Hannah Levy (1905-1984)

Hannah Levy and her brother, Jack Levy, were born to Jewish parents in the town of Haigerloch in Southern Germany. As was the case with many German Jews, the story of the Levy family reflects the common immigrant phenomenon of chain migration and the importance of family ethnic networks. Pushed out of Germany by severe hyperinflation and economic depression, as well as rising anti-Semitism, Jack and Hannah both immigrated to America in the 1920s. The existence of a robust family network aided Jack and Hannah Levy’s integration into American life and played a crucial role in their later business success. Together, they founded and developed Fashion Bar, one of the more important regional chain store operations in the American West, and Hannah earned a national reputation as one of the most savvy women retailers in the United States.

Updated: May 19, 2016

Introduction

Hannah Levy (born May 19, 1905 in Haigerloch, Germany; died December 1, 1984) and her brother, Jack Levy (September 6, 1908 in Haigerloch, Germany; died April 6, 1985 in Denver, CO), were born to Jewish parents in the town of Haigerloch, near Stuttgart in Southern Germany. As was the case with many German Jews, the story of the Levy family reflects the common immigrant phenomenon of chain migration and the importance of family ethnic networks. Pushed out of Germany by severe hyperinflation and economic depression, as well as rising anti-Semitism, Jack and Hannah both immigrated to America in the 1920s. By the time Jack Levy set sail for America at age fourteen in 1923, and Hannah followed in 1926, their uncle and several other relatives had long before moved to the United States in search of greater freedom and what they hoped would be enlarged economic opportunity. The existence of a robust family network aided Jack and Hannah Levy’s integration into American life and played a crucial role in their later business success. Together, they founded and developed Fashion Bar, one of the more important regional chain store operations in the American West, and Hannah earned a national reputation as one of the most savvy women retailers in the United States.

Both Hannah and Jack started life in America as poor German immigrants, but their fortunes rapidly improved. By 1933, after gaining business experience and saving enough from their earnings for investment, Jack Levy and a business partner started their own store in Denver, which became the Hosiery Bar. Hannah was brought in as the saleswoman and buyer for the tiny shop. Despite the Great Depression, the enterprise flourished. Renamed Fashion Bar, within a few years it grew to five clothing stores. In 1940, Jack and Hannah bought out their partner.[1] The brother and sister team quickly built a reputation in the fashion retailing business in Colorado and the region. Hannah and Jack not only became respected business and civic leaders but also well-known philanthropists within both the general and Jewish communities. By the 1980s, Fashion Bar operated more than 80 stores in the West and had become Colorado’s largest privately-owned store chain. Fashion Bar remained a family-directed enterprise for six decades until it was sold in 1992 to the Houston-based company Specialty Retailers.

Family and Ethnic Background

A Jewish presence in the small town of Haigerloch, Germany had been recorded as early as the fourteenth century, and the first of a series of “Letters of Protection” for Jews there was first issued in 1534. A synagogue/school was later erected reflecting a small but significant Jewish population. The Levy family had lived in the area for centuries. Raphael Levy was born in 1870 and raised in Haigerloch, and he earned a comfortable living as a cattle dealer. He married Bertha Hilb around 1900, and they became the parents of six children: Hannah, born in 1905, Jack, born in 1908, Edward, born in 1909, Kate Levy (Zigmond), born in 1916, and Ruth Levy (Wohlauer), born in 1919. A sixth child, the Levy’s firstborn, died as a young boy at the age of four.

At the time the Levy children were growing up, the population of Haigerloch was about 1,800. Hannah and Jack Levy were educated at a local Jewish-run school, where they were taught secular as well as Jewish subjects. Their siblings experienced a similar education. Hannah later recalled a secure childhood that was overturned by the coming of World War I. Even at the age of seventy-nine, she still had vivid memories of the church bells that rang out to mark the outbreak of the war. All of the men in the extended Levy family, including Raphael, fought in and survived the war. Only nine at the time, Hannah said the war fostered a lifelong strong urge in her to always protect her family members.[2] After graduating grammar school, as a teenager Hannah attended a local finishing school. Her younger brother Edward recalled that his Bar Mitzvah and that of his older brother, Jack, were held in the old synagogue in nearby Hechingen.

Several Hilb relatives had immigrated to America in the nineteenth century, and one established himself in Colorado beginning in the 1860s.The first of the extended Levy family to immigrate to America was Leopold Weil, a relative of Bertha Hilb, who was born in Ellerstadt, Germany in 1840. He came to America at the age of eleven in 1851. Attracted by the promise of economic opportunity, in about 1860 Leopold traveled west to the booming mining town of Central City, Colorado, where he began working as a clothing merchant. There, the following year, Weil became an early member of Nevada Lodge No. 4, the oldest Masonic lodge in Colorado. He moved briefly to Cheyenne, Wyoming, before settling in Denver in 1869. In 1874, Leopold Weil became one of the founding fathers of Colorado’s first synagogue, Denver’s Temple Emanuel, a Reform congregation which was organized largely by German Jewish immigrants.[3] Bertha Hilb Levy’s brother, Isidore Hilb, migrated to Denver from Germany at the beginning of the twentieth century and also became a merchant. Hilb was the very successful proprietor of Hilb & Company, which served as the wholesale middleman between manufacturers and customers, first in the areas of children’s clothing, toys, jewelry, and notions, and later expanding to include western and skiwear clothing.[4]

The Levy family participated in the common phenomenon of chain migration, a process whereby members of a family (or residents of a region) follow one another to a new country, city, or region. European Jews frequently migrated to the United States in successive family groups, with German Jews being especially likely to engage in chain migration.[5] In many instances, their decisions to emigrate were influenced by promising reports about the New World in letters from friends and relatives in America. Family members who had already established themselves in the United States often assisted in helping the newcomers make a successful adjustment and acquire formal business experience. Kinship and past working relationships provided the basis for the trust needed for early German-Jewish immigrants like the Hilbs and Levys to conduct business and advance in their new surroundings.

