Funeral services will be held Friday for Gloria Gelfand, an indomitable force in the fashion industry for 65 years whose résumé included being president of the U.S. divisions of Escada and Louis Féraud.
This story first appeared in the December 17, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Gelfand, 89, died of pneumonia Tuesday at Hospice of St. Mary’s in Callaway, Md., according to her son Lewis.
Known for her raspy voice, oversize glasses and bold, brash manner, she tirelessly phoned department store heads and senior brass, greeting them simply with “It’s Gelfand” before launching into the details of her latest discovery or bone of contention.
Former Saks Fifth Avenue president and chief merchandising officer Ron Frasch recalled meeting Gelfand in the early Eighties, when he was the store’s coat buyer. “The coat business was very big back then and I went to buy Escada coats. She threw me out of the showroom because I didn’t want to buy the sportswear. It was a different buyer,” he said.
“She was such a powerful, opinionated, passionate and caring woman. They just don’t make them like Gloria any more,” Frasch said. “Everyone who came in contact with her became like family to her.”
Born in Brooklyn and raised on the edge of Flatbush, Gelfand, a Tilden High School graduate, had to forego an art scholarship to Syracuse University so that her brother could attend Baylor College of Medicine. In 1944, she started working in the garment center as a fit model while her husband was fighting in World War II. With the president of the brand’s encouragement, she took night classes at FIT to earn her merchandising degree, all the while working her way up to vice president of White Stag. The firm created the first women’s jeans, and pioneering retailer Dorothy Shaver bought the first collection for Lord & Taylor.
Gelfand later held senior management posts at Sportempos, Leslie Fay and General Mills, where she became the first female division president of Kimberly Knitwear. She joined Escada in 1981. She brought Rena Lange to the U.S. in 1990, became vice president of Ferragamo in 1992, president and chief executive officer of Féraud in 1994 and she also had a run at Givenchy. She moved on to the consulting group MMG in 1997, then joined the consultants Jassin-O’Rourke two years later. In 2002, she set up her own firm, Gelfand Marketing Associates, where she represented Lafayette 148, Andrew Urbain, Galleria Veneto Naples and other firms she had worked with at Jassin-O’Rourke.
“Gloria Gelfand was one of many bosses in my career, but she looms large,” said Laura Wenke, who worked at Escada in the mid-Eighties before leaving for Lane Crawford in Asia and on to Europe. “And it’s likely the same for everyone who worked for her. And boy, did she make us work.”
She added, “But I don’t know another person who was as generous with their network, who found places for people, launched careers and who around her grew a thick vine of friends who have always carried a keen reverence and a respect for her. She was a force of nature in our business often filled with bluster, but she used hers to make a difference to so many lives. And that’s what remains so vivid.”
An international champion of American fashion, Gelfand first went to Israel to further that cause in 1955 and about 20 years later did the same in Japan. In 1997, while she was still working at MMG, Gelfand spoke with WWD about the strategy American fashion companies should take to sell overseas, saying that they should start by testing their products through local trade shows and monitor sales. “The first, most important presentation of an American vendor overseas is the Igedo,” she noted. “The key market in taking a product international would be the Benelux region, where the market is in tune with importing American products already. They are reading our magazines and watching American television. It’s the greatest influence we’ve got.”
She also helped international designers get their footing in the U.S. Catherine Malandrino, who first met Gelfand 15 years ago in New York, said Tuesday, “She was like a godmother to me. She was really kind but she also gave me good advice when I first came to New York. She was very much to the point. She knew that I was interested in bringing the French fashion flair to American women but she opened my eyes to how they are different.”
Allen Questrom once said, “The thing about Gloria is that she can yell louder than I can. And she’ll tell you if she doesn’t like something.”
“Gloria never takes no for an answer,” noted designer Victor Costa. “I admire anyone that is a go-getter and can remain excited about the business.”
At her 80th birthday in 2005, she was surrounded by executives and designers she had worked with, among them Burt Tansky, Ron Frasch, Massimo Ferragamo, Catherine Malandrino, Joan Kaner and Fern Mallis. Frasch said at the time, “There’s really no one like Gloria left in our industry today. She’s passionate at 80 years old. She’s always telling me about some new line she saw or a product she loves. She is always looking over the horizon, and that’s what our industry is about.”
Mallis said Tuesday, “She was really one of the first female executives in the fashion industry who was out there fighting the fight. I don’t want to say she was a garmento but she was a garmenta. She was old-school. She knew her business and she wasn’t going to take any crap from anyone.”
Gelfand continued working until about two-and-a-half years ago. Lewis Gelfand said of his mother’s drive, “She lived it. This was her life. Of course, she loved her family. But she loved the garment industry — it was everything to her.”
In addition to her son, Gelfand is survived by daughters Lois Fairclough and Sharon Lawerence; five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Friday’s service is set for 9:30 a.m. at Gutterman’s in Rockville Centre, N.Y.