Jean Rosenberg, whose eagle-eyed merchandising and designer discoveries helped define the Fifth Avenue specialty store Henri Bendel, died June 15 at the age of 97.
A memorial service is not being planned.
She died, just two weeks shy of her 98th birthday, in the Central Park South apartment in Manhattan where she had lived for 50-plus years, according to her nephew Robert Kravitz. “Basically, she wanted to live there because Bendel’s was on 57th Street. It was literally right outside her back door,” he said
In her lifetime, Rosenberg practically took up a professional residency at Henri Bendel, where she worked for more than 30 years, all under the tutelage of former president Geraldine Stutz. Stutz was known to call her second-in-command “Henri Bendel’s fashion conscious” and the together they were troubadours in bringing female professionals to leadership roles in retail. The bulk of Rosenberg’s tenure involved serving as vice president and merchandising director for the jewel box of a store.
Located in a 10-floor townhouse at 10 West 57th Street, it was steps away from Tiffany & Co., Bergdorf Goodman and other prized Midtown specialty stores. Known simply as “Bendel’s,” the store became a must for many well-heeled women and young stylish urbanites who were attracted to its ravish decor, finely-edited mix and Fifth Avenue window displays.
Steered by Stutz, Rosenberg was instrumental in creating the “Street of Shops” in 1959. Architect H. McKim Glazebrook created 12 small shops with a main street running through and connecting alleyways through the shops. Designer concept shops were added in 1965. Their efforts essentially were the precursor to designer and big-name concept shops that dominate today’s retail scene. The layout was such that shoppers had to wind around a pathway that took them through various designer concept shops. Without a direct route from any point A to point B, they were exposed to much more merchandise.
Rosenberg told The New York Times in 2006, Henri Bendel’s “was for a particular kind of New York woman, where she could find a uniformity of taste and a certain amount of comfort in a smallish environment, where everything in one store was to her liking.”
As the retailer’s lead buyer, she was integral to the store’s fashion leadership position at that time. Along the way, Rosenberg brought to light such designers as Krizia, Sonia Rykiel, Jean Muir, Chloe and Emmanuelle Khanh. Henri Bendel was also the launching pad for Stephen Burrows, who designed the Bendel’s Studio line, an in-house label, from 1971 to 1973, and then again in 1977. After being discovered by Stutz, the late designer Carlos Falchi focused on leather handbags. Through Henri Bendel’s support, Falchi developed a multimillion dollar brand. Another designer, Bruce Oldfield, got his start at Henri Bendel, designing for its private label for a year or two in the early Seventies. Oldfield returned to the U.K. to establish his own label, which is still in operation.
Other fashion talents orbited through Henri Bendel early on in their careers during the Stutz-Rosenberg years, including Joan Kaner, who first joined the buying office in 1967; a teenage Robert Rufino in 1971, who had an 11-year run as visual merchandising years, and Marion Greenberg, who embarked on a nine-year post in the store’s buying office in 1971.
Rufino said of Rosenberg, “She brought in and discovered so many brilliant designers to this country, from Jean Charles de Castelbajac to Stephen Sprouse – on and on and on. She was so spot-on…Bendel’s was the leader. Of course, we were one small store at that time. When Saks or Bergdorf Goodman would give designers a double order, we did lose major designers.”
Bendel’s was “such a mixture of wonderful treasures that women often shopped three or four times a week,” Rufino said. “There was no other store like Bendel’s. People used to flock to Bendel’s. It was the place to be. You walked into the first floor and heard beautiful music. The setting was like being in somebody’s home. There was boutique after boutique on every floor. You had your salesperson helping you. People cared about you. It was the golden age of retail. I don’t think there will ever be a store like that again. Jeannie was involved with merchandising things, setting up shops, what was the right mix.”
Kaner recalled Saturday how Rosenberg made a practice “of trying on every piece of merchandise that we received to make sure that the fit was right and that the proportions were good. She just had an eye [for fashion]. But she also followed through to make sure that the product would mean to the business what she thought it would. She was an incredible person.”
