NEW YORK — “When people ask me what we do, I say, ‘He builds ships and I sell dresses,”‘ Syd Shaw says with a giggle as she glances at her husband, Gerald Shaw.
Syd Shaw, known by many in the industry as the “trunk-show queen” at Oscar de la Renta Ltd., has been in sales at the company since 1972.
Gerald Shaw, who prefers to be called Jerry, is president of Oscar de la Renta and a partner with the designer. He’s also an avid model ship builder, specializing in large, working replicas of naval vessels.
Although Jerry Shaw has been a partner at Oscar de la Renta for most of the three decades he’s been there, recent developments have left questions about the Shaws’ future with the company. In an interview at Oscar de la Renta’s offices at 550 Seventh Ave., however, they say they have no intention of slowing down or stepping aside.
On the contrary, Jerry notes that while he’s seen many other companies go out of business and partnerships break up, his company has thrived and the partnership has endured.
“Oscar and I have had a fabulous relationship, much more than a business relationship,” Jerry says. “We have a terrific personal relationship. We’re like family. It’s been almost 30 years. We grew up together in this business and have always had a wonderful rapport. We’ve been able to solve problems and discuss everything and anything.”
But there are changes afoot at the company, developments that Jerry calls a “natural evolution of growth.”
He mentions three key additions — Carmine Porcelli, hired last year as design director of licensing, and Jeffry Aronsson and Hank Waeckerle, named in March as chief executive officer and director of sales, respectively. Porcelli and Aronsson report directly to de la Renta, who is chairman of the company, while Waeckerle reports to de la Renta and Aronsson. None of the three reports directly to Jerry Shaw.
As for the Shaws, Jerry will continue to concentrate on operating the ready-to-wear portion of the business, while Syd will step back from managing overall sales to oversee trunk shows.
The Shaws say they are comfortable with the new executive team and the company’s expanded focus.
“You can’t be small today and survive,” Jerry says. “You need multiple outlets. This company has survived and thrived through licensing. The bulk of where we are headed and what we’re thrilled about is expanding our licensing.
“It’s changing because we’re expanding, and to expand you need people. We’re much more heavily involved in licensing, and we’re doing more traveling as a company to the Orient and to Europe.”
Today, Oscar de la Renta has more than 50 licenses in the U.S. and internationally, operating around the globe and generating retail sales in excess of $500 million.
“Syd’s role has changed to the point that she’s out of the office more than she’s in,” Jerry says. “She can’t do both. Her love is being out there selling. You can’t run the business when you’re out doing shows, and that’s one of the reasons we have someone here now taking care of inside operations.”
“They promised me my own F16,” Syd jokes.
Jerry says he has worked closely with Aronsson, an attorney who served as general counsel for the company for the past seven years, and will continue to work closely with him.
“Oscar felt he needed to bring someone in to concentrate on the licensing end because that’s so important, and that’s what Jeffry had been concentrating on,” Jerry says.
He notes that the company is negotiating to open freestanding stores, one planned for Hong Kong and one for Monte Carlo. That’s all he’s “at liberty to divulge,” he says. In addition, the company is looking to open stores and in-store boutiques in the U.S.
Jerry jokes that “the two of us met during the Depression, or maybe when we met it caused a depression.”
“Actually, we met in 1949,” he said. “I had just finished my first year in college, and I was on summer vacation. My folks had a house in Florida, and Syd was from Florida. And in those days, Miami Beach was a winter resort. They didn’t have air conditioning, and basically it closed up in the summer.”
“Jerry, my God, it wasn’t that long ago,” Syd needles her husband.
“In the summer all the hotels kept their cabanas open to local residents,” Jerry continues. “The Roney Plaza — which was the top hotel at that time — was the only one with tennis courts. And we met on the tennis court.”
“Playing tennis,” Syd interjects.
“And I don’t remember who won, because I don’t want to remember who won,” Jerry says.
In 1950, the Korean Conflict broke out and in 1951, Jerry received his draft notice.
“I was drafted, so therefore I enlisted instead,” he said. “I went in the Navy. Originally it was a two-year hitch, which wound up being almost four and a half years. I went to sonar school in Key West, so we got to see each other once in a while then. Then I went overseas for two and a half years.”
After the truce was signed in 1953, Jerry came back and still had over a year left in the Navy.
“The captain announced on the way into Newport that it would be a good year for anyone who wanted to get married because we would probably be in the yards for about a year,” Jerry said. “So we got married, and three weeks later we were overseas again.”
Following Jerry’s discharge from the Navy, the Shaws moved to New York, where Syd worked as a dental assistant. Jerry’s first job was at Hattie Carnegie, which, he recalled, “was in the throes of slowly going out of business because the designer had just died.”
“Then my father came out of retirement and bought into Jane Derby,” said Jerry, referring to his late father, Ben Shaw. “I joined the company, and it was interesting because we were building something, and whenever you build something, to me, that’s the greatest.”
He said when they first bought into Jane Derby, then a SA better-price dress house, it was doing about $200,000 to $300,000 in business, “and they existed on that,” he said, adding, “Today, that would take care of Monday.”
“On a shoestring, we were able to develop a business,” he continued. “At one point we got up to $2 million worth of volume, which in those days was considered pretty good. The climate was different in those days. You had tons of specialty stores up and down Madison Avenue and all across the country.
