Lillian Vernon, whose kitchen-table notion to sell monogrammed handbags and belts spawned one of America’s best-known mail-order catalogue businesses, died Dec. 14 in New York. She was 88.
Her son Fred Hochberg, chairman and president of the U.S. Export-Import Bank, confirmed the death to the New York Times.
Peddling knickknacks and doodads — including door knockers, welcome mats, personalized bookmarks, pewter place-card holders and crocheted Christmas ornaments — Ms. Vernon created a retail brand embraced by consumers, especially women.
Among her shoppers were Nancy Reagan, Betty White, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Gregory Peck and Hillary Clinton. Clinton once said that as first lady of Arkansas, in the 1980s, she would peruse the catalogue 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, H. Strauss Zelnick’s New York-based ZelnickMedia, backed by private-equity firm Ripplewood Holdings, bought the business for $60.5 million.
Ms. Vernon, who along with a son, David Hochberg, owned 40 percent of the company, received about $24 million from the sale. She became non-executive chairman.
The firm went through further ownership changes and a bankruptcy filing in 2008. That year, the company was acquired by Current-USA, a unit of closely held Taylor Corp., based in North Mankato, Minn.
As Ms. 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 Lillian Hochberg, newly wed and four months pregnant with her first child.
Paging through women’s magazines such as Seventeen and Glamour, she came up with an idea for supplementing her husband’s income from running a clothing store: She would 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!”
For $495, she bought an ad in Seventeen’s back-to-school issue, offering the bag for $2.99 and belt for $1.99. In three months, she said, the orders totaled $32,000.
Step by step, she built her company, mailing an eight-page catalogue to 125,000 customers in 1954, branching out to jewelry, reaching $500,000 in sales in 1958 and incorporating as Vernon Products, a reference to Mount Vernon, in 1960.
She renamed the company Lillian Vernon in 1965 and adopted Lillian Vernon as her name in 1990.
In the 1970s, she became a regular at trade fairs in Europe, then in Hong Kong and Tokyo. Beginning in 1980, she traveled to China. Her perpetual quest: to find new and unusual items for her growing clientele. She had faith that her personal tastes reflected those of her readers.
“I like my house organized with corner racks, pullout dish things, drawer dividers,” she once said. “I wouldn’t sell anything I wouldn’t use myself.”
Lilly Menasche was born in Leipzig, Germany, on March 18, 1927. Her father was a lingerie merchant. One of her early memories, she said in her memoir, was hearing anti-Semitic slurs directed at her and her brother as they walked to school after Hitler’s ascension to power in 1933. She said her family was ordered from their home by Nazi officials who turned it into a headquarters.
Fleeing danger, the family moved in 1933 to Amsterdam, then in 1937 to New York City.
Ms. Vernon attended New York City public schools. After two years at New York University, she went to work at her father’s leather company. She married Samuel Hochberg and had two sons. Both would join her company, David handling public affairs, Fred serving as president and chief operating officer. He later became acting administrator of the Small Business Administration under President Bill Clinton and later moved to the U.S. Export-Import Bank.
As Ms. Vernon told it, she and her husband clashed at work after he joined her company. She found him lacking “the entrepreneurial spirit.” In 1969, she flew to Mexico to get a divorce. He kept the wholesale end of the business, while she kept the mail-order catalogue.
Ms. Vernon’s second marriage, in 1970, was to Robert Katz, a manufacturer of Lucite products sold in her catalogues. That marriage ended in divorce in 1987. She later married Paolo Martino, a salon owner.
Her charitable donations to New York University established an endowed professorship and the Lillian Vernon Creative Writing House. During Bill Clinton’s presidency, when she was a major Democratic donor, she was named chairman of the National Women’s Business Council.