After 128 years in business, selling Valentino gowns and Vera Wang wedding dresses to wealthy and fashion-conscious elites of Washington, Saks Jandel is closing.
“It’s very emotional for me,” said Peter Marx, president of the Chevy Chase boutique and the fourth generation to run the family-owned business. The reasons, he said, were personal. Marx, 58, is planning to focus on his interest in real estate investment. He does not own the building that houses the family enterprise, however.
“Saks Jandel remains a busy, vibrant place,” Marx said. “It is not a bust company but one that, with dignity, will close by year end.” A liquidation sale of the store’s stock begins Thursday.
Marx broke the news to his staff of some 45 people Saturday evening. Until then, the store had been operating as usual, Marx said; it had even sent buyers out into the market in recent weeks to place orders for the coming season. His customers will receive letters Tuesday announcing the closing of the historic business, including its bridal salon.
Over the years, Saks Jandel provided a wardrobe for first ladies, philanthropists, lawyers and other guests at the city’s formal galas. Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush shopped there; so did Elizabeth Taylor, Alma Powell and Deeda Blair. Saks Jandel was where former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice developed a fondness for Akris and purchased the cognac-and-black checked suit that won rave reviews during an official visit to Europe in 2005.
The store maintained one of the largest selections of evening wear in the area, and every four years, as Washington prepared for another round of inaugural balls, Saks Jandel would become a hub of tulle, sequins and satin. Knowledgeable sales staff offered both newcomers and old-timers the fashion wisdom that comes from decades of experience finessing the city’s style politics.
In its heyday, Saks Jandel developed an international reputation as the premiere purveyor of high-end designer fashion in the nation’s capital. And for years, it had little competition. It carried the stalwarts of the runway — Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent, Emanuel Ungaro, Christian Lacroix and Christian Dior. But it also stocked more avant-garde designers, such as Yohji Yamamoto. And as the fashion industry expanded, it opened its doors to rising talents, such as the Belgian designer Veronique Branquinho and the subversive Miguel Adrover.
Within its quiet and airy salons with their thick pile carpeting, Marx hosted designers such as Reed Krakoff, Isaac Mizrahi and Christian Siriano. He held fashion shows that raised money for some of his loyal customers’ favorite charities, including Sasha Bruce Youthwork, Best Friends Foundation and the Boys & Girls Club of America. Saks Jandel was embedded in a particular segment of old-guard Washington life, for whom tradition — and loyalty — resonate.
Saks Jandel was founded in 1888 by the Saks family — distant cousins of the Saks Fifth Avenue founders — as a fur shop. Grover Cleveland was president, and fashion was centered in Paris. Ready-to-wear, as we know it now, did not exist. The company eventually branched into clothing and added the Jandel name. The business survived the Great Depression and the 2008 recession. It outlasted Gibson girls, flappers, hippies, disco queens, waifs and grunge rockers. And it watched its customers transform from rich wives and social doyennes into career women, bosses and power brokers.
Ernest Marx — Peter’s father — was the one who pushed the business into the designer realm when he took over in 1959. Born in Germany, Ernest Marx was tall and reserved, with a rumbling voice and a no-nonsense manner. In the 1960s, he’d wanted to stock the work of some of the new American designers who were beginning to gain traction in New York. But his local competitor, Garfinckel’s, had many of the exclusives. So Ernest Marx went to Europe and negotiated deals with the design houses there, some of which endured for decades. He brought Yves Saint Laurent’s ready-to-wear to Washington when it was still an offshoot of the designer’s haute couture, not yet offered to other retailers.
“My father heard they were opening a store on the Left Bank,” Peter Marx said. “He bought the clothes at the retail store and brought them back.” The relationship between Saks Jandel and Saint Laurent endured into the 21st century.
Ernest Marx died in 2009, and the son, who had been working alongside him, stepped up to lead the company. “I had 30 great years working with him,” Peter Marx said of his father. “This was his passion.” The son propelled the business forward, cognizant of its place in the community and sensitive to the small staff, some of whom have been with the company for 30 years; one has been with the company for 50.
But none of his three children have an interest in fashion. And there are no cousins to take the reins.
Still, Saks Jandel outlived almost all of its contemporaries, surviving as other renowned independent stores around the country — Martha in New York, Louis Boston of Massachusetts — closed their doors because of financial pressures or the death of a founder.
Today, a handful of luxury conglomerates own the biggest names in designer apparel. Many of these brands are publicly traded companies beholden to stockholders, not personal connections. Designers come and go in three-year increments. And the retail world has become consolidated. Local department stores such as Garfinckel’s and Woodword & Lothrop are long gone.
Fashion “has become more corporate,” Peter Marx says. “It used to be real long-term relationships.”
Nationally, retail has transformed into a chaotic mix of brick-and-mortar, e-commerce, flash sales and mass merchants. Meanwhile, Saks Jandel’s only online presence is focused on its bridal boutique; it doesn’t support e-commerce. Locally, the center of luxury fashion is shifting from Chevy Chase to CityCenterDC — now home to Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Hermès, Christian Dior and others.
And now, a fashion business that has been run by one family since the 19th century — that has marked history through changing styles and the evolving lives of the women who wore them — is preparing to close its doors.