Updated Aug. 5
A graveside service took place Thursday afternoon for Julius (“Julie”) Stern, Donna Karan Co.’s first president, who died Wednesday at Mt. Sinai Queens. He was 97.
Born Feb. 12, 1925 in Frankfurt, Germany, Stern was best known as “Papa Julie” at the Donna Karan Co., which he joined in 1984 after Donna Karan left Anne Klein to establish her own label. Stern had previously worked with Karan at Anne Klein as senior vice president of merchandising for The Anne Klein Group. He also served as president of the Garment Center Synagogue.
Stern came to the U.S. in the late 1930s and graduated from Samuel Gompers Career and Technical Education High School in the Bronx. He served in the U.S. Navy and was stationed in Hawaii, according to his daughter, Jenny Stern.
“His brother-in-law, Teddy Goldschmidt got him into the garment center and he really loved it,” she said. He worked in various production and fabric roles at Suzy Perrette, Mr. Pants and Junior Sophisticates (which was designed by Anne Klein), before his later roles at Anne Klein and Donna Karan Co.
“He had a wonderful life,” said Donna Karan Thursday. “If anybody in my life really followed and cared for me, it was Julie. He was like a dad. After I left Anne Klein, they let me take one person and it was Stern, and he became my president.”
Karan said Stern “was always by my side. I was a baby then,” said Karan, who started designing under her own collection at 26 years old. She noted that Stern was an expert in fabrics “and I’m like a fabric nut,” she said. “He was my right arm, my left arm, he was my everything. No matter how old he was, he had all the energy and all the love,” she said.
In 1984, when Karan left Anne Klein to establish her own label, Stern came with her as president of The Donna Karan Co., even before the first line was shown. At that time, Karan was named chief executive officer, and before that had been jointly designing Anne Klein with Louis Dell’Olio. The Donna Karan Co. was financed by Takihyo Co., a Japanese textile and apparel firm whose chairman was Tomio Taki, which was the majority owner of Anne Klein & Co., Frank Mori, president of Anne Klein & Co., and Karan.
Stern began handling Karan’s presidential duties while also finishing up his job at Anne Klein.
Karan and Stern were so connected that when Karan went into labor with her daughter, Gabby, she called Stern at 5 a.m. in the morning and asked him to come over. When he asked wasn’t her husband going to be there to help her, Karan said she wanted to give Stern notes. He got there at 6 a.m., while she was having contractions, and she gave him notes about the clothes.
Patti Cohen, who was executive vice president of global communications and public relations at Donna Karan added, “We would go to him for everything.”
Stephen Ruzow, former president and chief operating officer of Donna Karan International, recalled that Stern was running the women’s collection business as president when he got there in 1989.
“He was a teddy bear. He was a wealth of knowledge. He was able to work extremely well with Donna which was not easy,” said Ruzow. He said that Stern was basically responsible for everything that had to do with Donna’s women’s collection from buying the fabric, working with Donna on colors and being responsible for production. “He was always a critical component of making the collection work,” he said.
Asked how Karan and Stern worked together, Ruzow recalled that Stern would ask: “Why do we need 40 shades of red cashmere, wouldn’t six be enough?”
“Donna really looked up to him, almost as a father figure. They fought but almost the way you would fight with your kids. The love is always there,” said Ruzow. He noted that Stern held a similar position earlier at Anne Klein.
Taki told WWD, “This is such sad news. Julie had been working for us at Anne Klein for a long time as an executive and moved to Donna Karan company later to help organize the new venture as president. He was a father figure in our company. He was calm and reasonable so that all employees went to him when they wanted to make sure what they had been doing is good or not. His smile made everybody happy. He was a wonderful trouble shooter.”
Denise Seegal, founding president of DKNY, recalled Thursday, “He was a wonderful man and a terrific executive. He was in charge of Donna Karan collection and had been with Donna a very long time. He understood everything regarding how to produce the collection from design right through to shipping and had a great rapport with all the retailers as well.
“He was a great leader of his team, and most importantly he got along wonderfully with Donna. He was there when I got there, and he showed me the ropes,” said Seegal, who joined in 1988.
In a WWD story in 2004 recognizing Karan’s 20th anniversary under her own label, Stern told WWD: “There’s a lot of sameness between the way Anne Klein was dealing with things and the way Donna deals with things. Anne didn’t know anything about money and Donna is the same way — not that she doesn’t know how to make money, but as far as numbers are concerned. She’s just an engine that keeps going. She also doesn’t know deadlines and schedules — those were our biggest fights.”
Besides his work, Stern was a real family man.
“His interest was his family. He loved his work, he loved clothes, he was always meticulous and had a summer house in Montauk. He was devoted to my mom, Nina, and they were married for 74 years,” said Jenny Stern. His wife died in 2020 at the age of 99.
Stern started out living in Washington Heights and later the family moved to Far Rockaway, Queens. In the early ’80s, the Sterns moved into an apartment on Lexington Avenue in the Murray Hill section of New York and he could walk to work. Most recently he was living in the New York Center for Rehabilitation Care in Astoria, N.Y.
Jenny Stern noted that in his younger days, her father ” loved to walk all over he city and would walk to the Bowery and back.”
His son, David Stern, recalled, “I remember going to work with him as a young kid which put me on my path now.” David Stern owns a fabric company, Blue Star Silk, started by his uncle, Martin Stern, whom David succeeded after his uncle retired.
Asked about his father’s hobbies, David Stern said, “Business was his life and the industry was his life. He loved being with his family otherwise.”
In addition to his children Jenny and David Stern, Julius Stern is survived by two grandchildren, four great-grandchildren and two brothers, Herb and Martin. Another brother, Teddy, died last week.