Jack Levy arrived in America in search of a better life as a teenager, but after docking in New York City, he quickly traveled by train to Denver to begin work at his maternal uncle’s wholesale clothing supply business, Hilb & Company. Jack was trained by Isidore Hilb, who soon encouraged the young man to open his own savings and checking account. That enabled Jack to accumulate the funds to later invest in his own business. As a teenager, Jack began developing his merchandizing skills at Hilb, first as a stock boy, earning $5 a week (approximately $64 in 2010 dollars) and later, as his English improved, as a traveling salesman for the company.[6] Jack also emphasized that he was strongly influenced by his father, Raphael, who later worked for Hilb & Company as a stock clerk after he and the rest of the family immigrated to America in 1927. “By modern-day business and financial standards, my father could not be considered a success, but he was a success in the things that counted,” observed Jack. “He was an honest, deeply religious man who stressed ethical behavior to his youngsters.”[7]

His sister, Hannah, moved to Denver in the fall of 1927, after having spent twenty months in New York City. Unable to speak much English upon her arrival in 1926, Hannah took the only jobs open to her, working as a cleaner and child minder. Once in Denver, Hannah began to train for her long merchandising and fashion career. She started as a stock girl at The Neusteters Company, Denver’s high-end women’s clothing department store, but eventually moved up to a position as a top saleswoman and fashion coordinator, earning $25 (approximately $314 in 2010 dollars) a week.[8]

Jack’s younger brother, Edward, who was born in 1910, followed Jack to Denver in 1925 and worked for Hilb & Company for his entire career. Edward later became president of the Hilb firm in 1952 and retired in 1973.[9] Hannah, the eldest surviving child in the Levy family, immigrated to America in 1926 when she was twenty. According to Hannah, she left Germany for America during the era of the Weimar Republic in search of better economic opportunities because of catastrophic hyperinflation and an economic depression, which especially affected the middle class. “Money became worthless,” she recalled, “The price of a loaf of bread went from 5 marks to 500 to 5 million… In times like that you learn that the important things in life aren’t measured in money that comes and goes, but in things that matter like love and compassion… Our family was lucky to get out of Germany when we did, before Hitler came to power. With our values, I doubt if we would have lasted long under the Nazis.”[10] Indeed, the Levys were part of a large immigration to America from Germany in the 1920s which was driven by the growing economic and political upheaval there in the 1920s. Between 1923 and 1929 alone, about 361,000 Germans left their native land. Because she spoke only limited English upon her arrival, her first jobs in New York City were in unskilled positions as a cleaner and nanny, and later she worked as a server in a delicatessen and as a manicurist. The petite, feisty, Hannah, who was barely five feet tall, was fiercely independent, and she refused to travel to Denver until she had saved enough to pay for her own train fare.[11]

Jack and Hannah Levy’s family connections and upbringing proved to be invaluable in building their own successful retailing careers. Hannah later related that she was brought up to be frugal in the World War I era, which influenced her underlying business philosophy. “I always bought for my customers things I would like… the best value, the smartest look for their money.”[12] Both Jack and Hannah were likely influenced by their inherited German work ethic and models of German family businesses, such as the one run by their uncle Isidore Hilb. Jack’s sales territory for Hilb & Company was the entire state of Kansas, and he was soon exposed to American business norms. His experience as a jobber, or traveling salesman, provided him with the opportunity to hone his English and develop his business acumen, the vital foundation necessary to later launch his own store with Hannah. Their experiences were clearly reflective of the value of German Jewish co-ethnic networks. As two prominent sociologists have noted, “newcomers finding employment among co-ethnics… automatically gain access to contacts, opportunities to learn on the job, and role modeling. They therefore enjoy a higher probability of subsequent advancement to ownership.”[13]

The Levys appreciated German culture, particularly music and literature, and retained ties with their family members and friends back in their homeland. Jack and Hannah traveled to Germany a number of times in the 1920s and early 1930s, and Jack returned to visit his parents when he was only eighteen.[14] However, they regarded themselves as full and loyal Americans. In her later years, Hannah often wore a necklace that featured a Liberty Bell charm because she said it reminded her of the freedom she and her family had experienced in America. All the siblings were profoundly affected by the Holocaust, and they lost family members and friends back in Germany in the Nazi concentration camps. According to Jack’s daughter, as conditions worsened for Jews in Germany in the 1930s, on numerous occasions Jack implored other relatives to join his family in the United States, and for the rest of his life he was haunted by his inability to change their minds about leaving their homeland. However, the Levys were able to keep in touch with some of the friends who had been able to flee Germany for America. Perhaps the most famous of their acquaintances was the acclaimed scientist Albert Einstein, who had been close to the Hilb family in Germany. When Einstein visited the United States in 1930 and traveled from New York to lecture at the California Institute of Technology, he stopped in Denver to meet with the Levy/Hilb clan.[15]

Through the Raphael Levy Memorial Foundation, established in honor of their father, both Hannah and Jack were significant financial supporters of the University of Denver’s Holocaust Awareness Institute. Because of his German language skills, during World War II, Edward served in American intelligence in Europe and was centrally involved in the arrest of several Nazi administrators near Haigerloch. In the 1990s, he lent his support to the restoration of the old Hechingen synagogue and participated in a reconciliation program there in 1996, and was also active in American Holocaust awareness programs. Like his older siblings, Edward also became a lifelong member of Temple Emanuel and was a supporter of many civic and charitable organizations. In the 1990s, he was honored by the Denver Art Museum and Colorado Symphony for his support of cultural activities.[16]

