Ira Neimark, who rose from a starry-eyed page boy at Bonwit Teller during the Depression to the dapper chief executive officer of Bergdorf Goodman from 1975 to 1992, died Thursday evening at his home in Harrison, N.Y. of natural causes. He was 97.
At the time of his passing, Neimark was surrounded by his wife, Jackie; his daughter, Robin, and his grandchildren.
“He was the most amazing father,” said his daughter. “He made every day growing up fun for myself and my sister, sharing his daily successes nightly at dinner. As great of a retail legend that he was, his wife, children and grandchildren always came first.”
“Ira was a gentleman,” said Michael Gould, the former chairman and ceo of Bloomingdale’s. “He always wanted to give helpful advice and took a long-term perspective on the business. Like Marvin Traub [Gould’s predecessor at Bloomingdale’s, and another industry legend], Ira proved that there is life after retiring from retail. I was amazed at how productive, engaged and active he remained after he left Bergdorf’s.”
“He never lost that joie de vivre,” said Arnold Aronson, who was chairman and ceo of Saks Fifth Avenue at the time Neimark was running Bergdorf’s. “With all of his fantastic accomplishments and retail credentials, he was a fantastic human being – welcoming, helpful, always encouraging to people. He was a man of great taste and flair. He also had a devilish sense of humor and could bring an audience into stitches of laughter. But with all the wisdom he had, he commanded great respect.”
“I had the great privilege of developing a close friendship with Ira and his wonderful wife Jackie when I joined Bergdorf Goodman as ceo in 2004,” said Jim Gold. “Whenever Ira was in the store we would visit and often had lunch together. He taught me about the history of Bergdorf Goodman and shared his insights about retailing. He was a wealth of information. Ira left an incredible legacy thanks to the heavy lifting he did in the Seventies and Eighties to put Bergdorf Goodman on the map.
“Thanks to his great work, those of us who subsequently led Bergdorf Goodman had an incredible foundation to build upon,” added Gold, who left Bergdorf’s in 2010 and served as president and chief merchandising officer of Bergdorf’s parent company, the Neiman Marcus Group, until March.
Neimark’s 53 years in retail were marked by mentors who challenged him, then elevated him. He thrived as an eager merchant during the halcyon days of department stores, ascending the ranks of such regional operators as B. Altman in New York and G. Fox in Connecticut — although years after Neimark moved on to Bergdorf’s, both eventually succumbed to consolidations.
In 1975, Neimark became chairman and ceo of Bergdorf’s when the store had sagged to second-rate status and was being overshadowed by Bloomingdale’s, Saks Fifth Avenue and Barneys New York. But Neimark, with a strong team and a clear vision, was able to transform Bergdorf’s into an elegant, somewhat swank, world-class bastion of luxury labels and prestigious designer collections. It’s reputation hasn’t wavered since.
While at Bergdorf’s, Neimark was fond of saying that since he grew up across Fifth Avenue, at Bonwit Teller, he didn’t require demographic studies or focus groups. He knew who he wanted his customer to be — women who went to the best restaurants, the best hotels, the best resorts and belonged to the best clubs.
Neimark grew up in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. He landed his first retail job at Bonwit Teller in 1938 as a page boy, checking coats and mixing cocktails at the store’s 721 Club shopping service offering a sampling of the best items. He was instantly bitten by the urbane appeal of Bonwit’s. As a door boy at the store, he marveled at the well-dressed clientele pulling up to the main entrance in limousines, and knew he wanted to be among them. He was most impressed by the store’s stylish president, Bill Holmes.
Just 17 at the time, Neimark realized that networking was vital to success in business. “I realized that Bill Holmes could open doors for me. He took me under his wing,” Neimark once recalled in an interview with WWD. He learned from Holmes that if you have both salespeople and the manufacturers on your side, you will be a successful merchant.
The never shy Neimark also got to know the beauticians in the store’s beauty salon, who were prone to betting on horses. “All the beauticians wanted to know what horses they should place money on, and I placed their money with George, the bookie across the street. For every dollar I got a nickel. George said to me, ‘Instead of just covering Bonwit Teller, why don’t you cover the whole neighborhood.’”
