A Better Idea

An interview with DRESS BARN, INC., CEO ELLIOT JAFFE


Elliot Jaffe, W-49

Alumnus Elliot Jaffe, W '49, began his career in retailing at Macy's in New York. During his time at Macy's, Jaffe met and married his wife, Roslyn, an employee of Gimbel's. And while the question is almost always rhetorical, we did have to ask: " D id Macy's tell Gimbel's," or vice versa? Elliot Jaffe's answer is a resounding " No, we never talked shop." What they did talk about was a store of their own and a plan to make it a reality. Today, that collaboration has become the Dress Barn, Inc., a women's clothing chain that employs 7,000 people and is pushing toward the $500 million mark in sales.

The idea for Dress Barn came in 1962 while Jaffe was working as a merchandise manager at Macy's. Jaffe noticed that certain retailers had begun to discount " hard goods," items such as televisions, radios, and appliances. At these retailers one could buy a $1,000 brand name item for the discounted price of $750. But the concept stopped with hard goods. In clothing, for example, there were no bargains: a $2 tie sold for $2 and if you wanted a $25 tie, you paid $25 for it. Jaffe believed he cou ld apply the discount concept to clothing but, with three young children and a wife to support, he couldn't afford to leave his job. Roslyn Jaffe stepped in and offered to run a pilot model while her husband supported the family.

When the store opened, it broke all the conventional retail rules: you had to climb a flight of steps to get into it, there was no parking, it was on a one-way street. Countering all this was an idea whose time had come, and within several months the st ore had become so successful that a policeman was sometimes called for crowd control. Jaffe watched the business grow for about six months and then left Macy's and joined his wife. Today, when he's asked how he became successful, he answers, " I marr ied a woman who wasn't afraid of work."

The same kind of foresight got Jaffe into Penn against formidable odds. When he graduated from high school in 1943, he found World War II at its height. Jaffe, just seventeen, was ready to fight. Being too young for combat, however, he and his fellow r ecruits were given uniforms and sent off to Syracuse University for a training program. " It was at that time that I started thinking about going to college," he remembers. " I was close to a cousin who was Wharton '35 and decided that's wher e I wanted to be. I sent off the application with a note that said, 'Please hold until the appropriate time.'"

When he got out of the service in 1946, there was an incredible crush of students heading for college. Penn separated its applicants into groups such as returning soldiers who had started at Penn, freshmen right out of high school, and others. Jaffe was in the group with the lowest priority—those who were trying to transfer into Penn from another school. He had taken so many classes at Syracuse while training for the service that he was looked at as a transfer student. During that time, however, he had also kept in touch with the Penn admissions office. " I had a lot of free time and so I wrote Penn letters. Each time I wrote I'd tell Penn what I was up to and what I would like to do in the future. As a result, when I reapplied after the war, I w as one of a very small number—possibly two—transfer students who were accepted. I found out much later that I was accepted because I had such a fat dossier from all those letters."

It was after graduating from Penn that Jaffe went to work at Macy's. " The decision was made," Jaffe recalls, " with the help of Craig Sweeten, a truly wonderful man, who was then head of the placement office. I had no idea of a career choic e, and he asked if I had a family in business or any connections. When I said no, he asked me what I thought of an executive training program. I thought that had a nice ring to it—assuming he meant as in U.S. Steel or General Motors or something like th at. Sweeten surprised me by saying, 'I've always been excited by department stores. You go in and bells are ringing and people are scurrying around and it's really bustling and exciting and I'd really recommend that.'"

What Jaffe was being told, very tactfully, was that in 1949 most of corporate America was not going to hire a young Jewish man for one of their training programs. Sweeten was so subtle that many years passed before Jaffe recognized the real message. Swee ten thought the best retail training program in the country was Macy's, and so Jaffe applied. They took a class of 25 from an applicant pool of 10,000. " I wasn't really sure that this was what I wanted," Jaffe recounts, " but I couldn't re sist the challenge. I made it, stayed thirteen years, and left to start my own business."

In the spring of 1990, with that business a success for many years, Elliot and Roslyn Jaffe pledged to fund the renovation of the building on the southeast corner of Walnut and 34th Streets in Philadelphia. When completed, it will become the new home of the University's History of Art Department. The renovation includes the addition of two state-of-the-art classrooms that will look out across College Green.

Interestingly, Jaffe took very few humanities courses while at Wharton. " I didn't have room for any art or music appreciation courses in my schedule but, to be honest, since no one had ever planted the seed, I probably wouldn't have taken them up on my own. And when I got out of Wharton, I was really charging ahead to make up for the years I had lost to the military and the war. It was only many years later that I realized just how I had deprived myself of the fullness and richness that the arts ca n bring to life. As a result, I understand what it is to come out of the cultural desert, so to speak, and now that I can make a contribution, I want it to be in an area that I missed, such as History of Art."

Jaffe's knowledge of art is self-acquired, and his art collection is focused on the Abstract Expressionism done in the 1960s, primarily by artists of the New York School. He describes his approach as similar to learning about food: " The first time, it tastes totally new and strange. The second time, you think about what's in it. The third time, you begin to judge whether this serving is done well or not so well. That's where I am with art. I've had no formal training, and my small group of paint ings is just my own taste -- pieces that I have some feeling for."

He hopes that the new Elliot and Roslyn Jaffe History of Art Building, with its well-equipped classrooms, will draw more students to History of Art courses. He'd like to see kids from the community be able to use the facility and get a taste for art a bi t earlier than he did.