Charles J. Smith Jr., a former chairman, chief executive officer and president of the Van Heusen Co., a division of Phillips-Van Heusen, died of cancer Sunday at his home in Jupiter, Fla. He was 82.
A 50-year veteran of the men’s wear industry, Smith was widely known as “Mr. Shirt.” After leaving Van Heusen, he became president and ceo of Crystal Brands Corp.’s Men’s Apparel Group.
Born in Elgin, Ill., in 1926, Smith was a gifted athlete. He played football and basketball and wrestled in high school, and began his college football career at the University of Illinois as a left tackle. In 1945, he entered the Navy and competed for the Navy in both football and baseball.
After military service, Smith enrolled at Marquette University to complete his undergraduate studies. He was co-captain of the football team and was an honorable mention All-American. Upon graduation, Smith was drafted by the Los Angeles Rams of the National Football League, but instead took his first job at Arrow Shirt Co., a division of the Cluett Peabody & Co. Inc., as a shirt salesman, making $225 a month.
“They raised me to $250 when they found out I had a pregnant wife,” he once quipped.
Smith worked at Arrow for 17 years, rising to vice president of sales. He joined the Van Heusen Co. in 1967 as vice president of sales, and became president in 1975 and chairman and ceo in 1984. When he took early retirement in June 1985, Van Heusen was reorganized into three divisions under Bruce J. Klatsky, who became chairman and ceo of PVH.
In July 1985, Smith was named corporate vice president of Crystal Brands, and the following year became president and ceo of the Men’s Apparel Group of Crystal Brands, which produced and marketed men’s activewear and sportswear under the Izod and Lacoste labels. Smith retired in 1994. He was a consultant to the industry for several years and served on the board of Tropical Sportswear.
Mark Weber, chairman and ceo of Donna Karan International and ceo of LVMH Inc. U.S., who spent 33 years at PVH and rose to ceo, said Wednesday, “Chuck Smith was an industry giant. I had the good fortune to work directly for Chuck during the formative part of my development. I will never forget when he said to me, ‘Kid, you will always need the sizzle to sell the steak.’ A simple way to express the role of fashion. I miss him already.”
Klatsky, now a partner in LNK, a private equity firm, said, “He was a special guy. He absolutely resurrected the Van Heusen Co. back in the Seventies. He trained a huge number of people who owe their careers to him. Lastly, he had enormous integrity. He was very bright and understood the industry backwards and forwards. He was amazingly honest.”
Known for his generosity as well as his distinguished character, Smith was an avid golfer who had memberships in five clubs, including Plainfield Country Club and Baltusrol Golf Club in New Jersey, and the Loxahatchee Club in Florida. He raised his family in Westfield, N.J., and retired in Jupiter.
Smith is survived by his wife of almost 60 years, Margaret Rose; eight children, Margaret Smith Crocco, Charles John Smith 3rd, Anne Elizabeth Smith, Joan Smith Myers, Aileen Smith Dooley, Peter Royer Smith, Mary Catherine Smith Nietzel and Mary Christine Smith; 21 grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.
A Mass will be celebrated at 10 a.m. Friday at St. Patrick Catholic Church, 13591 Prosperity Farms Road, Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.