Business Development

While Jack was working his way up at Hilb & Company, Hannah sought employment as well. Soon after arriving in Denver, Hannah applied for a job at Neusteters, an elite department store located on 16th Street, then Denver’s premier shopping district. Because of her poor English language skills the manager refused to give her a job. However, upon exiting the store, Hannah fortuitously ran into Max Neusteter, the owner of the thriving business. Born in Cincinnati to German Jewish immigrants, Neusteter moved to Colorado for his health in the early twentieth century and was later joined by his two brothers. It is likely that Neusteter was well-acquainted with Hannah’s uncle, Isidore Hilb, as they were both members of Denver’s Temple Emanuel and prominent members of Denver’s business community. Hannah greeted Neusteter and told him she very much admired his store and how disappointed she was on not being hired to work there. Neusteter instructed Hannah to come back the next morning, assuring her that he would find her a job. Thus, she began her long merchandising career in the modest position of stock girl. The incident illustrates the importance of ethnic and religious networks during the era.[17]

Hannah Levy’s instinctive flair for fashion and skill at providing personal attention to customers were soon recognized, and before long she was promoted to a sales position at Neusteters as her English improved. As was the case for so many young women in the early decades of the twentieth century around the country, becoming a department store saleswoman was a step up the economic and social ladder.[18] Throughout her fashion career, Hannah always favored simple lines and classic styles, an outlook she followed personally and used as a guide in buying merchandise for Neusteters and later at Fashion Bar. “I don’t like to dress up much,” she once declared. “I like good material, good workmanship, and something that is becoming to me.”[19]

Before long, Jack Levy realized the day of the jobber was passing and that he preferred the retail to the wholesale business. In 1933, after gaining business experience and saving enough from their earnings for investment, Jack Levy and his business partner and close friend Emmett Heitler opened their own modest sized shop at 1534 Curtis Street in downtown Denver. At the time, Heitler also worked as a salesman for Hilb & Company, but he later became a senior vice president at the Samsonite Luggage Corporation, founded in 1907 in Denver as a small trunk company by his wife’s family, the Shwayders, a Polish-Jewish family. Hannah, who had been working at Neusteters, then joined the two young men in the new venture. Hannah and Jack were only twenty-eight and twenty-five when they started the enterprise that would become Fashion Bar. When their hosiery business first opened, Jack retained his main job with Hilb & Company, and Hannah was employed as the buyer and saleswoman in the tiny store. The shop was credited with introducing nylon stockings to the Denver market, an innovative move which brought them an increasing clientele of predominantly female downtown shoppers.[20]

Using the profits from their first shop, in 1935, the partners opened a new store named the Hosiery Bar on Denver’s main shopping thoroughfare at 707 16th Street. In 1936, they bought out Black’s Dress Shop, which adjoined their business, and remodeled and connected the two stores. They expanded the Hosiery Bar business to include women’s wear, primarily lingerie and blouses. At the beginning, the Levys recognized an underserved niche and consciously catered to customers of modest means and the rising middle class “with more taste than money,” as Hannah put it, but later their Fashion Bar company introduced higher-end fashions as the potential shopping base grew.[21] Despite the Great Depression, the enterprise succeeded. Jack recalled, “The depression was rough on the retailing business… but like many other young men, I had confidence in myself and the future… it was my father’s respect for hard work and honesty that got me through the rough years of the depression.”[22]

By 1937, Fashion Bar had grown to five clothing stores in Colorado; two in Denver and one each in Colorado Springs, Greeley, and Pueblo. The latter three stores were purchased from the Green family and were formerly known as the Green Dress Shops. Because of the wider variety of merchandise offered at the combined stores, a customer contest was held and a new name was chosen for the expanded enterprise. That year the group of stores was formally incorporated under the name of Fashion Bar. By 1938, the business required full-time management, so Jack left Hilb & Company to work alongside Hannah.[23] From the start, Jack kept meticulous ledgers to record the income of the growing business. The first entry for February, 1938 noted that the five stores then in operation brought in a combined sales income for the month of $3,508.64 (approximately $54,300 in 2010 dollars). A wider picture is reflected in a company memorandum compiled in 1982 that included all Fashion Bar store sales year by year, from 1933 through 1981. It recorded that for the first full year of operation (1934) the initial store brought in total sale of $23,345 (approximately $380,000 in 2010), and in 1981 the combined revenue, before expenses, for all stores had risen to around $92 million (approximately $221 million in 2010).[24]

In 1940, Jack and Hannah Levy bought out Heitler, and the siblings took full control of the business. New stores were then opened in Boulder and Grand Junction, Colorado, and after 1950, generally a new store was added or an existing one expanded yearly. During those early decades, Jack spent long days managing the business details, and Hannah worked twelve hour days, six days a week. She usually got up at 5 a.m. to drive across the state to visit the individual stores, often not returning home before eight o’clock in the evening. Hannah not only trained personnel in all the stores around the state but often transported and delivered merchandise from her car.[25]

As the company grew, in 1941 the Levys brought in a very “bright young man,” their distant cousin, William Weil, who would become central to the success of Fashion Bar. Weil was born in Cleveland, Ohio, received a BA from Case Western Reserve, and also attended Northwestern Business School. He started work at Fashion Bar as a salesman, moved up as an assistant to Hannah, and then worked as successful buyer and merchandise manager, before becoming vice-president of the firm. As Jack’s “right hand man,” he was promoted to the position of president in 1968. From 1943 to 1946, Weil served in the U.S. military during World War II, but the Levys held his position open for him, and he resumed his business career with Fashion Bar after he returned.[26] 1941 was also the year that marked the opening of a second downtown Denver Fashion Bar store at 715 16th Street. When Weil entered the service, Hannah took over all his major merchandising tasks for the interim. For the rest of her career, Hannah served as chief buyer of women’s wear for Fashion Bar, Inc., often traveling to New York and Europe to order well-made, stylish clothing. One of her early successes occurred in 1947, when she brought in a checkerboard designed sweater that caught her eye, and Fashion Bar ended up selling 25,000 units.[27] At first Hannah concentrated on modestly priced clothing, but more expensive lines were added as time passed.[28]

