By  on July 11, 2012

Marvin S. Traub, one of the 20th century’s most visionary retailers, acclaimed for his merchandising and marketing showmanship, died at his home in New York on Wednesday. He was 87 and had been working up until June despite declining health. He had been suffering from bladder cancer.

The former Bloomingdale’s chairman and chief executive officer was a tireless champion of theatrical retailing, having energized the store’s selling floors with exotic import promotions, glitzy galas and designer shops. He transcended the competition by bringing glamour and sex appeal to Bloomingdale’s, making it a magnet for East Side singles, tourists worldwide and high society, shopped by the likes of Jacqueline Kennedy, Lady Bird Johnson, Faye Dunaway and Diana Ross. They all had Bloomingdale’s charge cards.

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Traub was an avid supporter of designers and launched several, most notably Ralph Lauren. Decades ago, Traub gave Lauren his first big break by getting Bloomingdale’s to place an order with him when he was just designing ties. The decision has become industry lore.

“I will miss his hand on my shoulder,” Lauren said. “Marvin has been part of my life for over 45 years. His support and loyalty extended way beyond my professional life. When I opened our store on Madison Avenue and 72nd Street, Marvin was my first customer. When he left Bloomingdale’s over 20 years ago, our relationship was just as strong. He and his beloved wife, Lee, have always been friends. Marvin was not only an icon in the world of retail, but a great supporter of the culture of this city.”

“He was a giant, not just in our industry but in general,” said Mortimer Singer, president of Marvin Traub Associates. “What made him so special is that he cared about so many things — people, places and products. He had an amazing level of curiosity, and it was infectious.

“I remember the first time I met him in his office, 10 years ago. He was sitting on a chair opposite me. He liked to put his feet on furniture. So he had one leg up on his coffee table and was wearing these beautiful Kieselstein-Cord cuff links and this impeccable suit. He was incredibly put together. It was an interview, but it didn’t feel like one. He was curious about me, my family, my work. He put me at ease.”

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Traub spent 41 years at Bloomingdale’s, starting as a merchandise assistant. He served as ceo for 13 years, until 1991, and was also president of the store for nine years. In recent years he reinvented his career as an impresario of the global deal through his consultancy Marvin Traub Associates, where he became one of the industry’s most astute — and peripatetic — analysts of emerging markets, including Russia, China and the Middle East.

As a retailer, he was instrumental in elevating Bloomingdale’s reputation from a mainstream department store to a chic emporium with wide brand recognition, building on the groundwork for the upscaling of the business that had been laid by other executives there since the late Forties, including Jim Schoff Sr., a president, and Jed Davidson, Larry Lachman and Harold Krensky, all chairmen at various times.

Yet it was Traub who really took it to its flashy heights. Like a theatrical producer, he staged extravagant store promotions in the late Seventies through the Eighties revolving around exclusive and rare products from around the world, introducing to the U.S. centuries-old ceremonial robes from Beijing’s Forbidden City for a 1980 China promotion, for example. Or for the “Mediterranean Odyssey” in 1987, he imported a $15,000 Christian Lacroix Provencal-inspired satin dress even though the store didn’t sell couture. Traub sent some of his team to Kennedy Airport to pick up the dress, with security.

It was typical for Traub’s buyers to spend weeks scouring ateliers in fashion capitals and off the beaten path in advance of these import promotions. If the team couldn’t find enough products, Traub had the merchandise made. The import promotions became a tradition, kicking off the fall fashion season with designers, celebrities and even heads of state visiting Bloomingdale’s 59th Street flagship, and burnishing the store’s reputation for innovative merchandising and excitement. After each promotion, Traub would adorn his office and home with posters and products marking the occasion. They were his trophies. While some of the promotions were profitable and others weren’t, for Traub, they were all worth it as image builders that made Bloomingdale’s fun and successful.

Traub was equally sensational with store openings. One of his most dramatic was for the King of Prussia, Pa., branch opening in the mid-Eighties. A black-tie crowd waited in the parking lot as the Philadelphia Mummers marching band played “That’s Entertainment” and out of the sky appeared 12 helicopters, in fleet formation, “Apocalypse Now” style. They landed by the store and, one by one, designers emerged from the choppers — Calvin Klein, Bill Blass, Donna Karan and Louis Dell’Olio among them. As an encore a year later, Traub brought the Big Apple Circus to the Willow Grove, Pa., branch opening, with jugglers, clowns and designers parading in, led by Diane von Furstenberg riding an elephant.

