to donate,” according to her son, who served as president and chief operating officer of the company until 1992. “As an immigrant, she used to always say, ‘Only in America could this happen.’ She felt a great sense of indebtedness to this country. They escaped Nazi Germany in ’33, came to America in ’37 and she really felt that only in this country could this happen.”
Born Lilli Menasche in Leipzig, Germany, she and her family fled their homeland and later relocated to New York, where her father eventually ran his own leather goods company. After marrying her first husband Sam Hochberg, a dry-goods store owner in Mount Vernon, N.Y., she started her own company from her kitchen table, borrowing from the town’s name to create her brand and a new identity.
“She used to say, ‘All I want to do is to make an extra 50 dollars a week so that I have a little extra money,'” her son said. “She also liked to refer to herself as ‘a closet work.’ In those days, it was not as acceptable for women to go work….She didn’t care about that. She cared enough that she didn’t broadcast it. She was a trailblazer in that way.”
With the help of her father, Vernon developed her first leather product and advertised in Seventeen magazine. After the World War II-mandated embargoes had been lifted, “There was a lot of pent-up demand for leather goods for personal and fashion use,” Hochberg said, before explaining his mother’s instinctiveness. “She referred to having ‘a golden gut,’ and she was her customer. It was very personal. Like many early entrepreneurs, whether it’s an Estée Lauder or others, they have a sense of their view of the world and they think it will resonate.”
In 1956, Lillian Vernon shipped its first catalogue, a 16-page black-and-white one. The company was incorporated in 1965 and five years later it registered more than $1 million in sales for the first time. Catalogues dedicated to overstock, home organizing goods, Lilly’s Kids, kitchen, luggage and travel-related products were added from 1982 through 1995. The company posted 200 bestsellers on its Web site in 1996, and purchased the Rue de France catalogue in 2000. Lillian Vernon was bought and later taken private by Ripplewood Holdings in 2003 for $60 million. Vernon stayed on at the company as honorary chairwoman until 2006, when it was sold to Sun Capital Partners.
Vernon instated a 9-to-3 workshift for data-entry workers who were mothers. That enabled them to drop off their children at school, pick up the work at Lillian Vernon, go home, do the work and bring it back in time to pick up the children from school, her son said. He worked with his mother for many years, as did his brother David C. Hochberg, who continues to serve as vice president for public affairs at Lillian Vernon, a Colorado Springs-based company. As for the professional advice that she may have doled out to her sons, Fred Hochberg said, “She had lots of opinions – she had an opinion for everything, including how you were dressed. She had great style and great fashions. But she had a sharp eye for how both men and women were dressed. I have a great picture of her when we were at the Canton Fair, now it’s Guangzhou [aka the China Import and Export Fair], standing next to a sign that simply says, ‘The Sloppily Dressed Will Not Be Admitted.'”
In addition to her sons, Vernon is survived by her husband Paolo Martino. Her first marriage ended in divorce, as did her second one to Robert Katz.
A memorial is being planned for Vernon in early 2016. As for how Vernon envisioned her legacy, Fred Hochberg said, “Interestingly, she wasn’t really focused on that. In her own way, she was a shy person.”