Lillian Vernon, whose kitchen-table notion to sell monogrammed handbags and belts spawned one of America's best-known mail-order catalog businesses, has died. She was 88.
She died Dec. 14 in New York City, according to her son Fred Hochberg, chairman and president of the U.S. Export-Import Bank.
Peddling such knickknacks and doodads as door knockers, welcome mats, personalized bookmarks, pewter place-card holders and crocheted Christmas ornaments, Vernon created a retail brand embraced by consumers, especially women.
Among her shoppers, according to her younger son, David Hochberg, were Nancy Reagan, Betty White, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Gregory Peck and Hillary Clinton, who once said that as first lady of Arkansas during the 1980s, she would peruse the catalog hoping "that if I just ordered one more thing, my life would finally be in order."
The company went public in 1987 and five years later reported $260 million in sales, an all-time high. In 2003, ZelnickMedia, backed by private-equity firm Ripplewood Holdings, bought the business for $60.5 million.
Vernon, who along with son David owned 40 percent of the firm, received about $24 million. She became nonexecutive chairwoman.
"I've sold my name, but I am still the face and heart and soul of the business," she said in 2004 in the New York Times.
The retailer went through further ownership changes and a bankruptcy filing in 2008. That year, the company was acquired by Current-USA Inc., a division of Taylor Corp., based in North Mankato, Minn. (CEO Glen Taylor is owner of the Star Tribune.) Now named Current Media Group, the catalog company was acquired Oct. 1 by Regent Equity Partners.
Born in New York apartment
As Vernon recalled in her 1996 memoir, "An Eye for Winners," inspiration struck in 1951 in her apartment in Mount Vernon, N.Y. She was then newly wed Lillian Hochberg.
Paging through such women's magazines as Seventeen and Glamour, she had the idea to supplement her husband's income by running a clothing store: She'd sell handbags and brass-buckled belts, personalized with initials. Her start-up funds would be $2,000 in wedding-gift money; her supplier would be her father, who ran a leather-goods business.
"I saw the bag as petite — to convey a neat and stylish image — with a shoulder strap and a heraldic metal crest on the front," she wrote. "The initials were to go on the strap. The wide waist-cincher belt would buckle in back and have a tab on the front for initials that matched those on the bag — the first matching bag and belt set ever!"
She mailed an eight-page catalog to 125,000 customers in 1954, branching out to jewelry, reaching $500,000 in sales in 1958 and incorporating as Vernon Products Inc. in 1960. She renamed the company Lillian Vernon Corp. in 1965 and adopted Lillian Vernon as her own name in 1990.
Lilly Menasche was born March 18, 1927, in Leipzig, Germany, the second child of Herman, a lingerie merchant, and Erna Menasche. She said her family was ordered from their home by the Nazis who turned it into a headquarters. Fleeing danger, the family moved in 1933 to Amsterdam, then in 1937 to New York City.