by Christopher Blomquist
Barbara Arfa
Barbara Arfa

Barbara Gutfreund Arfa, who served as co-president of men’s outerwear company Gruner & Co., Inc. for 20 years, died earlier this month at her home in Manhattan after a multi-year battle with lung cancer. She was 68 years old.

Gruner was founded in 1949 by Barbara’s late father, Salo Gutfreund, a Holocaust survivor.  The company originally manufactured men’s raincoats in its own factories in Israel. Gruner was one of the largest exporters from Israel in the country’s early years.  Barbara was trained as a journalist at CCNY and Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and then joined Gruner in 1976. Thereafter, the company expanded its product base to include leather coats, wool overcoats and outerwear as well as rainwear.  Production moved to the United States, South America, Europe and Asia.

In 1992, Barbara’s husband, Harvey Arfa, an attorney, joined Gruner as co-president. Together, they expanded the business to produce an even broader spectrum of coats and outerwear under major licensed brand names for retailers as well as producing for other manufacturers and uniform providers.  In 1994, their daughter Caroline came aboard and quickly specialized in overseeing Gruner’s merchandising and production. In 2010, Barbara retired from the business, leaving Harvey and Caroline as co-presidents. Today Gruner produces rainwear, overcoats and outerwear under the Hart Schaffner Marx, Ike Behar and Haggar labels.

Barbara was widely known in the industry for her dedication to perfection and her willingness to work through the night to avoid missing a workday in Asia, a trait that Peerless Clothing president Ron Wurtzburger remembers well. “I truly admired her work ethic: she’d tell me she worked at home at night because while the Chinese were working, her competition was sleeping and she always wanted to be one step ahead. And she was!” he told MR . “Barbara Arfa was the quintessential businesswoman. It was always product first; she would never sacrifice quality or lower her standards for a cheaper price,” he added.

She was a firm negotiator but always true to her word. She was respected and admired by vendors, customers and employees for her kindness and integrity. “I’ve known Barbara since the 1970s and was always in awe of her passion for the business. She worked tirelessly to bring innovative product to the market and she did business the old-fashioned way—with a genuine respect for partnerships. She was a very special person,” said John Fowler, VP of brand development at Ike Behar.

Barbara is survived by her husband, Harvey, her daughter, Caroline Arfa Massel, her son-in-law, Morris Massel, and three grandchildren, Rebecca, Alexander and Michael.

Donations in memory of Barbara can be made to The American Society for Yad Vashem, for the “Barbara Arfa Holocaust Education Fund.”  Mail to American Society for Yad Vashem, 500 Fifth Avenue, 42nd Floor, New York, NY 10110, Attn: Shraga Mekel.