Articles

FORTUNE IN A MILLION FIGURES

MCKENZIE PORTER November 15 1949
Articles

FORTUNE IN A MILLION FIGURES

MCKENZIE PORTER November 15 1949

FORTUNE IN A MILLION FIGURES

MCKENZIE PORTER

IN THE middle of 1937, when Adolf Hitler was chewing rugs between meals and shaking fat little fists at his pet hallucination—The World Semitic Plot—a 16-year-old Jewish girl called Rose Starkman packed one cardboard suitcase and fled in terror from Poland to Canada.

At Montreal the immigration men saw before them a frightened, quaintly garbed adolescent who was remarkable for her exceptionally conical bust. Her tawny hair, high cheekbones, green-grey eyes and flat nose suggested Slav rather than Hebrew extraction. But she professed Judaism proudly.

She had traveled steerage. She could speak Yiddish and Polish fluently, German, French and Spanish brokenly, but not a word of English. And she had $20.

She had a married sister in Kitchener, Ont., who guaranteed her against becoming a charge on the public. So Rose Starkman was permitted to enter Canada as a refugee under the classification “domestic servant.”

Today, 12 years later, and still on the right side of 30, Rose owns her own $25,000 house on Connaught Circle in a comfortable quarter off Toronto’s St. Clair Avenue, and an expensive summer place on Lake Simcoe. She drives a new Buick and travels frequently by air. Her wardrobe holds plenty of $200 model gowns and suits. There is a mink coat there too, and an ermine cape. Her jewelry would satisfy a film star.

She has the figure and carriage of a dancer, the dress tastes of a society sophisticate, the husky voice of a Garbo and suddenly, unexpectedly, the radiant personality of a musical-comedy ingenue. She is also the mother of a six-year-old girl and a 20-month-old boy.

Did Cinderella marry a prince? By no means. Nine years ago when Rose Starkman met Hy Marx on a Jewish factory picnic and soon was married to him their pooled capital wouldn’t have filled a piggy bank.

The story of Rose’s rocket ride to riches stems from that two-dollar-fifty brassiere which she wears under her more costly slips. She made its prototype in Warsaw when she rebelled against the Polish teen-age custom of crushing the breasts flat with a band of toweling.

Today she is selling $1 million worth of her patent brassiere annually to North Americans. Rose Marx Braz are retailed from coast to coast in Canada and in every major eastern United States city. Rose claims that hers is the only Canadian brassiere sold in bulk across the border. There it has the added allure of the tag “imported” to offset heavy duties.

Since 1939 Rose has risen on the swelling bosom of the “40’s” from an aged treadle sewing machine in a $10-a-month back room to ownership of 150 power machines and a four-floor factory on Pearl Street, downtown Toronto.

She employs 145 operators, 15 office workers and 10 commercial travelers. Her agents are dotted across Canada from Victoria to Newfoundland. There is hardly a big city in the country without billboards 100 ft. long by 30 ft. high voicing the piquancy of Rose Marx French Uplift Braz against a cascade of musical crotchets and semiquavers.

She spends upward of $50,000 a year on advertising in magazines, newspapers, radio shows, store windows, streetcars and powder rooms.

This year she has already given away to retailers 2,000 plastic busts in her hallmark colors of blue and pink to show off rayon, nylon, taffeta, satin and broadcloth bras dyed navy, orchid, maize, nile green, tearose, black, white and nude. They cost her $6 apiece.

Her four main designs are the French Uplift for everyday wear, the Teen Bra for schoolgirls and the Plunging Neckline and Laced Back Strapless for daring modern evening gowns. The most expensive is the Long Line Strapless retailing at $3.50 and the cheapest is the Teen Bra which is snapped up at $1.00 by thousands of saucy kids.

Rose started making three or four bras a week in her spare time. Today she mass produces 24,000 a week.