“He made me ride the elephant,” said von Furstenberg. “He was such a showman. He loved that, and embraced it. Marvin was so incredibly important to fashion, to promoting fashion, and to retail. He invented the showbiz for retail. It was endless…the things he would do, and everybody always did it for him.”

Traub considered his most memorable moment on the job when Queen Elizabeth II of England visited the 59th Street flagship. She had just one day to spend in the U.S., in 1976, to mark the nation’s bicentennial, and had a full itinerary, first visiting Washington, D.C., then meeting New York City’s Mayor Abraham Beame and lunching at the Waldorf-Astoria. Yet by going through proper channels, Traub managed to escort the Queen on a half-hour tour of the store, and arranged a commemorative exhibit of British and U.S. fashion just for her visit.

For the way he could romance product, Traub was often compared with the late Stanley Marcus of Neiman Marcus, who pioneered the country promotion strategy, though former Vogue editor in chief Grace Mirabella preferred to call Traub “the Sol Hurok of retailing.” According to some retail experts, the term “retailing as theater” was inspired by Traub’s work at Bloomingdale’s. He received the Gold Medal of the National Retail Federation in 1991, as well as the Légion d’Honneur and Ordre National du Mérite from France and was awarded the Commendatore della Repubblica by Italy.

After leaving Bloomingdale’s in 1991, Traub formed Marvin Traub Associates, establishing his second career as a dealmaker and consultant and thriving on a different kind of industry action. With his vast network of contacts from his Bloomingdale’s days — store executives, manufacturers, designers, distributors and dignitaries — Traub generated a steady flurry of cross-border licensing and retail projects, embodying the spirit of globalization. Though gone from Bloomingdale’s, he still lived and breathed fashion and retail and stayed in the center of it all, even as an octogenarian. “Creating something is more satisfying than doing the deal itself,” he once told WWD. “I have much curiosity. But when we execute, that’s really the satisfaction. Not when you make a deal.”

Traub loved to travel and explore different cultures, particularly India and France, his favorite two countries outside the U.S. Almost up to the very end, he maintained a schedule as rigorous as anyone half his age, defying the notion that aging means losing touch. Traveling to places like Paris, Dubai and Mumbai was like commuting for Traub. “People are happier and healthier and live longer by being involved,” Traub said in a February WWD interview. “I have two partners whose combined age is less than mine. If you get pleasure at what you are doing, and are surrounded by a talented staff of young people, that helps supply the energy. I like to think I push the young people when I travel or anything else.” Singer, his business partner, has taken over the reins at MTA, as expected.

Traub often wore Giorgio Armani, Canali and Ralph Lauren suits, and had an understated manner and a nasally voice that belied his strong will and aggressive tactics. Yet he basked in the limelight of his business exploits and wealth of connections and was never shy about celebrating his achievements, his personal milestones or name-dropping his guest for breakfast at the Regency. Whether it was his 80th birthday party held at the Rainbow Room or his 40th wedding anniversary at Madame Tussauds in Times Square, the industry would come out in force. Few industry figures were as well known or commanded such attention.

At Bloomingdale’s, Traub’s philosophy was to “seek and create,” give the store a museum character at times, and support designers. In addition to launching Ralph Lauren, he launched Perry Ellis as well as Norma Kamali, with whom he struck an unusual deal in the Eighties to become an in-house Bloomingdale’s designer, with Bloomingdale’s doing the manufacturing and Kamali designing swimsuits, ready-to-wear and hosiery. Traub also opened in-store boutiques for Yves Saint Laurent and Calvin Klein, among others. He built an extremely aggressive, tough team of buyers and, for years, had some of the best industry talent, including the late Kal Ruttenstein, the legendary fashion director who was instrumental in furthering Traub’s splashy promotions, innovative merchandising and designer strategy, as well as Barbara D’Arcy White, the interior designer whose model rooms at the store burnished the store’s reputation for fashion and product development.

Bringing sex appeal to the store was part of the Traub doctrine. By catering to young and trendy East Siders, the store became a singles’ hangout where supposed customers could be seen exchanging phone numbers for dates. Once he told a newspaper: “On Saturdays, Bloomingdale’s is the biggest party in town.” He liked that people affectionately called the store “Bloomies” and encouraged his merchants to put the Bloomies logo on more and more products, including panties. It mattered more to him that anything with the mark became popular souvenirs, at least for a time.

