Derrill Osborn

DALLAS Colleagues remembered Derrill Radcliff Osborn for his brilliance in men’s wear retail, mischievousness and kindness as a leader, mentor and friend at a memorial service Wednesday evening at Highland Park Presbyterian Church here.

The Neiman Marcus men’s wear executive died July 1 at age 76.

Orchestrated with musical interludes and multiple readings, the service was an entertaining tribute to Osborn, the only person ever to pen his own obituary and hand deliver it with payment to the Dallas Morning News, where it ran twice on a full page.

Despite this obituary’s declaration that Osborn’s ashes would be, at his wish, “flushed down the commode,” his sister Karen Osborn Sharp assured the gathering that the white marble urn would be interred in the family plot in Abilene, Tex.

Osborn planned every minute of the lengthy service, and nearly everyone in the full church followed the dress code: women in red or black cocktail attire and men in dark suits. As was customary at his parties, each attendee was pinned with a red rose boutonniere or corsage upon entry.

Neiman’s senior vice president Robert Ackerman was one of five men who Osborn asked to make personal remembrances.

“On an organizational chart, Derrill reported to me,” Ackerman said. “But as many of you know, Derrill was a free spirit who really reported to nobody…Derrill made suggestions, I listened to them and did what he suggested.”

Osborn was an innovator who started the now common practice of bringing department managers to headquarters for product training, Ackerman noted. He was the father of Neiman’s wildly popular “30-30” perk for employees — a periodic 30 percent vendor discount atop the regular 30 percent off.

“Under Derrill’s insight and fashion sense, Neiman Marcus operated the largest fine men’s clothing business in the United States,” Ackerman said. “As successful as Derrill was as a merchant…I believe he was more successful as a human being. He was a Christian whose guiding principle was treat everyone as you want to be treated. He was kind, very considerate of other people, and gracious to everyone.”

Former Saks Fifth Avenue chief executive officer Philip Miller, who knew Osborn for 40 years, recalled the beautiful birthday cards that Osborn hand illustrated for fellow members of the “Old Friends Society,” a group of 21 retail executives who meet twice a year for dinner at the 21 Club.

He remembered Osborn saying, “‘Listen, I love what I’ve done for such a long time…Developing your own character in clothes is part of that, but I’m not sure in the final analysis that clothes are the most important thing. It’s what you say, where you’ve been and what you do with your life that matters.’”

Eton Shirts chief sales director Erik Wilkinson recited many honors Osborn received as fashion arbiter, including the first Industry Style Award given to a nondesigner, and his frequent appearances in newspapers, fashion magazines and books on style.

“He really was the original influencer,” Wilkinson said. “It’s interesting, though, that Derrill Osborn will not be remembered most for his awards, speeches, his eccentricity or even his signature hat and boutonniere. But his legacy instead will be the countless young professionals he led and shaped, the current and future leaders in our industry and others, many of whom are here with us today.”

Osborn taught them that the best merchants are even better sellers, Wilkinson said. He advised them to dress for success, pay attention to detail, remember colleagues’ birthdays and conduct business relationships with courtesy and mutual respect.

Neiman’s director of merchandise planning Gardner Randall, another protégé, observed that Osborn nearly always began conversations with staffers by asking, “Are you happy?”

He recalled Osborn trading his Volkswagen convertible bug for a massive black Harley-Davidson edition Ford F-150 pickup truck with chrome rims “just so he could drive up next to people, roll down the window and crank the classical music just to freak them out.”

Randall said he offered to show Osborn the eulogy he had prepared, but Osborn replied, “No. Surprise me.”