Thinking he had a big break, Neimark mentioned George’s proposal to his mother. “She said, ‘I didn’t raise you to be a bookie.’” After his mother’s chidings, Neimark’s ambitions were redirected to activities inside the store, and he became a stock boy, moving into merchandise control, then blouse buyer and divisional merchandise manager. As a buyer, he gained insights from Bea Traub, Bonwit’s personal shopper, who was the mother of the late Marvin Traub.
Neimark advanced to Gladdings in Providence as a dmm. He stayed eight years there, before becoming assistant to the general merchandise manager at G. Fox in Hartford, Conn. There he worked closely with president Beatrice Auerbach, who eventually insisted that he fly first-class to Europe and Japan and stay at the best hotels on buying trips to understand the types of customers she wanted G. Fox to sell to. She was incredibly demanding of his time and had a driver bring him to her home certain nights to review sales data and stale merchandise. Yet she also imparted a sense of style and attention to detail, which proved to be critical to his later success at Bergdorf’s.
While working for Auerbach, Neimark discovered what he considers the most enjoyable and constructive aspect of his profession: “It was the ability to meet with each buyer, one by one, to review their weekly performance and to be able to consult with them about what steps we would take to reorder their bestsellers and to get rid of their slow movers.”
At Bergdorf’s, working with Dawn Mello, president, and Steve Elkin, the chief financial officer, he developed a strategy to get designers to sell at the store at a time when they would only sell to the competition. It involved promising them prominent in-store shops with greater square footage than other stores provided. It also involved buying the couture collections from certain designers such as Yves Saint Laurent, Givenchy and Christian Dior, a move practically unheard of among fashion retailers in the U.S. at the time. But Neimark cleverly saw the tactic as a means to not only put the spotlight on Bergdorf’s, but also as a way to gain access to these designers’ ready-to-wear lines that the store sorely lacked.
Neimark firmly believed that designers should be lavished with attention and that Bergdorf’s would bask in the afterglow.
“We promoted the very devil out of every up-and-coming designer so they became highly recognizable,” Neimark told WWD. “We were the last guy on the block with them. Barneys had them. Saks had them. Bloomingdale’s had them, and Bendel’s had them. So we had these major fashion shows by the fountain at The Plaza hotel or the ice skating rink at Rockefeller Center, for Fendi, Calvin Klein, others. We promoted designers to such a degree they felt they were more important in many cases than retailers.”
Neimark would also acknowledge that, sometimes, more money was spent promoting the designers than on buying their merchandise.
“It was a great partnership with Dawn,” Aronson added, reflecting Neimark’s “deft enough hand to find the right mixture of commerce and creativity.”
“I don’t think I’d be here today if it weren’t for Ira and Dawn. Truly, they launched my career,” Donna Karan said Friday. “When I think of Ira and I think of Dawn, I can’t think of Ira without Dawn, or Dawn without Ira. It does show that the two had such respect for one another and a love for an industry and designers and young people and taking chances. To me, the best store was Bergdorf Goodman, and that to me is Ira Neimark. His legacy will last forever in my mind. God bless him, 97. That’s because he came from love, which allowed him to live that long.”
Calvin Klein said, “Ira set a gold standard for retailing. I had great respect for him and all he accomplished. Under his leadership, Bergdorf Goodman became the most influential store in the U.S. Ira uniquely understood and supported designers. As a partner, he invited me to express my ideas and said Bergdorf’s would always be home for anything I wished to create. I thought the world of him.”
“I first met Ira when I started my business and launched my collection at Bergdorf Goodman in 1981,” recalled Michael Kors. “He was a consummate gentleman — impeccable, smart and fiercely protective of Bergdorf Goodman and its customers. He understood how the customer lived and always wanted to raise the bar higher and higher.…I remember being in Capri and going to eat breakfast early one morning when I noticed a solitary swimmer in the pool swimming with great strength and ability. When he got out of the water, I realized it was Ira. He was probably about 80 at the time, but he swam with the determination of a 25-year-old.”
“He was a pioneer in retailing,” said Elie Tahari. “He brought us to Bergdorf’s. He had a great eye, was an entrepreneur and wanted to try new things all the time.”
