Lillian Vernon was born Lilly Menasche in Leipzig, Germany. To escape the perils of World War II, Lillian and her family fled to Amsterdam, Holland then to the United States, settling in New York City.
She attended New York University, but, like many women at the time, left after two years to get married.
Two years later, in 1951, using $2,000 of wedding gift money, a 4-month pregnant Lillian Vernon started her mail order business. Her goals were modest at first: earn a few extra dollars to pay household bills and keep occupied while awaiting the birth of her child.
She placed a $495 sixth-of-a-page ad for a personalized handbag and belt in Seventeen magazine and filled orders from her suburban Mount Vernon, New York apartment using her kitchen table as her office. She used the remainder of the money to buy an embossing machine and the handbags and belts.
The ad was a tremendous success, bringing in more than $32,000 in orders--and her business was launched.
Why did Lillian choose mail order? "In the early days of my pregnancy, I spent a lot of time flipping through magazines like Seventeen, Glamour and Charm. It wasnít the articles that intrigued me so much as the ads in the shopping columns. One morning, while leafing through magazines in my usual fashion, I was struck with an idea. Why couldnít I sell something through the mail out of my home? I would be using my experience and the skills I had acquired picking out handbags for my father, a leather goods manufacturer, buying gifts on my honeymoon and observing shoppers in many other places."
Why a handbag and belt? "I had worked for several years in my fatherís leather goods business, which manufactured bags and belts. I was familiar with the styles of the day and had helped him design a number of best sellers. In fact, I designed the very first Lillian Vernon handbag and belt and his factory produced them."
Why didnít Lillian choose an office job to earn extra cash? "To work outside of the home as a pregnant women was taboo back then."
Hereís how Lillian explains the birth of her company and her trademark, personalization, in her autobiography, An Eye For Winners:
"One afternoon in early 1951, as I was walking restlessly through my fatherís plant in Manhattan, my business plan was solidified. Handbags. I knew about those, why not sell them, and belts to match. Didnít every teenage girl, strolling along the street, anywhere in the United States, sport a handbag and belt? And my handbags would offer something special: each one would be personalized with initials. I knew with absolute certainty that teenagers would go for items that made them feel unique. What I didnít know was that Iíd hit upon an idea that would become my trademark. Monogramming!"
Lillian is deeply grateful to her father, Herman. "To this day, the smell of raw leather and saddle oil conjures up an image of my father sitting at his drawing board, his talented hands giving shape to my designs. He never treated me as anything less than equal, and from that I learned a lot. His optimism and determination are part of his legacy to me."
Early on, Lillian handled virtually the entire operation by herself--selecting and designing the merchandise, writing the copy, opening the mail and shipping the orders. Today, during their peak season, more than 5,100 people are working to serve customers at Lillian Vernon.
Lillian soon outgrew her kitchen. In 1954, her company took over a storefront for a warehouse. She rented a building next door for her monogramming operation, and a store across the street became the shipping department.
Two years later, the Lillian Vernon catalog was born--16 pages in black and white, mailed to 125,000 customers who had responded to her ads.
In 1965, Lillian Vernon Corporation was formed and five years later annual sales soared past $1 million for the first time as women began flooding the workplace and had less time to shop.
The company has come a long way in 48 years from Lillianís kitchen table in Mount Vernon, New York. Today, Lillian Vernon is a $255 million company with a state-of-the-art corporate headquarters and national distribution center. Each year, the company introduces more than 3,000 new products and receives 4.8 million orders.
As chief executive officer and chairman, Lillian continues to play a central role in the company, travelling around the world searching for new merchandise and overseeing the design, layouts and copy of each catalog.
In addition, she believes strongly in giving back to her community. Each year, the company donates funds and merchandise to more than 500 local charities, religious, and civic organizations.
Lillian serves on the boards of several non-profit organizations, including Lincoln Center For The Performing Arts, Virginia Opera and the Kennedy Center For The Performing Arts. She has spoken at many universities and has received several honors including induction in the Direct Marketing Hall of Fame, the Ellis Island Medal of Honor, Big Brother/Big Sisters National Hero Award and Gannett Newspapers Business Leadership Award.
She is especially committed to encouraging the careers of women.
"When my company became a big supplier to Revlon in 1963, I was told that Charles Revson was surprised to hear that a woman headed Lillian Vernon Corporation. Why did he think the name wasnít a womanís? When I shopped for merchandise at trade fairs, suppliers would frequently ask ĎAre you buying for a gift shop?í or ĎDo you run a little business in your basement, dear?í"
"I think about how far ALL women have come in the past four decades. Once I was considered unique, a pioneer woman. Today, a successful woman is no longer a novelty. Still Iíll always remember the salesman who asked, ĎDo you girls really know what youíre doing?í"