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One Enchanted Evening: Retail Titans Gather to Fete Josie Natori

Who can gather together Terry Lundgren, Burt Tansky, Pete Nordstrom, Bill Dillard 2nd, Stephen I. Sadove and Michael Gould in one room with nary a punch being thrown?

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Josie Natori and her boys. From left, Terry Lundgren, Bill Dillard 2nd, Burt Tansky, Pete Nordstrom, Stephen I. Sadove and Michael Gould.

Kristen Somody-Whalen

Who can gather together Terry Lundgren, Burt Tansky, Pete Nordstrom, Bill Dillard 2nd, Stephen I. Sadove and Michael Gould in one room with nary a punch being thrown?

Josie Natori.

From the food to the wines to the 90 guests in the room, the private dinner Thursday at La Grenouille in Manhattan to fete Natori and her 30 years in business was an evening of bonhomie, congratulations and good-natured ribbing rarely seen in the industry. Titans of retail present and past, as well as members of the media, designers, friends and family, were among those who gathered on a night that offered a breadth of emotions, from a 10-minute shtick by Tansky worthy of any stand-up comedian, to an emotional Natori recounting her experiences.

“Tonight is a testimony to Josie’s diverse customer base,” said Tansky, Neiman Marcus’ chairman, who was among the last to toast Natori but didn’t waste the opportunity to invoke the “m” word to dig at the Dillard’s and Macy’s executives in the room. “You’ve already heard from five or six moderate department stores….The only ones missing are Target and Kohl’s….Now you are hearing from the luxury group.”

“You mean that little Neiman Marcus,” Lundgren yelled from a corner.

Tansky, who recently created an office of the chairman spotlighting two potential successors in Karen Katz and James Skinner, didn’t disclose his favorite in the horse race. But he did allude to his own longevity, noting Natori has known him longer than any other retailer.

“When she first started in business, she had trouble understanding what is sexy. She would ask me should the thong be this long, or should the G-string have Swarovski crystals. I used to lecture her to stay focused, to stay in underwear, not handbags. Now she is going to be into apparel again with eveningwear,” he said. “Hopefully, Josie, you won’t forget lingerie.”

Others in the crowd included Bergdorf Goodman’s Jim Gold, Richard Baker of NRDC Equity Partners, Rose Marie Bravo, Marvin Traub, Sandy Weill, Steven Kolb, Massimo Ferragamo, Dawn Mello, Ira Neimark, Cathleen Black, Margaret Hayes, Pamela Fiore, Joseph Boitano, Peter Som, Robert Burke and Joseph Cicio.

Tansky and the five other retail hosts lined up for a photo op with Natori, leading Bill Dillard 3rd to observe, “That’s classic Josie. Look at her lining up all those guys. Who else could pull all of this off?”

Each of the hosts then delivered toasts that came as a total surprise to Natori.

“I’ve known Josie for, well, exactly 20 years, when I was a 35-year-old pimply kid and ceo of Bullocks Wilshire,” said Macy’s Lundgren, who mangled the pronunciation of shmatah and caught flack from his peers for that. “Hey, it’s a hard word to say,” protested Lundgren.

Lundgren, who recently unveiled an exclusive link-up with Tommy Hilfiger in apparel, then recalled how Natori years ago staged a lingerie show, up close and personal, just for him. “I’m used to touching the goods, but I was completely frozen…From that point forward, we became personal friends. Not that personal, Ken,” Lundgren added, reassuring Natori’s husband.

For the Seattle-based Nordstrom, the Natori event was a rare New York party appearance, though he might be about to become a lot more visible. Nordstrom has just signed a nonbinding letter of intent on a store site in the former Drake Hotel on Park Avenue and 56th Street. That gets a lot of the design and feasibility studies in motion, without a rock-solid commitment to the site, and prompted at least one retailer to express skepticism that Nordstrom can actually turn a profit on a site that will entail exorbitant costs.

Outside New York, Nordstrom is moving on another front. He disclosed to Macy’s Sue Kronick that he’s getting married soon, with plans to honeymoon in Bora Bora. Publicly, he preferred to weigh in on Natori, who has always scored points with retailers for never opening one of her own stores in the U.S. “I don’t think it’s so much about that,” Nordstrom said. “After 30 years, she still approaches business with a real sense of humility and enthusiasm. That’s uncommon.”

