Rediscovering Retail’s Past: Ohrbach’s

March 2, 2012 § 27 Comments

Ohrbach's Department Store

I’ve always loved to hear my mom tell me about the NYC department stores she grew up being taken to by my grandmother. Many of the stores she brings up, such as Gimbel’s, B. Altman and Ohrbach’s,  were situated on 34th Street, where H and M, Gap and Zara now reside. It’s difficult to imagine what a shopping experience might have been like then, only a few decades ago, versus the mad dash for fast fashion that currently exists in that area. In any case, our chat led me to look into Ohrbach’s history and to try to find some images of the store my mom could so vividly recall as being one of her favorites. Some of these images are small, but they’re a nice peek inside Ohrbach’s.

Ohrbach's Department Store, 34th St.

Ohrbach's Infant Wear Department

The pictures above show Ohrbach’s 34th Street store, but it wasn’t their original location. Nathan Ohrbach and his partner, dress manufacturer, Max Wiesen, opened their first location in less-tony Union Square in 1923. Famed architect Paul Laszlo designed Ohrbach’s original location, as well as many of their following stores. After an early falling out between partners, Wiesen sold his stake in the company, and Ohrbach continued on with expansion plans. The NYC location actually remained in its original spot until 1954, when it moved to 34th Street,  to a space between Fifth and Sixth Avenues.

Ohrbach's Coffee Shop

Ohrbach's Shoe Department

Prior to opening the 34th St. store, Ohrbach had opened stores in California, beginning in 1945. They had  a conservative approach, leasing three floors and a mezzanine on Wilshire Boulevard’s Miracle Mile, where stores like Desmond’s, Silverwood’s, May Company, Seibu and Coulter’s were situated. Ohrbach’s succeeded in the smaller location, and went on to open stores in Downtown LA, La Mirada, Panorama City and Cerritos. Jerome Ohrbach, Nathan’s son, had been largely responsible for the company’s westward expansion.

Nathan Ohrbach was known for his sales and marketing techniques. Instead of the high level of service often associated with historic department stores, Ohrbach’s used a more minimal business strategy, and sold their goods on cleverly organized tables and racks. Over time, Ohrbach moved into higher-priced merchandise and sales tactics, but continued to price his goods with even numbers, compared to the odd ones his competitors used, and to keep a close eye on overhead. When the NYC store opened, Ohrbach lured in customers by selling “French Couture Originals,” copies of runway fashions that had been shown in Paris only a few months earlier, by appointment. Here is a link to a fantastic archived piece from the NY Times, which reported on the arrival of these licensed copies at the 34th St. store. It’s a bit easier for me to understand this kind of excitement for affordable, wearable and luxurious clothes, rather than the lines to see Lady Gaga’s wonderland at Barney’s that appeared this past Christmas here in NYC.

Ohrbach's Ad, 1964

French Couture Originals at Ohrbach's

Like so many other historic department stores, things got more complicated around the time that the founder retired. The Brenninkmeyer Company of the Netherlands began buying shares in Ohrbach’s in 1962, and had complete control of the company by 1965, when Nathan Ohrbach retired. Brenninkmeyer opened stores in Newark and in Bergen County. The Newark store failed rather quickly and operations were folded back into the Bergen and NYC offices and stores.  The California stores and the New York store, which changed ownership many times in later years, were closed in 1986. The final owner, Amcena, reopened some of the locations as Steinbach department stores.





Fashion’s Future: Too Big To Fail?

February 27, 2012 § 4 Comments

Call me crazy, but I tend to bristle when I read about Michael Kors’ plan for retail world domination, about pressure on Tory Burch to go public and about Sonia Rykiel’s perhaps desperate hopes for expansion via a sale of a majority stake of her company to Fung brands. It’s exciting to see brands succeed and become wildly popular, but is there ever a point of no return?

In the past, I’d have said no. Licensing, partnerships, extensive retail reach; what could be bad about any positive expansion of a company that employed people, produced good product, and that was constant about its message across various price points? Again, in the past, I’d have found little fault with this strategy; now I’ve begun to have a change of heart.

