Strolling into the swank showrooms of Paris and New York City, fedora tilted dramatically above his titanic topcoat, Bernie Ozer seems to have taken his fashion tips from Sydney Greenstreet, not Seventh Avenue. But his lumbering presence is enough to turn even the snootiest designer into-a sniveling sycophant. In an industry where ideas are devoured as quickly as lettuce leaves, Ozer carries more weight than his 300-plus lbs. As vice president of the Associated Merchandising Corp. (AMC), the world’s largest international merchandising and consulting organization, he advises 35 major stores—from Bloomingdale’s to Sears—on what to buy and how to promote it, At 59, “the biggest man in women’s clothing,” as Manhattan, inc. magazine dubbed him, is more responsible for the clothes most Americans actually wear than a legion of designing legends.
Over the years Ozer has been credited with starting crazes for plastic “jelly” sandals, voluminous “big shirts” and sweatshirt dressing. This month, as the new spring merchandise starts trickling into stores, his mark is all over chiffon and iridescence for daytime and racks of abbreviated hemlines—”a shorter dress, shorter pants, all the way up to short-shorts,” he rattles off in a voice better suited to a mobster than a fashion maven.
Keeping his bulging eyes open for trends, Ozer zigzags from opulent designer shows in Paris tents to neohippie parades through London back streets to dingy Manhattan lofts where future talents cut their patterns. His mission: to identify currents that can cross between mass and class. At Oscar de la Renta’s spring show, Ozer sat on a red velvet chair in silence, except to mutter “lots of shine,” or “there go the spices” when a group of brown-toned suits appeared.
“Anyone can go to a runway,” he says. “You have to understand what’s up there. The important thing is to make the trends happen at every price level.” He does it by guiding manufacturers and helping stores develop private labels. When Paris couturier Christian Lacroix endorsed elaborate patchwork last year, for example, Ozer told “Joe Schmo to put a patch on the tochis of jeans.
“Sometimes they listen, sometimes they don’t,” Ozer says, smoothing a lapel of the navy chalk-stripe suit that he has invigorated with an orange pocket hankie. “You have to be strong without being a dictator, push without being the Pope.” Now that department stores are in desperate straits—with B. Altman’s closing and Bonwit Teller and Bloomingdale’s in Chapter 11—Ozer is nudging more gently. “It used to be change, change, change, change,” he says. “Now it’s all in the presentation, quality and price. People don’t want disposable fashion anymore.”
Ozer and his older brother, Abe, an insurance agent, were born in the Bronx to Hyman, a Russian immigrant who manufactured hip and shoulder pads, and Sadie, a homemaker. Bernie’s first job was working in a cousin’s bakery near Pelham Parkway—the same area that spawned Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein. After majoring in business at Manhattan’s Baruch College, Ozer worked his way up through training programs of now closed New York City stores S. Klein and Franklin Simon. In 1957, while a buyer at the also defunct Ohrbach’s, where he is credited with inventing the “junior department,” he married Norma Brown, a home economist he had met at a temple dance. They divorced in 1963. “She hated retailing,” he says. “She’d say, Take that garment-center handkerchief out of your pocket.’ ” At AMC, which he joined in 1961, Ozer developed his theatrical approach to marketing, hiring such offbeat models as transvestite Holly Woodlawn. Sometimes he literally chased down trends. “I remember seeing him in St. Tropez running after Brigitte Bardot with a photographer,” says Kalman Ruttenstein, vice president for Bloomingdale’s fashion direction. “She swung her handbag at him.” On-the-spot evidence was important: “I saw my job,” Ozer explains, “as awakening retailers to what was happening.”
The Ozer alarm is still heeded. Though he lives simply in the same Upper East Side rent-controlled penthouse he has had for 20 years, he commands a salary in the mid-six figures from AMC for his near-psychic advice. He splurges on a dandified wardrobe. Jimmy Palazzo, Ozer’s tailor for two decades, calls him “a difficult man to fit but a tremendous stylist. I’ve made outfits for him that no one else would dare wear—stripes, leopard skin vests. I just finished a long maroon scarf that hangs to the ground. He’ll wear all that with a 20-gallon hat.”
At work, Ozer presides over an all-female staff of 24 who attend meetings in his kitschy office packed with baby pictures and a beret-capped pink flamingo. At one gathering, a visiting designer holds up shirts of handmade silk. “Fabulous,” says Ozer. “Get it going in rayon.”
Whether his power keeps people’s tongues in check—or his predictions really are infallible—nary a negative word can be heard about Ozer. “I’ve known Bernie since I was 16,” says Perry Ellis designer Marc Jacobs, now 26, who then worked part-time at one of New York City’s avant-garde Charivari stores. “I’d show him what was new. He had a great eye.”
At a table in the Palm Court of New York City’s Plaza Hotel, a pink napkin tied around his neck and a huge turkey potpie before him, Ozer grows as expansive as his waistline, shooting off the street fashions he saw on a recent trip to London. “The hooded anorak jacket in every form. T-shirts worn as minidresses with jackets coming just to the edge. Short-shorts over flowing chiffon pants, Crocheted shawls and collars. Decals on tights. The decal look will be picked up here this summer…” Whew.
“Bernie is a legend in his own time,” says designer Mary Ann Restivo, an acquaintance since the ’60s. “The last time I saw him, I was in a Third Avenue bakery buying pastries. Of course, he told me which ones to buy, and, of course, he was right.”
—Elizabeth Sporkin, Martha K. Babcock in New York City