Typically, when anybody entered Neimark’s office at Bergdorf’s, he would first show off the view of Fifth Avenue and Central Park. It was his way of underscoring how Bergdorf’s was strategically situated in the right part of town, where the city’s richest, and the richest from around the world, would always come. He felt strongly that Bergdorf Goodman belonged nowhere else, and that it’s unique aura and architecture would never translate effectively outside New York.
However, in 1988 he received a call from Rob Smith, son of the chairman of General Cinema, which owned Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus at the time. Smith had become aware that directly across Fifth Avenue from Bergdorf’s, FAO Schwarz was moving out to relocate to the General Motors Building. Neimark consulted Elkin, Bergdorf’s vice chairman at the time, who suggested moving men’s wear across to the new location, enabling the much-more productive women’s business to expand, and for Bergdorf’s to create a larger, compelling men’s offering. Relocating men’s wear to a new, clubby environment enabled Bergdorf’s to do just that. The move also solidified Neimark’s reputation as one of the nation’s top merchants and most decisive, but he always felt that Bergdorf’s had only one home — Manhattan — and felt that an expansion beyond New York would not be successful.
He was also outspoken on industry issues and took a tough stand on designers who decided to open their own shops at the risk of cannibalizing their business at Bergdorf’s. When that happened, Neimark would throw them out of the store. He was also at the forefront of trying to rid Fifth Avenue of street peddlers, which he felt cheapened the neighborhood and interfered with traffic.
He could be paternalistic and hands-on, and a fanatic about the details, a requirement for building any luxury business. He regarded himself as a “benevolent dictator” and patrolled the store like a traffic cop, telling staff to put mannequins and markdown racks in their proper place, replace a burned-out light bulb or pick up a fallen price tag. “You have to keep pounding away and away and away again, and eventually they get it. We can fight like families but we work as a team,” he said during an interview just before retiring.
Though Neimark formerly retired from Bergdorf’s in February 1992, he never really left the fashion scene. He became an adviser to Oscar de la Renta as well as to Mitsukoshi, the Japanese retailer, and served as a director of Hermès International. He also devoted years to writing five books that included his memoirs, retail principles and philosophies on life. His first book was “Crossing Fifth Avenue to Bergdorf Goodman” which was followed by “The Rise of Fashion and Lessons Learned at Bergdorf Goodman,” “A Retailer’s Lifetime of Lessons Learned,” “The Rise of Bergdorf Goodman and the Fall of Bonwit Teller,” and “How I Retired Successfully and Happily and Lived to Be 100.” He almost made it.
The writing brought him to the speaking circuit, key-noting industry forums and guest lecturing at colleges. While he could be outspoken on retail industry issues, such as inadequate service, Neimark generally presented an optimistic picture, depicting retailing to younger generations as a multisided profession offering excitement and passion, and a range of career paths from merchandising and advertising to finance. If you stuck with the industry, it could potentially be highly lucrative, he advised. But he seemed to grapple with aspects of the digital age and some modern conventions. People who spoke on cell phones oblivious to others and answering machines requiring the caller to “press one, two, three,” annoyed him. So did the casualization of corporate America. For him, it was always best to be impeccably dressed in suit and tie.
His books were hardly tell-alls, though he name dropped a lot, and filled the pages with pictures from Bergdorf parties and fashion shows, and anecdotes about meeting members of British royalty and famous designers. His books depict an era in retailing when merchants could be merchants, when running a retail operation strictly by the numbers was unheard of, and when stores were not so cookie-cutter. There’s also much detail on how, in the Fifties, he developed what would become a widely used system of merchandise control where the rate of sales determined the inventory level. He called it “weeks of supply.”
A private funeral service had been planned.
In addition to his wife Jackie, the former Jacqueline Myers, and his daughter, Robin Neimark Seegal, Neimark is survived by five grandchildren: Russell Harrison Neimark Shattan, Hallie Neimark Seegal, Pamela Neimark Lewis, Mallory Yael Seegal and Elizabeth Heather Lewis, and one great-grandson, Wyatt Jamie Neimark Shattan. Neimark’s eldest daughter, Eugenie (Janie) Neimark Lewis, pre-deceased him in 2016.