Previous to the past 5 to 10 years, to social media, emerging brand platforms, Fashion Week mania and Project Runway, the apparel and accessories markets were smaller, and in some ways clearer. A brand could define its aesthetic, its position in the market and its basic plans for future growth. We remember historic brands because of their defining ‘look’, for the stores they sold at, and for the lifestyles their founders led.

Now, with the constant buzz of media, brands feel more pressure than ever to try to capture as much market share as possible, and by any means. There are never-ending opportunities for publicity, co-branded partnerships and lower-priced licenses. Don’t get me wrong; these things are not intrinsically detrimental, rather it feels like fewer brands are being choosy about growth strategy and instead embracing a ‘do everything all at once’ mentality.

It’s quite true that licensing can provide the kind of cash flow that young designers can only dream of. Target changed the landscape for small designers and has done a great job creating quality co-branded product and educating the public about less prominent fashion companies. But Target is now just the tip of the partnership iceberg; we’ve seen variations on their model in the years since they began their licensing program, and we’ve yet to see the expected partnership platform potential of Ron Johnson at J.C. Penney.

The originator of success via licensing is of course Ralph Lauren. Ralph was ahead of his time in terms of a crystalline brand identity, a multi-tiered price strategy, and a single-minded perfectionist standard by which his products have had to live by. I’m not sure anyone will ever match that level of vision, consistency or timing. Both production practices and retail markets domestically and internationally have changed drastically since Ralph set out in the 1970s, and it seems much harder to predict the path a brand will travel or where the end of its line will be.

Speaking of production standards, in this moment of enthusiasm for American manufacturing, is it too much to ask the major American brands of today to consider where and how their products are produced? Ralph Lauren, Michael Kors and others project an image of rich Americana, of lush 70s bohemia, of sporty tennis breaks in the Hamptons. How does growing an American-identifying brand play against the reality of producing overseas for greater profit?

I’ve said before that I admire Marc Jacobs’ brand trajectory; he and MJ President Robert Duffy have managed to preserve high-end exclusivity, to sell at various price points with definite differences in look and quality between them, and to mix high and low product in their stores. It’s a model many have tried to copy, and few have been able to replicate. Jacobs and Duffy seem to have that sense of standard and of market understanding that have allowed their brand to flourish and to make an impact at various levels.

Michael Kors has been successful to-date with a similar model to Jacob’s. He has high-end stores dedicated to luxury product, as well as some stores that mix his signature line with the lower-priced Michael Michael Kors brand. He also has a sizeable wholesale business for each line. But MK President John Idol’s remarks a few weeks ago in WWD) worry me:

The fast-growing company plans to open about 30 to 40 more stores in North America, 10 to 15 stores in Europe and 10 in Japan in fiscal 2013, said Idol. (Lockwood, WWD, 2/15/12)

There was a large payoff from the company’s recent IPO, and now there’s serious pressure to keep going, to keep reaching new and untapped markets. But is Kors’ brand strong enough to endure this kind of pressure from less fashion-savvy shareholders? Can he stretch his vision across cultures and across mediums further and further? How many stores can a brand really sustain? How many potential customers before it loses its essence?

As someone who is on the cusp of launching a new business, these are all questions I’m asking myself in a different way than when I worked for or with other brands. I want to be careful about everything, even my aspirations for growth. It’s got to be done carefully.




Odell’s Advice

February 15, 2012 § Leave a comment

Turning a label into a business that can stage a show deserving of the industry’s energy is a years-long process, a very small part of which is devoted to actually designing clothing. Sustaining a business and forging relationships with the industry’s veteran players is an exhausting dance that few designers relish, and even fewer master. (Odell, NY Mag, 2/15/12)

