Jack Benson, an apparel manufacturer who owned a sportswear company with his father and brothers called Benson and Partners and developed the Outlander and Jeanne Pierre labels, died Feb. 8 at 91 years old.
Benson died of heart failure at Naples Hospital in Naples, Florida, according to his daughter, Betty Benson Poster.
Born in Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn, Benson graduated from Lincoln High School before attending New York University for several years, without getting his degree. He served in the Korean War (Stateside) and started a sportswear business with his dad and brothers. He later expanded his business with brands such as Outlander, Dorothée Bis and Jeanne Pierre.
In a WWD article in 1971, Benson gave an interview about how he started the family business, and the risk it took giving up making skirts for Sears Roebuck and J.C. Penney and acquiring more fashionable brands. “We’ve got all our money on the table, and now it’s a matter of seeing whether we win or crap out. We think we’re going to win,” Benson said.
Benson, who ran the business out of 525 Seventh Avenue with his brothers, Sam and Irving, was doing $4.5 million in sales, but said he hoped that with two other companies, Outlander, which manufactured sweaters in Hong Kong, and Dorothée Bis, which produced the Paris knitwear firm’s designs in the U.S., the company would ultimately do about $20 million annually.
“My brother Sam and I decided there was more to life than just numbers, and that’s when we gave up a business which other people might have jumped at — working only for Sears Roebuck and J.C. Penney, making skirts for them,” Benson said. They went from two accounts to 1,100 stores. Under the name of Sir John, the two brothers built up a business of $2.5 annually which they operated from 1959 to 1966.
“We began to make skirts for Sears. In the first year we made $100,000 profit on sales of $1 million, not bad for a new company which was producing skirts to retail at $22. We then decided to sell also to Penney’s and we boosted our volume to $2.5 million. But it became something of a routine operation. We would sketch a line, and work out the skirts, manufacture them and ship them and then have nothing much else to do except watch the stock market ticker,” said Benson. The Bensons did this until 1966, when they tried to sell to other chains but found they wouldn’t buy sufficiently large quantities.
“We decided we were going to have fun and in 1967 formed Fashion Discoveries and only make the kind of sportswear which would be outstanding and which were the kinds of things we wanted to do,” said Jack Benson. They decided to stick with making skirts, but making them out of the finest fabrics available, imports such as Bernat Klein, McNutt Donegal tweeds….and wholesaling them between $10.75 and $21.75.
Benson then formed Outlander, a separate firm, to import sweaters from Hong Kong because he felt knitwear was important for his firm. They hired Carole Horn to design a summer collection that included polyester, sell-through shirts, geometric prints and art decor themes. “These were clothes that were fun to wear. They aren’t dull, stodgy or classic, but they’re not hippie either,” he said in the 1971 story.
“We make entire wardrobes — anything from rainwear to bikinis, if we think something looks good and is hot, but our greatest strength is in dresses and sportswear,” said Benson in the 1971 story.
“The scoop neck skinny sweater was my dad’s idea,” said Betty Benson Poster, discussing the Outlander knits.
In 1970, Benson traveled to Paris to see what was being shown in sweaters and while he was there met Elie Jacobson, owner of Dorothée Bis. The two struck a deal for Benson to produce Dorothée Bis knitwear styles in the U.S., in partnership with a mill owner in Pennsylvania.
The Bensons were experts in sewing, cleaning machines, cutting and manufacturing. In fact, Jack Benson said topflight production men were the unsung heroes of the apparel business, and he counted his brother, Sam, among them.
In the family business, Jack handled sales, Sam was into production and Irving had been a West Coast regional sales man for Garland Inc., until he was called back when “I decided we were going to make this a family business,” said Jack Benson in 1971. Irving Benson later went on start Cygne Designs, while Outlander Ltd. was sold to Leslie Fay Cos. in 1975.
In 1983, when Benson later became president of Jeanne Pierre, he told WWD that sweater sales were now being spread over 10 or 11 months rather than just fall and holiday. “A manufacturer has to flow merchandise into the stores on a continuous basis without overexposing himself to the point where he’ll get hurt if business is not good. That’s one reason many firms are limiting their production. They don’t want to get hurt.”
His daughter Betty noted that her father would travel frequently to Hong Kong. “He was kind and creative and full of life and optimism. He lived in the moment and worked well as a team member,” she said.
Jack Benson retired in 1989 and he and his wife, Barbara, got in a car and left their New York City apartment and just started driving. They decided to settle outside Vail, Colorado, where he played golf and skied. “He skied until he was 85. He was an excellent skier,” said his daughter Betty. He lived there for years, until last year, when he moved to Naples, Florida.
In addition to his daughter Betty and wife, Barbara Wise Benson, he is survived by daughters Lori Benson, Lisa Benson, and a son, Michael Benson, as well as four grand-daughters. He is pre-deceased by a daughter, Susan Lurie.