PARIS — Textile industrialist Maurice Bidermann, who once held licenses for brands including Yves Saint Laurent, Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren, has died in Paris at the age of 87, according to family members.
One of the figures implicated in the Elf scandal in the Nineties, Bidermann was found guilty of financial wrongdoing and misuse of company funds.
As news of his death broke in French media, Bidermann’s daughter Julia published a black-and-white portrait of him on Instagram alongside a row of black hearts.
Bidermann was born Maurice Zylberberg in Brussels and grew up in France, and his sister was Regine, the well-known Paris disco owner and singer. At 15 years old, he ran away to join the Israeli Army and never had much of a formal education. After returning to France, he entered the men’s wear company owned by his uncle in 1950.
Over the years, he learned the business and began purchasing larger factories. Among his first business initiatives outside of France was making suits for the Soviet Union. He then started exploring business in the U.S.
Bidermann built his empire by buying up small, struggling factories and streamlining them so they would be cost efficient. When couturiers began exploring the lucrative men’s market, Bidermann was well positioned for production and delivery with a network of factories. He developed a proven track record and a reputation as an aggressive cut-throat competitor.
He received the contract to make suits for the American licensee of Pierre Cardin, and then when that agreement came to an end in 1973, he scored the license worldwide for Yves Saint Laurent men’s wear. He subsequently added Calvin Klein men’s wear, Daniel Hechter men’s wear, Ralph Lauren women’s wear and KL and Karl Lagerfeld Sportswear to his stable of brands.
“He was the most important manufacturer of men’s wear in Europe,” said Didier Grumbach, a veteran fashion executive and industrial whose family-owned company C. Mendes was the main manufacturer of Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche women’s wear until 1978.
Madison Cox, president of the Fondation Pierre Bergé — Yves Saint Laurent, noted Bidermann took over the license for Yves Saint Laurent men’s wear shortly after its launch in 1969.
“Bidermann thus produced and distributed all the men’s ready-to-wear, and contributed to the international reputation of the house of Yves Saint Laurent. My thoughts naturally go to his family and friends,” Cox said in a statement.
In its heyday, Bidermann Industries U.S.A. was the largest apparel manufacturer in North America, generating a lot of press in the Eighties and Nineties and becoming a training ground for many of the industry’s key executives.
Laurence C. Leeds Jr., former chairman and chief executive officer of Manhattan Industries and former chairman of Buckingham Capital Management, recalled how Manhattan and Bidermann were 50/50 partners in Yves Saint Laurent men’s wear when it was introduced in the U.S.
“We had a a relationship that lasted six or seven years,” Leeds said. “Maurice Bidermann was one of the greatest showmen and promoters that our industry has ever seen. With his considerable ego and bluster, he was able to convince the Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s of the world that he would lead them into a promised land of great sales and profits.
“What started off so successfully had an unfortunate ending when several executives, whose careers had been nourished by Maurice, turned against him, which resulted in his leaving the industry,” Leeds said.
Ken Sitomer, ceo of Branded Ventures at SDC, who was with Bidermann Industries U.S.A. from 1974 to 1989 in various positions, including ceo, said, “He [Maurice] was dynamic. I liked him very much. He was larger than life. He always tried to look at the big picture.”
Barry Schwartz, former chairman of Calvin Klein Inc., had licensed its men’s wear to Bidermann Industries until 1986. “Maurice was a very interesting entrepreneurial guy. He was really at one point one of the leading industrialists in France,” Schwartz said.
Schwartz recalled one of the trips he took to Europe to talk about the line. “We drove to Turin in Italy. I recall one of the things about Maurice was that he loved factories. The main floor was bigger than a football field. He was a tremendous manufacturer. He showed us how he made the clothes and we had lunch there. They baked the bread right there in the plant. They had a kitchen there. It was a wonderful experience.”
Norman Fryman, one of the earliest U.S. employees of Bidermann Industries U.S.A. who served as both president of Yves Saint Laurent men’s clothing and then executive vice president of Bidermann U.S.A., said Bidermann was “a showman. He did things no would have thought of doing.”
“He created an empire in the U.S. — we became a $1 billion apparel conglomerate,” Fryman said. “He wanted to be the biggest, although that didn’t always equate to being the best, but he was a mentor to me and we had a good time for a lot of years.”
Andrew Jassin, managing director of Jassin Consulting Group, worked at Bidermann Industries U.S.A. as president of KL and Karl Lagerfeld New York and private label women’s wear.
“He was really a manufacturing and textile expert who really wound up in the licensing business. He had factories and was definitely a factory guy,” Jassin said. He noted that Bidermann had the presence of mind early on to get into the licensing business, well before it became as big as it did.
However, not all his ventures were a success.
In 1987, Karl Lagerfeld ended his licensing deal with Bidermann Industries U.S.A. “It was a disaster,” Lagerfeld said at the time. The deal had been signed in December 1983. From the start, the endeavor was fraught with management changes, late starts and quality problems, he told WWD.
Bidermann admitted that he had “never really taken care of” the KL sportswear line. “We have spent a lot of money on Lagerfeld,” Bidermann added, “and yet sales have been insufficient in the U.S.”
By 1994, the company was mired in debt, due in large part to its 1990 acquisition of Cluett Peabody, which included Arrow Co. and Gold Toe hosiery. In October of that year, it split from the French parent Bidermann SA, and was $172 million in debt. Under the terms of the transaction, Bidermann’s 87 percent stake was reduced to 20 percent.
In 1995, Ralph Lauren put the wheels in motion to get his women’s wear license back. Ralph Lauren women’s wear, including the Collection and Ralph lines, had been a prominent part of Bidermann’s empire, generating at the time about $120 million in volume.
Bidermann Industries U.S.A. filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1995, and the same year, Bidermann left his post as chairman of Bidermann SA, the French arm of the company, after selling his shares for a symbolic franc.
Around the same time, investigating magistrate Eva Joly placed the executive under investigation as part of the Elf scandal. Bidermann was suspected of having received some $160 million in loans from French petrochemical giant Elf Aquitaine in the early Nineties in exchange for favors for Loïk Le Floch-Prigent, president of Elf at the time.
He was eventually sentenced to three years in prison, with two suspended, and fined 1 million euros. He later went to live in Morocco, and was close to former French President Nicolas Sarkozy. In January, he and his wife Danièle attended a party in Paris celebrating Regine’s 90th birthday.
Bidermann was reportedly suffering from a series of chronic diseases at the time of his death.