Albert Nipon: Back In Business Out Of Prison, He Looks To The Future Of His Fashion Empire

Posted: May 12, 1987

Before sentencing Albert Nipon to three years for income-tax evasion and bribery, U.S. District Judge Raymond J. Broderick told the prominent Philadelphian who ran the family-owned, $60 million-a-year fashion empire: ''You know what you were doing was wrong. You must serve a sentence. . . . You'll be able to survive and become an even greater man than when you go in."

That was two years ago.

The other morning, Nipon sat in his office in his North Broad Street factory and talked, with hesitancy and poignancy, about picking up the threads of his life.

It hasn't been easy.

In the first interview focusing on his personal ordeal, Nipon never mentioned the word prison but instead talked of his "experience."

He gave an account, in bits and pieces, of going from a world of power and glamour to a life of empty days, of being buoyed by friends and family and of becoming determined to "come through it better, not bitter."

"For a while, it seemed like it has been one kick in the head after another," said Nipon in a quiet voice, absently fingering the glasses that dangled from a cord around his neck. "I came home Jan. 29 (from a minimum- security facility at Eglin Air Force Base at Fort Walton Beach, Fla.) and two days later, Saturday, I was here working in the office, excited and happy to be back, when I got a phone call about my brother."

Nipon's younger brother, Edward, a retired vice president of the company, and his wife, Sylvia, had been shot to death in their oceanfront condominium in Hallandale, Fla.

Two weeks ago, Bernard Gordon Rubin, the couple's son-in-law, and two others were arrested in connection with the slayings.

The headlines about Rubin came only a week after Nipon had been in the news. He had been forced to close his factory here and his Seventh Avenue showroom in New York when a consortium of local banks cut off his company's line of credit. The bank debt was quickly renegotiated, and two days later Albert Nipon Inc. was back in business.

Returning to the helm of his company, where his wife, Pearl, oversees the design division, has restored both Seventh Avenue's confidence in the beleaguered business and Nipon's confidence in himself.

"When you've spent your life waking up every morning and having responsibilites to your work, to your family, and then all of a sudden you are

put in a situation where you have nothing to do, you feel guilty," said Nipon, leaning back on a beige sofa in front of a wall covered with family photographs, awards and sleek magazine spreads."The only thing you have to do is to turn that all into yourself. Here I am, taking care of myself, working out, reading, and you feel guilty not being able to help anyone or contribute to anything. That was the hardest thing to adjust to."

At 60, Nipon has the taut, wiry body of a man far younger. With his handsome chiseled features, neatly trimmed dark hair and stylish attire (blue shirt, dotted blue tie, mustard-color vest and gray trousers), he looks like the typical American power broker. Yet there is no bravura air about him, and there are deep lines etched around his eyes. Nipon seems more subdued and more reflective, although as calmly confident and genial as ever.

"Oh, you know, people love a survivor," he said with a smile.

The roller coaster of crises appears to have ended, and if life doesn't have its former gloss (dinner at the White House, articles in People and Architectural Digest), things are certainly looking up.

Next week, Nipon will complete his sentence. No longer will he have to spend nights at a halfway house but will be free to return to Wooded Hill, his palatial Gladwyne estate. He can resume traveling and is scheduled to appear in store promotions around the country and make a business trip to Asia.

Bergdorf Goodman, the New York specialty store, plans to open a Nipon boutique in September, and after several significant losses (annual sales are off about $15 million from their peak of $60 million), Nipon said, the company has turned around and that orders "can't be shipped fast enough."

On the glass coffee table in front of him is the morning's copy of Women's Wear Daily, the bible of the fashion industry, with a favorable front-page story that not only boosted company morale but also set phones ringing in the New York showroom with congratulations from retailers and interview requests from the media.

"I'm surprised and pleased," he said. "The retailers have had a lot of confidence in the business. You never appreciate how you are perceived until you get in a situation where everybody comes out and rallies to support you."

The support of Seventh Avenue, however, was nothing compared with the comfort and encouragement he received from family and friends during his incarceration.

"The one thing that is the most gratifying to me is that I found I had more friends than I ever realized," said Nipon. "Everybody, just everybody, was supportive. I was in a situation where there were a lot of men among whom the rule was 'Now you find out who your friends really are,' and most of them had great disappointments. I can't say that. In fact, I had more pleasant surprises. It was obvious to everybody just by the amount of mail I had and the friends who came to visit. It was - incredible."

Discussing his 20 months at Eglin was, understandably, difficult for Nipon, who at one point gently chided his inquisitor to "deal more in the future and present and not so much in the past."