After the war, in 1948 the Fashion Bar offices and warehouse moved from a 6,000- square-foot area at 1648 Arapahoe Street to a more spacious 17,000-square-foot location at 1441 Wazee Street, also in downtown Denver. In 1960, Fashion Bar closed its store at 500 S. Broadway and moved into a more modern outlet at 695 S. Broadway nearby. The firm’s managerial offices were constructed adjacent to the Broadway store. Throughout the 1960s, Fashion Bar experienced a period of significant growth after it opened a new, spacious multi-story anchor store in the heart of downtown Denver at 16th and Tremont Streets. It was an especially attractive location, across the street from one of its main competitors, the May-D & F department store chain, which had been started in Colorado in the 1870s by German Jewish immigrant David May. The Fashion Bar company leadership also took advantage of the increasingly popular suburban shopping mall phenomenon and opened numerous outlets throughout the Denver metro area and later in a few key states in the West such as Arizona, California, and Wyoming. It was a directional move pushed by Weil, with Jack and Hannah’s strong support.[29] The chain store phenomenon was not, of course, a new one in American retailing and stretched back at least to 1859, beginning with the antecedents of the Great A & P grocery company. But the growth of shopping centers in the 1950s set off a “revolution in retailing” which has continued to the present. Chain stores like Fashion Bar were “able to offset potential sales loses by opening their own units in shopping centers.”[30] Hannah credited much of the Fashion Bar chain’s success to her brother’s ability to find good locations. “The most difficult thing was to get the right leases – the right locations – that’s where the work was. People don’t realize that; they think it’s the buying.”[31]

To mark the company’s thirty-sixth anniversary in 1969, Fashion Bar launched a ten-day all stores sale, which according to Jack Levy offered “fantastic bargains” on a large variety of items that a twelve-member buying team, led by Hannah, brought in from all over the world. William Weil also noted that in the previous year the company had grown from 14 to 18 chain stores and doubled the size of its warehouse at 695 S. Broadway to 75,000 feet. By then, Fashion Bar also operated offices in Florence, Italy, New York, and Los Angeles to facilitate connections with clothing producers and fashion designers in those cities. In 1968, Jack and Hannah had named Weil company president, as Jack stepped into the newly created position of chairman of the board, and the business continued to move with the times. Over time, Weil became a partner in the company, owning a significant share in the enterprise, although not as high a percentage as Jack and Hannah’s holdings. In a newspaper interview, Weil foreshadowed the company’s future. “Our new direction is the specialty store,” he asserted, and to illustrate his point he observed that Fashion Bar had added two men’s stores, two Stage Stores, offering “sophisticated fashions for young ladies of 17 and up,” and a Young Set store, which offered clothing for children in the 3-to-13 age range.[32] Although a short-lived cutting-edge store named the Hip-Bone, which opened in 1970 and offered trendy clothes for both female and male teenagers, did not survive, its merchandise was absorbed into Fashion Bar’s other specialty outlets.[33] Eventually, Fashion Bar grew to seven divisions, each of which catered to a specific customer, including FB Ladies, FB Men’s, Stage, FB Careers, FB Petites, and FB Design, which offered cutting-edge furniture and household decorative items. The Hannah division, which featured classic women’s designer fashions, was named in her honor in 1975 to indicate her centrality to Fashion Bar’s success.[34]

Hannah became known for her “well-tuned fashion sense… instincts for trends, a pervasive sense of marketing and customer demand.”[35] The brother and sister team divided business responsibilities. As Hannah later observed “I was in merchandise, one hundred percent occupied in merchandise” while Jack managed the business end and day-to-day operations.[36] From the 1940s through the 1960s, Hannah made frequent trips by train to New York City to order merchandise she viewed at manufacturer’s showrooms. She typically spent two nights and a day and a half each way on the journey, stopping in Chicago to shop and change trains. Once in New York City, she toured showrooms from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. and then stayed up late in her hotel room to carefully choose her purchases, which she insisted were made based primarily on her “instincts” and “common sense” to determine what would best suit her customers in the American West. In the 1950s, she was buying as many as 150,000 dresses a year.[37]

For nearly a half century, Hannah served as chief buyer for Fashion Bar, often traveling to New York, Europe, and even Hong Kong, where she was one of the first in the American West to tap the Asian markets to acquire a wide selection of merchandise for the stores. In the 1960s, instead of traveling by train or ship, she started flying all over the world and clocking millions of miles to track down the new and unusual, by her own estimate spending 80 per cent of her time in travel abroad. For example, in 1966, she left Denver at the beginning of January, and first stopped in Hawaii to buy some “exciting” women’s dresses, and then flew on to Israel to purchase leather goods, followed by a stop in Iran to acquire men’s jackets. Before she returned to Denver in March, she also stopped in India to make jewelry purchases and Hong Kong for silks.[38] Sometimes she was joined by William Weil, who also was involved in major purchasing for Fashion Bar. As New York increasingly became a leading fashion merchandizing hub, Hannah did most of her business there. By the 1970s, Hannah was spending seven months of the year living out of a hotel room in New York. She kept her finger on the pulse of Fashion Bar by calling Denver each day to keep track of what was selling.[39]

Like so many successful retailers, Jack and Hannah understood that customer satisfaction was essential. They relied on robust advertising and engaging window and floor layouts to attract customers. Hannah personally set up or tweaked many of the store’s displays. One of her chief goals was to “create an atmosphere in which the buyer can feel at home.” In 1976, a Denver Post feature described her as “one of the most successful women retailers in the United States,” and noted that the national publication Women’s Wear Daily had accorded her the same distinction. Eventually, menswear and home furnishings became popular features at Fashion Bar, but Hannah’s main purview remained women’s wear.[40] In recognition of her outstanding business accomplishments, in 2001, Hannah was posthumously inducted into the Colorado Business Hall of Fame.

