MARMALSTEIN’S FAREWELL TO A 40-YEAR LOVE AFFAIR
Byline: Arthur Friedman
NEW YORK — Before he completed his first week at his first job — being a merchandiser for Grace & Robinson stores — Morris Marmalstein made the kind of mistake that would make some people consider an immediate career change: He sent snowsuits to Miami.
The chain is no longer around, but Marmalstein survived the blunder, resulting in a “40-year love affair with the apparel business.”
Now 60, the veteran executive announced last week that he would retire as president of The Warren Group, a firm he helped run since 1968.
In an interview here at company headquarters at 498 Seventh Ave., the cherubic Marmalstein, wearing his signature suspenders and big grin, said he’ll miss “the excitement of coming to work every day,” but admits the industry has become “tougher and tougher.”
“The retailers have done a terrible job of training their customers,” he said. “It used to be there were two sales months — January and July. Now, there are sales all year round. There’s too much emphasis on price at retail and not enough on service. This has cut into customer loyalty, and has often resulted in less exciting merchandise.
“If your merchandise is salable and well made, you can still do business.”
He reflected back on the days when company founder David Warren, who died in 1982, would plan the end-of-year production cuts so that no merchandise was left in the warehouse.
“We used to get an order for 200 dresses and make 200 dresses in the Bronx and ship it out in two weeks,” he said. “Now I have to go far away to make things at the right price at a bigger risk.”
Born in the Bronx, the son of a pressman, and raised in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn, Marmalstein studied retailing at New York University and began working in 1954 at Grace & Robinson.
In addition to suffering the misdirected snowsuits, Marmalstein said, “I had a terrible office with no windows and I couldn’t wait to get out.”
He then became “second assistant” at Certified Buying Office, working for $35 a week. He later became a buyer, and remained at Certified for 10 years.
From there he moved to Stacy Ames, a dress firm, as vice president of merchandising. It was there he met David Warren. When Warren formed his own company — David Warren Enterprises — in 1968, Marmalstein became a partner.
When retailers and competitors speak about Marmalstein, the consensus is that the dress business probably won’t be the same without him.
“He’s one of the last real dress merchants,” said Linda Schapps, divisional vice president at Carson Pirie Scott. “He’s always trying to get the best dresses in the store, and he also knew how to motivate his staff.”
Schapps said she’ll miss Marmalstein, but added, “I have a feeling he’s going to be bored sitting in his hammock out at the beach, and will look to get back into the business.”
Roseanne Cumella, dress merchandise manager at the Donegar Group, remembered sharing the dais with Marmalstein when they were honored by the UJA’s apparel division last year.
“When Morris tells you a dress is hot, it’s hot, and when he tells you it’s not, it’s not,” Cumella said. “He’s an honest man with a great sense of humor. He’s also trained a great staff at The Warren Group, and he should be proud of that.”
Bud Konheim, president of Nicole Miller, said, “There go all the old timers that really knew the dress business. He had a tremendous reputation for being consistently successful without all the hype. He kept that company focused for 27 years on one thing: making great dresses.”
“Morris always makes me laugh,” said John J. Pomerantz, chairman and chief executive officer of Leslie Fay Cos. “When he and David Warren started the company we knew it would be successful because they were already the cream of the crop. He’s a credit to our industry.”
In struggling with his decision to retire, Marmalstein said he was inspired by the Peggy Lee song “Is That All There Is?”
He said he wants to travel, do more fishing and boating off the shore of Fire Island, where he and his wife, Liz, have a home, and do some volunteer work.
“I’ve got 20 books to read and a world to explore,” he said.
The Marmalsteins also have a residence in Manhattan. They have two children, Melissa, a teacher in Seattle, and Steven, who has been working at The Warren Group for the past year, but is leaving the firm this month to go back into entertainment management.
As reported, Marmalstein has divested his interest in the company and will be succeeded by Richard and Michael Warren — David Warren’s sons — who will form an office of the president. They had been vice presidents.
Marmalstein said he’s happy he’s leaving the industry on a high note, adding, “I can’t remember when we were so hot. I’m going out kicking and screaming. I still want my orders until the day I walk out the door.”