No Holds Barred - Remembering Marvin Traub

Marvin and Lee Traub. Photo By Steve Eichner.
by Blair Sabol

Last Wednesday Marvin S. Traub CEO of Bloomingdale's from 1976 to 1991, died at 87. Hearing the news I suddenly realized that not since the '70s (and my love of Bloomingdale's) have I felt the same about shopping.

Traub was with Bloomingdale's for more than 60 years.  He alone created the "theater of retail." For me he was the greatest retailer who ever lived. Sure there was Bonwit Teller's Mildred Custin, Bendel's Gerry Stutz; Andrew Goodman, Ira Neimark at Bergdorf’s, and Neiman's Stanley Marcus. But it was Marvin Traub who won me over.  

Whether I carried the store's "the little Brown Bag" or wore "bloomies" across my bikinied ass, I was a confirmed Bloomingdale's addict. And proud of it. And dare I say, so were thousands of others — in the mid l960’s through the late 1970s, which was the height of Traub's reign.  

I went to Bloomingdale's EVERY day back then, along with the thousands of others. It was my temple. I even went there on Yom Kippur — and not just to break the fast.  I only met Traub twice in my life but his large presence was felt in my closet, my living room, my bathroom and kitchen. I used Bloomingdale's as a traffic shortcut when I walked from Third to Lexington Avenue. The store's bathroom became my daily pitstop.

I learned about lifestyle by cruising the model room floor.  I attended every store promotion and was introduced to India and China as fashion outposts as well as countries. I celebrated the store window changes every other Thursday night.
Marvin Traub at Bloomingdale's. Photo: Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times.
Memories of Bloomingdale's and The Seventies were made of this: Valentino opening in the store basement and not doing so great till he was moved upstairs; Marvin being the first to showcase American designers in their own pop-up stores on the Third floor; devouring my first frozen yogurt at "Forty Carrots" the store's own health food bar; buying my first wedge of rare goat cheese and a preachy container of Greek olives in the "epicure" food department; even coming onto a Bloomies buyer (in those days HE was THE guy with THE hot job) at a PR party and having him reject me.  

When I was depressed I went to Bloomies. When I was high I went to Bloomies. And I got "high" many times in Bloomies ... and so did everybody else. Traub was right when he said Bloomingdale's was "like no other store" (the title of his book). And, more importantly, in no other time.

I didn't travel cause Bloomingdale's brought the world's greatest stuff to my doorstep (remember this was before World Market and Pier One.)  

I learned a lot about Moroccan caftans and chunky "Afghani" cuffs from one of Traub's glamorous store nooks. He introduced me to the idea of foreign Flea markets.  

When Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip visited Bloomingdale's, Marvin showed them the entire store complete with a visit to the hip "Saturday's Generation" subway level. The Royals loved our version of "Carnaby Street."

That was in 1977 and I believe that Marvin Traub was as important to New York City as Mayor John Lindsay and certainly The Metropolitan Museum director Thomas Hoving. Bloomingdale's even became my Metropolitan Museum (until Vreeland joined the Museum's team and changed all that), and at the time far surpassed any show at the new Whitney Museum. Bloomingdale's was unquestionably a cultural center.
Queen Elizabeth II passes a crowd of shoppers while touring Bloomingdale's, 1976. Photo: Richard Drew, AP.
In the mid Seventies I was writing a "counter culture" fashion column for The Village Voice called “Outside Fashion.” I spent most of my time criticizing all uptown department stores for being so stylistically irrelevant. The real electricity was happening at most of the downtown boutiques or uptown small shops like Paraphernalia or Abracadabra.

Then along came Marvin Traub with his "passion for the new."
Vignettes from the 1973 Bloomingdale's Book of Home Decorating.
He brilliantly keyed into the "youthquake" movement and made Bloomies the greatest boutique of its day. He eventually got Betsey Johnson to come into his giant "tent." He caught onto the revolutionary spirit and decided to ride the new wave of  youth, sex and creativity.

He sent his best team of buyers abroad constantly. He took risks with individual designers. Some say he "made" Ralph Lauren and Halston and Donna Karan the household names they are today. But most of all he got his shoppers to go along with him. He knew we all wanted to be "with it" in those days. He made the act of shopping exhilarating and important.
Guy Bourdin's SIGHS & WHISPERS campaign for the lingerie department of Bloomingdale's, 1976.
Robert Farber for Bloomingdale's, early '80s.
By then it was Bloomies by day and Studio 54 by night. Bloomingdale's became the landmark for that entire era. Even its location became a significant hub, along with The Coronet  and Cinema 1 and Cinema 2 theaters across the avenue, along with Yellowfingers, Gino’s and Serendipity3. This was THE Upper East Side "street scene." Even for the likes of Woody Allen and Paul Mazursky
               
In 1976 I got a call from CBS Sixty Minutes. They were doing a segment on "the Bloomingdale's Phenomena" and wanted me to address  my Bloomingdale's "addiction."  I met with Morley Safer in the store's insanely busy main aisle of the cosmetic department. He came with his crew of "lights, camera, action" and a few anxious bush-jacketed  producers.
Traub with models for Bloomingdale's Spanish promotion in 1990.
Before we started, Morley nervously smoked ten cigarettes in ten minutes. This was a different "war zone" than what he was used to.  But he was dressed in the most dapper English tweed jacket and a sensational pocket handkerchief (I later learned Morley is a fashionista in his own right). I wasn't sure that he was sure what he wanted. His last words to me before we started was "just let it rip ... let it fly. "

The camera started to roll and I fell into Morley's big watery Basset Hound eyes and we were off to the races. I gave him more than what he wanted and ended up saying something ridiculous and provocative like "the two most important things in my life are my gynecologist and my Bloomingdale's charge card."  They ran with it.

Marvin and Lee.
After the show aired I got a magnificent "thank you" letter (NOT a card) from Marvin Traub (He and his wonderful wife Lee were known to be a Class Act).  One of the store's most popular and adored buyers — Kal Ruttenstein — sent me a six pack of "Bloomies" signature  bikinis, while my gyno left me a hostile and confused message on my answering machine wondering why I didn't plug his actual name for the primetime viewing audience. So much for my fifteen minutes of fame.
             
By 1980 something started to happen ... to all of us. I got older and moved to Los Angeles. And so did Bloomingdale's! It was never the same store on the West Coast. What New Yorker could take the location of Century City seriously? Who in those days could take Los Angeles seriously in that way of shopping (now it is a very different story). From there Bloomingdale's opened in many other American cities (and later Canada) but times had definitely changed.  

When I returned to New York City five years later the store and the scene seemed unrecognizable. Marvin Traub retired in 1991, and went on to his own successful marketing and merchandising company. I stopped going to Bloomingdale's and haven't been back in 20 years. I don't know why. Maybe it’s because I remember everything exactly the way it once was, and why spoil a delicious time and place? After all its was THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH!  Even Vogue editor Grace Mirabella called Marvin Traub "the Sol Hurok of retailing.” I grew up in Bloomingdale's, and for that I will never forget Marvin Traub and his historic gift.  He made shopping for me. He set the bar.  And ever since, it remains there!
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