As was the case with so many of their competitors, the brother and sister team frequently looked for new ways to sell quality products at lower prices. Fashion Bar was one of the first stores to recognize the importance of the Italian fashion manufacturing industry. Hannah later recalled that before long she was having Italian designs tweaked and copied at less expense in Asia. “We decided to bypass the middleman [the European factory producers],” she declared, so savings could be passed on to customers. Fashion Bar was also one of the first Denver stores to work with transportation companies which had introduced the new innovation of shipping by air, often boosting sales by getting new merchandise onto the store floors well ahead of local competitors.[41] Jack and Hannah also placed significant emphasis on customer feedback. In fact, in 1971 they launched a customer survey project which was innovative enough to catch the attention of the New York–based Clothes Magazine. Jack floated a then-radical idea to Hannah and William Weil—to ask each of their 85,000 charge account customers to share their ideas about Fashion Bar as “Director for a Day.” As a reward, Jack proposed a $5 (approximately $27 in 2010) Fashion Bar gift certificate to each person who filled out and returned the questionnaire. The project expenses were close to $500,000 (approximately $2.7 million in 2010), but it was an undertaking which turned out to be a valuable marketing and forecasting tool. Hannah, Jack, and Weil read all the responses carefully, and based on the customer recommendations, they made several key decisions, including the one to continue to keep Fashion Bar closed on Sundays. The survey ended up boosting sales as well as increasing respect between customers and the company.[42]

From a small store that had concentrated on a single product only, Fashion Bar grew to a conglomerate that increasingly focused on a robust group of specialty outlets. It opened a men’s wear division in 1963 in a 1,200 foot area in one of its shopping center outlets, and it brought in $3.5 million (approximately $24.9 million in 2010) in sales in its first year of operation. The men’s division had increased to ten units by 1968. That year, Jack’s son, Robert Levy, was named vice president in charge of the men’s division, which aimed at the 20-to-30 year old bracket interested in high fashion. By the 1970s, upper-end men’s suit prices ranged from $300 to $800 (approximately $1,220 to $3,240 in 2010) each. From designated sections within the larger women’s stores, in the late 1960s Fashion Bar moved to separate outlets for men and women in shopping centers, and the men’s clothing focus outsold all other similar Denver outlets, including department store menswear During 1968, the parent Fashion Bar corporation earned over $20 million (approximately $125 million in 2010) and a profit return of over 4%.[43]

From the start, Fashion Bar prided itself on its family orientation and later a popular slogan in the 1980s touted the business as “A family of stores serving you and your family.” In addition to William Weil, both of Jack’s sons, Robert and John Levy, worked in the business beginning in the early 1960s. All three family members later served during different periods as presidents of the company. Weil retired as president and CEO in 1980, but stayed on as vice-chairman of the board and as a special consultant. Robert Levy was named Fashion Bar president in 1980, and his younger brother John succeeded him in 1986. From its inception, Fashion Bar was always consciously a family-owned and family-run business, but one which put strong emphasis on moving with the times, delegating responsibility, and building strong, positive relationships with its employees, many of whom worked for Fashion Bar for decades. As Jack Levy once put it, “We started as a family company. Now we’re a company family and all of our employees are members of that family.”[44]

Employee loyalty at Fashion Bar was cultivated and good work recognized and rewarded. All new employees received an employee handbook welcoming them to the firm and explaining company rules and regulations. They were also feted at an annual gala company appreciation banquet, and beginning in the 1930s as the company expanded, high achievers were bestowed with the firm’s annual employee awards, later named in Hannah’s honor. Hannah and Jack believed that good employee/employer relations were key to business success and that it was important to communicate the value of each individual.[45] Fashion Bar was far from the only contemporary American chain store business to successfully adopt the family metaphor. For example, especially in its early years, the Wal-Mart corporation stressed the theme of an idealized family-like employment structure to encourage both employee loyalty and good customer service.[46]

The Levys were forward-thinking when it came to employee welfare, likely influenced by the American Progressive Era emphasis on reform as well as German traditions of paternalism, which apparently led them to view their employees as part of an extended family. Jack and Hannah knew all their employees by name, took an interest in their lives, and even instituted an employee pension plan in 1962, when the company paid in $50,000 (approximately $360,000 in 2010) to initiate the project. Hannah often stressed to employees that each played a central role in the success of the business. According to Hannah, even with the most saleable merchandise, if a stock boy or girl didn’t place items in the correct location, they wouldn’t be sold. Operating from both a philanthropic impulse and the premise that content workers were the most productive, in this they reflected the corporate trend toward welfare capitalism that had originated in America in the late 1880s and became even more robust during the Roosevelt New Deal era. This mode of operation “attempted to shield workers from the strain of industrialism” and at the same discourage organized discontent through such venues as unions. In line with this model, employees at Fashion Bar were never unionized. Like other successful heads of large businesses, the Levys had reaped a significant profit from their enterprise, and they likely viewed their assistance to employees as well as their philanthropic efforts in the broader community as a means of “discharging the moral obligations it imposed.”[47]

As the company’s primary founder and architect of its business strategy, all along Jack Levy played a pivotal role in driving the company philosophy, which he summarized as follows: “There are factors in our business which make it challenging and very exciting. We must fuse impressions and needs of the dictates of style with our own taste and with the taste of our customers. We dare not be swayed too much by any of those three elements.” He emphasized that being a privately held company meant the business did not have to demonstrate huge profits to stockholders, allowing the Levys to be financially successful but also enabling them to let customer service and quality merchandise take precedence over the race to bolster income alone.[48] Although the exact details are unclear, it appears that Jack and Hannah held the majority of shares in the Fashion Bar Corporation. William Weil and Jack’s sons were also recognized as partners and held an undetermined number of the remaining shares.[49]

