Coat and suit designer, painter and memoirist Ilie Wacs died Sept. 7 in Manhattan at age 86.
The cause of death was cancer.
He was born in Vienna on Dec. 11, 1927, the only son of Moritz and Henia Wachs; his sister, Deborah, was nine years younger. Moritz was a Romanian-born tailor, a World War I deserter and a stateless person; Henia was a milliner and former beauty queen originally from Poland. Just as World War II began, the family left Vienna for Italy, then took the last ship to Japanese-occupied Shanghai — the only place in the world at the time willing to accept refugees without restrictions. On his 70th birthday, Wacs visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., with his sister, philanthropist Deborah Strobin, and his daughters Maris and Darin. In a small exhibit devoted to the Jewish ghetto in Shanghai, Deborah saw a photo of one of her childhood friends; then she saw herself.
Wacs’ and Strobin’s memoir, “An Uncommon Journey: From Vienna to Shanghai to America, A Brother and Sister Escape to Freedom During World War II,” written with S.J. Hodges and published by Barricade Books, came out in 2011. In an interview with WWD early in 2012, Wacs described his father’s experience in Shanghai. A skilled tailor, when he first arrived in the city, he didn’t have a sewing machine, so, when he got his first commission for a suit, he sewed it by hand. “The client never knew what a work of art he had,” Ilie Wacs said. The fee, however, enabled Moritz Wachs to buy a sewing machine. Ilie Wacs worked with his father and also made drawings for other children (Mickey Mouse and Daffy Duck were popular). The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee got Ilie Wacs a scholarship to study at l’Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. Finding it stuffy, he transferred to the Academie Julian.
After World War II ended, the family had nowhere to go. Finally, in 1948, the U.S. passed the Displaced Persons Act, agreeing to take in hundreds of thousands of the stateless. The rechristened Wacs family, Maurice, Helen and Deborah, ended up in New York. Ilie Wacs joined them in Manhattan, becoming a sketch artist for the suit house Philip Mangone, then a designer at Seymour Fox, where he spent six years. At 19, Deborah married the late Ed Strobin, who helped launch the Banana Republic stores. Wacs credited his own wife, the former Sylvia Silverstein, for much of his success. She handled his financial affairs, personally and professionally. “I didn’t even know what our rent was,” he told WWD in 2012. In 1977, she insisted that they needed to buy an apartment, and found a light-filled one on Central Park West for $200,000. She died of breast cancer when she was in her early 50s.
WWD first covered Wacs’ solo coat and suit collection in March 1962. He told the newspaper then, “With the contrast of tailored but soft technique, I want to hit the retailers with a bang. I am prepared to do it with shape, fit, detail. I want to be known for coats and suits that appear custom-tailored, are essentially soft and feminine through the best wholesale skill. I welcome most of all the new impetus to shaping for true elegance.” The company closed two years later; Wacs then spent several years as the head designer for Originala. In the late Sixties, Seventies and Eighties, the coats and suits he created, for Originala or under his own name, often appeared in the pages of Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, The New York Times and other publications. Wacs was known for his fitted or fit-and-flare coats in vibrant colors with clean lines and simple cuts.
In 2012, Wacs observed that one benefit of his remarkable background was that “a patternmaker couldn’t tell me that something couldn’t be done when I knew that it could.” He added of living in Shanghai, “In retrospect, it wasn’t bad living in a culture that was totally alien to us. We came there with only the clothes on our backs.”
Wacs became an artist after closing his fashion company. In November 2013, on the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, his collection of paintings, called “The Vienna Papers, 1938,” was shown at the Simon Wiesenthal Center at New York’s Museum of Tolerance. The paintings were inspired by a suitcase full of the family’s wartime documents that he had inherited from his mother.
Wacs’ survivors include daughters Maris and Darin Wacs, sister Deborah Strobin and longtime companion Susan Halpern. His funeral will take place today at 1:15 p.m. at Riverside Memorial Chapel in Manhattan. In lieu of flowers, contributions should be made to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.