SAN FRANCISCO — Ernest “Ernie” Benesch, who founded San Francisco young-women’s sportswear label Fritzi of California with his wife, died of heart and kidney failure on Feb. 15. He was 95.
The company, bought in 1998 by Kellwood Co., got its start making blouses with manufacturing in San Francisco’s Chinatown and grew to a national brand known for its style at affordable prices, said Benesch’s wife, Fritzi Lehmann Benesch, who was the original designer.
The couple went into business soon after marrying in 1948 and three months after meeting on the job at Benesch’s cousin’s children’s wear company, Trude of California.
Fritzi Lehmann Benesch said merchandise was slow to move until they decided to lower prices so that even a teenage babysitter could afford the fashions. That meant blouses were priced $1.99 to $3.99. One bestseller was the designer’s namesake Fritzi blouse with a flexible wing collar you could shape.
“We sold so many at Macy’s that they were bailing them out, as they used to say,” she said.
Born in Reichenberg, Czechoslovakia, on Dec. 23, 1913, Ernest Benesch immigrated to San Francisco in 1938. He had been held in a concentration camp but managed to flee, thanks to being a recipient of a so-called “Capitalist Visa,” his wife said. The documents were surreptitiously given to Jews by sympathetic Germans who would allow their freedom in exchange for a promissory note that would never be cashed. Benesch’s parents, younger brother and many other relatives died in the Holocaust.
Fritzi of California became known for employing many European refugees, and Jewish Family and Children’s Services presented the company with an award for its commitment to the immigrant population.
During World War II, Benesch served as a radio operator in the Army’s 1st Cavalry Division, fighting in the Pacific. He was awarded the Bronze Star.