Lillian Vernon, 88, whose kitchen-table notion to sell monogrammed handbags and belts spawned one of America's best-known mail-order catalog businesses, died Monday in New York City, said her son Fred Hochberg, chairman and president of the U.S. Export-Import Bank.
Peddling knickknacks and doodads such as welcome mats and personalized bookmarks, she created a retail brand embraced by consumers.
Among her shoppers, according to younger son David, were Nancy Reagan and Hillary Clinton, who once said that as first lady of Arkansas, she would peruse the catalog hoping "that if I just ordered one more thing, my life would finally be in order."
The company went public in 1987 and five years later reported $260 million in sales, an all-time high. In 2003, H. Strauss Zelnick's ZelnickMedia, based in New York, backed by the private-equity firm Ripplewood Holdings, bought the business for $60.5 million.
Ms. Vernon, who along with son David owned 40 percent of the company, received about $24 million from the sale. She became nonexecutive chairman.
"I've sold my name, but I am still the face and heart and soul of the business," she told the New York Times in 2004.
The retailer went through further ownership changes and a bankruptcy filing in 2008. Now named Current Media Group, it was acquired Oct. 1 by Regent Equity Partners, based in Los Angeles.
Lilly Menasche was born March 18, 1927, in Leipzig, Germany. Fleeing danger, the family moved in 1933 to Amsterdam, then in 1937 to New York City.
As she recalled in her 1996 memoir, An Eye for Winners, inspiration struck in 1951 in her apartment in Mount Vernon, N.Y. She was then Lillian Hochberg, newly wed and four months pregnant with her first child.
Paging through women's magazines, she came up with an idea for supplementing her husband's income from running a clothing store: She would sell handbags and brass-buckled belts, personalized with initials.