In Rose’s large eyes there is a light, of perpetual wonderment, as if she could hardly believe her good fortune; one of her most engaging mannerisms is to bring her tiny feet together in a little jump, clasp her painted fingers before her lips and exclaim hoarsely “Ooo-ooh!”

She adds: “It couldn’t have happened anywhere except in a free-enterprise country.” She’s never heard of Horatio Alger.

Eighteen months ago Rose realized to her amazement that she was famous. A Detroit department store made a special showing of her bras. With great reluctance—for she’s a shy woman—she agreed to that grand gesture called “a personal appearance.” She was mobbed by 500 stenographers.

The same thing happened in Buffalo, Rochester,

Here’s the uplifting story of Rose Marx who, 12 years ago, was a refugee with $20, now is sewing up a fortune. It could only happen here, she says

Syracuse, Albany, Schnectady and New York. In North American accents now bearing only a hint of foreign break she says, rolling her eyes, “It was terrifying! I never thought business could turn out like that.”

On her return home she got a letter from a stenographer in the States which read: “On behalf of all the cave-chested, hoop-backed girls who once slumped over a typewriter I wish to thank you for yanking us upright again.”

An American vaudeville act which calls itself the Hubba Hubba Girls sought exclusive rights to wear Rose Marx Braz on the stage. They got rights, but not exclusive, and they receive bras free in return for a plug.

A Winnipeg gynecologist wrote her last year for a consignment of bras so that he could point out to medical faculty students several features which he believed might prove to be of value to expectant mothers.

Down in New York a lingerie model who is used in many ads because “she fills the cups so perfectly” has become known as “The Rose Marx Girl.”

Canadian models showing fashions at the recent CNE all wore Rose Marx bras.

Rose claims that the secret of this brassiere which in less than 10 years has swollen the pride of a million women lies in a wide band which encircles the body immediately below the bosom; the laceup back, and the absence of elastic, whalebone and hooks.

Up until the middle 20’s, she says, men looked first at a woman’s face. Later they switched the first appraising glance to the legs. Now, she believes, it is the bust-line which gets first attention. The comet-like success of her business is strong evidence she is right.

When she talks today in the cocktail bar of her new red-brick, colonial-style, richly appointed home, Rose spreads an infectious gaiety among her numerous and frequent guests (“For heavens sake, Hy, switch off that old television . . . Has everybody got a drink?”).

But when she remembers how she was once thrown out of her home as an undesirable after disdainful neighbors had reported her for sewing until 3 o’clock in the morning, and how Hitler murdered her mother and father when the Nazis got to Warsaw, tears well up through her smiles. (“In Poland people called me names and said Hitler would soon get rid of me. I daren’t go out for three months after 1 reached Canada because I was afraid they’d laugh at my English. Some people think I’ve been lucky. But it wasn’t always so easy.”)

Europe was already trembling to the tramp of marching feet when Rose decided to leave her father’s flour mill in Warsaw. He didn’t want her to go, but she was scared. She didn’t believe him when he assured her that the flame of anti-Semitism would soon flicker out just as it had many times before. But when she insisted on joining her sister in Canada her father risked jail by getting her 200 Canadian dollars in defiance of currency restrictions.

With this she joined the great tide of Jews flooding westward from all the eastern European countries toward the sanctuary which lay behind the English Channel. But Rose stayed only five days in England and embarked at Liverpool. When she reached Canada she had $20 lelt.

She stayed helping her sister do housework in Kitchener until the middle of 1938, then, with a smattering of English, headed for Toronto to make a living. She still had $20. Ten dollars went immediately on advance rent for a grubby room in the Spadina dressmaking district. It was three weeks before she got a job. Toward the end she was living on one cup of coffee and one bun a day. She lost 28 lbs.

The New World didn’t seem so marvelous then.

Finally she got a job alongside scores of other girls at a battery of sewing machines and she made $15 a week on piece work. When her English improved she moved to Junior Miss Garments Ltd. on Adelaide Street, Toronto, and worked so skilfully and fast she made $20 a week. Within a year she was an overseer at $30.

