The History of Saks: A Picture of Luxury

Saks Fifth Avenue has undergone many changes in ownership, yet it’s managed to retain an image that is synonymous with both luxury and fashion.

Since its inception, Saks Fifth Avenue has undergone many changes in ownership, yet it’s managed to retain an image that is synonymous with both luxury and fashion.

This story first appeared in the July 30, 2013 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Andrew Saks founded the apparel retailer in 1867 and incorporated it as Saks & Co. in 1902, the same year he opened a Saks & Co. store on 34th Street. After he died, Saks merged with Gimbel Brothers Inc. in 1923 and was operated as a subsidiary of Gimbel. Horace Saks and Bernard Gimbel purchased the current flagship location on Fifth Avenue, which was then occupied jointly by the Democratic Club and the Buckingham Hotel, in what was largely a residential district. On Sept. 15, 1924, they opened Saks Fifth Avenue at the site.

The Saks Fifth Avenue flagship at 611 Fifth Ave., which remains owned by Saks, was designated a New York City landmark in 1984.

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Bernard’s cousin Adam Gimbel became president of SFA, and it was under his leadership that Saks branch stores were opened from coast to coast. The first branch store was opened in 1926 in Palm Beach, Fla., followed by one in Southampton, N.Y., in 1928. Adam was also responsible for creating specialty shops within SFA. Saks opened its first West Coast store in Beverly Hills in 1938.

Gimbel Bros. Inc. was acquired in 1973 by BATUS Inc., a subsidiary of British tobacco company B.A.T. Industries PLC, which in 1990 sold the Saks business to Investcorp SA and a group of international investors.

Philip B. Miller joined Saks in 1990 as vice chairman, and was appointed chairman and chief executive officer of SFA in 1993 and of Saks Holdings Inc. in 1995.

On May 21, 1996, Investcorp took Saks Holdings Inc. public and shares of the company began trading on the New York Stock Exchange. On Sept. 17, 1998, Saks Holdings merged with Proffitt’s Inc., and the merged entity became Saks Inc. R. Brad Martin, the chairman and ceo of Proffitt’s, became chairman and ceo of Saks Inc. Stephen I. Sadove is the current chairman and ceo of Saks Inc.

In 2005, Saks sold off its Northern Department Store Group, largely consisting of Carson Pirie Scott, which was acquired by Proffitt’s in 1998. In 2006, it sold its Southern Department Store Group, consisting of Proffitt’s acquisitions of Parisian’s and McRae’s, to Belk. The sales allowed Saks to concentrate on its SFA and Saks Off 5th outlet businesses.

Saks is still in the early stages of its international expansion, opening its first overseas store under license in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in 2001. That license has since expired, and the store has closed. Other stores under license include Dubai and Kazakhstan.

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Although synonymous with luxury, the chain through the years has had its fiscal struggles. While under the tenure of SFA chairman and ceo Fred Wilson, Saks in March 2005 revealed an internal investigation involving “improper collections of vendor markdown allowances,” noting that it would repay $21.5 million to vendors. Saks also became the subject of separate investigations by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan. The retailer settled with the SEC in 2007, a settlement that did not include any financial penalty, nor was there any admission or denial of any SEC charges.