By Published on .

Legions know of the J. Peterman Co., Lexington, Ky., and its renowned Owner's Manual of fanciful high-end apparel and accessories.

Yet few within the direct marketing business, and fewer still among J. Peterman's growing customer base, know much about the man behind the catalog's romantically scripted text and its signature selling style.

For one thing, he's not company President John Peterman, but Don Staley, president of Staley, Fox, a small New York agency that claims J. Peterman as its biggest client.

Mr. Staley has been consulting copywriter and creative director since the inaugural issue in 1987. He's also the second-largest shareholder behind Mr. Peterman, 47, in a company with sales of more than $50 million last year. Their success grew from a small direct mail venture begun by the veteran creative and Mr. Peterman, a Kentucky entrepreneur.

In 1987, Mr. Peterman was a marketing consultant for several companies when he was drawn into apparel marketing. He began informally offering one item to his friends-a long canvas duster that business associates and acquaintances admired whenever he wore it.

Mr. Staley, now 60, remembered meeting Mr. Peterman through a mutual friend.

"He stopped in New York-he'd been in Jackson Hole, Wyo.-and he walked into my apartment ... wearing this duster, that long canvas thing that we've all seen in the movies. I said, `This [coat] is somewhere in the back of everybody's memory, but they wouldn't know where to buy one if they had the courage to buy one. I think we ought to run a little ad in the back of The New Yorker.'

"We made a deal. I said, `As I start spilling out ideas in the course of our friendship, if we ... want to go forward with [an idea for a business] and actually work on it, let's do it, and we'll split the pain and the misery and the fame and the money, if there is any, 50-50,' and he said fine."

Mr. Staley said the first catalog was "kind of a pathetic little piece that had a few things in it ... but as the thing grew, [Mr. Peterman] stuck his neck out further and further, and I started letting my clients go."

Mr. Staley's copywriting career began at McCann-Erickson Worldwide's San Francisco office in the early '60s. After rising through the creative ranks there and in the agency's New York office, Mr. Staley moved to Wells Rich Greene and Ted Chin & Co.

He opened his own shop with BBDO Worldwide account man Bob Fox in 1978. Although the two soon parted company, Mr. Staley continued to operate the agency with his wife, Dian.

From the first New Yorker ad peddling the now celebrated duster, the dauntless, swaggering J. Peterman image was born.

So bold is the J. Peterman appeal that cartoonist Garry Trudeau lampooned the company this year by referring to a J. Pretensions catalog in his "Doonesbury" comic strip.

Peterman now mails six Owner's Manuals each year to more than 14 million households, selling an eclectic collection of sports- and casualwear and accessories. The company also has another two issues each year of the 3-year-old Peterman catalog known as Booty, Spoils & Plunder. That catalog, written by Mr. Staley in much the same voice as the Owner's Manual, offers high-ticket fun and collectible items imported from all over the world, such as 1950s Chinese motorcycles with sidecars.

Here's a sampling of copy from Peterman's spring catalog for Hemingway's cap, a cotton baseball-style hat with a long deerskin bill: "He probably bought his in a gas station on the road to Ketchum, next to the cash register, among the beef jerky wrapped in cellophane .*.*. I had to go to some trouble to have this one made for you and me, but it had to be done." Cost: $35.

Free-lance artist Bob Hagel's illustrations and art direction also help build the brand's simple elegance. A select group of free-lancers lend their talents, too.

The copy is well-received by the Owner's Manual's loyal readers.

"Peterman is so different, you have to open it up and read it," said Elizabeth Cooperstein, 31, a senior publicist for Macmillan General Reference, New York, who claimed to get at least one catalog daily. "The first time I read one, I think the approach made me more inclined to buy."

"This is relationship marketing at its best," said Steve Conroy, 44, president of Conroy Public Relations, Boston. "Peterman tells fabulous tales about the merchandise ... and the use of illustration adds an element of mystery to his approach."

Still, Mr. Conroy has never ordered from the catalog because he considers the goods too expensive.

"I think the fact that we're a viable business and that we've grown fairly rapidly since the start of the catalog testifies to the strength of the creative work," said John Rice, senior VP-chief financial officer at J. Peterman.

The company's growth comes as total catalog revenues reached a record $51.5 billion in 1992, an average growth of nearly 7.6% a year since 1987, according to the Direct Marketing Association.

Gary Levin coordinates Direct Marketing.

Most Popular
In this article: