Ernest Marx, 88, Dies; Owned Chevy Chase Boutique Saks Jandel

Ernest Marx, in the fur showroom at Saks Jandel. For many years, he had exclusive U.S. franchise rights for creations by renowned European designers.
Ernest Marx, in the fur showroom at Saks Jandel. For many years, he had exclusive U.S. franchise rights for creations by renowned European designers. (1981 Photo By John Mcdonnell -- The Washington Post)
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By T. Rees Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 18, 2009

Ernest Marx, 88, the owner of the upscale fashion boutique Saks Jandel who formed close relationships with designers Yves Saint Laurent, Valentino Garavani and Karl Lagerfeld and for many years had exclusive metropolitan D.C. franchise rights to their creations, died Sept. 11 at his home in Potomac. He had metastatic cancer.

Mr. Marx's store in Chevy Chase started as a fur shop that he later expanded into a high-end fashion destination. He was one of the first to import modern European ready-to-wear clothing to the United States and to familiarize Americans with the refined tastes of fashion houses in Paris, Milan and London.

"He was very, very serious about fashion, like a pastor," said Didier Grumbach, president of the Fédération Française de la Couture, a leading French fashion organization. "They were unique on the market, but they never claimed chic; they claimed service. They were never avant-garde. They never wanted to be bling-bling like so many today. They were Washington, and they knew what Washington wanted."

Mr. Marx's professional demeanor and keen eye for style attracted many A-list names of the Washington establishment to his boutique, including first ladies Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush and Hillary Clinton, along with Elizabeth Taylor and philanthropist Deeda Blair.

In a 1984 interview with The Washington Post, Mr. Marx described the product line at Saks Jandel as "the type of merchandise that not everybody can afford, but everybody aspires to."

Over the years, Saks Jandel, which is on a stretch of Wisconsin Avenue known as "mini-Fifth Avenue," has been the only D.C. boutique to have the exclusive franchise rights to Gucci, Valentino, Yves Saint Laurent, Karl Lagerfeld, Christian Dior, Fendi, Givenchy, Pierre Cardin and many others, said Mr. Marx's son and Saks Jandel president, Peter Marx.

"To think that they got all the big names and competed with Saks Fifth Avenue and, funny enough, they always won," Grumbach said. "I don't know of anyone in Europe with this type of description."

Ernest E. Marx was born Nov. 30, 1920, in Munich, where his father owned a small department store. He fled to America in 1938 after the Nazi-led Kristallnacht attacks on Jewish businesses and homes.

After serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, Mr. Marx began to work for the business of his wife's family, a fur shop called Saks that was established in 1888. He took over the business in 1959 with the help of his father-in-law. He recruited his brother, Henry, to help a few years later.

Mr. Marx added a family name, Jandel, to the boutique's title to distinguish it from the department store, Saks Fifth Avenue, which was founded by his wife's distant cousins.

With a small business and a niche clientele, Mr. Marx knew he could not compete with larger department stores for prominent American fashion brands. Instead, he reached back to his European connections and saw an opening in the ready-to-wear market -- a burgeoning fashion movement away from the industry's haute couture standard.

In the early 1970s, through a series of introductions and handshakes, Mr. Marx was granted an Yves Saint Laurent franchise and exclusive rights to sell his ready-to-wear line in the District area. The agreement proved immensely successful for both parties, with Saint Laurent using Saks Jandel as a springboard into the U.S. fashion industry, and Mr. Marx gaining recognition as a prominent force in the market.

According to a 1988 account in the magazine Connoisseur, Bloomingdale's executives, distraught to be losing business to such a small competitor, once flew to Paris to meet with Saint Laurent's business partner, Pierre Bergé, and tried to pressure him to sell their line to the department store chain. The French fashion house declined and honored its enduring commitment to Mr. Marx.

In 2000, his son became president of Saks Jandel, which still has the Yves Saint Laurent franchise. Saks Jandel had a satellite location in the Watergate complex for more than 20 years before it closed in 2007. Mr. Marx served as chief executive of the company until his death.

In addition to his son, of Potomac, survivors include Mr. Marx's wife of 63 years, Sally Swartz Marx of Potomac; two daughters, Kathy Riechel of Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany, and Pat Washburn of Wilmington, Del.; and eight grandchildren.

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