Amy Odell, the witty writer of NY Mag’s fashion blog, The Cut, is on her way out of her job, and moving onto a new one where I think she’ll take many of her readers. I do think it’s very cool that she chose to write the attached piece as one of her last at the magazine. Fashion Week has gotten busier and busier over past seasons, with smaller and more unknown designers trying to grab their piece of the media attention pie. But the ROI on Fashion Week for a young and undercapitalized apparel business is not high; editors and bloggers may help a designer to gain recognition, but not always immediate dollars. Perhaps in the past, when department store buyers outnumbered the editors, a fashion show might have had a more substantial financial return. But now, what a young designer can hope for is the attendance of a few choice retailers, editors and bloggers that might further his or her career. But when so many shows appear on the Fashion Week schedule,  and industry heavyweights must attend those of their faithful advertisers and favorite designers, new or newer names can get lost in the mix. I recognize that it’s so many designers’ dreams to show on the runway or at a presentation, but like the article, I’d recommend you have your finances in order and more than a few seasons under your belt before you take the Fashion Week plunge.


Fashion Week Follies That Weren’t

February 13, 2012 § Leave a comment

Marc Jacobs Sample Room

Due to time spent trying to launch my own business this Spring and to an unexpected NYC real estate debacle, I’ve missed the majority of the shows that I’ve been invited to this Fashion Week. I’m sad not to have experienced the magic of new fabrics, colors and industry chatter in person, but I’ve been keeping up online and through friends’ reports.

Through Truth Plus and through beginning to work on the manufacturing end of the world, I’ve learned that the above image is far more meaningful and important to Fashion Week than those taken of street style bloggers and editors. Marc Jacobs decided to show some real behind-the-scenes pictures last night on Facebook, with most employees looking tired and eating cake. I thank him for being truthful about what pre-show prep really looks like. I can’t wait to watch his show tonight and see what came of all of this hard work.

Recommended Reading: Shiny Objects by James A. Roberts

February 7, 2012 § 2 Comments

I first heard Dr. James A. Roberts speak about his book, Shiny Objects: Why We Spend Money We Don’t Have in Search of Happiness We Can’t Buy, during the holiday season on NPR in San Francisco.  My curiosity was immediately piqued by Roberts’ commentary on materialism, overspending and aspiring to own things we don’t really need. Even in the midst of a major recession, when so many Americans are out of work and struggling to get by, the celebration of mansions, fancy cars, luxury goods and haute cuisine has hardly receded.

I’d long wondered how America got to this point of constant craving. In Shiny Objects, Roberts lays out the historical groundwork, both societal and governmental, that led to the current materialistic climate. One of Roberts’ primary explanations is the radical change in how we describe and understand the concept of the American Dream. Instead of striving for a fundamentally good, safe and honest life, we’ve come to see the American Dream as striking it rich:

The traditional message of the American Dream was that through hard work, frugality, and sacrifice, anyone could achieve financial independence. Somehow we lost our way on the road to that dream. Presently, many American have replaced the traditional American Dream with a philosophy of “get rich quick.” Dreams of easy money have replaced hard work, thrift and self-sacrifice.

In fact, many social critics would argue that Americans are not embracing the American Dream as much as the American Daydream. The hard work and sacrifice that were part and parcel of the original American Dream have been replaced by wishful thinking about material success with no willingness to pay the dues necessary to create such wealth. A 2009 MetLife study found that 50 percent of Americans could survive only a month without a paycheck before going into debt. Twenty-eight percent of the same people said they couldn’t last two weeks without a steady paycheck. We want to enjoy the trappings of wealth and “look the part,” but we don’t like the sustained self-sacrifice component.

Major events Roberts says contributed to our collective material aspirations were John Locke’s 1689 Second Treatise on Government in which he suggests “life, liberty and the pursuit of property” instead of  “life liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” the California Gold Rush, the Industrial Revolution, the affordability of the Model T, FDR’s focus on “freeing Americans from want,” the creation of Levittown, a high level of personal consumption during the 1960s, Reagan’s euphoric financial optimism, the Dot Com boom, and the sub-prime mortgage loans made pre-crisis. Roberts’ historical research is both interesting and easy to understand if you’re wondering how we got to where we are today.