Bloomingdale’s Gould recalled a culinary adventure at his home with Natori, where he was serving gefilte fish. A quizzical Natori didn’t know didn’t what to make of the cuisine, and Gould told her, “It’s gefilte fish. Just put some of the red stuff on it and eat it.”

Saks’ Sadove flirted with the risqué, noting Natori developed “new ways of taking sex into the bedroom — and out of the bedroom.”

When Natori took the floor, she needed to pause momentarily, as the emotion of the moment welled up. “This is such a difficult business. You know what? Thirty years later, I feel so lucky.”

She singled out the five young designers in the room — Vena Cava, Sari Gueron, Jenni Kayne, Erin Fetherston and Brian Reyes — who have created kimonos in the Natori tradition, which will be auctioned at Saks Fifth Avenue to benefit the CFDA scholarship fund. As for her own business, she said, “The best is yet to come. We are really small and we want to get really big.

“And by the way Burt, we will never sell to Target or Kohl’s — and the stores here are not moderate.”

The 60-year-old Natori wore her own couture designs — a black silk kimono top, black pencil skirt and vintage evening handbag in black grosgrain. Her jewelry — pearl earrings with a Natori motif of diamonds and a 20-millimeter South Sea pearl ring — was codesigned with Parisian jeweler Lorenz Bäumer.

True to her take-charge energetic manner, Natori could been seen herding everyone into the dining room in between photographs, to keep to the military-like timing of La Grenouille’s Charles Masson. The dinner of lobster and tarragon ravioli and roasted rack of lamb with rosemary, potato gratin and flageolets had to be served at precisely the right temperature, and it was with a complement of fine wines: a Chassagne-Montrachet Premier Cru Morgeot 2004, a 2001 Chateau Lagrange and a Pol Roger Blanc de Blancs 1998.

“She’s the perfect hostess. She can flit from table to table and make everyone feel important,” noted Bergdorf’s Linda Fargo.

“Aren’t we going to eat, Josie?” asked Gould, pretending to be as antsy as the restaurant management to keep to schedule.

“Well, can’t you get them to sit down?” Natori yelped back. Gould sat a bit befuddled, surrounded by women laughing it up and leaning across his lap. “If she sticks her elbow into me one more time…,” Gould remarked as Jeannette Chang lunged over to chat with FIT’s Joyce Brown, while an animated Laura Pomerantz, who, after an extended toast of her own to Natori, discovered she lost her South Sea pearl and diamond earring. It was later found by a waiter.

Bravo, meanwhile, was disappointing every major headhunter in town, telling guests that she was enjoying her retirement and didn’t miss the fashion jungle at all.

Off to the side, former Bloomingdale’s chairman Marvin Traub said he started doing business with Natori three decades ago. “I knew right away she was creative, but there was this enormous urgency. She wanted me to give her her first shop. I did only because she kept asking for it.”

By the end of the evening, Natori was still emoting. “I was so embarrassed with all of that stuff,” she admitted. “I didn’t realize there would be all of those speeches. It was so sweet of all of them.”

Natori surrounded by all the retailers begged the obvious question: When would she succumb to the allure of opening her own shop, as most successful designers do? Natori once operated a shop on Place Vendôme in Paris, which closed. “Oh, that was just for image,” she said. “But it’s still my goal to create a concept.”

Also on her agenda is building a second home for herself and her husband in Pound Ridge, N.Y., past her barn and pool and deeper in the woods. That will enable her original 18th-century country home to be weekended by her son, Kenneth, and his bride of four months, Anika. “Ken and Josie are our only clients that never lose their cool,” said Zack McKown, partner of architect Calvin Tsao, who work on the Natoris’ homes.

At the end of the festivities, though, it was her husband Ken who had the shortest and sweetest toast, which was greeted by a visceral cry of his nickname from his golfing buddies in the group, “Cougar! Cougar! Cougar!”

“This is not a toast, only a comment,” Ken Natori said. “Everybody refers to Josie and Ken, but Ken has nothing to do with this. All I want to say is that I love her and that I have nothing to do with this business.”

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