NEW YORK — Lynn Phillips Manulis, a glamourous and innovative retailer who for decades vigorously nurtured new fashion designers to showcase in her Martha boutiques, died early Sunday morning at JFK Memorial Hospital in Lantana, Fla., after a bout with lung cancer, according to her daughter, Nancy Glick. Manulis was 85.
Manulis was the daughter of Martha Phillips, who founded Martha Inc. more than 70 years ago and died in 1996 at the age of 98.
Aside from discovering fashion talent, Martha’s was known for pioneering trunk shows and personal appearances by designers at its salons, where society ladies were lavished with service and elegant surroundings. Appointments were required and tea would be served during fittings.
Part of the charm and theatrics of the business stemmed from Manulis’ background as an actress. At her acting peak, she starred opposite Vincent Price on Broadway in 1942, in a play called “Angel Street.” But by her early 20s, she decided to join her mother in retailing, which she considered to be another form of theater.
“Her theatrical training helped Lynn and Martha run the stores,” said Andrew Burnstine, Manulis’ son, who was active in the Martha’s business as an executive vice president and now is chair of the fashion marketing and design program at American Intercontinental University in Plantation, Fla. “Together, they were two stars, the last of the real specialty store dynamo acts.”
The family-run chain at one time had $40 million in sales and six locations, including units on Park Avenue and in Trump Tower, as well as in Bal Harbour and Palm Beach, Fla. However, last year the Palm Beach location on Worth Avenue closed, marking the end of the business. At the time, Manulis told WWD that she considered her mission in the world of fashion retailing to be “to find newness, something that makes a statement and can be more or less universal.”
“My mother was always able to find the newest and the best, and to stay a little ahead of everybody else,” Glick said. “She was sort of ‘the coming out party’ for designers.”
Among the designers Manulis and her mother are credited with launching are Zang Toi, Christian Francis Roth, Galanos, Randolph Duke and Halston. The team also is credited with bringing Valentino and Gianfranco Ferré to America.
“Lynn paved the way for so many designers,” observed Marsha Posner, owner of J.P. Associates buying office, who befriended Manulis 30 years ago. Manulis was also Posner’s client for 25 years. “She was the most creative, unique person that I ever knew and when I worked with her, even in her later years, she would just get it.”
“She was the first major retailer to give me an order. She is a fashion legend,” said Zang Toi, who recalled that in 1989, when his business was just three months old, Manulis invited him to show his second collection for resort at the Martha International store. “Without anybody knowing me, I did $100,000 in a two-day trunk show,” Toi said. “She said to me, ‘If you stick with me, you’ll be able to sell the Brooklyn Bridge.’”
Christian Francis Roth added that he was 19 when he met Manulis through Marylou Luther, editor of the International Fashion Syndicate. “Galanos was doing a trunk show that day and I was in a little room in the back with my jackets,” Roth recalled. “But she brought Galanos in, and said, ‘Look at these great jackets.’ From the very first moment I showed her my work, she was so enthusiastic and animated. She loved to bring people together.”
Aside from Glick and Burnstine, Manulis is survived by a brother, Herbert Phillips. A memorial service is planned for today at 4:30 p.m. at the Tillman Funeral Home, 2170 S. Military Trail, West Palm Beach, Fla.