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John Weitz: Designer, Author, Race Car Driver and More With AM-Fashion Preview Bjt

October 26, 1985

NEW YORK (AP) _ He’s a former U.S. intelligence officer, race car driver, author and photographer whose works hang in a New York museum. But the world knows John Weitz best for his savvy fashion sense.

At 62, Weitz’ handsome, chiseled features and his scrawled signature are familiar around the globe. His face peers out from countless ads and his signature label is on scores of products ranging from clothing to luggage.

Weitz is a multimillionaire whose accomplishments are as varied as the wares he sells.

A shrewd, articulate businessman, he has used fashion to free him to experience life as few ever have the means or the time to do.

He makes his home on Park Avenue and Long Island’s Hamptons, where his neighbor John Steinbeck encouraged him to put pen to paper. ″We told each other a lot of stories and he told me, ’Write yours down.‴

Weitz has published four novels, written a fifth and is starting on yet another. His last published work, ″Friends In High Places,″ is about Nazi Germany, as is his just finished fifth book.

His knowledge of Nazi Germany is personal.

Born in Berlin to a wealthy texile manufacturer, Weitz was 15 when his family fled to England. A year later the precocious lad was enrolled in one of England’s most prestigious schools, Oxford University.

He immigrated to the United States in 1940, became an American citizen and enlisted in the Army. He was assigned to the Office of Special Services, the forerunner of the CIA, to help liberate the Dachau concentration camp.

But it was in England that Weitz got his first taste of the fashion world.

Unhappy with the world of academia, Weitz left Oxford to take a job apprenticing with a London couturier because ″there were a lot of pretty girls there.″

″I thought it was a great idea at 16. I still think it’s a great idea at 62,″ said the thrice-married Weitz. His wife is former actress Susan Kohner.

Wearing a tailored navy suit, matching tie and broadcloth white shirt during a recent interview at his Manhattan office, the designer shrugged off his many other talents.

″Years later designing was the only thing I knew,″ said Weitz. ″When it became a matter of making a living″ fashion unquestionably became his profession.

After more than 40 years in the industry, Weitz, whose trademark is the traditional, classical look, is not afraid to stand alone. He shuns Seventh Avenue and its biennial season previews. Even his office is on Madison Avenue.

″There is a great error being made when one assumes that people innovate fashion every six months,″ Weitz said. ″All they can do is amuse the press.

″I only show new things when I’m really ready for them and when other people seem really ready for them. That could be once every six months, once every six years,″ he said.

With more than 30 licensees in the United States and Japan and his name on such diverse products as cigars, ice buckets, cutlery and home sewing patterns, John Weitz doesn’t need runway shows to spread the word about John Weitz.

His varied interests bring in between $250 million and $300 million a year on the wholesale level.

Unlike other designers, Weitz does not own stock in a manufacturing company. ″It leaves me unencumbered with factories. Leaves me free. Instead of having to pump stuff through a manufacturing company, we license companies to produce our designs and to use our name,″ he said.

Weitz actually designs only a small percentage of the merchandise bearing his name, but supervises and retains veto power over the rest.

He was one of the first American designers to pioneer the concept of selling one’s name for profit when he signed his first licensing agreement in the early 1950s.

The licensing arrangement also gave Weitz the freedom to pursue his love of cars. Weitz collects vintage and model automobiles and has designed his own car, but never marketed it. He also was a licensed amateur race car driver until 1960, when he stopped because ″I got scared.″

″It was fun for as long as I treated it the way you treat a weekend ride or skiing,″ said Weitz. ″The last few races I really found myself driving faster than my good judgment told me ... I was taking chances that were unreasonable.″

More recently, Weitz took up photography - a longtime interest - as an exercise in design.

Enlisting 43 New York men, from Mayor Edward I. Koch to New York Philharmonic Music Director Zubin Mehta, Weitz put together a free-style portraiture collage. The collection is now owned by the Museum of the City of New York.

Weitz made his start in womenswear, but today almost exclusively designs for men because ″men’s fashion is not as vulnerable and changeable.″

Known for his reasonably priced merchandise, Weitz explained, ″We don’t need to reach into the expensive areas in order to establish more authority.

″If you buy something with the John Weitz name on it,″ he said, quoting a favorite Weitz motto, ″You won’t go wrong and you won’t go broke.″

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