The author’s main point is that we are no happier with material possessions than without them, but that we can’t let go of the idea of having them. Recently, in his rebuttal of President Obama’s State of the Union, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels stated “that we never will be a nation of haves and have-nots; we have always been a nation of rich and soon to be rich.” That’s simply not true, and not the right message to give Americans during a hard time. What about going back to basic decency, hard work, and filling the basic needs, not the ridiculous ones, of American families?  Bill Maher, on his show this past week, said he remembered driving with his father through rich neighborhoods in New Jersey, where he grew up, and said his father never once told him or taught him that those homes were within his reach. I don’t know myself if we’re too far gone to be realistic, but I’m so glad that know that people like Dr. Roberts are raising these issues, both emotionally and statistically, and asking us to turn inward and to think about where we want to go from here.

Dr. Roberts answered some questions for me and for Truth Plus readers about Shiny Objects and about buying and selling product in America. 

Truth Plus:  I work in the fashion industry, a business predicated on selling, in some ways, the wearable American Dream. Some of the companies whom I have marketed produce clothing that is wearable and fairly priced, and others that sell expensive, “aspirational” and sometimes frivolous product. There are two questions I have here. 

a) How does a marketer like myself, who doesn’t condone excess materialism, succeed in his or her job without pushing customers into buying more and buying often? 

James Roberts: That’s a good question. As a business needing to make a profit to survive, you must market your product in what is, as you well know, a very competitive apparel industry. You can, however, sell products that are fashionable but also made to last and at reasonable prices. Consumers must meet you half way. We know best what we can afford and need to exercise control over our desires and spending. Several chapters in my book Shiny Objects talk about how each of us can learn the fine art of self-control. It’s not always easy but something we all must do to live happy and productive lives.

b)     How can we as consumers support small retail-based businesses that incorporate quality, craftsmanship and tradition into their business models, but sell at a higher price than their mass-market counterparts (due to costs of resources, labor)?

JR: Your message of quality, craftsmanship, and tradition needs to be at the core of your marketing communications. Similar to fair trade products, the consumer must be informed of the benefits of purchasing your products. All marketing efforts must focus on telling the same story – something we call Integrated Marketing Communications (IMC).

TP: I guess, in reference to question 1b), if the American economy is based in part on spending, how can we support the economy and simultaneously move away from materialism?

JR: It’s all about balance and exports. What I mean is that we cannot count on US consumers alone to fuel the growth in the US economy. We need to be saving a lot more than we have in the past if we are going to be able to take care of ourselves today and in our “Golden Years”. American companies must look overseas for a portion of their future sales growth. American consumers are already stretched to their maximum and can’t afford to foot the bill for future growth in the US economy. Nor, should that be our goal. As Edward Abbey once said, “Growth for the sake of growth is the philosophy of the cancer cell”. On page four of Shiny Objects, there are two graphs that make this point very clearly. One graph shows that personal spending in the form of GDP has gone up from 1970 almost unabated whereas our happiness has flat-lined. We are no happier today than 40 years ago despite an ever-growing pile of material possessions. We are looking for happiness in all of the wrong places.

TP: It’s well documented in your book, but can you quickly explain how the “pursuit of happiness” has changed over time? Will Americans strive to attain more material goods despite the realities of the US economy? Can the 99% ever stop wanting what the 1% has? 

JR: Slowly the US had morphed into a consumer culture. A consumer culture is one where the majority of people actively pursue, consume, and display consumer goods often for the purpose of signaling status and provoking envy. Bad economies don’t stop us but merely slow us down for the time being. We have already witnessed an up-tick in consumer debt and spending since the clouds on the economic horizon are starting to lift. As consumers we suffer from short-term amnesia. We buckle down when clouds appear on the horizon but once even an inkling on blue skies appear we return to our profligate spending ways. With the Internet and 24/7 media it’s hard not to be tantalized by all of the Shiny Objects enthusiastically consumed and displayed by the upper classes.

TP: Do you think if we all stopped using credit cards that we’d be as materialistic as we are now? 

JR: I am not sure if stopping the use of credit cards would mitigate our materialism, but I promise you we would spend a lot less money on things we don’t need. I suggest your readers go on a cash/check only budget for the next month and see how their spending drops when they don’t use credit cards. I would love to hear their stories.

