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Female Innovators of Retail

Tue, 06/25/2024 - 14:06
Julie Satow
Beowulf Sheehan

“When Women Ran Fifth Avenue”
Julie Satow
Doubleday, $32.50

While focusing in recent times on the modern American woman breaking so many glass ceilings, not many remember that there were three women in particular who virtually changed the landscape of American fashion retailing decades ago. These women, Hortense Odlum of Bonwit Teller, Dorothy Shaver of Lord & Taylor, and Geraldine Stutz of Henri Bendel, and their fascinating stories are portrayed in a delightful new book, “When Women Ran Fifth Avenue: Glamour and Power at the Dawn of American Fashion” by Julie Satow.

Part group biography, part history lesson, Ms. Satow’s book delves into the inner workings of the golden age of the American department store, a haven especially for women shoppers and usually built and financed by men. Unusual for this era, however, these stores were imagined and merchandised by women at a time when retail was one of the few fields in which a woman could actually move up the corporate ladder and excel.

Hortense Odlum  Brian Odlum Photo


Hortense Odlum got the job as president of Bonwit Teller because her husband’s firm, the Atlas Corporation, bought the ailing store in 1934. Although she reluctantly took the job, never having had any retail experience, she said, other than as a customer, she nonetheless doubled the volume of store sales in the first two years and tripled it in the third. Never intending to stay forever, she retired after six years. Pragmatic and not overtly warm, she did, however, develop a keen nose for business and fashion that put Bonwit on the map.

Some say that Odlum’s husband’s leaving her for a manicurist at Saks Fifth Avenue was the basis for Clare Boothe Luce’s play “The Women.”

Dorothy Shaver in her office at Lord & Taylor in the 1920s.  Sallie Moss  


Dorothy Shaver arrived at Lord & Taylor in 1916 selling handcrafted dolls she and her sister had made. Graduating by 1921 to a comparison shopper at the store, by 1927 she joined the board and in 1932 began the ambitious project of promoting American designers, which was somewhat prescient, as by the start of World War II it was almost impossible to feature European fashion. Designers like Claire McCardell, Lilly Daché, and Bonnie Cashin found a welcoming home at Lord & Taylor. By 1945, Shaver had succeeded Walter Hoving as president. She became the first American woman to helm a multimillion-dollar concern.

Geraldine Stutz in front of the Henri Bendel department store in Manhattan in July of 1980.  Jill Krementz 


Geraldine Stutz, after being vice president of I. Miller Shoes, became president of Henri Bendel in 1957 and was given three years to right the ailing retailer. She did that and much more, doubling sales volume by 1967. Also that year, with an international consortium she purchased the Henri Bendel company and became a 30-percent owner. Her innovative “street of shops” merchandising format continues to be copied today. Stutz ran Bendel’s for 29 years and introduced to America designers like Mary McFadden, Ralph Lauren, and Stephen Burrows. I knew Stutz and, full disclosure, I have a small quote about her in this book.

All of these women’s innovative and enterprising changes in retailing, from moving millinery to a prominent place on the sales floor to incorporating tea salons and gift-wrapping of purchases, are highlighted, as stories of other pioneering women entrepreneurs from around the country are cleverly worked in, like Maggie Walker, the first Black woman to charter a bank and serve as its president.

Ms. Satow has done remarkable and exhaustive research, detailing not only these women’s accomplished business acumen, but also their often difficult private lives, making for even more engrossing reading. The book, though totally factual, reads almost like a novel, with its intertwined stories of not only these three women, but other female industry designers, buyers, socialites, and tastemakers. There was quite a bit about them that was known to me, but quite a bit more that I didn’t know. This is truly part of the delight of this book.

Unfortunately, Bonwit Teller, Bendel’s, and Lord & Taylor are no more. Ms. Satow’s book is a lovely paean to that now bygone era when white-gloved customers shopped at their favorite stores and doormen held the door for them.

Jeffrey Banks is an award-winning fashion designer, author, and regular visitor to Southampton.

Julie Satow lives part time in Jamesport.


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