By Linda Marx
July 04, 1983 12:00 PM

Who would believe a free spirit like Max Raab, who flunked out of prep school, drove a cab, pumped gas, delivered mail, and sold cars, Fuller brushes and El Cheapo blouses from the backseat of his car, could grow up to be America’s overlord of Oxford cloth? “Trust me,” says the 57-year-old apparel maker who made and lost millions with his preppy Villager clothes in the 1960s. “I understand people better than they understand themselves.”

He must. His polished J.G. Hook look (“updated Villager”) of 200 prep classics sold more than $70 million in 1,800 American stores last year. Today the Hook anchor (“My logo shows strength and stability, everything I’m not”) adorns everything from menswear to tableware. “People who won’t go near the water buy because nautical means status,” insists Raab, a longtime ocean buff. “Anything with anchors and sailboats sells.”

Raab’s childhood in Philadelphia was anything but preppy. Father Herman’s fondest wish was to make the cheapest blouse in town. Max was 13 when his mother, Fanny, died of cancer, leaving him home alone to play jazz instead of studying. Consequently, he flunked out of school and was drafted in 1944. After the war, he turned to peddling Herman’s blouses but soon added other and higher-class lines to his car’s backseat, especially those with the upscale, country look in ladies’ wear. Explains Raab: “Waspy women love the classic suburban look, and Jewish women want to look like WASPs. I knew I had a winner.”

In 1952 he opened his first clothing store, in Elkins, Pa. Six years later he formed the Villager company. “My father thought I was crazy, my wife left me, but Villager exploded.” He eventually franchised 140 Villager shops, saturating the nation with prep. Second wife Mary became Villager’s chief designer, and the company grew into a $140 million empire before collapsing in 1970. Raab had lost $2.5 million before selling Villager lock, stock and sweaters to the giant apparel company Jonathan Logan.

What happened? “I didn’t anticipate the blue-jeaning of America,” he says now. “Besides, Villager got big too fast, and I didn’t know what I was doing. I’m more of an idea man.”

After the fall, Mary stayed with Logan (the couple divorced in 1979) and Max went Hollywood, investing in five films, including Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, the only one to make a substantial profit at the box office. His seduction by make-believe left him abandoned and broke. “I’ve always loved movies,” he admits. “That life has no structure, and you really don’t make movies. You make deals…then you have no artistic control.”

In 1975 Raab borrowed $100,000 and formed the present J.G. Hook. “Hook is nautical parlance for anchor,” he says, “and we just gave it some initials.” He made $1 million that year, $4 million the next, and anticipates a $100 million volume by 1985.

Max happily delegates all business responsibilities to his staff of 426, while he reels off creative ideas and commutes between his nautical-styled New York showroom and Philadelphia headquarters. He and lady friend Merle Levin, 47, spend weekdays in his seven-story Philadelphia town house and every summer weekend on Long Beach Island, N.J. in a $3,000-a-season converted houseboat. With no weekend telephone or television, Max likes to drink, sail, play his sax, and enjoy the quiet of the shore. And by not messing with success, he can do just that.

“Prep is a way of life for some,” observes the consummate preppy watcher. “Just like with Villager, we pick them up in high school and carry them through middle age. Many thank us for the J.G. Hook clothing they’ve worn for 25 years. For me, success is getting acceptance of ideas I believe in.”