The Man Who Brought Paris to Dallas

When The New York Times featured Stanley Marcus in an article in its Dec. 1 edition, the paper turned to SMU’s DeGolyer Library for iconic images of the retail giant.


My last memory of Stanley Marcus dates back to when I was 10, when he gently straightened my blazer one night in the Dallas restaurant Café Pacific, where, in those days, he seemed to dine nearly every night of the week, mostly at the same window table. “Mr. Stanley,” as we all knew him, was for decades our city’s de facto mayor, who represented not the community we were but the community we aspired to be: urbane, cosmopolitan, au courant. I see now that the blazer straightening was the closest thing I’ve ever had to a baptism, an induction into the sacred cult of little things by the very high priest who had proved they made all the difference.

God, for Stanley Marcus, was in the details. It was the details that transformed him into a pioneering figure in the history of American retail and the details that made Neiman Marcus, the store he took over from his father, into an international arbiter of taste. For decades, his headquarters — a nine-story palazzo of a building in downtown Dallas, of all places — was an epicenter of innovation, a dowager of dignified disruption.

From seemingly insignificant flourishes like personalized gift-wrapping to media spectacles like in-store fashion shows, so much of what was established early on at Neiman Marcus is now commonplace, even self-evident. If some of these innovations were pure fantasy — the decidedly sui generis Christmas catalog, for instance, published annually since 1926, advertised “His and Her” submarines and a real-life Noah’s ark — their point was the same. Deep in the heart of nowhere, Neiman Marcus made luxury, actual and aspirational, accessible to everyone.

Mr. Stanley himself was Neiman’s. It’s hard to imagine today, when department stores are mostly anonymous caverns of corporate strategy, but his store was as much a cult of personality as a place of conspicuous consumption. Yes, it was an empire of beautiful things — tulle meringues for debutantes, Herend tea sets for their grandmothers, and the designs of Emilio Pucci, Elsa Schiaparelli and Carolina Herrera (all of whom found an early champion in Mr. Stanley). But the store represented something utterly new: an alternate reality at the intersection of commerce and culture, where ordinary women and men learned not what to wear but how to live, a place were they could become, if only for a moment, their best selves.

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