TP: I’m a big proponent of American manufacturing. Do you think we could ever return to what you refer to in the book as the ‘sales era’ (1870-1900)?

JR: We could but it wouldn’t be easy. Labor is cheaper overseas and much of manufacturing has followed the cheap labor to foreign soil.

TP: What’s the real difference between needing and wanting? Is the roof over our head and a full stomach the bare minimum?

JR: Outside of spending on the basic necessities of food, shelter, and clothing, nearly all of our spending in the US is discretionary. We’ve fooled ourselves that we “need” cell phones, I-pads, etc. but I seem to recall the day we had neither and still seemed to get by somehow.

TP: Are your hopes high that American values can change, given the shock of the economic crisis, or are we too addicted to our old, consumption-happy ways?

JR: We are spending addicts. I said in my book that we would return to our profligate ways as soon as the Great Recession shows signs of abating and my prophecy is regrettably already coming true. But this is not a death sentence for all of us. Although it won’t be easy, we all have within us the ability to control our urges, desires, and spending and foster a healthy relationship with money and possessions despite the economic bacchanalia that’s going on around us.

Today’s Truth Plus: Style Links

February 3, 2012 § 1 Comment

A fashion revolution? (Friedman, FT, 1/30/12) Vanessa Friedman and a few other sites have covered the launch of, an e-commerce venture started by designer Bruno Pieters. Honestby is the most transparent e-biz to have launched in recent memory; it allows customers to see and understand the pricing and work that goes into each garment that the company produces. It’s a radical idea, and one that could turn retail on its head if it works.

Tory Burch, taking the fashion world by storm (CBS Sunday Morning, 1/29/12) A short, but well-done interview with designer Tory Burch. It was interesting to hear that she envisioned an entire luxury brand before its launch, and has followed through with success on that concept.

Couture Report: The Day Before Dior (La Cava, NY Times, 1/23/12) This beautiful piece of insider journalism is exactly what Cathy Horyn was suggesting the fashion world needed more of. It’s a behind-the-scenes look at how Dior’s jawdroppingly gorgeous, John Galliano-less couture collection came to exist. Incredible photos.

It’s In The Jeans (Phelps,, 1/23/12) I like the story of Carrie and Matt Eddmenson of denim brand Imogene and Willie. They started small, are growing carefully and revived local manufacturing.

Ad Campaign – Bates Disciplined Fabric, 1950 (The Vintage Traveler, 1/25/12) I’d never known that Bates College was named after a textile company. Here’s a great background on The Bates Manufacturing Company.

Inside 3×1, Soho’s Only Fully Transparent High-End Denim Factory (Grinspan, Racked, 1/25/12) I’ve been meaning to get down to this denim shop/factory. Like Honestby, it’s meant to bring the consumer closer to the design and production process.

Joseph Brooks, Who Refined Lord & Taylor, Dies at 84 (Vitello, NY Times, 1/30/12) Joseph Brooks was a master merchant and marketing visionary who had great success at both Lord and Taylor and Ann Taylor.

Luis Fernandez & Greg Lawrance – The Duo Behind NUMBER:Lab (Fashion Law, 2/2/12) A law and small business-related interview with up-and-coming menswear brand, NUMBER:Lab.

Today’s Truth Plus: Apple, Daisey, Greenville, Johnson’s New Job

February 1, 2012 § Leave a comment

Again, I’ve managed to collect a long list of links in a short period of time, so for that reason, I’ll post the manufacturing/business-related ones today, and the style-related links tomorrow. Since I last wrote anything op/ed-like here, we’ve all listened to the State of the Union and made it through a primary or two. Everyone is thinking about manufacturing, outsourcing, big business, small business, and entrepreneurship.

I myself have been thinking about President Obama’s SOTU message about needing to ‘get each other’s backs’. In the midst of all these policy debates, it’s our basic values that I wonder most about. Do we care about one another enough to employ fair labor practices domestically and abroad? To not destroy the environment? To remember the importance of education and innovation in America? To pause and stop thinking about our own finances and self-worth, and to start considering that of the greater good? There are many factors which have made us a self-centered, inward-thinking society, concerned with our creature comforts, but isn’t now the time to reconsider that attitude? What will it take?