She moved to a tiny downtown apartment on Augusta Avenue and bought a used sewing machine. Other girls at work had complimented her on her bust. She told them she always made her own bras. Then she started making bras for her workmates. This stepped up her income to $50 a week.

The war broke out and she did not hear from her parents again. She tried to cure her terrible grief with work. Her fingers got sore with sewing and her knees ached over the treadle. She couldn’t bear the idea of going to the movies or a dance. She couldn’t read English. So she wept and slept and sewed, alone, night after night, week after week.

Rose made bras for two girls who moved info the same apartment house. These girls were employed with hunj dreds of others by the John Inglis Co. j Ltd., engineers, on Strachan Avenue. They brought Rose orders for bras from war-working girls. Rose gave them 10 cents on every bra they sold for her. In 1940 she was making two dozen a week and working at Junior Miss as well. She rarely got to bed before 3 a.rn. and she had to be up again at 6.

Then she took a day off, went on a picnic, met Hy Marx, another refugee who had risen from the sewing machine j himself to manager of a small lingerie firm. He was a seemingly weighty and lugubrious young man but in his big sad eyes there was a glow of drollery.

They married and moved into a duplex on Albany Avenue in the east end. Each continued in daytime employment but at night Hy worked the sewing machine in the duplex j while Rose cut out the bras for a j growing clientele at John Inglis. Scores of Inglis girls were soon wearing Rose’s bras and they noticed certain males whistled at them even in overalls.

Rose and Hy often worked all night. Week ends meant nothing to them except concentration on home work. Hy often fell asleep over his machine and Rose would nudge him. Once Hy slipped while asleep, moved the treadle and almost put a stitch through his nose.

They began to clear $100 a week above their wages.

And the Neighbors Complained

One week end when Rose was visiting her sister Hy took orders from 40 customers for bras. He recalls in hollow tones with a sleepy smile: “Rose i didn’t like the idea very much. But j business is business. Funny how the j girls didn’t seem to mind. Must have j been the war or something. At first I I enjoyed it but in the end I never j wanted to see another bosom. Ever since I’ve had nightmares.”

Neighbors complained about them manufacturing in a residential district and they were thrown out of the duplex after a three-month argument. But this was in 1943 when they were ready to expand anyway.

They threw up their jobs and went into full-time business. Hy had a tricky time getting a manufacturer’s license out of the wartime authorities. But he pulled it off.

Two apartments over the Ro3'al Bank at the corner of College and Spadina became their living quarters and factory. Rose did all the cutting. Hy and two hired girls sewed.

No retailers had yet come into the picture. The demand for their brassieres sprang entirely from a reputation spread by John Inglis girls.

Hy was called to the Army. About the same time Rose went into hospital to bear their first child. When she got home she looked after the baby boy in one apartment, then, when he was sleeping, nipped into the other to cut bras, fit customers and keep the girls up to scratch.

Rose started to scan the commercial horizon. Timidly one day she walked into Fuller’s Ladies Wear on Bloor Street. She produced the first sample of the Rose Marx French Uplift Bra. A 30-year-old manageress tried it on and her eyes popped. She ordered 50 dozen—$600 worth. Rose panicked at the size of the order and wrote Hy breathlessly.

By a combination of luck and good management Hy got himself posted near Toronto. He was unfit for overseas. Every night he would rush away from fatigues and square bashing to work the sewing machines. Rose then got an order from Virginia Dare Stores for $2,600 worth.

Within a few weeks they were employing six girls. Rose wouldn’t entrust the cutting to anybody else and she worked 14 hours a day and minded her baby as well.

In 1944 they moved to an old store with an apartment above on Bloor Street. The store part became a factory and during that year they increased their sewing machine operators to 40. Cutting was done by dye stamp from Rose’s patterns. In those 12 months they sold $55,000 worth of bras.