By the 1980s, Fashion Bar employed over 1700 people in 84 specialty stores located throughout the region in Colorado, Wyoming, Arizona, and California. It also earned the distinction of being Colorado’s largest privately-owned store chain.[50] At the beginning of 1982, Fashion Bar opened a new corporate headquarters at 401 S. Buckley Road in the Denver suburb of Aurora, which included offices and a distribution center on a plot of land that had cost $2.09 million (approximately $4.72 million in 2010).[51] During the last year of both Hannah and Jack’s lives, Fashion Bar’s sales income was at the highest point in its existence. According to a report provided by Goldman, Sachs, Inc. in May, 1984, Fashion Bar, Inc. was estimated to end the year with $112.5 million (approximately $ 236 million in 2010) in sales, with a pre-tax Profit of $7 million (approximately $14.7 million in 2010) and a net income of a little over $4 million (approximately $8.4 million in 2010). Those figures reflected a significant upturn from the 1979 figures of sales of $70.5 million (approximately $212 million in 2010), with a pretax profit of $5.8 million (approximately $17.4 million in 2010), and a net income of $3.2 million (approximately $9.62 million in 2010.) [52]

Even in their later years, when day-to-day operations were handled first by William Weil and then later by Jack’s two sons, Jack and Hannah continued to actively serve as co-chairs of the Board of Fashion Bar. The two siblings both succumbed to cancer within five months of each other (in December 1984 and April 1985), and after their deaths Fashion Bar suffered a serious downturn. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, overexpansion in an increasingly competitive market coupled with a major recession across the nation put the corporation in crisis. It was forced to close some of its stores and narrow its merchandise focus. Fashion Bar continued to stress its identity as a family-directed enterprise until it was sold in 1992. In the introduction to one of the employee handbooks, Jack Levy’s son Robert, then president of Fashion Bar, observed that “We’re a family owned group of specialty stores that was started in 1933 in downtown Denver by my father and aunt, Jack H. Levy and Hannah Levy… [Today we’re] one of the most progressive retail organizations in the country. A company of ‘idea’ people engaging in the exciting world of fashion – for people and their homes – for every life style.”[53] In 1992, the chain was bought out by a Houston-based company named Specialty Retailers, Inc. The company adapted Fashion Bar’s Stage brand for its stores elsewhere and eventually renamed itself Stage Stores Inc. Ironically, in 1995, Stage Stores Inc. closed thirty-three Fashion Bar stores in Colorado. After going through bankruptcy and a major reorganization, in 2001 it shuttered all but one of the remaining stores.[54] The Fashion Bar/Stage Store closings included the Denver downtown anchor store, a victim of the growing phenomenon of the decline of American downtown sites and the popularity of huge discount retailers.[55]

Religion, Family Life and Social Status

The Levys were an extremely close knit family, following the paternalistic model common to many German immigrant families. Family loyalty, hard work and thriftiness were stressed. After they were reunited in Denver in 1927, the Levy family, which numbered eight at the time—Raphael and Bertha Levy, their five surviving children, and Bertha Levy’s mother Mina Hilb—lived together in one large house in a largely middle-class neighborhood where many other Jewish families lived. Hannah, Jack, and Edward all contributed to and shared in family expenses by regularly giving part of their salaries to their parents. All the members of the family who lived in Denver were associated with Temple Emanuel, the Reform congregation their relative Leopold Weil had helped found.

Hannah remained single, “married to the business,” as she put it. According to Jack, Hannah had many suitors, loved children, and was committed to family life. When she was in late sixties, she reminisced in a newspaper interview that “If I had been married and had children… I don’t know if I could have done it.” The journalist who wrote the article observed that “A single-minded resistance to any distraction from the love of her life, the retail, has certainly been a powerhouse plus in Miss Levy’s career.”[56] Hannah lived with her parents in the Levy family home at 565 Clarkson Street until Raphael Levy passed away. She then resided with her mother at the Waldman Apartments until Bertha Levy died. Afterwards, Hannah lived in her own apartment at The Lanai and then finally in a beautiful spacious apartment filled with art objects at 1201 Williams Street overlooking the picturesque Cheesman Park.

1933 was a pivotal year for Jack Levy, for not only did he launch the enterprise that became Fashion Bar, but he also married a fellow Jewish immigrant, Alice Rosenthal, who was born in Hechingen, Germany, near the Levys’ hometown of Haigerloch. The Levy and Rosenthal families had been friends in Germany. In the early-1930s, Alice wrote to Jack asking him to sponsor her immigration to the United States, and Jack was happy to do so. Alice emigrated in 1933. After she arrived, they renewed their acquaintance and following a brief courtship decided to wed. The couple became the parents of three children, daughter Barbara Levy Goldburg and sons Robert J. Levy and John Levy. Jack and Alice resided first at 525 University Boulevard, then 753 Milwaukee Street, and finally in the Denver hilltop area at 2 South Bellaire, reflecting moves to increasingly upscale neighborhoods with significant Jewish populations. Jack and Hannah’s brother Edward Levy married Ann Robinson, and they became parents of two sons, Philip and Roger Levy. Their sister Kate married a rabbi, Maurice Zigmond, and had two sons; the youngest sibling, Ruth, married a doctor, Valentin Wohlauer, and had three children.

