Lillian Vernon, 88; creator of mail-order catalog empire
NEW YORK — Lillian Vernon, who created a sprawling catalog business that specialized in personalized gifts and ingenious gadgets and made her an American household name, died Monday in New York. She was 88.
Her death was confirmed by her son Fred P. Hochberg, president and chairman of the Export-Import Bank of the United States.
Ms. Vernon, who had come to the United States as a Jewish immigrant from Germany fleeing the Nazis, began her mail-order business in 1951, and it rapidly flourished. At one time it had nine catalogs, 15 outlet stores, two websites, a business-to-business division, and yearly revenues close to $300 million.
In 1987, Lillian Vernon was the first company owned by a woman to be listed on the American Stock Exchange. In 1995, President Clinton appointed her chairwoman of the National Women's Business Council.
"She was a phenomenal merchandiser," the direct marketing consultant Katie Muldoon said. "When she started, there were only huge books like Sears and Montgomery Ward that had every kind of merchandise, like a department store. Lillian Vernon created a new retail market, catalogs with a theme: personalized products that you couldn't find anywhere else."
Her niche was whimsical, low-cost items that could be monogrammed — at no charge — in days rather than weeks. To find them, she traveled the world looking for distinct products and sources long before the global marketplace opened up.
Her catalogs always began with a letter describing where she was traveling and what she had found, accompanied by a photograph showing a smiling Ms. Vernon in a Chanel suit with the latest hairstyle.
"Lillian was not just selling merchandise," Hochberg said in an interview for this obituary in 2009. "She was personally sharing her discoveries with her customers."
A middle-class homemaker, Ms. Vernon had what she called a "golden gut" for knowing what women wanted — often before they knew. Her products were as diverse as "rescued shards" of Ming vases, fashioned into pendants and bracelets, and the all-pink Lady Tool Kit, complete with hammer, screwdrivers, wrenches, and sometimes a power drill.
Her catalogs attracted celebrity customers, among them Frank Sinatra (monogrammed lint removers), Arnold Schwarzenegger (plastic shoulder shields for suits), Princess Caroline of Monaco (a Wild West costume for her daughter), and Steven Spielberg (a tool caddy).
Vernon was credited as the first to create seasonal catalogs for Easter and Halloween. She was also an innovator of the gift-with-purchase concept, offering, for example, one potholder for each season for every $10 purchase; that meant spending $40 to get the whole set.
"I know my customer because I am my customer," she said. But she also attributed her success to her intestinal fortitude.
"I never gave up," she said, "and I never let anyone get in my way."
Lillian Vernon was born Lilli Menasche in Leipzig, Germany, on March 18, 1927, the daughter of Herman Menasche and the former Erna Feiner. Her father was a lingerie merchant.
In 1933, the year Hitler became chancellor of Germany, her family fled to Amsterdam; they moved to New York City in 1937. Her brother, Fred, later enlisted in the US Army and was killed in World War II.
She attended New York University for two years but left to marry Sam Hochberg, whose family owned a dry goods store in Mount Vernon, N.Y.. In 1951, newly married and pregnant, she took $2,000 of her wedding money — and part of the name of her town — to start a mail-order business on her yellow Formica kitchen table.
With the help of her father, who by then was in the leather goods business, she advertised a personalized leather handbag for $2.99 plus tax — and a matching belt for $1.99 — in the September issue of Seventeen magazine. The ad generated $32,000 in orders, and the Lillian Vernon brand was born.
Business was so good that she began expanding in 1954, renting a storefront for a warehouse, a building next door for her in-house monogramming operation, and a store across the street for her shipping department. Well-known companies like Max Factor, Elizabeth Arden, Avon, and Revlon were soon using her to manufacture custom-designed products.
Ms. Vernon mailed her first 16-page black-and-white catalog of inexpensive gifts, knickknacks, and household organizers in 1956. Her company incorporated in 1965, and by 1970 the Lillian Vernon Corp. had its first million-dollar sales year.
The company later expanded its catalogs to include overstocked merchandise (1982), home organization products (1984), Lilly's Kids (1990), and kitchenware, luggage, and travel accessories (1995). In 1996, the company put 200 of its best-selling items into its first online catalog, and in 2000 it purchased the décor catalog Rue de France.
But overexpansion and competition from home and gift retailers led to slowing sales, and in 2003 Ms. Vernon sold her business for $60.5 million to Ripplewood Holdings, which took it private. She remained as honorary chairwoman until November 2006, when the company was sold to Sun Capital Partners.
Since 2008, Lillian Vernon Corp. has been owned by Current USA, a division of Taylor Corp.
Ms. Vernon was a role model for many women in business. She had started her company at a time when working mothers were often criticized — at first, she said, "I never told anyone I worked"— and as a female entrepreneur she had overcome obstacles in getting credit from skeptical banks.
Although she did not call herself a feminist, she said her idea of helping women was to "hire an hourly worker and then strive to make her a supervisor." She also instituted family-friendly work hours for her female employees who had children in school.
A self-described workaholic, Ms. Vernon wrote of the challenges of balancing business, personal, and family relationships. In her autobiography, "An Eye for Winners: How I Built One of America's Greatest Direct-Mail Businesses" (1996), she candidly discussed her lifelong attempts to win her mother's approval.
In balancing home and business, she thought of herself as a good parent, she said, though she once acknowledged to The New York Times, "I just did not learn that loving quality, that touchy-feely thing so important to children."
Her company remained a family affair for most of its history, with Ms. Vernon as chairwoman and chief executive and her son David C. Hochberg as vice president for public affairs. Her older son, Fred, was president and chief operating officer until 1992, when he left over a disagreement about his ascension to the top.
Ms. Vernon, who died in a hospital, lived in Manhattan. In addition to her sons, she leaves her husband, Paolo Martino, whom she married in 1998. Her marriage to Sam Hochberg ended in divorce, as did her second marriage, to Robert Katz.
Her marital history may have influenced what she once called her worst-selling catalog item: a pillow that saucily read, "A woman who is looking for a husband has never had one."