Gerald H. Blum, a longtime Lord & Taylor executive, died July 25 at age 86.
Blum died at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center of an unspecified cause, according to Gloria Rabinowitz, a former colleague.
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A small ceremony may be held in the early fall and a memorial is being considered for a later date, she said.
Raised in Bayonne and then North Bergen, N.J., Blum earned a liberal arts degree at New York University. As a Greenwich Village-living undergrad in 1950 in need of a part-time job, a walk up Fifth Avenue led him to his future career. A window display featuring Jacques Fath designs in the Lord & Taylor flagship stopped him cold in his tracks, according to Rabinowitz. Thinking that would be an interesting place to work, he went inside to inquire and wound up being hired as a stock boy in the designer department, she said.
After a two-year stint in the U.S. Army’s Quartermaster Corps, he joined Lord & Taylor’s executive training program in 1956. There he climbed the corporate ladder working an assortment of assistant buyer and buyer jobs before being named vice president of sales promotion in 1972 and then senior vice president in 1975. He took on the role of executive vice president of marketing and research with the added responsibilities of advertising, fashion, public relations and all visual display in 1976.
In 1978, for example, Lord & Taylor introduced its “Classics in Action” merchandising, which Blum described as “really investment dressing.” Three years later, he and the retailer’s vice president and fashion director Cathy di Montezemolo launched the New Heroines at Lord & Taylor, a fall fashion story inspired by “Madame Bovary” and “Anna Karenina” with the allure of 20th-century versatility. Item-driven dressing was another trend that Blum used to help distinguish Lord & Taylor from its rivals. “We’re an edited store. We don’t buy complete lines. We feel we must constantly give fashion direction to our customer so that when she comes into the store, she sees it,” Blum told WWD in 1978.
“You can’t live in an ivory tower,” he said. “We don’t believe in change for change’s sake.”
Blum was also in tune with the changing mediums of advertising, extolling in 1978 the upsides of newspaper ads — page-long fashion sketch ads with headlines that conveyed the theme with brief, succinct copy. And there was a greater emphasis on radio to appeal to car-oriented areas. By the following spring, TV ads had been introduced to reach new markets.
At the pinnacle of his retail career, Blum headed up all of the major promotions and events that Lord & Taylor presented — adept at giving them a memorable spin. On one occasion, when the store was promoting Florence, Italy, Blum arranged for a life-size replica of Michelangelo’s David to be installed on the flagship’s main floor. To spotlight American designers and creative talents through the “Focus America” promotions, Blum recruited talent from Savannah, New Orleans, Santa Fe, Nantucket and the Hamptons. Blum also created The Lord & Taylor Rose Award, which was bestowed each year to such cultural standouts as “The Little Foxes” playwright Lillian Hellman, esteemed news anchor Walter Cronkite, former New York Philharmonic music director Zubin Mehta, operatic soprano Beverly Sills, architect I.M. Pei, singer Ella Fitzgerald, author Norman Mailer, broadcast journalist Barbara Walters, theater producer and director Hal Prince and the late first lady Lady Bird Johnson.
LaVelle Olexa, Lord & Taylor’s former senior vice president and longtime fashion director, said Monday, “He truly was a good friend to me, coming onto Lord & Taylor and being the new person on board. He’d had fashion ad advertising for such a long time, and he was such a historian of Lord & Taylor. He had so much to impart on somebody, who was new. And he could not have been lovelier to me. I had true affection for him. He was such a creative man with a strong point of view and I admired him so. The only regret I have is that I haven’t kept in touch with him over the years.”
Upon his retirement in 1989, the retailer divided his duties between Rita Lennick and Marshall Hilsberg. Blum said at that time, “I like the idea of having this unstructured time to take my life onto the next step,” adding that he had no idea what that step would be.
That escape from retail did not last long. Blum joined Ann Taylor as vice chairman and director of marketing and merchandise direction in 1990. There was a three-month lag though since he was still under contract to Lord & Taylor, and Blum dabbled in acting classes. In November 1991, Blum exited Ann Taylor. After that departure, he pursued the thespian life more seriously, enrolling in the Playwrights Horizons Theater School. He later appeared in a number of off-Broadway plays and films. Blum also made biannual trips to London to catch up on the city’s theater scene.
In business, Blum was also always scouting. Rabinowitz said he once said of his career, “Constantly look for the next thing. Keep going on. Don’t look back.”
Rabinowitz said Monday, “He was a creative force for Lord & Taylor from the time that he became the director of sales promotion and marketing. Remember this was everything — the catalogue, advertising, windows, displays, all the openings of the stores. And of course, in those days, there were so many more stores. There were all these different divisions — the fashion department was under him. He managed all of this — the logo was so important to him and it was all handwritten. There was a fabulous gal in the advertising department who was a specialist in writing that logo.”
Blum’s longtime partner Donald Brooks, the American designer, pre-deceased him in 2005.