Ira Neimark, who started in retail as a department store pageboy and went on to build Bergdorf Goodman into the standard-bearer for luxury shopping, died on April 18 at his home in Harrison, N.Y. He was 97.
His death was confirmed by his daughter, Robin Neimark Seegal.
As the leader of Bergdorf Goodman for more than 17 years, starting in 1975, Mr. Neimark (pronounced NEE-mark) helped transform it into an arbiter of high fashion that catered to the richest New Yorkers and wealthy visitors from around the world
Under Mr. Neimark’s watch, Bergdorf helped start the careers of young designers like Michael Kors, whose clothing was given coveted space on the sales floor.
In New York’s crowded retail landscape, Bergdorf — which was founded in 1899 as a tailor shop and has been in the same Fifth Avenue location since 1928 — has continued to stand out even as its parent company, Neiman Marcus, struggles with a large debt load resulting from a private equity buyout.
Rather than expanding the Bergdorf brand widely around the country, as department stores like Macy’s and Lord & Taylor have done, Mr. Neimark largely concentrated on the store’s New York presence, catering to women shopping for $200,000 furs and bankers seeking suede shoes and sumptuous suits.
Even with the rise of online shopping, many luxury retailers have come to realize, as Mr. Neimark did, the importance of investing in a marquee store.
“Ira had a strong point of view about how Bergdorf has to be unique and different than the companies he competed with,” Terry Lundgren, a former chief executive of Macy’s, said in an interview. “He set the tone for the Bergdorf that you see today.”
Though Mr. Neimark projected a keen sense for how the wealthy lived and dressed, he faced financial challenges growing up in Flatbush, Brooklyn.
Ira Neimark was born on Dec. 12, 1921, to Eugene Neimark, a lawyer, and Lillian (Braude) Neimark. His father died when Ira was 11, leaving his mother to raise him and his two brothers. To support her sons, she worked as a department store saleswoman.
At age 16, Ira left high school and got a job at Bonwit Teller, the luxury department store on Fifth Avenue. (It was eventually torn down to make way for Trump Tower.)
He later attended night classes at Columbia University, but he said it was the many different jobs he held in retailing that taught him the most about business.
His first job at Bonwit Teller was as a pageboy, greeting businessmen who visited a club inside the store. He soon had another job, opening the store door for customers, who often pulled up in limousines and accompanied by footmen.
In his book “Crossing Fifth Avenue to Bergdorf Goodman: An Insider’s Account on the Rise of Luxury Retailing” (2006), Mr. Neimark recalled that once, while working as a door boy, he witnessed Salvador Dalí pushing a bathtub through a display window that Dalí had designed. The artist, he said, was unhappy that a fur coat had been removed from a mannequin in the display and sold to a customer.
“I heard a deafening crash as a fur-lined bathtub pushed through a plate-glass window,’’ Mr. Neimark wrote.
Mr. Neimark went on to work in the handbag department of Bonwit Teller; later, as an office assistant, his job was to highlight the most important articles in Women’s Wear Daily and show them to the company’s top executive.
He left the store to join the Army Air Forces. He was trained as a pilot and served in the Pacific during World War II.
But even in the military, he remained focused on retailing. During flight training he would visit large stores around the country and send his observations back to the executives at Bonwit Teller.
After the war, Mr. Neimark went to work for the Gladdings department store in Providence, R.I., where he met Jacqueline Myers, who worked as a buyer for her family’s leather goods stores. They were married in 1953.
Mr. Neimark had been working as executive vice president and general merchandise manager of B. Altman, another retailer, when he was recruited to be Bergdorf’s president in January 1975. It was at Bergdorf Goodman that he made his biggest mark.
He set about expanding the store’s fashion credentials, which he believed were lagging behind those of Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdale’s. To the city’s socialites, Bergdorf’s offerings seemed safe, dull and expensive. Mr. Neimark wanted to bring more excitement to the store.
In his opinion, he wrote, the ideal Bergdorf customers should be “the women who went to the best restaurants; the women who stayed in the best hotels; the women who belonged to the best clubs; the women who went to the best resorts.”
To help him reach those customers, he hired Dawn Mello to revamp Bergdorf’s fashion offerings.
In the early 1980s, Ms. Mello stumbled upon Mr. Kors setting up a clothing display in a window of a specialty store on Fifth Avenue. She asked him who the designer was; Mr. Kors said that he was.
“I arranged to see him in my office days later,” Ms. Mello recalled in an email. “He arrived with an armful of clothes. Ira and I gave him a little space in the store, and the rest is history.”
Mr. Neimark was also a director of Hermès in Paris and an adjunct professor at Columbia Business School. He retired from Bergdorf in 1992.
In addition to his wife and daughter, he is survived by five grandchildren and a great-grandson. An older daughter, Eugenie Neimark Lewis, known as Janie, died in 2016.