Nipon countered the popular notion that sentences at minimum-security prisons, such as Eglin and Allenwood in Pennsylvania, are nothing more than mandatory vacations at country clubs populated by ex-Wall Streeters and former politicians.

"When you are stripped of everything material and physical and emotional, I don't care what the surroundings are, I don't know how anyone can call that a country club," he said softly. "You have a job to do - I sorted clothes or cut grass - but it's just a job, a menial job. The challenge is to keep yourself busy, and I did that.

"When the only thing you have is your mind, I understand now the tendency to become more spiritual. I was fortunate enough to be selected for a seminar at a rabbinical college. I learned a lot about Judaism, history and the Bible; I don't think I would have been able to do that otherwise."

He talked of "making the best of a situation," and of becoming more philosophical about life. He pointed to a glass of water on the coffee table and said he preferred to see it as half-full.

"When you go through crises and you come through them, you certainly are stronger," he said. "So are family feelings. . . . For some reason, a lot of people expected we wouldn't come through this as well as we have. But we've always been a close family, and we've stayed close. . . . It probably made us all closer."

Of course, the question underlying everything is: Why? Why would a successful, prominent businessman risk everything by flouting the law?

It is not an easy question to answer, and Nipon could only grope for an explanation. "Everybody makes mistakes in life," he said matter-of-factly. ''There is nobody who doesn't. I made a mistake." As advice to others, he offered that no one should "make any decisions when you're put under


Until two years ago, the Philadelphia-born Nipon had been known for making smart business decisions.

A Temple graduate, Nipon worked as an accountant for Du Pont before he and his wife began building their fashion empire in 1954. With his wife doing the designing and Nipon supervising the business end, the couple developed a small Philadelphia dress shop making maternity clothes into a chain of 116 maternity stores called Ma Mere.

In 1972, with the birth rate declining and women wearing casual separates, the Nipons abandoned maternity clothes and decided to focus on dresses.

"People told us we were crazy - women were wearing pantsuits, not dresses," said Nipon, recalling the early years of his company. "But we created a market. We became the leader in the designer-dress industry."

Indeed, few will dispute the company's prominence in the dress business or the popularity of its feminine, elegant dresses with the tucks, pleats and little bows that have become its signature. Numbered among its famous fans were Rosalynn Carter, Nancy Reagan, Barbara Walters and Mary Tyler Moore.

At the pinnacle of its success, in the mid-'80s, the annual sales of the Nipon empire, which included several licensees, were estimated at $60 million.

Along with the financial rewards came glamour and social status (the Nipons were invited to the White House for a state dinner honoring the president of West Germany) and glowing publicity (articles in the New York Times, Fortune, People and Architectural Digest).

And then there was the jewel in the crown: the 6.8-acre Gladwyne estate, whose landscaped grounds contain a pool and tennis court and whose stone mansion is decorated with antiques, a Waterford crystal chandelier and Chinese hand-painted wallpapers.

Renovations to the Nipons' spectacular home were passed off as "business expenses," an impropriety that didn't wash with the IRS.

During Nipon's 20 months in prison, Pearl Nipon, the design director and chief executive officer, and Nipon's son Laurence, president and chief operating officer, ran the company. (Sons Leon and Andrew also work in the family business; only daughter B.J., who lives in Atlanta, does not.)

Nipon's absence took its toll. What with financial setbacks coupled with the seasonal capriciousness of the fashion industry, the company's volume is now estimated at $45 million, according to Nipon.

However, he is confident that business is on the upswing: Sales have improved dramatically since last year's losses; negotiations are under way with new licensees (the company has nine licensed items), and with the current trend to short, tight clothes, Nipon stands to acquire a legion of women who prefer more classic, ladylike styles.

"In my absence, the family was spread too thin," said Nipon, who arrives at work every morning by 7 o'clock. "Things were slipping through the cracks. But now everybody can just concentrate on their own jobs."

His plans, he said, are to concentrate on his business and spend time with his family and friends. Which seems feasible, now that his financial crisis is settled and arrests have been made in his brother and sister-in-law's slayings.

"The first time I ever laid eyes on him was at my brother's funeral here in Pennsylvania," Nipon said of Rubin, the son-in-law accused of slaying Edward and Sylvia Nipon. "Fortunately or unfortunately, I didn't have that much contact with Eddie. I only saw him twice in the last couple of years. I knew very, very little of what my brother's life was like or what he was doing in Florida."

As the interview drew to a close, the talk turned once again to business.

Does he think his imprisonment has in any way tarnished the Albert Nipon label?

"I have found that within the industry, among my friends and to a certain amount of the public . . . they are aware of my problem," he said. "But most consumers still think of Albert Nipon as a fashion designer who makes beautiful, long-lasting clothes. And that's the way I like it."

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