Services will be held Thursday for Irving L. Rousso, a founding partner and president of Russ Togs Inc., and a philanthropist, at Riverside Chapel at 180 West 76th Street in New York at 12:30 p.m.
Rousso, 92, died Monday in Southampton, N.Y., from natural causes, according to his wife, Barbara.
Tall and imposing, Rousso was known for his tough, demanding and ambitious demeanor. Born and raised on New York’s Lower East Side, Rousso left school after eighth grade and started working for relatives in their factory in New Jersey. He served in the U.S. Navy and survived the German V2 bombing of the Rex Theater in Antwerp, which left more than 560 killed. After being honorably discharged, he and his older brother, Eli, started Russ Togs, a sportswear manufacturer, in 1946. Over the years, Russ Togs, which went public in 1960, became a leading women’s sportswear manufacturer and produced apparel under such labels as Russ, Villager and Crazy Horse.
Rousso was featured prominently in the HBO documentary “Schmatta: From Rags to Riches to Rags,” about New York’s garment industry and was shown to be a rough and aggressive businessman. The 2009 movie tells the story of the vanishing garment center through the voices of the people who experienced its highs and lows.
“He was a garmento who won us over with his rags to riches story. We missed him,” said Marc Levin, producer and director of the HBO film. Daphne Pinkerson, producer, added that Rousso wanted them to send him DVDs so he could show his friends. “He was portrayed as the typical garmento. He struck terror in the hearts of everyone who worked with him, but they still loved him. He embraced that image of himself, and he wanted to have that as a legacy to his children,” she said. In one scene, Rousso is shown as a young boy at the bank with a relative who is withdrawing her last dollar. “That was a rosebud moment that inspired him,” she said.
Barbara Rousso, who worked with her husband at Russ Togs, said he used to joke that he started the business “when he was too young to sign a check.” She recalled that Irving and Eli’s father gave them money and they used money they had saved in the Navy to start the business. When they got out of the service, they were able to acquire two sewing machines to get started. Russ Togs started producing children’s wear and eventually launched women’s clothing. “They were doing coordinated sportswear and they were one of the first,” she said.
Ira Rousso, a son who previously worked in the business and is a financial executive, said of his father, “He was a very tough man. He was a very good businessman, a fair businessman and commanded respect from the people around him.” In building the Russ Togs business into a company generating sales of more than $235 million, Rousso became involved in all aspects of the business from merchandising to buying the piece goods to selling the collection.
“He was a genius at piece goods. He identified tri-blend wools in Italy, which were very beautiful and inexpensive. He was the largest importer of Italian fabrics in America,” said Andrea DuBrow, an executive who worked in design and product development at Russ Togs and knew Rousso for 45 years. She said he would carefully watch inventory and was very strict about it. “He watched every penny,” she said.
“He was difficult and he was so smart. He could identify an opportunity and taught me everything I knew. He could be very tough and held you to a high standard. He would just yell at people and if he yelled at you, 99 percent of the time he was right. Irving was the company. When he left, the company went down the tubes very quickly,” she said.
Although this was a time where the language people used could be very sexist, she added, “he didn’t care who you were, if you could do the job he would promote you. He had women in high positions, and the company had an atmosphere of respect for women.” In developing a coordinates concept for Russ, he would have these formulas of what colors would work together. In addition, she said, he had a global view. He produced entirely in the U.S. using fabrics sourced from all over the world. The company had a distribution center in Long Island City, where a big, neon billboard with the name “Russ” hung over the building.
Barbara said her husband didn’t like accolades, nor did he enjoy being in the spotlight. “His strength was knowing how to make money in the business,” she said. She said if they were stuck with goods in one division, he knew how to move them into another. “He knew how to maneuver and make money. He had his hand in all aspects. He would have a fight with a guy for half a penny a yard,” she said.
Stan Herman, a loungewear and uniforms designer, said he knew Rousso very well. “He was a very important man in my life. In the Sixties, when my [women’s apparel] company, Mr. Mort closed, I got his company Russ Togs to buy Mr. Mort and I became president.” He said he worked with Irving and Eli Rousso for five or six years. “He was the last of the great garmentos, and I say that in the most affectionate way. He was a big, blustery man with big opinions, big ideas and nobody got in his way,” Herman said. He said they appeared together in “Schmatta.”
“We came off as adversaries. I wanted the business to be high fashion and he wanted to make money out of it. They closed the division,” Herman said. Asked how Rousso came off in the documentary, Herman said, “He came off as Irving. He was on a mission to make lots of clothes for stores and was a super salesman. His brother, Eli, was the class president. Irving was the mover and shaker in the back rooms. Some people would say he wasn’t a nice guy, but I liked him.”
Laurence C. Leeds Jr., chairman of Buckingham Capital Management, knew Rousso socially. “He was feisty, dynamic and built a terrific company for a while. He was very philanthropic and I would see him at Jewish functions,” Leeds said.
Rousso was the founder and president of The Sephardic Temple in Cedarhurst, N.Y., a founder of The Sephardic Home for the Aged in Brooklyn and raised money for Israel.
Rousso resigned from Russ Togs’ board of directors in 1991. Russ Togs filed for Chapter 11 in 1991. In 1992, Liz Claiborne bought the brands and some assets, including Crazy Horse, Villager, Red Horse and the namesake Russ Togs brand.
Eli Rousso, who formerly served as chairman, died in 1990.
The couple, who were married more than 40 years, enjoyed skiing, and built a house in Scottsdale, Ariz., and had a home in Southampton. In addition to his wife, Barbara, and son Ira, Rousso is survived by two other sons, Louis and David; daughters-in-law June and Gabrielle; eight grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.