Fifth Avenue – The Game-Changer

Opening our Fifth Avenue store in 1979 was a game-changer on every level. It was also the start of my full-time career in the family business. One day I was a graduate student in archaeology at an excavation of a 4,000-year-old village in the Sinai, the next day I’d traded my steel-toed boots for a designer wardrobe and became a jewelry retailer. Talk about culture shock.

The Fifth Avenue flagship store broke a lot of ground — and a lot of rules. For openers, it was the first privately-owned family business to open in decades on the exclusive stretch from Cartier on 52nd Street to Bergdorf Goodman on 57th Street. Second, the store’s sleek modern architecture was featuring a stunning angled glass façade that rose up to the mezzanine level. Third, it forever changed the traditional selling floor experience of a jewelry business. Fortunoff Fifth Avenue was a bold, exciting four-story monolith with a unique and expansive selection of high-quality merchandise at every price-point that quickly made Fortunoff Fifth Avenue an internationally known brand.

Fifth Avenue Store, under construction Fifth Avenue Store, 1979 Fifth Avenue Store, opening ad 1979

Fifth Avenue Store Opening

The building was originally built in 1922 by the renowned firm of McKim, Mead and White, whose founder, Stanford White, designed the triumphal arch at Washington Square Park. My father, Alan Fortunoff, commissioned the Italian artist Giancarlo Impiglia to create a full-length colorful street scene mural of NYC in the 1920s — tying the first Fortunoff Store to this new one, filled with the world’s finest jewelry and antique silver.

To top it off, the family chose actress Lauren Bacall as its spokesperson. Her reputation as a savvy, no-nonsense star of classic Hollywood cinema complemented the image of Fortunoff, both having risen from humble beginnings. Fortunoff was now recognized as a destination for best quality at best prices. Visitors entering the store were greeted by a fleet of salespeople and row after row of showcases offering large selections of unique jewelry and more.

Helene Fortunoff, Lauren Bacall, Liz Smith Arnold Scaasi, Lauren Bacall, Esther and Ruth Fortunoff

Although NYC was still going through hard times (New Yorkers will recall headlines of President Ford’s 1975 denial of federal aid to spare NYC from bankruptcy, “Ford to City: Drop Dead”), a visit to Fortunoff Fifth Avenue was like a trip to a glittering world of treasures and beauty. It lifted people’s spirits and changed forever the image of the jewelry industry.

Dress Code

Fortunoff’s sense of aesthetic did not stop at building architecture and display layout. The staff wore jackets and ties and the women dresses or skirts with hose on the salesfloor. Recently at a trade show some former employees and suppliers recalled Fortunoff’s dress code. One supplier remembered receiving a letter before her trunk show explaining that slacks were not allowed and that hose was required. She didn't take offense and said, " It gave the sales floor an air of elegance and gentility which was a contrast to most other retailers at the time.” Although some employees favored slacks, they admitted that professional attire always made a good impression on our customers.

Jewelry Training

A unique aspect of Fortunoff Jewelry was our dedication to ongoing staff training, especially for sales associates, managers, "back office" staff and, of course, the jewelry buyers. The reading of trade journals was mandatory, and my mother led training sessions where all the buying assistants and buyers discussed trends, market conditions, and technical aspects of jewelry.

My mother considered gemological education very important and many of our buyers and managers attended classes at the GIA in NYC. The Gemological Institute of America classes were also a great way for us to meet others in the industry.

Our jewelry buyers spent time on the selling floor, which allowed them to see first-hand customer reactions to products. We would visit each store location and speak with sales associates and managers – to get their views on what was hot, what was working, and what their local competition was doing. Classes were held for sales staff at each location on products, selling skills, display and merchandising.

The Wayne NJ Location

Wayne store opening, 1982
Wayne store catalog cover

Over the years since 1964, the home decor and furniture division had looked for ways to grow since the store was doing so well. After several options that were not right, a former EJ Korvettes store became available in the West Belt Center in Wayne, NJ across from the very busy Willowbrook Mall. The whole family got involved in planning the layout.

The Wayne renovation was a massive undertaking as the building was aged and in disrepair. After two long years, the Wayne location opened. The aesthetics of design, the ease of ingress and egress, the extraordinary breadth of inventory and abundant sales help made it great. From opening day crowds flocked to the new location. Wayne’s single story, large footprint allowed for the store to be divided into quadrants: tabletop and jewelry, housewares, bedroom and bath, and indoor and outdoor furniture.

In order to staff the store, our jewelry staff from Long Island, NYC and Paramus became the backbone of the Wayne location. The store was opened with all family members present and Max cut the ribbon.

If opening our flagship location on Fifth Avenue marked the company’s transition from a collection of Brooklyn stores to an international brand, the opening of the Wayne location demonstrated that the Fortunoff business formula was solid. It was a universally appreciated combination of quality, service, and price that proved to be very popular with New Jersey shoppers.

Clara’s Café — A Popular Innovation

Clara’s Café

One unique feature of the Wayne store was Clara’s Café, the restaurant and bakery named after my grandmother whose mother owned a bakery in the Bronx. My grandmother first suggested the idea and encouraged me to study restaurant management."

We hired Joe Baum and Michael White of Restaurant Associates (designers of NYC’s midtown Four Seasons) to design and create the café. They had never worked on a department store restaurant and enjoyed the challenge. They decided to style it after a Viennese Café/Bakery which fit in well with the ladies who lunched there so they could continue shopping. Baked goods with a European flair were featured, like Viennese pastries. Clara’s Café was later replicated in the Westbury store.

The Woodbridge opening

Woodbridge Store, 1989

The Wayne store became popular and often quite crowded. The state of New Jersey had a large population and the distances from one area to another made it necessary to open another NJ location, this time in Woodbridge. It was already the anchor of a mall and required renovations – but within a year it opened in October of 1989. It was the only opening that I missed as I had just given birth to my daughter.

Once again, our amazing team of managers, buyers and sales staff helped to bring new hires quickly up to speed, ensuring the amazing Fortunoff experience was had by each visitor to Woodbridge.

Read more here about The Golden Years: 1990-2003.