Both Jack and Hannah supported numerous Jewish, civic, and cultural causes in Colorado, including Rose Medical Center, the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, the Denver Symphony, the Jewish Community Center, and the University of Denver and helped countless individuals on a personal basis. As Jack put it, “Service is a duty. Denver and the U.S.A. have been good to me, and I want to give something back,” a philosophy that drove his and Hannah’s desire to share their good financial fortune with charitable entities.[57] In 1983, Hannah was awarded the Humanitarian Service Award by the American Jewish Congress and the Human Relations Award by the American Jewish Committee, for her “dedication to promoting the well-being of the Jewish community and of all human beings” through her philanthropic efforts. The latter award was presented by then Denver mayor Federico Peña. Jack Levy, who was a founder of Rose Medical Center and served as chairman of the Board of Trustees from 1968 to 1970, also named the Alice Levy Pavilion at the hospital in 1980 to honor the memory of his late wife, who had volunteered there. After thirty-three years of service to the institution, he was honored with its Humanitarian of the Year Award in 1982. The siblings’ Raphael Levy Foundation supported numerous charitable causes in Colorado.

Conclusion

After decades at the helm of Fashion Bar, co-founder Jack Levy still found the retail business “both fascinating and rewarding,”[58] and he continued his active role over fifty years. According to one report, Hannah was termed “one of the industry’s foremost buyers.” Even when she “retired” after fifty years in her late seventies, she remained active: “Now I work eight hours instead of 12,” she asserted. “To me, this [retail fashion] is the most exciting business.”[59] Despite many “fantastic” offers to buy them out, Jack and Hannah always declined. Jack observed “You have to love the business not to sell it at those prices. But we do love it.”[60]

Although they worked in close proximity for half a century, Jack and Hannah always remained on good terms and always insisted it was the other sibling who had contributed most to the success of the business. Jack once remarked in the 1960s that Hannah “is vice president “in charge of everything… and does all the important work around here… she is the brains of this organization.”[61] Just a year before her death, Hannah insisted in an interview that “Jack did the brain work.” She also maintained that credit should go to Jack’s two sons John and Bob, who were then serving as president and vice president. She asserted that both she and Jack were very pleased with the manner in which the younger generation was running Fashion Bar.[62]

Although a brother and sister team were not unique in the retailing industry (for example, Carrie Marcus Neiman and her brother Stanley Marcus headed the prominent Neiman Marcus company), Jack and Hannah’s congenial and long-time business partnership was unusual. This was likely due, in part, to their early upbringing in war-torn Germany and the Jewish traditions handed down by their parents, which stressed family loyalty and mutual support. They both emphasized a rigorous work ethic but were able move ahead with the times, adjusting their business strategies to better align with changing markets. Their later emphasis on specialty shops with the growth of popular suburban malls, and related real-estate investments, first advocated by William Weil, proved successful until a nationwide economic downturn and the growth of discount superstores challenged established chain stores around the country. Jack and Hannah Levy’s melding of the early Jewish and German cultural and business values instilled in them as children coupled with the new opportunities that opened up for them in the United States helped launch their successful enterprise.

To mark Fashion Bar’s fiftieth anniversary in 1983, Hannah granted a newspaper interview in which she related the company’s underlying philosophy. “We believe in growing with the times,’ she asserted. “We’ve built our business on people… When we first opened, the store was so small and the times were terrible, but I was absolutely convinced we could make a success of it. You have to make up your mind to put the interests of your customers first. Give the people service and the best for their money,” a policy the Levys aspired to throughout their entire careers.[63]

Notes

[1] Interview with Hannah and Jack Levy, 1983, on deposit in the Beck Archives of Rocky Mountain Jewish History, Center for Judaic Studies and Special Collections, University Libraries, University of Denver, Denver, Colo.

[2] “A Candid Talk with Hannah Levy, The Magnate of Fashion Bar Puts People Ahead of Profits,” Sunday Denver Post, May 20, 1984, news clipping, box 8, Fashion Bar/Levy Family Papers (hereafter FBL), Beck Archives.

[3] Allen Breck, The Centennial History of the Jews of Colorado (Denver: Hirschfeld Press, 1960), 19, 32. 45.

[4] Interview with Hannah and Jack Levy.

[5] Moreover, chain migration was far more common among German Jews than among gentile German immigrants. See Phyllis Dillon and Andrew Godley, “The Evolution of the Jewish Garment Industry, 1840-1940,” in Chosen Capital: The Jewish Encounter with American Capitalism, ed. Rebecca Kobrin (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2012), 35–61, here 42.

[6] All comparisons to 2010 dollars are made using the Consumer Price Index. See Samuel H. Williamson, "Seven Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a U.S. Dollar Amount, 1774 to Present," MeasuringWorth.com (accessed February 25, 2016).

[7] “Fashion Bar Was Born,” undated scrapbook clipping, box 1, FBL.

[8] Interview with Hannah and Jack Levy, 1983.

[9] “Edward Levy Obituary”, Intermountain Jewish News, April 6, 2001.

[10] “A Candid Talk with Hannah Levy.”

[11] Interview with Hannah and Jack Levy, 1983.

[12] “Denver’s Fashion Leader Has a Sixth Sense for Style,” Denver Post, Nov. 10, 1981.

[13] Howard E. Aldrich and Roger Waldinger, “Ethnicity and Entrepreneurship,” Annual Review of Sociology 16 (1990): 111–135, 128.

[14] An extant ship manifest records a specific journey for Hannah in 1931, although she made several other trips. Ship Manifest, S.S. Bremen, November, 1931, Ancestry.com.

[15] Phone interview with Barbara Levy Goldburg, February 12, 2016.

[16] “Edward Levy Obituary,” Intermountain Jewish News, April 6, 2001.

[17] Interview with Hannah and Jack Levy, 1983.

[18] For an overview history of women’s employment in department stores, see Susan Porter Benson, Counter Cultures: Saleswomen, Managers, and American Department Stores, 1890–1940 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986).

