Whoever's Bottoms End Up Tops, the New Jeans War Could Mean Slaughter on Seventh Avenue

updated 09/01/1980 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/01/1980 01:00AM

Warren Hirsh is the Freddie Silverman of the garment industry—except that he hasn't suffered any real setbacks yet. Oh, sure, when Warren dreamed up the whole signature jeans business, his first choice was Jackie Onassis, and another possibility, Diane Von Furstenberg, never returned his call. But then Hirsh latched onto Gloria Vanderbilt and, with his marketing mastery, achieved what he calls—and what arguably is—the fastest success in apparel history. Last year (their second), Hirsh and Vanderbilt sold $150 million worth of Murjani-manufactured jeans—more than double the volume of second-ranking Calvin Klein. But then last month Warren dramatically resigned his $600,000-a-year presidency of Murjani's U.S. division and, for $1 million-plus, defected to the competition—Puritan Fashions Corp. Puritan makes Calvin Klein jeans and sportswear by, yes, Von Furstenberg.

No one dares predict whose bottoms will be the tops by next year, but the tune could become Slaughter on Seventh Avenue. "I am fierce," concedes Hirsh, 48. "I have never been No. 2 in anything I've done. I am going to outmarket, outpromote and outadvertise every competitor I've got."

As to why Hirsh made his move, a Silverman-esque need to keep outdoing himself may have been partly responsible, but there was definitely no falling-out with Vanderbilt. "She told me she felt like there'd been death in the family," reports Warren, and indeed, pal Gloria planned to attend the wedding bash scheduled last weekend for Hirsch's daughter, Sheryl. Another expected guest, surprisingly, was Mohan Murjani, the 34-year-old managing director of Murjani Industries Ltd., the Hong Kong-based parent firm of the U.S. subsidiary. A clash of wills between the two was cited as the immediate cause of Warren's defection. Hirsh was stung when Murjani quashed a cosmetics deal with Max Factor that he had been negotiating for nearly a year. "I gave my word," Warren reveals. "Robert Kamerschen, the president of Max Factor, and I shook hands. Then at the last minute, Murjani backed down. I felt it was dishonoring me, and I could no longer stay on."

Hirsh left his old firm in formidable shape to stay No. 1, signing up younger images like Reggie Jackson and Blondie's Deborah Harry to hawk Murjani. Yet the Calvin Klein line will not be without resources. Before hiring him, Puritan had already appropriated the celebrity TV spot gambit with which Hirsh revolutionized the jeans biz. Klein signed Brooke {Blue Lagoon) Shields for a saturation campaign beginning this month. Hirsh—who had publicized Murjani by putting Gloria herself on a float in the Macy's Thanksgiving parade and by sponsoring tennis tournaments and free rock concerts—no sooner got to Puritan than he arranged a "Calvin Klein Jeans Present Elton John" concert. He hopes it will draw 500,000 to Central Park next month and make a big splash in the media.

Perhaps the most masterful Hirsh stroke is yet to come. Having always been careful to obscure the fact that Vanderbilt jeans are manufactured in Hong Kong, he now plots an aggressive buy-American pitch for Klein's domestically produced designs, "I think the U.S. unions will love me," Warren smiles.

The one problem is that the cutthroat jeans battle has hurt everyone's bottom line. Murjani has ominously cut its 1980 sales projections from $300 million to $250 million, and Puritan reported a drop in second-quarter profits from 38 cents to two cents a share. The authoritative trade journal Women's Wear Daily anticipates a price cut in designer jeans. Ironically, of course, at the time Hirsh transformed the whole business in 1977, a price war had dropped jeans to $9.99. Then Warren, with his admittedly improved design and hype, boosted the price to $33.

Hirsh learned to scrap as a boy growing up in Brooklyn, where his dad managed an A.S. Beck shoe store. "My father, a very strong, self-made man, never felt he was successful," remembers Warren. "I loved him very much, but I felt he was too hard on my mother. He took the brunt of his frustrations out on her." Warren, who shared a bedroom with his brother, Peter, and their Russian émigré grandfather, began selling shoes at 11 and got into the rag trade after he graduated from Erasmus Hall High. He started as a stockboy at Lerner's department store in Manhattan—wearing a suit and tie. By 1957, after serving in Korea as an Army PFC in Graves Registration, Warren became the manager of a Howard clothing branch in the Bronx. In the late '50s he set up his own men's shop, called Warren's. Then, moving to Atlanta, Ga., he rose to regional VP for Ship 'n Shore sportswear by boosting annual sales from $1.5 million to $16 million.

Now Hirsh, who was lured away from Murjani by Puritan chairman Carl Rosen, will receive $5 million over five years—a figure that could go up $500,000 annually, depending on Puritan profits. Perks include a chauffeured black-and-tan Rolls plus the $2,000-a-month tab on the Hirshes' three-bedroom East Side apartment. As ruthless as the garment industry is, Hirsh believes in family loyalty that verges on nepotism. Warren's brother, Peter, now 41, and his son, Mark, 21, moved from Murjani to Puritan as part of the package. "I don't think they would want to be in a company directly competitive with me," says Warren. Peter is now vice-president of sales administration, Mark national sales manager of the Calvin Klein junior division. "They will rise in this company based on their ability," promises Warren. "If they don't, they won't." Chairman Rosen's son, Andrew, 23, now runs the firm's Calvin Klein men's division. Says Hirsh, referring to the two sons: "They are very young. When competition comes, may the best man win." As for the older generations, Warren came to work for Rosen only when promised total autonomy. "I told Carl," explains Hirsh, "if he ruffles my feathers, I will walk out."

Through all his volatile, onward-and-upward career, Hirsh has stayed married 26 years. Warren met his Brooklyn-born wife, Norma Glowitz, 43, on a blind date when she was a student at the University of Michigan. She is now a real estate executive selling Manhattan co-ops when she isn't tending their youngest child, Audrey, 13, or their weekend house in Westport, Conn.

Hirsh's Connecticut escapes include reading popular fiction like Kane and Abel, ferocious tennis and shaky golf. His assistant, Yolande Eagle, reports that he declined to play in a golf tournament for company presidents "because he was embarrassed about his game." Although his success was a lifetime in the making, Hirsh was as surprised as anyone when he found himself attending a recent function at Charlotte Ford's Sutton Place digs: "Here I was, a guy from Brooklyn, at the apartment of Henry Ford's daughter along with Barbara Walters, Walter Cronkite and Henry Kissinger." Yet whatever was served at the party, Hirsh left hungering for power beyond even his challenge at Puritan Corp. "I know," he winks, "I could run Ford or GM too."

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