Geraldine Stuz

Geraldine Stutz (Walter Pippin/New York Times)

She launched Andy Warhol’s career, she revolutionized merchandising with Henri Bendel, and she scented the fashionable streets of New York City with Agraria’s Bitter Orange.

Geraldine Stutz and Buster, who's been opening doors to Bendel's for almost 60 years. (Women's Wear Daily, 1974)

Above: Geraldine Stutz and Buster, who’s been opening doors to Henri Bendel for almost 60 years. (Women’s Wear Daily, 1974)

It was 40 years ago this month, that Geraldine Stutz put Agraria at the first door of Henri Bendel and nothing has been the same since. Stutz was a visionary in the retail world. With her investment team, she was essentially the first woman to helm a world-class luxury retail store — Henri Bendel.

Stutz’s first big coup in the world of fashion and retail was the collaboration with Andy Warhol on I. Miller’s famous shoe ads and campaigns. Long before the most famous artist in the world painted his Campbell’s Soup cans, Stutz knew his sensitive, liquid line art would encapsulate the style of the times.

It was a natural transition in her ascendancy to be ensconced at Henri Bendel where she took the leadership position in 1957. Henri Bendel had a reputation for bringing the most exclusive European fashion lines to the store. They were the first American retailer that Coco Chanel would allow to sell her creations..

Geri Stutz focused the store on a young, hip, urban woman — not unlike herself. Ms. Stutz described her taste for what she called “dog whistle” fashion: “clothes with a pitch so high and special that only the thinnest and most sophisticated women would hear their call.”  And her vision of what defined ‘fashion’ came to include home decor, inventive menus, and even the fragrances in the home.

Henri Bendel's "Street of Shops" with Scentiments on the right.

Above: Henri Bendel’s “Street of Shops” with Scentiments on the right.

Stutz’s 1958 overhaul of the main floor at the store, at 10 West 57th Street, into a U-shaped “Street of Shops” was widely acknowledged as a precursor to modern shop-in-shop merchandising displays.

Robert Rufino, the former vice president of creative services at Tiffany & Co., is one of the many retail executives who found career initiations and inspirations with Ms. Stutz. He designed windows for the company in the 1970′s, and recalled Ms. Stutz’s ability to intermingle her acquisitive fascination with art and film, infused with fashion.

Rufino offered: “In those days, there was nothing else like Henri Bendel. It was like working for the best house in the world. To take this little town house and make it look like someone lived there, as you were going from room to room – it was just one woman’s vision on the world of fashion, and yet it did incredibly well.”

He also said in an interview about her:  No matter what the task, large or small, her motto was: If you are going to do it, do it once and do it right and be gutsy.

Maurice Gibson and Stanford Stevenson, the original founders of Agraria

Above: Agraria founders, Stanford Stevenson and Maurice Gibson, photographed in 1984 at the Scentiments Shop during the week-long celebration of the 10th anniversary of Agraria. The signature brown and white Henri Bendel boxes (to the far right with the green ribbon and gold Agraria logo) are filled with Bitter Orange Potpourri.

Often friends would suggest items to Stutz they thought might appeal to the Bendel’s “type.” But in this case it was a gift from a friend that made the first connection.

Sam Deitsch was one of Geraldine Stutz’s oldest chums — their friendship dated from early years in Chicago.  Gibson and Stevenson knew Deitsch when he was about to open the North Beach bistro Washington Square Bar and Grill.

Deitsch was a fan of Agraria and on a trip to Manhattan in ’74 he stopped by Henri Bendel (Stutz was away at the time) and left a box of Bitter Orange with her assistant.  Ms. Stutz  was pleased and liked it well enough to call and invite Gibson and Stevenson to come to New York for a meeting. The magic happened and for the next ten years 10 West 57th was home.

A year later Scentiments, the in-store home fragrance boutique, was opened. Stutz’s sense that fragrance defined style influenced her wise placement of the lattice worked jewel box to be right by the front door of the store and as the doors opened and closed all day long, the luxurious scent of Bitter Orange poured out onto the street luring the well-heeled clientele inside. Many years later, Vogue magazine quoted Michael Kors: “I thought 57th Street was heaven.  I smelled the Agraria potpourri wafting out of Henri Bendel, but I just thought the street smelled good.”

Stutz’s high-profile promotion of Agraria as the scent of the Park Avenue set was what established Gibson’s and Stevenson’s creation as a world-class home fragrance house.

“The way a house smells is one of the most important elements in decorating and entertaining,” Geraldine Stutz said, and for that we are very grateful.

Geraldine Stutz

Above: Geraldine Stutz

“What is the difference between mere fashion and true style? Fashion says ‘Me too’, and style says ‘Only me’.” Words to live by from Geraldine Stutz.