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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Charles Blau

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-05-22

Charles Blau says he possesses the "Magic Eye."

"This comes from observing customers very closely over a lifetime of serving them," the chairman of Lederer de Paris said. "What having the 'Magic Eye' means is that whenever anyone comes into my store, I can tell in an instant what they would want."

Mr. Blau snapped his fingers.

"Just like that," he said, snapping his fingers again.

"It's having 'The Magic Eye' that makes a big difference," Mr. Blau said. "Every merchant worries about how to match your merchandise with the population that walks into your store from all walks of life. I like to believe that I have a feel for the customer's needs."

He began developing that feel as a young boy while working for his father Otto Blau, a Viennese immigrant who came to America soon after World War II. Mr. Blau, now 88, had been an acclaimed designer and maker of handbags who found that, after a business sojourn in Turkey, he was prevented from returning home by Hitler's Nazis. He rebuilt his business in Paris.

When the father founded a handbag manufacturing business after moving to New York, his two sons Charles and Robert would spend all their free time with him.

"We saw through his eyes what he wanted to achieve," Charles Blau said. "My brother and I liked the fashion world from an early age. Our father taught us designing. And from him we learned values such as hard work, self-confidence and discipline."

He demonstrated how well he'd learned those values not only while working with his father but also attending City College at night.

"When you're young, you can do anything," Mr. Blau said. "But I felt that there was always something hanging over me - the dreams of my father. My brother and I would do absolutely anything for him. As it happened, we got an adrenalin rush from creating, manufacturing and selling something extremely well."

He got a special adrenalin rush at the age of 24 when he designed a leather handbag that the fashion industry at once hailed for its soft design. At about the same time, Mr. Blau's father introduced a line of women's dresses in leather. That, too, was a hit, fetching him numerous awards - and additional orders from retailers.

Among those retailers was Lederer de Paris, a luxury good company that had been founded in 1898. Its owner, Raymond Biggar, was a great admirer of products manufactured by the Blaus. In 1993, he offered to sell Lederer to them; the Blaus closed down their manufacturing business and took over Biggar's shop.

"We decided to give the store a fresh lease on life," Mr. Blau said. "We wanted to make it a fun store. So to complement its leather bags, we brought in items like ties and watch boxes. The customers loved all that."

Lederer's customers had long included movie stars, top politicians, CEOs, and European royalty. Alfred Hitchcock was a regular. So is Paul Anka. Indeed, the only other store in New York City that enjoyed a similar clientele was Mark Cross. Mr. Blau decided that he would build on the traditional roster of customers, and expand it to include young professionals.

"I would stand behind the counters - I still do - and ask questions of our customers," Mr. Blau said. "I wanted to find out myself what they wanted."

Some wanted bamboo umbrellas. So Lederer began stocking these.

Some wanted duck umbrellas. So Lederer began stocking these, too.

Some wanted attache cases. So Lederer introduced a large line, including one called the "Investment Banker," and another made with white leather, which had been specially ordered by a woman who'd just been made CEO of her company.

The woman said to Mr. Blau: "Ever since I was very young, I would pass this store and stare at all those things that I couldn't afford. Now that I can, I thought I'd give myself a gift."

She ordered not one but two attaches.

On another occasion, an old man came to Mr. Blau's store in a Rolls-Royce. His chauffeur ran into the shop and told Mr. Blau that his boss was too ill to walk in himself, so could he please show him some items?

The man had been a long time customer, and so Mr. Blau walked out with the goods himself.

"Would you mind if I took these items home with me to show them to my family?" the man in the Rolls-Royce said.

"You are most welcome," Mr. Blau said.

As he recounted the story, Mr. Blau smiled.

"You know - that man bought everything he'd taken home," he said. "That's the kind of mutual trust that my customers and I have."

Some of those customers have been known to spend as much as $90,000 at one go. Some customers have requested exclusive shopping time during after hours. Lederer has several customers who are fifth generation clients.

"They keep coming to us because the Lederer name stands for excellence - for longevity and style," Mr. Blau said.

He's now in the process of finding a new, larger location further up on Madison Avenue (Lederer is at 51st street). He's also planning Lederer stores in Beverly Hills, Geneva, Houston, Palm Beach and Paris.

Mr. Blau not only visits these cities to scout for locations and to develop new clients, he also visits antique shops to get a feel for what the past has to say to the present.

"Even touching a piece of an old fabric can inspire me in my designs," Mr. Blau said. "I can feel the vibrations."

Mr. Blau said he also feels the vibrations of his heritage from his father and mother Pearl.

"My father is my leader," Mr. Blau said. "Life is all about getting a good foundation. My parents nurtured us. They gave us certain values and a feel for life that you cannot buy."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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