A private commemoration will be held later this month for The Fur Vault’s founder and humanitarian Fred Schwartz.
He died Sunday at the age of 84 at his Great Neck, N.Y., home, according to his former assistant of nearly 40 years, Toma Lord.
Nicknamed “Derf” (as in Fred in reverse) by his stickball pals in the Bronx, Schwartz became more widely known as an adult for his “Fred the Furrier” advertising. While developing The Fur Vault, Schwartz was committed to empowering women and entrepreneurialism. Even his straight talking commercials were meant to embolden women about their buying power and fashion choices in an era when that was not the norm, according to Lord.
The son of Ukrainian immigrants, Schwartz graduated from Taft High School before going on to City College. After barely failing the Foreign Service exam, Schwartz applied to 60 executive training programs, most of which he found using the New York phone book, but was almost universally rejected. Scrapping that plan, the recent college graduate joined his brother, Harold, in a fur buying office, where they undercut competitors by buying pelts in bulk and sourcing overseas.
Lining up a deal with the musician Pat Boone to endorse raccoon collars, marketing “hairmuffs” — earmuffs made of rabbit hair — and partnering with Orchids of Hawaii to sell gift boxes of orchid corsages and mink scarves with a personal message were some of the ways the brothers built a following. In the Sixties, they also worked in promotional marketing assisting companies like Coca-Cola and DuPont.
In the mid-Seventies he reluctantly agreed to appear in commercials for his own company after Bess Myerson declined to be the spokeswoman due to the paltry offer. Pitched as “Fred the Furrier: the American Furrier,” Schwartz connected with customers by speaking directly to them. Personalizing his message by addressing the TV audience by one woman’s name as in “Hey, Marilyn…” Schwartz came across like the authentic furrier that he was.
In the late Sixties, the brothers joined forces with the Union Square store S. Klein to run the fur department. After that retailer closed in the mid-Seventies, they hooked up with Alexander’s department store and later Bloomingdale’s to sell their Northern Lights label. After branching out to other cities, The Fur Vault went public in 1984 with reported sales of $50 million. After the animal rights movement started to put a dent in the sector, the Fur Vault was sold to South Korea’s Jindo Corp. for $15 million.
While his daily office banter was full of puns, Schwartz was very encouraging, but also challenging with his staff. “He would give you a little bit more than you thought you could do, but he helped to get you there,” Lord said. “As someone approached a goal, no one was happier for them than Fred. But then he would throw at them something a little harder.”
Through the Bronx District Attorney’s Opportunity Center, he helped learning disabled youths avoid the criminal justice system. He founded and directed the Business Development Institute, teaching entrepreneurialism and principles of economics in the public school system. Books that left him curious occasionally prompted Schwartz to seek out authors to better understand their thought processes and objectives. “He might engage them in a conversation about what they were thinking or how they might go further with an idea,” Lord said. “Someone described Fred as a ‘constant stream of bold ideas.’”
Announcing his retirement in October 1988, the then 56-year-old Schwartz told WWD, “Thirty-five years is a long time to be doing what you have to do. Now I can do some of the things I want to.”
The following year Schwartz ramped up his philanthropic efforts to protect human rights and help prevent genocide. He and his wife of 62 years, Allyne, created the Raoul Wallenberg Scholarships in 1988 for the study of leadership in comparative democracies at the Hebrew University. He started the Auschwitz Jewish Center in 1995, after realizing the need for a Jewish cultural and educational center near Auschwitz. His efforts included restoring a synagogue in Poland near the death camp. In 2005, he founded the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation as an international center for the study of the prevention of genocide.
His efforts resulted in Poland’s former President Aleksander Kwasniewski presenting him the highest Polish civilian medal and in 2005, former President George W. Bush made him part of the U.S. delegation commemorating the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz camps.
In addition to his wife, Schwartz is survived by their four children: Amy, Steven and Gary Schwartz and Anni Kluger. Other survivors include his nephews, Andrew Marc and Free Country cofounder Ira Schwartz, both of whom work in the fashion industry.