"We have the simplest taste," says Stanley Marcus, pulling on his custom-design Italian pipe. "We're easily satisfied with the best."
He's quoting Oscar Wilde and talking about "The Store," meaning, of course, Neiman-Marcus, that white marble citadel of Texas wealth and consumption opening today in the new Mazza Gallerie shopping center at Wisconsin and Western Avenues.
It's all part of what is becoming a migration to the Washington area by cut-of-town retail leaders: first Bloomingdale's, now Neiman-Marcus, and I. Magnin in the spring.
The question is, of course - with all of these merchandisers, each with a particular cachet of its origin - how will it play in Washington? How does Neiman-Marcus, the mecca of Texas millionaires seeking status along with their goods, translate to Washington's federal establishment. Embassy Row and a certain Eastern snobbism? Will it be just one more Washington store, as some predict, or will it have a special niche?
It won't be the same, of course, without a big-booted oil man or two lugging in sacks of silver dollars and it's unlikely that you'll see many women spending $20,000 in a day (and never asking a price) as New York designer Bill Blass reports happens with his merchandise in Dallas.
But if the $4-million Washington version - the ninth branch of the 70-year-old Dallas original, now owned by a West Coast conglomerate - lives up to advance billing, you can expect to have your pocketbook courted on three floors by some of the most exclusive and expensive merchandise in the world, from antiques to 10-gallon hats.
Some of the merchandising showmanship is obviously a pure publicity gimmick, feeding the N-M legend of Texas-big. Whatever, luxury items, furs, couture clothes and fine jewelry, account for a whopping 25 per cent of the N-M volume, estimated at $175 to $200 million annually.
You can if you don't like that $130,000, floor-length Russian lynx coat, pick your own pelts and N-M will design another. Or, if you're bored, you could be fitted for a $10,000 Dior gown, or pick up a little $150,000 set of ruby and diamond jewelry.
But if you're not that bored, there will be $55 polyester dresses, $70 taffeta skirts, an $8 jug of French candy, or $14 Oomphie slippers. All of this with the widest aisles anywhere, Texas-size dressing rooms and not a cash register (cash drawers instead) in sight.
Anyone who has heard of Texas or oil wells (or money, for that matter) has heard about the Dallas-originated merchandising phenomenon. Particularly about the Christmas catalog (first in the big-dream genre and mailed all over the world) that has offered such items as his and her camels ($4,125); a Noah's ark with space for eight passengers, a crew of four and 180 species of wildlife ($588,247); personal submarine ($50,000); life-size models of your husband, wife, whatever ($3,000); a gold-fitted Louis XIV bathtub ($4,000).
In this year's catalog, dropped off to the media by chartered jet, there's an "urban windmill," his or hers, with batteries and alternator but exclusive of installation ($16,000) or an original Raoul Dufy watercolor, framed, thank god, for $18,000.
Richard Burton spotted a $125,000 Kojak mink coat in one year's catalog and snapped it up for then-wife Elizabeth Taylor. Mrs. Ralph Lowe of Fort Worth, Tex., was the recipient of a 1967 "Erma Camel" ("a wonderful pet"), gift of her then-19-year-old daughter. A Sacramento, Calif., man decided he just had to have N-M's Black Angus steer on the hoof, complete with silver serving cart ($1,950).
"That was one of my favorites," said Marcus, "although I guess delivering it probably spoiled somebody's Christmas."
The Christmas promotion idea came to Stanley Marcus, never known as a shrinking violet in the business world, years ago when broadcaster Edward R. Murrow called to ask what unusual things the store had that holiday season. "I found myself having to lie like hell to make up a story that satisfied the press," Marcus once admitted. "So I decided it would be far better to carry these things, put them in the catalog and not have to invent them at the last moment."
Every year a load of celebrities - well-covered, of course, by the press - is flown into Dallas for its "Fortnight" in which the main store is transformed into a foreign city or locate, with specially-imported goods and hefty sales. For the first French Fortnight in 1957 close friend and then Sen. Lyndon Johnson helped secure landing rights in Dallas for Air France so visiting French dignitaries could arrive in style. For a British Fortnight they flew in the entire Old Vic company.
Marcus was the first businessman to visit China after President Nixon opened trade there. He initiated such things as personalized giftwrapping and luncheon fashion shows, now copied everywhere. He once taught French couturier Hubert de Givenchy to square dance for a Texas-style barbecue in Paris.
A Lear jet was transformed recently into a bridal salon - complete with bridal consultant and seamstress - and flown to Seattle to assist "an old and faithful customer" in planning her daughter's wedding.
So the stuff of legends goes on at the Dallas store, founded as a small specialty store in 1 sister, Carrie Marcus Neiman, and her husband Al Neiman.
