He's Stopped Minding the Store, but Texan Stanley Marcus Pursues His Quest for the Best

updated 08/27/1979 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/27/1979 AT 01:00 AM EDT

For more than half a century Stanley Marcus guided the Dallas-based department store chain that has become synonymous with high quality and style (not to mention prices)—Neiman-Marcus. He retired four years ago—his son Richard is now in charge—but Stanley hasn't vegetated. At 74, he has just written a lively, unswervingly subjective book on the evolution of taste in America entitled Quest for the Best (Viking, $12.95). His earlier best-selling memoir, Minding the Store, was essentially the story of the fabled Texas establishment founded by his father, uncle and aunt in 1907 and joined by Stanley after he graduated from Harvard in 1926. Although no longer the "Merchant Prince of Dallas," Marcus runs his own marketing consulting firm and spends four months out of the year traveling about the world on behalf of clients ranging from Walden Books to Braniff Airways. Stanley is also adding to his private museum of pre-Columbian, African, Oriental and modern art; and his latest venture is Some such Books, which publishes Lilliputian volumes (one-half inch to under three inches high) of fiction for the collector of miniatures. Quest for the Best is dedicated to Marcus' wife of 46 years, Billie, who died in 1978. He has been married since March to Linda Cumber, who at 42 is working on her Ph.D. in archeology at Southern Methodist University. In his suite at the Pierre Hotel (which he rates as New York's best), Marcus talked with Christopher P. Andersen of PEOPLE about American tastes, and whither quality in a mass-production epoch.

Is quality on the decline?

One poll showed that 60 percent of the American public believes quality has declined—and they are right. In general, goods and services have deteriorated—partly as a result of inflation but mostly because we have been living in a seller's market ever since World War II. Another reason is that more and more companies are being run by professional managers—MBAs who don't care about the quality of the product as much as the bottom line. These men have been educated to run anything from a bottling plant to a shoe factory. They know how to make money, but have little pride in what they sell. Bigness and quality are antagonistic, and I'm afraid quality is now the loser.

Will this decline continue?

It will as long as people are willing to put up with it. As Somerset Maugham said: "If you refuse to accept anything but the best, you very often get it."

How would you characterize most manufacturers and retailers today?

Well, I have always believed that if you are going to sell anything, you should promise a lot and deliver more. The great majority today just try to get by. But there is still a huge market for the best, and with any luck manufacturers and retailers will get smart enough to start catering to it.

Can you define taste?

Renoir once supposedly asked Cezanne, "How can you wear that cravat? Can't you see it's in bad taste?" Cezanne coolly replied: "If it were in bad taste, I wouldn't be wearing it." Confidence is essential, but so are discrimination, knowledge and experience. Everyone is entitled to his own taste, only some more than others.

How do you distinguish between taste and trendiness?

Taste is the device that screens out the fads. To illustrate: Hot pants came into fashion in the '60s, but taste ruled them out as fashion so they became a fad. Blue jeans, on the other hand, started out as work clothes and were first adopted by the young. But later, all ages accepted them as taste.

Can taste be acquired?

My geneticist friends may not agree, but I am convinced that taste is strictly a question of environment. The eye can be educated to differentiate between good and bad, and any person with a normal IQ can develop good taste. Taste has little to do with intelligence—I've known a great many people with wonderful taste who were far from intelligent, and vice versa. I like to think the customer—"consumers" are statistics, customers are people—is becoming more discriminating.

Why are people so eager to wear a designer's name?

Snobbism—it's a dead giveaway for the newly affluent. They are sure of their money, but not sure of their own taste. By carrying a Gucci bag, they become automatically "Guccified." The same goes for wearing ties with Pierre Cardin or Yves St. Laurent scrawled across them, scarves that advertise Givenchy, luggage by Vuitton and so on. My God, there was even a black market in Neiman-Marcus labels—people were sewing the labels into coats and dresses they bought somewhere else! These people should realize how ridiculous it is to be a walking billboard for some designer.

How do you feel about designers who lend their names to so many products?

Someone who starts out creating a dress line cannot, I assure you, oversee the design of ballpoint pens, shower curtains, luggage, furniture, sheets, shoes and cosmetics. Even Leonardo da Vinci would have had trouble doing that. There are variations in the degree to which the designer himself becomes involved in all the products that bear his name. I am impressed with the control John Weitz, Christian Dior and Yves St. Laurent have retained. I wonder about Givenchy and Geoffrey Beene. Diane Von Furstenberg, as I understand it, has little to do with her various licensees. Halston's success was largely due to superb timing. He hit when Ultrasuede came in—a new fabric is discovered once in a lifetime—and rode that to tremendous success. Realistically, these giants only exert veto power over their various licensed operations. They aren't creating—they're editing.

What is the rudest store in the world?

No other establishment has used the insult so successfully as Gucci. It has raised rudeness to an art form. But then "21" became popular by routinely turning away customers, as does Studio 54. There really is no excuse for rudeness at any level of commercial life. Ultimately it's in bad taste.

What is the goal for any retailer?

Mystique. You can't buy it at any price, and the best publicist can't build it. It must be based on truth. Bendel's has it, Bonwit's didn't. Judy Garland had one, Barbra Streisand doesn't. St. Laurent has it, Cardin doesn't. Abercrombie & Fitch had, but lost, it. Gloria Vanderbilt has always had it, Charlotte Ford never had it. Sophia Loren has held on to it, Gina Lollobrigida never attained one. Jackie O had one, but blew it. The Yankees have had one and kept it.

Don't kickbacks and corrupt practices raise prices?

An expert told me that 75 percent of all business deals are influenced by money, friendship or whatever. If a salesman takes a department store buyer out to dinner, that buyer may then tend to pad the order. I've run into cases of outright bribery. The fur industry is particularly corrupt; Diogenes would have difficulty finding more than a few honest fur buyers.

Aren't more people over extending themselves just to be fashionable?

There is a tremendous amount of consumer debt in this country, but retailers are clamping down. In the 1960s it was an effrontery to tell a customer he or she could not afford something. Now we're rejecting credit applications all the time.

Can an average person buy "the Best"?

A person can afford the best of what he can afford. If you don't have the money for a Blackglama mink, then buy the best beaver or cloth coat. Many of the best things aren't expensive. Sara Lee pound cake is an extraordinary example of how a product has not suffered at all from mass production. My favorite candy is Rocky Road, at 250 a bar. You can't buy a better lighter than the $1.29 Bic. Felt tip pens are the best. So is the Water Pic. Kleenex is the finest tissue. And Levi's will be our main fashion contribution to the world.

What impact will recession have on the market for quality items?

The unemployment that will occur won't be at the top of the ladder. There is always a shortage of top-quality goods. As long as there are different sizes of oranges, there will be customers willing to pay more for the largest and juiciest.

Which Neiman-Marcus Christmas gifts are you proudest of?

My personal favorite was our 1970 gift for pessimists: a Noah's Ark complete with French chef, English butler, Swedish masseur, a pantry stocked for 40 days and 40 nights, a library—everything anyone would need to survive the flood. That was priced at a mere $588,247, FOB Mount Ararat. For the optimists we also offered an oak sapling for $10. Nobody bought the ark, but we got 6,000 orders for the sapling. As I said, the best buy isn't always expensive.

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