Though he focused on building the status and business of the 59th Street flagship, Traub did expand the chain with mixed success. Some of the branches he opened, such as King of Prussia, have endured, but the Valley View, Tex., and Fresh Meadows, N.Y., locations were closed. Traub also closed the Stamford, Conn., store, which opened in the Fifties. He had been involved in planning that store. But the Manhattan flagship always took the lion’s share of his attention.

Traub himself received much attention from the media, and was perceived as a one-man show, with executives reporting to him very much in his shadow. However, Traub would make a point of relating how he helped nurture the careers of many who, after spending years at Bloomingdale’s, rose to higher posts at other companies. Within fashion and retail circles, many individuals, from designers to ceo’s, say they owe much to Traub.

“When I think about starting in 1974 on the Bloomingdale’s training squad right out of college, it truly was like no other store in the world,” said Robin Burns-McNeill, chairman of Batallure Beauty. “Marvin was the leader and the visionary. He put into place the culture and mode of operation. You were taught not to just imagine the impossible, but to go after it and deliver it. The lessons I learned from Marvin are some of the most valuable I took with me for the rest of my career. One was making the product and customer experience extraordinary. I remember going to the market and walking into a showroom. I wasn’t concerned about a competitive store beating us to the punch, I was concerned about another buyer from Bloomingdale’s getting there first. I also learned how to optimize a winner. Take Giorgio of Beverly Hills. We had no idea the demand would be so high. I remember Marvin and Lester Gribetz saying, ‘What have we got here and how big can it be?’ When I was the men’s fragrance buyer, Marvin wanted to position men with spritzers near the doors and escalators for a Calvin Klein launch. I looked in restaurants for handsome men because that’s where you find unemployed actors. There were all these gorgeous men.

“And Marvin’s energy — you had to run behind him.”

“He’s been a wonderful mentor to me throughout my career, beginning at Bloomingdale’s, as well as a mentor to many designers and generations of executives in the fashion business,” said Denise Seegal, executive director of M Magtague Holdings Ltd., Magaschoni Inc. “As a very young person — 26 years old — I was brought into this incredibly exciting world of designers. Marvin took us to Europe to the shows. I was going to Yves Saint Laurent, Valentino and Sonia Rykiel as a buyer at such an early age, and having meetings at the Meurice hotel with Marvin, Kal Ruttenstein, with all the buyers, divisionals and [general merchandise managers]. Marvin wanted insight from all his team. What did you see? What was exciting? He helped shaped a lot of designer businesses and introduced them to the U.S.”

“I first met Marvin when I joined Bloomingdale’s training program in 1986,” recalled Jim Gold, president of specialty retailing at Neiman Marcus Group. “I was immediately struck by his passion for the business. It was a thrill to see him on the selling floor and talk to him about product in my area of responsibility. Marvin cared about everyone’s opinion, even those of us who were just out of college. When I decided to apply to Harvard Business School, Marvin was incredibly supportive. Even though I had only been with Bloomingdale’s for three years at that point, he agreed to write a letter of recommendation on my behalf. Typical of Marvin, he did so with tremendous purpose and professionalism, even taking the time to interview me before writing the letter.”

Traub’s career in the late Eighties took a more difficult turn. In 1988, Bloomingdale’s and its then parent company, Federated Department Stores Inc., were taken over by Canadian developer Robert Campeau. In the months ahead, Campeau and his retail concerns began to sink under the weight of heavy debt from the Federated acquisition and the 1986 purchase of Allied Stores Corp., so he desperately put Bloomingdale’s up for sale to try to save the company. Traub made a valiant effort to buy Bloomingdale’s, but couldn’t arrange financing after being rebuffed by U.S. and Japanese bankers and retailers. It was a big disappointment for him.

In 1990, Federated filed for Chapter 11 reorganization, and the next year, Traub would be disappointed again. With Campeau out and new management running Federated, Traub was asked to retire from the store, which he did reluctantly. Federated felt the chain needed new leadership and direction.

Initially, Traub wasn’t pleased with the choice of his successor at Bloomingdale’s, Michael Gould, who took the business on a more profitable path of expansion with less of the glitz and glam, greater emphasis on branches, and by honing Bloomingdale’s in a niche priced below Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue, and above Macy’s. Two years earlier, Gould, then ceo of Giorgio Inc., accused Bloomingdale’s of diverting the Giorgio fragrance, putting the two on uneasy footing.

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