David Tracy, Titan in the Home Textile Industry, Dies at 98

April 12, 2022

Filed Under: Big Ideas & Innovation, inspiration, Leadership

By David Moin

Photo Credit: WWD

David Tracy, who began working in a Massachusetts mill at age eight and rose to become one of the most prominent and influential textile executives for decades as president of Fieldcrest Mills and subsequently vice chairman of J.P. Stevens, died Saturday of natural causes at his assisted living apartment in Manhattan. He was 98.

Tracy brought sophistication, flair and innovation to the home textile industry when it was otherwise dominated by “white sale” promotions and basic colorings and styles. He was instrumental in elevating designer businesses — Yves Saint Laurent and Ralph Lauren, among others — from ready-to-wear collections into full lifestyle brands through licensing arrangements and marketing strategies bringing stylish, high-quality sheets, towels, pillowcases and comforters into the mix. He also is credited with reengineering Royal Velvet into a leading upscale towel label.

“He saw what a lifestyle brand could look like, understood the value and importance of brands to the consumer, and was a real risk-taker,” said John Idol, the chairman and chief executive of Capri Holdings.
Idol was an entry-level salesperson of sheets and towels at J.P. Stevens when he met Tracy, who was then vice chairman. “I knocked on the his door, introduced myself just to say hello, and he instantly took an interest in who I was and what I was thinking,” Idol recalled. “He was a leader who cared about mentoring people.”
“Dave was an original, a disruptor before there were disruptors, a charismatic executive in the home fashions business which lacked such luster,” said Elaine Hughes of the executive search firm E.A. Hughes & Co., a division of Solomon Page. “Dave defined branding before anyone knew what that meant. He did so through identifying brands that the consumer would gravitate to and licensed the name, most notably Ralph Lauren in 1984. The Ralph Lauren license he negotiated was brilliant. It was enormously successful. He not only developed brands but also talent. A number of executives who worked for Dave have gone on to create fantastic businesses, John Idol is one.”

“When I was starting my Home Collection business almost four decades ago David Tracy understood my vision about creating quality products within different lifestyles, not just sheets. David helped make that happen and transformed the home industry in many remarkable ways,” said Ralph Lauren.

Born in 1924, Tracy grew up in Uxbridge, Mass., one of six children in a poor Irish Catholic family. “He started working at age eight as a newspaper boy and on weekends he worked in mills, cleaning the looms. They just had no money,” said Tracy’s daughter Kellie Goldstein, a vice president at Michael Kors, who confirmed her father’s passing.

“My dad had a very dry sense of humor, and a big personality,” said Goldstein. “He loved to talk. He would talk to anybody, a cab driver and ask where he was from. He was curious about people. He wasn’t afraid to give an opinion, whether it was solicited or not. He told you exactly how he felt. He was a tough businessman but extremely loving and really cared for people and saw the positives of life.”

Even after retiring and into his last years, Tracy stayed engaged, sharp-witted and interested in the industry. Just last week, Goldstein toured stores in the New York-metro area, visiting Woodbury Common and Garden State Plaza, among other centers. “My father wanted to know all about how the stores were doing, what they looked like, what was selling,” she said. “He just loved always learning,” and conveyed the importance of it.

“He was strict, strict with school and felt that when you graduate you’ve got to have a job,” said Goldstein. “He knew the power of hard work, that it wasn’t about just earning. It was more. It was what it did for your mind and development as a person, and he really respected women in business.” That was quite rare in an age when women were not as valued as men in workplace environments, particularly within the male-dominated textile industry.

Tracy had a long career in the textile and home industries, holding positions at the Calvin Klein Home Collection, Fabria.com, working as a consultant as well as being a top executive at Fieldcrest Mills and J.P. Stevens. Both companies are no longer in business, as the entire domestic textile industry fell victim to consolidations and bankruptcies, and the inability to compete with producers in Asia, where labor costs have been much lower.

“I met Dave as a divisional merchandise at Allied Stores,” said Steve Goldberg, who runs SGG & Associates, a consumer consulting company. “He became a mentor for me. I was a kid and he was a very senior executive. I had the benefit of him taking time out of his day to talk about business. He was really a visionary guy,” Goldberg said, noting that Tracy, among others of his innovations, developed the “color wall” which displayed dozens of towels in different colors for maximum visual impact. “He put fashion into a rather mundane category and understood the power of fashion and brand importance.”

Tracy graduated from the Harvard Business School in 1948, served in the U.S. Navy during World War II and was an avid golfer. He belonged to a handful of golf clubs around the world and had a home in Southampton, N.Y., where he often golfed. As a consultant later in his career, he served as an adviser to retailers, brands, private equity firms and investors. He also served on some boards, including CHF Industries, a home fashions company.

A year and half ago, Tracy fell and required hip surgery. “When he came out of surgery, the doctor said he had the bones of a 70-year-old,” Goldstein said. “He was a warrior.”

“I knew David for 52 years,” said Michael Gould, the former chairman and CEO of Bloomingdale’s. “I met him when I was a sheet buyer at Abraham & Straus,” which years later folded into Macy’s. “David wasn’t just selling product. He was a terrific marketer of home textiles.  He really understood quality and positioning, and protecting brands for the future. That was one of the great lessons we all learned from David.”
Aside from business, Gould bonded with Tracy over sports, particularly professional teams from Boston, since both were from Massachusetts. They socialized together with their families. “He just always had a zest for living,” said Gould.
“In 1969. I was the assistant buyer at A&S in sheets when I first met David, who was president of Fieldcrest,” said Arnold Orlick. “Among his greatest traits, I’d say he loved people and talking to people. He loved teaching us. He would be talking to me as if I was the buyer or the general merchandise manager. He had the same amount of respect for people just entering the industry as for those who had been in the industry for awhile.”
Orlick, who went on to become GMM of cosmetics and home at Bloomingdale’s, CEO of Fortunoff’s,  and president of the Rich’s/Lazarus divisions of the former Federated Department Stores, said Tracy “really brought designers into the soft home business, when designers were not into designing sheets. People felt he was there to protect the brand and run something on a less promotional basis. No one else was doing that. He took the business to a whole different level for the department stores. He was probably the greatest marketer of product of the time. He worked with Ralph and pulled together the whole home world of Ralph Lauren. Department stores didn’t know how to do it in those days. It was Ralph’s vision, and David pulled it together. At J.P. Stevens, he created a whole division for Ralph Lauren.”
A funeral service for Tracy will held Wednesday at 10 a.m. at the Saint Vincent Ferrer Catholic Church, 869 Lexington Avenue in Manhattan. Aside from his daughter Kellie, Tracy is survived by his son Brendan, both from his second marriage. He is also survived by his son-in-law Jeffrey Goldstein; a daughter-in-law, Jessica Tracy, and a son, Shawn Tracy, from his first marriage.
For the full article, visit: wwd.com.


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