Dick Braeger, who injected his pursuit of comfort into his stewardship of both Cole Haan shoes and Garys men’s stores in Southern California, passed away at home in Newport Beach, Calif., on Friday, after a long illness. He was 74.
Braeger, the son of a footwear retailer, found his career calling while working at Mark’s Boot Shop in Westwood, Calif., during his years as a student at UCLA. He eventually became a road salesman for E.E. Taylor shoes and one of the principals of its Cole Haan brand when it was spun off as its parent fought off bankruptcy. Braeger was the partner who, influenced by the demands of his Southern California territory, consistently fought for the lighter-weight dress shoes that would become Cole Haan’s essence.
“Whether it was a business principle or an article of clothing, he was incredibly tenacious,” said Gary Wasserman, the founder of Garys, who brought Braeger in as the concession shoe operator not long after starting the store. “People called him ‘The Velvet Hammer.’ He was like a little terrier with a rag in its mouth and, as anyone who knew him would tell you, a very decent human being who genuinely enjoyed people and touched a lot of them.”
By 1987, his crusade for lighter dress footwear, coupled with an assortment of casual shoes, transformed Cole Haan, doing less than $1 million at the time it was spun off from E.E. Taylor, into a nearly $100 million company, albeit one that was struggling to meet the enormous capital requirements of production and expansion. Advised against going public, the principals sold to Nike Inc. for $95 million in 1988, following a bidding battle with Reebok.
Braeger, who’d made an earlier equity investment in Garys following his relationship as a concessionaire, in 1984 became sole owner of the specialty store, which today operates three nameplates in the Fashion Island mall in Newport Beach, as well as Garys Studio and Garys Rack in nearby Del Mar and Tustin, Calif., respectively. He brought the same quest for comfort to the stores, building sportswear up to more than a third of its volume while other traditional men’s stores often resisted the trend.
“Dick was a car guy,” Wasserman recalled, “and he used to talk about how great it was to live in California and ride around with the top down on the convertible, even if it was the winter and you had the turn the heat on. Even on the road, he wanted to look cool but not sacrifice comfort to ado it.”
He was also a man of somewhat legendary appetites, including pipe smoking and fast food. Candy Scott, who worked as his assistant for 38 years, recalled, “Just about any time you traveled with him between our stores in Newport Beach and the one we used to have in Marina del Rey, you had to make a stop at an In-N-Out Burger.”
Braeger is survived by his wife, Julie; a son, John, acting president of Garys; a daughter, Kari, vice president of the store; one grandchild, and a sister, Jackie Rosen.
A memorial service was held Tuesday at Braeger’s home following a private interment.