Josephine Chaus, chairwoman and cofounder of Bernard Chaus Inc., and one of the first female chief executive officers of a public company, died Wednesday morning at her Manhattan townhouse at the age of 64.
The cause of death was cancer, said her son, Ariel, current ceo of Chaus.
Thrust into the position of running Chaus when her husband Bernard died in 1991, Josephine Chaus led the fashion firm through many tumultuous years, exhibiting a courageous and formidable personality, and often reaching into her own pocket to keep the company afloat.
“The company struggled, and she kept it going for her family and her ties to my dad,” said Ariel Chaus. “She was tough; she was strong and independent.”
Born Josephine Augello on Aug. 25, 1951, she grew up in Searingtown, L.I. She studied at the University of Miami but didn’t receive her undergraduate degree because she ran out of money, said her son. Exhibiting a strong interest in fashion, she became a buyer for a New Jersey store at the age of 22, when she met the 44-year old Bernard Chaus in 1973. After a year traveling together cross-country by motorcycle, they became partners of a newly created company, Bernard Chaus Inc. in 1975. They married three years later.
Josephine Chaus’ strength was as a merchant and head of design, and Bernard Chaus ran the business side. “They were 50-50 partners and were true cofounders,” said her son.
After running the sportswear company together for many years, the firm went public in 1986, and the company experienced several highs and many lows, especially when its biggest account, Macy’s, dropped the line (which it later regained) in favor of its own private brands.
In 1991, Bernard Chaus died at the age of 62, and Josephine found herself in the position of having to make some hard decisions about the future of the company. She made several moves, among them lowering the sportswear brand’s prices so it wouldn’t have to compete head-to-head with market leader Liz Claiborne. She also forbade her salespeople from giving her retail customers markdown money, and shifted 10 to 15 percent of Chaus’ manufacturing to factories in Central America, taking advantage of lower labor costs and tax breaks. She also consolidated production in the Far East with fewer factories.
In 1994, she named Andrew Grossman president and ceo of Chaus, while remaining chairwoman. From her own money, she gave Grossman, former president of Jones Apparel Group, an unprecedented $6.2 million as a signing bonus. He also received stock options and a five-year contract that provided an annual salary of $1 million plus a bonus of 5 percent of net earnings. Chaus had been losing market share for several years and had a $10.9 million loss in 1993 on revenue of $235.8 million. Grossman rejuvenated the Chaus brand and stayed at the company until 1998. In achieving the turnaround, Grossman moved the Chaus collection from moderate to the better market. Its labels at the time were Chaus, Chaus Woman, Chaus Petite and Nautica (which discontinued its women’s license with Chaus in 1998).
“There wasn’t a retailer who didn’t buy Chaus at some point of their career,” said Ariel Chaus.
In 1999, Josephine Chaus developed two new businesses under her own name, Josephine Chaus Essentials and Josephine Chaus Studio. “This has always been in back of my mind. Our customers like to identify the clothes with a person. I am a working mother, with two children. I am real,” she told WWD in 1999.
Over the next few years, Josephine Chaus set out to build a higher profile for herself. She told WWD in 2004, “I’m really going out there as the face of the company. It’s important to have a personality behind the brand and that’s been missing.” She began a regimen of public speaking and addressing women, reassuring them, “You can still be a woman and make it in a man’s world.”
After her son Ariel graduated from law school, he joined his mother in the business about seven years ago, and together they embarked on a strategy to turn around the struggling sportswear business.
“She had a profound impact on me, and I owe the success I have had and what I have learned in the business all to her,” said Ariel Chaus. He said his mother had unwavering moral values and belief in the product and the people. “She understood the true meaning of the word partnership. I got to work alongside her for several years and I’m grateful.”
Today, Chaus generates $300 million in wholesale volume, and 50 percent of that is generated by the Vince Camuto sportswear business, which Chaus started manufacturing under license in fall 2011. In 2012, Camuto Group acquired the shares of Chaus not owned by the members of the Chaus family, and Chaus ceased to be publicly traded. Josephine Chaus told WWD in 2012, “We believe that our company will be strengthened and will be better-positioned to serve our retail partners and consumers under private ownership. We have forged a close working relationship with Vince Camuto as a licensee and look forward to that partnership growing even closer in the future.” In mid-November, Camuto acquired the remaining 51 percent from the Chaus family, with Ariel Chaus remaining ceo.
Chaus’ labels include Two by Vince Camuto, Chaus, 1.State, Cynthia Steffe, CeCe by Cynthia Steffe and CeCe trademarks and under private label brand names.
Retailers admired Chaus’ ability to balance her work life and her personal life.
“I have always admired Josephine’s passion, resiliency and courage. What strikes me the most about Josephine has been her ability to balance her incredible passion for the business with her equally incredible passion and love for her family. I will miss her,” said Frank Doroff, vice chairman of Bloomingdale’s.
“I am saddened by the loss of Josephine. She was a trailblazer for women executives in our industry and I have long been inspired by her accomplishments. My heart goes out to the Chaus family and team,” said Liz Rodbell, president of Hudson’s Bay and Lord & Taylor.
“Josephine was not only a remarkable entrepreneur, but she served as an exceptional inspiration and role model to women business leaders and especially those who gracefully balance their careers with motherhood. I will always reflect on her legacy and the impact she had on our industry,” said Alexandra Dillard Lucie, corporate merchandise manager for Dillard’s, and a member of the Dillard family.
Josephine Chaus was an avid art collector and had homes in East Hampton and a Peter Marino-designed townhouse in New York.
“The company was her life, as well as her family. There wasn’t a family dinner that business didn’t come up,” said Ariel Chaus. “It was rough for a lot of years, but she survived. She was courageous, she fought through everything and kept it going.”
Besides her son Ariel, she is survived by another son, Aaron, and daughters-in-law, Robin and Lacey and three granddaughters. Services will be held Monday at Temple Emanu-El in New York at 11 a.m. The company will be closed Monday in her memory.