Warren Hirsh, a marketing pioneer and Gloria Vanderbilt cofounder, died Friday at age 84 at Spring Valley Hospital in Las Vegas.
The cause of death was cancer, according to his daughter Audrey Kaplan.
Growing up in Brooklyn, the son of a shoe salesman father and restaurant-running mother, Hirsh graduated from Erasmus High School and went straight to work. Eager to get into the fashion industry, he started a haberdashery called Warren’s in Brooklyn. After serving with the U.S. Army during the Korean War, he returned to New York for a few years. In the Sixties, Hirsh relocated to Atlanta to work for Ship ‘n Shore and later relocated to Charlotte, N.C., to work for another apparel company. A few years passed before he picked up stakes again to take a job in Birmingham, Ala., for the children’s wear label Simon and Mogliner.
Years later when back in New York, Hirsch teamed with Mohan Murjani. Working together for five or six years starting in the late Seventies, the duo launched Gloria Vanderbilt’s jeans business, turning it into a $370 million brand at one point. Murjani, whose Seventh Avenue blouse company developed shirts with Vanderbilt, had Hirsh to thank for dreaming up the designer jean category. Vanderbilt once told People magazine, “So, I went from my own designing dress business on Seventh Avenue to designing blouses for Murjani. And there was a merchandising genius called Warren Hirsh and he had to manage the company. We were talking one day and he said, ‘Murjani’s, they’ve got all this denim fabric stored away in Hong Kong.’ So I said, ‘Why don’t we make jeans, a really great fit jean?’”
His m.o. was to create a pair of jeans that would be fashionable and on-trend enough for a woman to wear to work with a great looking blouse and a pair of high-heels, his daughter said. At 5 feet, 8 inches, Hirsh was relatively short in stature and portly but he always made his presence known, speaking expressively with his hands and proud to say that he was “from the school of hard knocks.” After launching the Vanderbilt jeans in 1977, Murjani International sold six million pairs of jeans the first year and 10 million were projected to be sold in 1980, Hirsh told The New York Times.
To amp up exposure for the Gloria Vanderbilt brand, Hirsh organized the first concert in Central Park — with James Taylor in 1979 — an unheard-of endeavor at that time. Beyond branding purposes, the event raised money for Central Park. Around that time he also recruited Deborah Harry, the musician better known as “Blondie,” to wear Gloria Vanderbilt jeans, another new marketing venture, in the early Eighties. At Hirsh’s suggestion, Vanderbilt’s company sponsored the U.S. Open at one point too.
After parting ways with Murjani, Hirsh joined Calvin Klein for what turned out to be a six-month run as president. During that stint he arranged for Elton John to perform at a Calvin Klein-sponsored concert in the Central Park. But his outdoor concert coup occurred when he wrangled Simon & Garfunkel for their 1981 reunion concert in Central Park, a benefit for the New York Parks Department. At that point Hirsh was working for Fiorucci, which helped sponsor the blockbuster event. Rolling Stone reported a crowd of 400,000 at that time, a milestone that resonated with Hirsh, whose daughter remembered him saying, “I was just a kid from Brooklyn who didn’t have anything.”
Hirsh had a clothing line in development with New York Yankees batting champion Reggie Jackson at one point, and Hirsh later teamed with the musician Michael Jackson to develop one for him. Hirsch also shared his marketing know-how with students at FIT and Pace. “He was really proud of his accomplishments. He didn’t go to college. He really had to make his own path,” his daughter said.
In addition to Kaplan and his brother Peter, Hirsh is survived by his wife Yolanda; another daughter, Sheryl Anania, and a son Mark, who worked with him in the apparel industry from the time he was 18.