Kaner, whose career pinnacled as senior vice president and fashion director of Neiman Marcus, said of Rosenberg, “She was my first boss in the retail industry. I really learned so much from her.”
In the Seventies, change was underway in fashion with pants gaining popularity and eclipsing skirts. “You had to have an open mind about fashion and what it should be or shouldn’t be. Jean and I were in sync about what it should be and that you should try all these things,” Kaner said.
Through the Seventies, the flagship store was “the” place to shop and “clients” included style arbiters Jackie Kennedy Onassis and Babe Paley, as well as Cher on occasion, Greenberg said. “The atmosphere at Henri Bendel kept staffers striving. Everyone always wanted to do what was best for the store. They really loved the store. Their interests weren’t in themselves or their careers. It was really for the benefit of the good of the store. We adored Jean and Geraldine and we wanted to do our best for our clients and our customers.”
In the Fifties and Sixties, designer sportswear was a new concept and Rosenberg frequently jetted off to buying trips to Europe. American buyers would travel with their own measuring tapes to ensure that the European sizing was just right. Prior to Henri Bendel, she started her fashion career at Gunther Jaeckal and then moved on to Bonwit Teller, another prestige specialty store.
With Stutz, Rosenberg developed the European ready-to-wear business for the store and defined the Bendel look. Many of her finds were displayed in the “Cachet” department on the third floor. They also put out the welcome mat to unproven designers, hosting weekly Friday go-sees to give aspiring talent the chance to show their collections. Hundreds routinely lined up each week, unruffled by the hours-long wait on the sidewalk.
With its assortment, the retailer catered to trim sophisticates, who sought some exclusivity. However discriminatory this might sound by today’s standards, Stutz reportedly seldom ordered clothing above a size 10. Jacqui Wenzel, Rosenberg’s longtime assistant, recalled how Rosenberg once told her that Yves Saint Laurent had used her body measurements to create the size six for his American ready-to-wear collection. “A size six, back in the day, was the smallest,” Wenzel said Saturday.
Despite a 35-year friendship, Wenzel said her former boss remained “Ms. Rosenberg.” While going through some of Rosenberg’s things recently, Wenzel read a speech that Rosenberg had delivered to LIM students in the late Sixties, predicting that the couture market was changing and ready-to-wear would be the modern woman’s choice. “It sounded like she was already ahead of the curve concerning the high-end market,” Wenzel said. “Jean did consider herself a modern woman of the times. She never married, by choice.”
In an obituary for Stutz, who died in 2006, Rosenberg explained that she had a vision of the kind of store that she wanted to create. Rosenberg had joined Henri Bendel’s six months before Stutz’ arrival in 1957 and the duo jointly departed in 1986, after the store was sold to The Limited, the retail conglomerate founded by Leslie Wexner.
Six years prior Stutz had rounded up a group of investors and led the acquisition of the store from Genesco, which had bought the store in 1957. Genesco’s chairman Maxey Jarman took the bold move of installing Stutz as president at a time when leadership at the executive level was scarce. Her lead role in the 1980 acquisition made Stutz the first American woman to own a major New York store. The Stutz-Rosenberg exit marked the end of one of the longest power partnerships in American retailing.
After retiring, Rosenberg enjoyed speaking about fashion merchandising at events for industry professionals and fashion and design undergraduates, her nephew said. As for any outside interests from work, Kravitz said, “Work was her interest. She was proud that she set out to and had a career in fashion. In her day, I don’t think a lot of women graduated from college. She wanted a career in the fashion business and she went to school to get a degree to make sure that that wouldn’t hold her back.”
Her hometown of Cambridge, Ohio – 74 miles southeast of Columbus – might not have screamed fashion. But her father owned a boutique there called the Style Center and her mother had a hands-on approach to the business too. As a girl, she tagged along on his buying trips to Manhattan and overseas. After graduating from Ohio State University, Rosenberg started her career by working for her father.
Predeceased by her sister Nancy, Rosenberg is survived by her nephew and her niece Nancy Kravitz.