Fortunoff: The Rebirth

Northeast consumers connect Fortunoff with value, the tagline “The Source,” and its once-ubiquitous ads with Lauren Bacall. But industry associations aren’t as pleasant. In 2004, the family sold the 80-plus-year-old chain to hedge fund Trimaran Capital Partners; things soon went sour, and four years later, Fortunoff filed for Chapter 11 protection. Immediately after­ward, another investment group, NRDC, scooped it up—only to send Fortunoff to bankruptcy court again a year later. This time, there were no buyers.

But perhaps you can’t keep a good brand down. Following the original company’s liquidation, the family repurchased the Fortunoff name and intellectual property. The name has since been licensed for outdoor furniture, and now siblings Esther and David Fortunoff, working with jewelry manufacturer Clover II, are relaunching Fortunoff as a jewelry retailer. A website is premiering next month, and new stores will open mid-2011, most likely in the company’s home base in the Northeast. JCK recently interviewed Esther Fortunoff and Clover II’s Lester Friedlander.

JCK: What will the new stores carry?

ESTHER FORTUNOFF: We want to have forward-looking merchandise at prices that make sense. There is currently a bifurcated market of low-end and high-, but not much in the middle. Consumers are spending money in a more thoughtful way. The jewelry has to be the right product, and there has to be a reason to want it.

JCK: Clover also owns the Robert Lee Morris brand. Will that work together with the new brand?

Lester Friedlander

LESTER FRIEDLANDER: Robert Lee Morris is a separate brand that became part of Clover in 1998. [It’s] run and managed separately. For­tunoff will be run…in the same way. Clover will act as the sourcing company for Fortunoff. All the specific brand characteristics will be driven by Esther. She will be the chef, and we will be the kitchen. Fortunoff always had high quality standards. That is what kept people coming back.

JCK: The family didn’t control the business over the last few years, but even so, Fortunoff went Chapter 11 twice and hurt vendors. Do you think suppliers might be leery of the new company?

LF: The Fortunoff family were deeply saddened by the actions of the people who took control of their company. If the Fortunoffs had control of the business, they wouldn’t have let anything happen to their valuable suppliers and people they had relationships with.

This is a privately held venture, not something where we don’t have control. There is no other entity involved other than the principals.

JCK: How are the Fortunoff outdoor furniture stores doing?

EF: They are doing well.… We get e-mails all the time asking us when the ­jewelry business is coming back. We were part of people’s lives. There are customers who went to us for three generations of memories and celebrations. That’s really the essence of the jewelry business.

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