In China, Human Costs Are Built into an iPad (Duhigg and Barboza, NY Times, 1/25/12) I know many of you have probably read this piece, and the large number of similar articles about the manufacturing of Apple parts in China, specifically at a company called FoxConn. This piece unearths the extreme work hours, on-the-job dangers and environmental impact of producing the iPad. Apple execs quoted in the piece argue that they’re doing everything they can to treat their outsourced laborers fairly. Will articles like this cause consumers to think about where their favorite products are made? Or is it out of sight, out of mind? The thing is, I don’t think we can get away with complete ignorance forever.

Mr. Daisey and The Apple Factory (This American Life 1/6/12) If you haven’t listened to this podcast, you must. Mike Daisey, a performer, and  “self-described worshipper in the cult of Mac” actually heads to the Chinese city of Shehnzen to investigate the lives of workers at FoxConn. He  risks his safety to interview employees about a recent outbreak of suicides at the factory. His re-telling, part of a one-man show being staged here in NYC, is chilling. What we can’t see, Mike Daisey did, and it’s not pretty. This American Life’s host Ira Glass asks his audience if or how much they should care about where their favorite products are made. He also airs short interviews with the NY Times’ Paul Krugman and Nicholas Kristof, both of whom argue that Chinese industrialization is ultimately good for their country and their citizens, and that eventually they will evolve into a service economy like ours in the U.S. But if they do indeed evolve, where will things be made? How can manufacturing jump from country to country, exploiting human lives, the environment and even consumers? At some point, we will run out of places willing to make things for nothing.

The Past and Future of American Manufacturing (Planet Money, 1/10/12) NPR is doing an incredible job with on-the-ground reporting about domestic and international manufacturing issues recently. As I’ve mentioned below, I’m a huge fan of Planet Money’s Adam Davidson, who recently wrote a long piece in The Atlantic,Making It in America, and this podcast goes along with this piece. Davidson traveled to Greenville, SC, a former cotton/textiles hub, to find out about what life was like during the manufacturing boom, and during the current manufacturing draught. What he finds is that there is a surge in new manufacturing opportunities, and that these factories need a few low-skilled laborers, but place great value on highly-skilled, highly-trained workers. This training comes from specialized schooling and instruction, and he suggests government encourage more of this type of education in order to increase American manufacturing. But what I kept thinking about, after listening to this podcast, was a short interview with the owner of the company whose auto part factory Davidson visited. The owner is based out of company HQ in Long Island City of all places. His company is public. And while he claims to have a family business, to really care about his American workers, he is absolutely pessimistic about keeping or growing American manufacturing job opportunities. He says no tax credit or schooling opportunity will help, that he has to report to his shareholders, who care only for profit and not for people. I think Obama needs to talk to business-owners like this one, to find out what could reverse his thinking, and his shareholders’ feelings.

The State of Our Disunion: A Globalizing Private Sector, A Government Overwhelmed by Corporate Money (Reich, 1/23/12) Robert Reich, always articulate and direct, mentions many of the same issues Davidson raises in his piece. But Reich goes on to say that not only are large, publicly-owned corporations maximizing profits by utilizing overseas’ labor, but they are are influencing politics as fierce lobbyists and political contributors. Not easy to make change when this is the case.

Ron Johnson tries the Apple magic at JCP (Ken Segall’s Observatory, 1/25/12) Everyone is watching to see if Ron Johnson, Apple’s former head of stores, can polish a very dusty brand, J.C. Penney. He’s made a lot of aggrandized and much-covered speeches and announcements about a change in pricing structure and a shop-in-shop concept (one of which is dedicated to Martha Stewart, and has gotten her in some legal hot water again). I’m going to sit back and watch what happens. J.C. Penney stores have long targeted Middle America, and if Johnson goes too slick, he may miss the mark. Buying cheap goods from vendors is a lot different than building a dream store around a perfect line of products.