The trio - all in their 20s - initiated first a sales promotion business in Atlanta, which in a few years they were able to sell for $25,000. They took that cash, and along with some savings and the sale of minority stock to other family members, opened their new 50-foot storefront in the heart of the Dallas retail district. It was the first specialty store (women's fashions) in Texas, and inthe South for that matter.
Dallas was just an inland cotton market in N-M's early days, an undistinguished Southwest town of 84,000 where business depended on cotton farms and cattle ranchers who paid their bills once a year.
There are people who believe that were it not for Neiman-Marcus, Dallas would still be an unremarkable Texas town. Stanely Marcus - as a kind of self-appointed ombudsman for the city at large - has a proclivity for writing folksy, almost paternal open letters to Dallasites in paid ads in the city's newspaper, with topics ranging from fashion, to the symphony, to the state of the economy. He has been known to fire off irate letters to papers outside of Dallas for publishing stories even faintly ridiculing Big-D.
Although oil was discovered in Petrolia, a town about 130 miles from Dallas, the same year the store was opened, the discovery was given only a perfunctory, two-inch story in local papers. Obviously of no importance in a horse-and-buggy world.
Later, of course, oil played a vital part in the growth of Neiman-Marcus and it's the oil millionaires who today help feen the N-M legend, not to mention its coffers. . .
Like the one who couldn't decide on his wife's Christmas gift, so he asked to have an entire store display window reproduced in his playroom handbags, perfumes, lingerie, white ermine evening wrap and all. Or another, for whom Stanley Marcus created a giant pousse-cafe with a large brandy-type glass, fine cashmere sweaters in different colors, topped with a white angora sweater to stimulate whipped cream and a 10-carat ruby ring for a cherry.Total price: $25,350.
"We like to call ourselves 'the store that can get you anything,'" says Stanely Marcus. At 72, now N-M chairman emeritus, he has been known as the "merchandising king" a veritable Marco Polo tracking down the finest furs, antiques, Jewelry all over the world. Buyers and designers still seek his advice. He was delighted to recently discover a book listing world wide pet cources. "You never know when someone might ask for a Mongolian goose," he chuckles.
But despite all of the hoopla surrounding unusual N-M merchandise, it is quality and customer service they want to be known for. "And let the price fall where it may," says Marcus. "People will remember the price of a bad meal, but not that of a good one."
It's all part of the family legacy passed on by his father, Herbert Marcus, and Aunt Carrie and Uncle Al Neiman, who ran the store with an almost religious fervor, personally meeting customers at the door. (Stanely Marcus is fond of saying that he learned the business "from the floor up," as a 2-year-old playing in the lady's alterations department. His mother, now in her 90s, can be seen any day plucking off dead leaves from plants in the Dallas store.)
No problem, insists Stanley Marcus, is considered too large or too small, from absorbing, if necessary, a several-thousand-dollar for coat loss to remembering that the dress bought for a girl friend should be biled to the Mr. not the Mrs. account.
In 1969 Neiman-Marcus was bought for $40 million by California-based Carter Hawley Hale, a conglomerate which also owns Bergdorf-Goodman. The merger injected the kind of money needed to finance the growth of N-M into a national chain.
Stanely Marcus called a meeting of his staff on the main floor of the downtown store. "It is now 9:15 a.m.," he said. "The merger will be announced on the radio by 9:30 a.m.: by 9:15 there will be a customer who has been treated rudely and he will blame it on the merger."
Sure enough, it happened, and complaints have continued.
From a 69-year-old woman who as a child took a train from Oklahoma regularly with her mother to shop at Neiman-Marcus: "In the old days, everything was just perfect, every hem, every buttonhole. The other day I bought a dress there and I had to come right home and sew on every button. To me, it's very sad: it must be because they've gotten so big."
"But please," she added, as if the subject were a dear relative, "don't downgrade them. They have been so wonderful."
Just how wonderful N-M turns out to be in Washington, is of course, the big question.
For the last two years they have been photographing local events fro clues to "the Washington way of dressing." Among their conclusions is a need for more evening clothes for both men and women.
Although president Philip Miller says, "Don't come to us for $10 ties," the store will infact have them. Unlike the Dallas big-spender stereotype, Washington customers, Miller believes, will question prices. "We have to develop customer confidence to start selling $600 men's suits, for example."
To build that confidence, Miller is banking on a force of supertrained "sales associates" (otherwise known as clerks, who will be keeping the traditional N-M notebooks on everything from customer sizes to birthdays.
"Maintaining that notebook is one of the most vital things we do," says Stanley Marcus. "If you overhear something at a dinner party, it goes in. We think we can maintain our image in Washington; we hope it can be done."
Meanwhile, he's working on a second book. The working title is "The Quest for the Best." But he says he may have to change it to "Nothing Is as Good as It Used To Be."