Services have been held for Burt Simms Avedon, 94, a lifelong military leader and the former owner of Willis & Geiger, who died from complications of Parkinson’s disease on May 1 at Agrace Hospice Care in his hometown of Madison, Wis.
Born in New York on April 15, 1924, Avedon was sent to Missouri Military Academy at age 12 where he learned to fly and accumulated more than 600 hours of flight time. After graduating, he flew to Rangoon, Burma, in November 1941 to join Claire Chennault’s American Volunteer Group (Flying Tigers). That group was put on hold a month later when war was declared after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, so Avedon returned to the U.S. and attended the University of California at Los Angeles, joined the university’s Naval Reserve Officers Training program, and played football and baseball. He was the quarterback for the Bruins and played in the 1941 Rose Bowl.
In 1944, he was commissioned as an ensign for the Navy and flew with the Flight Group VF-6 in the South Pacific until 1946 when he returned to UCLA to complete his studies, graduating in 1948. He received a master of business administration degree from Harvard Business School in 1950. He returned to active military duty and flew more than 300 missions in jet fighters during the Korean War.
Upon leaving the Navy, he became a professional hunter and bush pilot in British East Africa before returning to the States and the Naval Air Weapons Stations where he tested laser guidance systems, conducted altitude research and flew prototype fighter jets for 10 years.
In 1964, he was appointed Chief of Staff for Air Training for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in the U.K., Belgium and Italy. In 1979 he joined the Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor program (A.K.A “Top Gun”) at the Naval Air Station Miramar in San Diego as an instructor, where he helped develop the syllabus. He retired as a Navy commander in 1972 and moved to Italy where he worked for several apparel brands before being named president of the cosmetics firm, Eve of Roma. While living in Italy, he married the Italian socialite Princess Luciana Pignatelli, raced Formula One cars and managed the Ferrari racing team.
In 1978, he was contacted by Elmer Ward Sr., founder of the Palm Beach clothing company, to lead the acquisition of Willis & Geiger, an expeditionary outfitter that had gone out of business after its largest customer, Abercrombie & Fitch, filed bankruptcy. Avedon used his military expertise and business background to reorganize the company and was joined by Susan Colby, who spearheaded the designs and reintroduced some of the company’s signature styles from when it had outfitted adventurers such as Teddy Roosevelt, Ernest Hemingway, Charles Lindbergh, Sir Edmund Hillary and Amelia Earhart.
VF Corp. acquired Willis & Geiger in 1986 and a year later sold it to Laura Ashley. It then was sold to the Japanese company, D’Urban, before being purchased by Lands’ End in 1996. Avedon remained with the brand through each ownership change and was president when Lands’ End closed the brand during the recession at the end of 1999.
After an unsuccessful attempt to buy the brand, Avedon and Colby founded the Avedon & Colby Group Inc. to design premium outdoor-inspired apparel for clients that included Woolrich Inc., J. Peterman Co., Orvis, Duluth Trading Co., Beretta and Eddie Bauer. In October of 2014, at age 91, Avedon launched a line of high-performance adventure and field apparel under the Avedon & Colby label.
Harry Campbell, marketing director for Avedon & Colby, said: “Besides being an incredibly fascinating and charming man, Burt had a style unlike anyone I’ve ever known. He always dressed impeccably, drove a classic old Mercedes sedan, and carried himself with sublime dignity and grace. He was a design visionary, too, and along with his incredibly talented partner, Susan Colby, [they] were a dynamic duo. During the last three years of his life, they worked tirelessly to stockpile an inventory of new product designs that will carry the company for many years into the future. I am deeply grateful to have known and worked with Burt Avedon.”
Avedon is survived by his third wife, Silvana; three daughters, Tracy Avedon-Weiner, Dana “Michelle” Drossart, Renée Avedon Shekarchian; one son, Loren Avedon; six grandchildren, and one great-granddaughter. His cousin is the photographer Richard Avedon. Burt Avedon was buried in Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors.