Catalog Founder and Pioneer Lillian Vernon Dies at 88

Lillian Vernon, the founder and former Chairwoman of Lillian Vernon Corp., passed away Monday, December 14, at the age of 88.

According to the company’s website, Vernon, also known as Lillian Menarche, founded her company in 1951 in Mt. Vernon, NY, “at her kitchen table equipped only with a dream and 24-karat gold monogram lettering, handbags, and belts purchased from her father’s leather goods company.”

A pregnant housewife at the time, she used $2,000 of wedding-gift money to buy a supply of purses and belts and placed a $495 ad in Seventeen magazine, offering personalized belt purses. The ad generated $32,000 in orders, and a full catalog of personalized gifts followed six years later. Vernon, who eventually changed her name to match the company’s, became known for using her “golden gut” instinct for merchandise.

[RELATED: A Timeline of Lillian Vernon’s First 50 years]

Vernon stepped down as CEO of her company in 2002, but remained with the company is a “Martha Stewart-like” role as the face of the company, according to a 2002 article in DIRECT. \

“She continues to have a tremendous eye and a tremendous impact on the business,” Michael Muoio, who replaced Vernon as the company’s CEO, said in a 2006 interview with Multichannel Merchant. “We will embrace Lillian’s input, where I think she was more limited in the past.”

Acquired by Los Angeles-based Regent Equity Partners in October, the Lillian Vernon company has changed hands several times since Lillian Vernon Corp. filed for Chapter 11 in February 2008.

The New York Times credits Vernon as the first to create seasonal catalogs for Easter and Halloween. She was also an innovator of the gift-with-purchase concept, “offering, for example, one potholder for each season for every $10 purchase; that meant spending $40 to get the whole set.”

According to the Times article, Lillian Vernon was born Lilli Menasche in Leipzig, Germany, on March 18, 1927, the daughter of Herman Menasche and the former Erna Feiner. Her father was a lingerie merchant.

In 1933, the year Hitler became chancellor of Germany, her family fled to Amsterdam; they moved to New York City in 1937. Her brother, Fred, later enlisted in the United States Army and was killed in World War II.

Vernon attended New York University for two years but left to marry Sam Hochberg, whom she later divorced, after having two children together – both of whom later served as executives at Lillian Vernon.

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