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A Matter of Style

Marla SaboOriginally printed in IUP Magazine, Fall, 2007
By Karen Gresh

Marla Sabo grew up in a household where quality was important. “Even though we didn’t have a lot, both my parents were very interested in how they lived and dressed,” she said. “Before he married, my father had tailor-made suits with his initials embroidered inside. My parents always tried to buy good things. I think they were chic.”

In the Cambria County coal town of Colver, where the family lived, Sabo’s father was a miner, and her mother worked in the general store, selling groceries, fabric, nails, electrical supplies—almost anything.

Several times a year, the family took shopping trips to the huge Penn Traffic department store in downtown Johnstown. “My mother was very particular about how she dressed me,” Sabo said.

She herself was creative. “I used to make clothing for my dolls,” Sabo said. “I’d read whatever magazines I could get my hands on and adapt what I saw.”

Sabo came to Indiana in 1975 to study French with the goal of becoming a teacher. Two entities encountered in the ensuing years reshaped her life: IUP’s study-abroad opportunities and Brody Brothers department store.

In her junior year, she joined the first IUP group to study at the University of Nancy in France. It was, she said, “an amazing experience.”

“For someone coming from a small town, having the opportunity to travel outside the country, to experience another culture, and to get to know students from all over the world was life changing,” she said. “Because of Nancy’s location, we could travel easily everywhere in Europe. Three of us did that, all staying in the same room.”

Sabo was supposed to study in France only one semester; instead, she stayed an entire academic year, returning home only at Christmas. She learned self-reliance, and, although she knew her parents “were extremely worried,” they were also supportive.

Sabo said French faculty member Victor Drescher, who had developed the Nancy program, “was our parent for a year.” Last spring, when Sabo was scheduled to receive an IUP Distinguished Alumni Award, she hoped Drescher would be her guest at the awards gala. “I would have liked to have been able to pay him back,” she said, but he was in Costa Rica at the time.

Sabo also remembers fondly IUP French faculty members Ludo op de Beeck, the late Renee Liscinsky, the late Frank Landis, and June Phillips, who was the sponsor for Sabo’s student teaching assignment in the Upper St. Clair School District. By the time she was a senior, Sabo’s younger brother, Gary, had followed her to IUP. He graduated in 1982.

During college, Sabo started working part time at Brody’s, located until the late eighties at the corner of Seventh and Philadelphia streets. “It was my first serious job,” she said. She went immediately to the third floor ladies’ apparel section and stayed there—longer than she expected.

Sabo was within weeks of her 1979 graduation when she was astonished to be offered a full-time position as a buyer and department manager. She was to replace the very experienced and highly respected Charlotte Watkins, who was retiring.

“Donald Brody basically trained me,” Sabo said. “He had an amazing taste level. He took me on buying trips, about one week out of every month, and I learned to buy women’s apparel. For four years, I was responsible for a lot of buying.”

Marla SaboEventually, she yearned to return to Europe. In 1983, Sabo was accepted at the Sorbonne in Paris, where she studied art history of the twentieth century. At the conclusion of the year it took to earn a master’s degree, she looked for a job on the Continent. A part-time position in a Paris buying office was as close as she could get. She decided to move to New York.

Sabo found she had assets that were highly marketable: an international education and experience as a buyer. She became a buyer for Bergdorf Goodman, visiting Seventh Avenue every week in pursuit of coats and suits.

In the mid-eighties, Sabo recalled, members of the Goodman family still maintained a penthouse residence on Bergdorf’s ninth floor: “You’d see them walking through the store on the way to their apartment,” she said.

She stayed at Bergdorf’s four years, eventually also buying children’s clothes and traveling frequently to Italy (Milan) and Brazil (São Paulo). “My mother is Italian,” she said, “so I could get around in Italy.”

Always, she was in the market, discovering sources, building relationships with them, and pursuing tenaciously a commitment to having things first. “In retail, you are on the ground and on call twenty-four/seven,” she said. “You work constantly.”

In 1988, Sabo was recruited by Saks Fifth Avenue. There, her job of buying European and American Collection coats gave her experience in a multi-store environment with fifty-two points of distribution. For the next four years, she was still on Seventh Avenue a lot, but she also traveled at least four times a year to Europe. By the end of 1991, she had started buying couture for Saks, working with such European houses as Chanel and Yves St. Laurent.

In 1994, still at Saks, her career took a new turn—one that offered solid financial experience. In the year in which her title was director of Financial and Strategic Planning, she oversaw the development and execution of financial plans for 25 percent of the total company; developed a ten-year plan for creating Off Fifth, the company’s outlet business; and was part of a management task force that acquired the I. Magnin stores.

The capstone of her ten-year sojourn at Saks came in the spring of 1995, when Sabo was named vice president and divisional merchandise manager for European and American Designer Collections. As the chief merchant responsible for all aspects of the company’s $250-million designer ready-to-wear business, she was still in Europe four times a year—but now, she stayed for a month at a time.

In Germany, for example, she sought out designer Jil Sander. Saks, she said, “competed heavily with Neiman Marcus” as the nation’s top purveyor of designer ready-to-wear. She supervised a team of thirty-five.

In the spring of 1998, Sabo became senior vice-president of Hermès North America, filling a position newly created for sales and merchandising in the North American network of stores. Founded in France in the early nineteenth century, Hermès is truly international; much of its growth in recent years has been in Asia. The firm is particularly known for its silks and textiles and for its handbags, including one made famous by actress Grace Kelly in the fifties.

In a post that reported directly to the president of a company that, she said, had been “happy with a little bit of growth,” Sabo consistently achieved increases of more than 10 percent in the network she oversaw from New York. She also conceptualized, built, and opened the company’s Madison Avenue flagship store, where her office was located.

Sabo had been at Hermès three years when a “call from Dior came out of the blue.” Head designer John Galliano, she said, “had been hired in 1997, and now there was a renewed effort to rebuild the house.”

For five years, beginning in early 2001, Sabo presided over the “expansion and revitalization” of Christian Dior Couture Americas. As president and chief operating officer, she reported, as she put it, “to Paris.” She quintupled her unit’s business, taking the number of stores from nineteen to fifty-six. Not only was ready-to-wear apparel essential to the brand image she developed, but handbags and shoes also became increasingly important.

She said she “traveled extensively—all over the U.S.” For Dior and for the other companies with which she worked, she flew business class—no private jets, no trips to Paris aboard the Concorde. “I was very cost conscious,” she said. “I had to manage the financials. This is serious work.”

“Years ago,” she said, “the pace was slower, and the buyers seemed to have more luxuries.” Sitting in the front row at designer shows was something she did as a buyer at Saks. By the time she reached Dior, she had a different role: “As the house manager,” she said, “I usually had to give my seat away.”

Sabo lives in the heart of Manhattan, within walking distance of many of the stores and showrooms that have formed the backdrop of her career. She has a house on Long Island in East Hampton. She was once married briefly. She has no pets. “A pet wouldn’t make it at my house,” she said with a laugh.

When someone is as busy as Sabo, “you have to be wired all the time,” she said. “I’m very organized as a person—I’ve had to be. And, I’m always planning ahead.”

After she left Dior in mid-2006, Sabo considered opportunities in private-equity advising. She also thought an ideal job might be cultivating donors in the nonprofit sector. But, in July, 2007, Sabo joined Fragments, Inc., a SoHo-based fashion and fine jewelry firm, as president and chief executive officer.

Once a retailer, always a retailer.

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