“The big difference in those days is that all the big stores were privately owned,” says Jerry, citing Saks Fifth Avenue, Bergdorf Goodman, Lord & Taylor, Bonwit Teller and Henri Bendel. “There was a personal feeling, a personal relationship. You were one-on-one with the merchants, and friendship had a lot to do with business. I saw that through my father. He knew everyone and everyone knew him. That didn’t mean you sold everybody, but friendship got people in to look at your collection.”
He notes that Europe “hadn’t been invented yet, except for couture,” so New York manufacturers had the full attention of the stores.
Jerry said that at the time, all the stores had custom departments, and the way they protected those departments was by not using designer names. For instance, he says, “Saks had Sophie. Sophie was the wife of Adam Gimbel, but the label said Saks Fifth Avenue.”
“My father was a pioneer in the designer field. He had, among other attributes, a great ability for spotting talent and promoting talent,” Jerry says. “He believed in promotion to the nth degree. He felt that at some point, young talented designers really had to be brought to the front. Their names could be put on labels, but you had to get it past the stores. At a point, it happened.
“We got to the point where business went to a certain level and we couldn’t get it past that, and that’s when Oscar got into the picture. That was 10 years later, in 1965,” Jerry says. “My father had met him. Oscar was working for Elizabeth Arden as the chief designer. The name became Oscar de la Renta for Jane Derby. A year later Jane Derby died, and the company was restructured as Oscar de la Renta.”
That was in 1965. By 1967, the company created one of the first secondary lines — Oscar de la Renta Boutique. In 1969, the company was sold to publicly owned Richton International, but was sold back to de la Renta and Ben and Jerry Shaw in 1974.
By that time, designer names had begun to proliferate on labels. Shaw remembers when Saks started featuring names such as Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass, Donald Brooks and Anne Klein and started doing the first trunk shows.
“It was a different time in the Fifties and early Sixties because most of the merchandise and the fabric was bought and produced in the country,” Jerry says. “They stocked the shelves. If you wanted wool, you called and got it in a few days. Now we get most of our piece goods from Italy and produce a fair amount there and other places.”
Today, Jerry says, the stores are much bigger entities (“most of them have been bought time and again by huge companies”) and the personal feeling is lacking except at the designer levels, because of the hands-on approach at trunk shows and the growth of designer names in licensing, which he calls “the biggest change going on in the business today.”
Other changes he’s seen are the creation of more seasonal collections with more wear-now merchandise and the highly promotional state of many department stores.
While the Shaws agree that the fashion business consumes a great part of their lives, they relish their outside activities.
“I just love building ships,” Jerry says. In fact, just mention his hobby, and a long monolog follows.
“He’s a little slow though — he’s been building the same boat for 17 years now,” Syd says.
Jerry explains that he keeps updating his 15-foot working model of the Forrestal, which he says was the first of the supercarriers. Each time the Navy updates the ship, so does Jerry. He said proudly that all his gun turrets, elevators and other such areas of the ships have working mechanical parts and engines.
Syd, on the other hand, loves tennis, gardening and horseback riding, although her riding activities have been curtailed by a bad fall three years ago, resulting in back surgery. And yes, she likes to sell dresses. She’s credited by many as an early pioneer of the now-booming trunk show format.
“I love selling,” Syd says. “Actually, I love meeting the people at the other end of the selling. They invigorate me, give me energy. I love when I help someone find the perfect dress.”
“I find sales very difficult,” Jerry says.
“Actually we try to keep him out of the showroom at all times,” Syd jokes.
Syd says the number of trunk shows she runs increases every season.
“New areas pop up, whether it’s new stores or stores that haven’t had shows before and would like to. Jerry and Oscar set standards on what stores are eligible to do trunk shows. We then go in and train the sales associates. It’s so important having someone from the core come in and explain to them what the whole system is.”
Syd says there have been times that personal demands have forced her to turn around and come home from a trip suddenly, but otherwise, she says, life on the road hasn’t been burdensome to her marriage or family.
“Jerry’s in the business, was always supportive, and I was usually able to communicate by telephone with the kids if there was a problem,” Syd says.
The Shaws, who just celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary, have three children — David, Richard and Catharine.
Richard and Catharine are with Sully Bonnelly, a new special occasion dress firm here. Catharine is in sales and Richard is a partner in the company, overseeing all operations. David is with New York Fashion Trends, a sales rep firm here.
David and Richard had worked in the former Miss O division, the secondary line that became the licensed Oscar de la Renta Studio division of The He-Ro Group, which closed last year.
Asked if they were sorry the children are not involved in their company, Jerry says, “They have to go in their own direction. We only have one in-house division, so there isn’t that much opportunity for them.”
Syd recalls the excitement in 1990, when Oscar de la Renta became the first American designer to participate in the Paris ready-to-wear shows under the auspices of the Chambre Syndicale.
The Shaws, who have homes in New Canaan, Conn., and in the Dominican Republic — Oscar de la Renta’s homeland — say they are content with their current status at the company.
“My father-in-law always said I would never retire, I would never leave,” says Syd, who is 61.
“If I wanted to retire, I could retire,” says Jerry, who is 63. “I don’t want to. I love the excitement of the business. Dad retired when he was 84. Until the day he died, he said he wished he had never retired. The difference is that his hobby was the business, whereas I’m a hobbyist. I always have been. Could I do it all the time? I don’t know.”