[19] “Denver’s Fashion Leader Has a Sixth Sense.”

[20] “Stage Closing All but 1 Store,” Denver Post, Jan. 6, 2001. Available online.

[21] Interview with Hannah and Jack Levy, 1983.

[22] “Fashion Bar Was Born,” scrapbook clipping, FBL.

[23] “After 50 Years Fashion Bar is Still Going Strong,” Rocky Mountain News, Sep. 6, 1983.

[24] “Fashion Bar Stores Highlights and Sales,” box 10, William Weil-Fashion Bar Papers, Beck Archives.

[25] “After 50 Years, Fashion Bar Is Still Going Strong.”

[26] Rocky Mountain News, Jan. 3, 1968; Intermountain Jewish News, Feb. 18, 1980; email from Weil’s daughter, Kathy Jervis, February 12, 2016.

[27] “Denver’s Fashion Leader Has a Sixth Sense.”

[28] “Jack Levy, Fashion Bar Founder Mourned,” Intermountain Jewish News, April 12, 1985, 1, 27.

[29] “Fashion Bar Store Highlights,” William Weil-Fashion Bar Papers.

[30] Godfrey M. Lebhan, Chain Stores in America, 1859–1962 (New York: Chain Store Publishing Corporation, 1963), 348, 351.

[31] Interview with Hannah and Jack Levy, 1983.

[32] “Fashion Bar Founder Recalls ’33 with Pride,” Denver Post, Sep. 24, 1969.

[33] “Fashion Bar, Into the Big Time,” Clothes, News Magazine of the Fashion Industry, Nov. 15, 1968, 15–17, 21.

[34]Hannah Levy,” Colorado Business Hall of Fame biography.

[35] “Business, Civic Community Mourns Hannah Levy,” Intermountain Jewish News, Dec. 2, 1984, 1, 8.

[36] Interview with Jack and Hannah Levy, 1983.

[37] “She’ll Buy 150,000 Dresses Each Year,” Rocky Mountain News, August 19, 1958, 10.

[38] “Hannah Levy Shops Around the World,” Rocky Mountain News, March 9, 1966, 17a.

[39] “Hannah Levy,” Colorado Business Hall of Fame biography.

[40] “Hannah Knows Her Stuff,” undated Denver Post Clipping, folder 2, box 3, FBL.

[41] “After 50 Years Fashion Bar Is Still Going Strong.”

[42] “Fashion Bar Gives Power to the People,” Clothes, News Magazine of the Fashion Industry, Sep. 1, 1971, 14–17.

[43] News clipping from Clothes, News Magazine of the Fashion Industry, August 1, 1968, folder 3, box 3, FBL.

[44] “Jack Levy, Fashion Bar Founder Mourned.”

[45] “Hannah Knows Her Stuff,” news clipping, FBL.

[46] See Bethany Moreton, To Serve God and Wal-Mart (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2009), especially chapters 4 and 5.

[47] Sanford M. Jacoby, Modern Manors, Welfare Capitalism Since the New Deal (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1997), 13, 14.

[48] “Levy’s Philosophy Guides Fashion Bar,” Rocky Mountain News, Sep. 23, 1965.

[49] Estate of Levy v. Commissioner, 63 T.C.M. 1739 (1992) (accessed February 11, 2016).

[50] “Jack Levy, Fashion Bar Founder Mourned.”

[51] “After 50 Years Fashion Bar is Still Going Strong.”

[52] Goldman, Sachs & Co., Confidential Memorandum on Fashion Bar, Inc., May 1984, box 5, FBL.

[53] “Welcome to Fashion Bar Booklet,” c. 1985, folder 6, box 3, FBL.

[54] “Stage Closing All but 1 Store”; Stage Stores Inc., “About Us,” (accessed February 11, 2016).

[55] For a detailed account of the decline of downtown shopping across the United States, see Alison Isenberg, Downtown America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004).

[56] “Top Retailer Hannah Levy Never Stops Running,” Denver Post, May 18, 1972, 47.

[57] The Rose Celebration Book (Denver: Rose Medical Center, 1982), 5.

[58] “Fashion Bar Founder Recalls ’33.”

[59] “Denver Has Arrived,” Electric City, Colorado’s Fashion Transformer, Oct., 1983, folder 4, box 3, FBL.

[60] “After 50 Years Fashion Bar is Still Going Strong.”

[61] “Little Lady with Big Mind for Business: Hannah Levy,” undated scrapbook clipping, FBL.

[62] Ibid.

[63] “Fashion Bar Will Celebrate Gala 50th Anniversary,” undated clipping, Intermountain Jewish News, folder 4, box 3, FBL.


Cite this Entry

APA Style

"Hannah Levy." (2018) In Immigrant Entrepreneurship, Retrieved May 27, 2018, from Immigrant Entrepreneurship: http://www.immigrantentrepreneurship.org/entry.php?rec=268

Chicago Style

Abrams, Jeanne. "Hannah Levy." In Immigrant Entrepreneurship: German-American Business Biographies, 1720 to the Present, vol. 4, edited by Jeffrey Fear. German Historical Institute. Last modified May 19, 2016. http://www.immigrantentrepreneurship.org/entry.php?rec=268

MLA Style

"Hannah Levy," Immigrant Entrepreneurship, 2018, Immigrant Entrepreneurship. 27 May 2018 <http://www.immigrantentrepreneurship.org/entry.php?rec=268>

Weil, William and Hannah Levy on a buying trip in Italy, ca. 1980s

  • Exterior of a Fashion Bar “Hannah” store, ca. 1980
  • Fashion Bar, downtown Denver location, ca. 1970s
  • Jack Levy at the celebration of Fashion Bar’s 32nd anniversary in 1965
  • William Weil and Jack Levy, ca. 1970s

See more images »

TOP