Instead of Fear, Impudence

They got free advertising at first. Toronto stores inserted ads announcing that they had the Rose Marx bra on sale. In 1945 when they moved to the Pearl Street factory and bought themselves the house on Connaught Circle they reported sales of $150,000 worth. In 1946 revenue jumped to $260,000; 1947, $450,000; and 1948, $750,000. This year they say their sales have gone well over the million mark.

One of their biggest customers in Canada is the Hudson’s Bay Company. Rose wooed this account carefully toward the end of the war when her output lagged far behind demand. “I used to let them have an extra five dozen or so when I could ill afford them,” she says.

For eight hours, five days a week, Rose now works in an office 10 x 12 ft. adjacent to her husband’s which is the same size. On one office door is the name “R. Marx” on the other “H. Mai'x.” Both offices are atumble with plastic busts bursting out of cartons or burgeoning under Rose Marx Braz. Alongside is the tiny main office with its clerks and stenographers.

These three offices are a startlingly modern corner of a very old-fashioned factory. All da3' long they are vibrated gently by the 150 power sewing

machines upstairs and the clump of the dye on the cutting machine below. They have a beehive atmosphere. A stead3’ stream of salesmen twit the office girls. There is a great coming and going of forewomen, odd-job men and messenger ho3’s. The switchboard girl is constantly shouting “Longdistance !”

The office staff all appear rushed and harassed hut over the hustle reigns a happy-go-lucky air fired hy constant badinage. Instead of fear of the bosses the girls appear to display an affectionate and daughterly impudence.

Up in the sewing room more than 100 girls bend intently over the whirring machines, each making one little section of a bra with darting hands, and passing it on to the girl on the left. At the end of the line several women iron the finished product and pile them into little turreted castles.

The faces of the workers are a racial medley. There are Japanese, Chinese, Negro, Jewish and Christian girls from almost every European country’. The overseer is an Englishwoman around 40 who looks as if she might have been an officer in the army.

The Buyers Buy Her Lunch

The girls are not union members, though the Marxes would not oppose their joining an organization. The lingerie industry seems to have been mainly overlooked by union organizers so far. Rose says she pays her girls above average (on a piece-work basis). Most of them make around $35 a week. Rose points out one girl who because of her speed earns $100 a week and runs a Buick the same model as her boss’s. The girls seem to adore Rose. They know she started from the very bottom and she is a living encouragement to them.

Rose believes her bra sells mainly on its flattery, comfort and price. “Girls who’ve worn elastic securings find the laces hard to get used to,” she says, “but once they’ve run them in they generally' stick to ours. Also you’ve got to follow the instructions carefully when you put them on otherwise you don’t get the full effect.”

The Marx advertising always shows the same clean-cut girl with arms raised above the head. There is nothing especially subtle in the letterpress. (“This clever design gives you that young, firm, natural uplift, so necessary to this year’s fashions. The laced back gives automatic perfect fit figure control. The wide band gives extra support.”)

Rose vetoes any sexy ads. Some bra makers use phrases like “The bra with the T dare you’ neckline.” Rose will have none of it. A few of her glossy magazine ads have a suggestion of slinky, shadowy glamour, but they are never erotic.

Several times a week Rose lunches with buyers. As the vendor she might be expected to pick up the check. But buyers compete for dates with her and always insist on paying. Says one: “It’s fun taking Rose out to lunch. The business is automatic and incidental.” She is always richly, fashionably and tastefully dressed and so attractive men get a bang out of being seen with her. Hy keeps in the background.

Rose intends to concentrate entirely on brassieres. She has investments in other lingerie companies but doesn’t intend to manufacture any other lines herself.

Now she is considering making falsies, but as yet she hasn’t taken this step. Says Rose Marx, who should know, “No matter how small a woman is built she can always show something attractive if she wears the right type of bra.” it