Back when most consumers still shopped at department stores, Jay Jacobs spotted an untapped market: teenagers. He proceeded to build an empire of junior apparel stores that bore his name, becoming one of the most successful entrepreneurs in the Northwest.
Mr. Jacobs, founder of Jay Jacobs Inc., died Feb. 15 at his home. He was 101.
“Jay had the foresight to identify an underserved and growing market,” said Doug Swerland, his son-in-law and former Jay Jacobs Inc. president.
He was certainly an innovator. Mr. Jacobs was one of the first specialty retailers to have manufacturers create apparel that followed his company’s specifications and design, referred to as private-label retailing. He was also among the first specialty retailers to tap into foreign sourcing by looking for manufacturers in Asia.
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Mr. Jacobs founded Jay Jacobs Inc. in 1941. In the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s it was the leading teen-fashion retailer, with nearly 300 stores nationwide.
“We were the hippest store,” recalled Shauna Swerland, Mr. Jacobs’ daughter and former company human-resource director. “We were always in Seventeen magazine.”
Mr. Jacobs came from humble beginnings. Born in Brooklyn, he moved to Seattle as a child when his father got a job in a menswear store.
While earning his degree in business from the University of Washington, Mr. Jacobs worked as a bookkeeper to put himself through school. He started law school but it became too expensive, so he quit and began selling furs at The Bon Marché department store.
He bought a one-third interest in Coe Brothers, a Seattle furrier, in 1941, but sold it the same year and bought the costume-jewelry store next door because he found the goods more interesting.
When a vendor offered to sell him women’s clothing, Mr. Jacobs accepted. The first Jay Jacobs store was born.
As his company expanded, Mr. Jacobs continued to be involved in every aspect of his business. In the 1970s when the chain had more than a dozen stores, he still ran the downtown store’s meetings, a task usually delegated to store managers.
In the 1990s the company faced fierce competition and struggled with expansion costs. Jay Jacobs Inc. filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 1994 and re-emerged in 1995, but it continued to encounter problems. In 1999 Jay Jacobs Inc. filed for Chapter 11 again and closed its remaining 114 stores.
Mr. Jacobs’ passion was his company.
“His main interest was business,” said Swerland. “He would talk about other things, but typically it got around to business.”
Mr. Jacobs’ grandson, Seattle Sun Tan founder Scott Swerland, said Mr. Jacobs was his mentor and often offered him advice.
“Even in his 90s he was very interested in what I was doing and how I was going to be different from my competitors,” Scott Swerland said. “He was from a different era, but that didn’t matter because the core principles are the same.”
Mr. Jacobs was a big supporter of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, a charity close to his heart because his first wife, Rose, and his first daughter, Judy, both died of cancer.
Mr. Jacobs was also a dedicated handball player and competed in weekly games at the Washington Athletic Club into his 80s.
“Jay was a fierce competitor on the court,” said Herb Bridge, his longtime friend. “He didn’t like to lose.”
Mr. Jacobs was preceded in death by his first wife, Rose Jacobs, his second wife, Marjorie Jacobs, his daughter, Judy Jacobs, and his brother, Irwin Jacobs.
Survivors include his sister, Mim McClennan, of Phoenix; brother, Alann Jacobs, of Seattle; daughter, Shelley Swerland, of Seattle; stepdaughter, Jan Shulman, of Austin, TX; five grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.
A memorial celebrating his life has been held.
The family suggests remembrances to the Stroum Jewish Community Center, 2618 N.E. 80th St., Seattle, 98115, and The American Cancer Society, 2120 First Ave. N., Seattle 98109.