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Ohrbach's, a bargain fashion store with branches in New York, New Jersey and California, achieved a national reputation in the 1940s and '50s for its low-priced, high-quality copies of French couture designs.

On Oct. 4, 1923, Nathan M. Ohrbach and Max Wiesen opened a store on New York's 14th Street to sell irregular clothing, job lots and manufacturers’ overstocks. Crowds overwhelmed the store on opening day. Police were called, and additional merchandise had to be rushed in to fill the empty racks. A Miracle Day Sale, a duplicate of the opening-day event, was held at the end of every month for the next three years.

The two owners disagreed about business policies, however, and in 1928, Mr. Wiesen sold his interest to Mr. Ohrbach, who quickly discontinued the special sales. Instead, Mr. Ohrbach instituted the policy of making every day a sale.

In 1928, he hired Grey Advertising Agency. Many of Grey's early ads for Ohrbach's were one-panel cartoons depicting the adventures of a young lady called Melisse who always snared her man and asserted that "the girl in the Ohrbach dress" was irresistible in all situations.

Ohrbach's institutional ads were extremely effective. At the opening of its Los Angeles store in 1948, thousands of customers were lured in by the radio and newspaper ads. Nine minutes after the doors opened, they had to be closed, and the police were called in to keep order. By afternoon, radio announcements told listeners, "Please don't come to Ohrbach's today; come tomorrow, or next week."

The launch of DDB

Mr. Ohrbach grew unhappy with Grey and asked Bill Bernbach, Grey’s VP-copy and art, to start his own agency with Ohrbach's as its first client. On June 1, 1949, Mr. Bernbach opened Doyle Dane Bernbach with Ned Doyle, a VP-account executive at Grey, and Maxwell Dane, who was running a small agency at the time.

Mr. Bernbach designed the Ohrbach ads personally. Whimsical illustrations, ample white space and short, often humorous copy characterized the ads. The most famous ad featured an image of a cat with a large hat and long cigarette holder saying, "I found out about Joan," followed by catty copy about how Joan dressed like a millionaire by shopping at Ohrbach's.

The success of Ohrbach's attracted other accounts to DDB, including Henry Levy & Sons Bakery, Avis Rent a Car and Volkswagen.

Through smart advertising and merchandising, Ohrbach's was transformed from an unfashionable odd-lots store to a "high fashion at low prices" boutique. Ohrbach's assortment of designer fashions and line-for-line copies of French couture fashions attracted bargain-hunters of all economic levels. Customers included movie stars Joan Crawford, Jane Russell and Lauren Bacall, as well as royalty.

Ohrbach's moved its New York headquarters to West 34th Street off Fifth Avenue on Aug. 26, 1954. This new location brought it into direct competition with Macy's, Gimbels, Lord & Taylor and B. Altman. Some 100,000 persons crowded into the store on opening day. Macy's ran an advertisement welcoming its new neighbor: "If you live through this, you are ready for Macy's."

In the early 1960s, Ohrbach’s had approximately $80 million in annual revenue. The chain was sold in 1962 to the Brenninkmeyers, a Dutch merchant family who shifted the business' direction. The store, once famous for its quality copies of designer apparel, sold lower-priced and poorer-quality merchandise in the 1970s and 1980s. It went out of business in 1987.

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