Obituary: Former MFA Chief Norman Karr

Norman Karr, whose 50-plus year career included executive director of the Men's Fashion Association, died Wednesday.

Norman Karr, a men’s wear icon whose humor and savvy made him an industry favorite, died Wednesday night at Franklin General Hospital in Valley Stream, N.Y., at the age of 82. The cause of death was pneumonia following surgery, according to his son, Arnold Karr, senior editor, financial at WWD.

This story first appeared in the September 18, 2009 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Over the course of his 50-plus-year career, Karr served as executive director of the Men’s Fashion Association, Jeanswear Communications and the International Association of Clothing Designers. After a stint in the U.S. Army, Karr joined the Journal of Commerce covering the burlap and jute markets. He became editor of Driver’s Digest before joining the American Institute of Men’s and Boys’ Wear in 1955. He served as public relations director and general manager of the group before becoming executive director in 1966. AIMBW changed its name to the Men’s Fashion Association in 1969 and made its mark holding biannual press previews for the men’s wear industry. The MFA developed the American Image Awards in the Eighties and later changed its name to The Fashion Association. While at the MFA, Karr also helped found The Clothing Bank with New York to help clothe the homeless.

Karr retired from TFA in 1995 and it subsequently became part of AAFA, which continues to hold the American Image Awards each year.

After retiring, he continued to serve as executive director of Jeanswear Communications and the IACD but phased out that work around 2000. Karr was heavily involved in the Young Menswear Association (and recipient of its AMY award) and had served as emcee for its annual fund-raising dinner for years. He was also active in Father’s Day Council, the High School of Fashion Industries and numerous other industry groups.

“He was an institution,” said Joe Rivers, executive director of the National Father’s Day/Mother’s Day Council. “He was so well known in the marketplace and was the guy to go to if you needed anything.”

He said Karr “helped us a lot, getting our message out, convincing honorees to accept our awards and aided in getting contributions for our organization. He was a great inspiration and provided a sense of stability. On top of that, he had a wonderful outgoing spirit and always had a smile on his face.”

“Norman Karr was extremely important in introducing the men’s wear people to the press through his work with the Men’s Fashion Association,” said Ruth Finley, founder of the Fashion Calendar. “In addition, he was very active and diligent in raising money for scholarships at the High School of Fashion Industries.

“He was a very close personal friend and one of the most special people in the industry,” she added. “I will miss him very much.”

Tom Julian, president of the Tom Julian Group, a brand consultancy firm in New York, worked with Karr at the MFA from 1986 to 1994 as its associate fashion director and then fashion director. He said Thursday: “Norman taught all of us about the nonprofit world and industry citizenship. He used to say how important it was to rally together to present a face for the men’s wear industry. He didn’t live for the fashion focus, but for the industry and how it could provide a service component for editors. He was an elder statesman and treated you in a fatherly way. On a lighthearted note, he always used humor to get us through snowstorms in Atlanta, earthquakes in L.A. or anything else that came up. And he was a true family man. [His wife] Selma was as much a part of our lives as Norman.”

Jack Herschlag, former executive director of NAMSB, said Karr gave a “public voice” to the MFA after he joined the organization. “The conditions were right, because men’s wear was dominated by domestic brands with mostly domestic production, and were therefore accessible and receptive. There were thousands of independent men’s stores that were ready to take advantage of public relations opportunities, and many newspapers had full-time fashion editors who had no other dependable source of men’s wear information. Under Norman’s direction, MFA captured the moment. More than that, in what was then a more collegial industry, Norman’s gregarious nature inspired the association’s famous press weekends, and he personally participated in golf outings and other events. His presence went well beyond his contribution to the industry. He left hundreds of individuals, like me, with warm memories and great affection.”

Publicist Erica Fineberg of Fineberg Publicity said the MFA’s press previews were “one of the best places to meet the media. Since then, no organization has been as effective.”

Investment banker Allen Ellinger of MMG Group agreed: “He was an effective leader and ran an organization that was an extraordinary link between the American fashion industry and the consumer fashion press.”

Karr was born July 30, 1927, in Manhattan, was raised in Astoria, N.Y., and resided in Franklin Square, N.Y., from 1957 to the present. A graduate of the City College of New York, he is survived by his wife of 58 years, the former Selma Butter, his son, Arnold, a daughter, Joanne Skop, and four grandchildren.

Services will be at 10 a.m. today at the I.P. Morris Funeral Home at 46 Greenwich Street, Hempstead, N.Y. In lieu of flowers, the family is asking that memorial contributions be made to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America or the United Jewish Appeal.