Some personalities are too multifaceted to neatly summarize, and fashion industry exec Marty Staff, who died yesterday at his farm in Bucks County, Pennsylvania with his wife Robin by his side, is one of those larger-than-life characters too complex to reduce to a few paragraphs. He was 70 years young and died from brain cancer.
His resume could in itself consume a book: from graduating Dartmouth cum laude as an English major in 1972 to building Saturday’s Generation at Bloomingdales (1973-‘80) to VP of sales and marketing at Ralph Lauren (1980-‘87) to president/CEO at Calvin Klein (1987-‘98) to president/CEO of Hugo Boss (1998-2002) to president/CEO of Joseph Abboud (2003-2011) to Chief Business Development Officer at American Apparel (2011-‘12) to forming his own consulting business in 2012 to CEO of BCBGMaxAzria in 2016, Marty knew how to wheel and deal, create buzz, and generate press with the best of them. Clearly, few fashion execs have had as profound an impact on our industry.
As editor of MR magazine, I interviewed Marty numerous times in the past 30+ years and found him to be always insightful, often outrageous, and generally fearless, worrying little about saying the wrong thing or being politically incorrect or inappropriate. How much of this bravado was real and how much performance remains uncertain, but I do know that I never had a boring interview with Marty Staff. One outstanding memory: the time I walked into a very conservative boardroom filled with guys in suits and there was Marty, brazenly removing his tee shirt to show off a new tattoo. Another memory: a photoshoot with Marty and two Penthouse babes when he briefly worked for that publication. I believe he was one of the only industry execs who ever graced the cover of MR magazine.
David Fisher, former EVP at Bloomingdale’s and a good friend to Marty, is heartbroken to lose him. “I knew Marty for so many years, in so many different capacities that it’s hard to imagine the fashion industry without him. He was a very non-conforming presence in the C-Suites of the companies he ran and helped build. Not just because of the way he dressed or the color of his hair, but for a lightning-quick intellect and business-building creativity that matched it. He was a risk-taker, and loved rolling the dice on business opportunities and people… He won a lot and lost some too. I would venture to say that Hugo Boss owes its deep penetration into American men’s retail to Marty Staff, period. More importantly, Marty had a magnificent zest for life and wanted to experience it to the fullest. A true entrepreneur, he thought big and swung for the fences. And in the end, he did it all.”
Tom Ott, former SVP at Saks Fifth Avenue and then Saks Off 5th, considered him a friend. “When I think of Marty, it always makes me smile. He was a great businessman who really understood the numbers and how to drive business and at the same time have fun doing it. He was always a good friend to me, offering advice and looking out for me personally to move ahead at Saks. I will miss him dearly.”
Designer Sal Cesarani was a long-time admirer. “Marty was a very unique kind of guy, as relevant as the day is long, extremely creative, and always cognizant of changing times.”
Kimberly Cihlar got to know Marty when she covered European menswear collections for Fairchild. “Our paths crossed often and I always appreciated his brutal honesty and deep insights for story quotes. He was a full-on force of fashion nature. The industry will surely be dimmer, missing one of its brightest stars.”
Kenton Selvey worked with Marty for the past 16 years, most recently at Marty Staff Associates. “Marty believed that fashion was about telling stories, and to that end, he was a master. He could light up a room with a joke just as easily as he could summon a brilliant business insight. From the outside, Marty had a rock-n-roll persona that relished the creative hurricane he unleashed. But those who knew him best, those in the eye of the hurricane, knew Marty to be a kind and gentle soul, fiercely loyal to his friends and deeply empathetic. A look through his resume will tell you about the brands he built, but he was just as proud of the careers he helped build. His defining trait to me has always been how curious he was about everything. He was in constant motion, always trying to learn something new or gain a deeper understanding. He asked a lot of questions and listened, really listened, to the answers. He made bold decisions, laughed off the pressure, and loved the challenges of our industry. Marty was a mentor and a close friend and I smile because I knew him. He would hate the fact that after 16 years of working together and relentlessly teasing one another, I get the last word.”
David Pergola was hired by Marty at Hugo Boss in October 1998. “The assignment to repair a tailored clothing business that was bleeding units and retail support. This was to be achieved in six weeks. Two decisions were made which made this possible. First, we established Hugo Boss as a ‘modern European clothing’ resource. At the time, there was traditional tailored and contemporary tailored. We bridged the gap with modern. Second, and most important, Marty equated sales and marketing with entertainment, which turned out to be an unbelievable force. He wanted the fashion industry to come to the Hugo Boss offices to enjoy themselves and just hang out. It was not unusual for Marty to come into the showroom at 5:00 PM and instruct all the buyers and sales reps to close their computers, put down their pens, grab a cocktail, and enjoy themselves. The result was that the Boss offices were a destination for much of the apparel community. People got to witness the evolution of the Boss product into the go-to modern way to dress in tailored clothing, sportswear, and dress furnishings. Buyers and retail management, as well as the press, were eyewitnesses to the evolution of a brand from a ‘has been’ to a market dominator.
“The biggest part of this tragedy for me,” Pergola confided, “was that this terrible disease attacked Marty’s brain, his greatest asset. It’s just not fair! Rest in peace Marty. You were a genius.”
Robin Staff, Marty’s wife of 45 years who is a dance producer in the city, wants Marty’s friends and colleagues to know that the family is establishing a foundation, Marty’s Fund, to put an end to this horrible disease and other cancers. A Memorial Celebration of Marty’s Life will be held at their Bucks County farm in August, date to be determined.
Those who knew Marty mostly through business might be surprised to learn of his other passions: spending quiet time at the farm with his wife, raising dogs together, assisting their Pennsylvania community in the development of local farmers markets, the preservation of land, and the expansion of the arts. Marty was also a passionate fisherman, a music lover, and an avid reader. He had a license to fly small aircraft.
Finally, a few words from Marty’s Facebook page under the heading of Religious Views: “Not formally religious but becoming more spiritual, and kind.” May these words provide invaluable inspiration to all of us, even as we party on, as Marty would have suggested.