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'Defying the Odds: Sharing the Lessons I Learned as a Pioneer Entrepreneur' by Marcia Israel-Curley

Monday, 04 November 2002 12:00 AM

Marcia Israel-Curley began a retail revolution with her Judy's women's clothing stores in a time when few women were part of the workforce let alone creating and running their own businesses. "Defying the Odds" gives readers a look at how an innovative concept and a tenacious intelligence can change an industry.

Israel-Curley began writing her book when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1997. A woman who has used work throughout her life as a means of expression, her decision to tell her story reveals as much about her as the story itself.

During her childhood in the depression, her father abandoned the family, forcing her mother to find work as a janitor in New York City. Always a good student and hard worker, Israel-Curley tried modeling and accounting, and ultimately found her way to Los Angeles at the invitation of Joseph M. Schenck, a renowned filmmaker who wanted to make her a star.

She had other plans.

In 1948, after a successful stint as a buyer, Israel-Curley began her empire with a tiny retail store 7-feet wide. The name was inspired by the small sign space and the movie "The Wizard of Oz," with Judy Garland.

And this is where the book shines, with anecdotes about the beginnings of Judy's, how outfits were pinned to the walls to save space and catch the customer's eye, how bubblegum helped bring in the young crowd the clothes were created for, and how cutting off the long sleeves of sweater sets could make a successful season.

The playful pixie logo personified the youthful slant of this new idea – a store with quality items designed for young women.

Written in an unpretentious style, "Defying the Odds" tells stories about the fashion industry and also reveals, with disarming candor, Israel-Curley's own struggle with being a woman in a man's world. Sometimes, being female was in her favor.

Commenting on a negotiation with a lease, she writes, "I feel very strongly that we would not have gotten the concessions we did were I not a female dealing in a man's world."

Among the stories that keep you turning pages past your bedtime is one in which she has gone against her good judgment and let a large corporation buy out her beloved Judy's. The corporation goes bankrupt, and she is not invited to the meeting to decide the fate of its holdings. So, she eavesdrops: "... without even realizing what I was about to do I got flat on my stomach with my ear to the two-inch space between the partition and the carpet. ..."

Ending up in a closet, listening through a keyhole, she learned enough to gain the information that turned things around and enabled her to buy back her company. Couple this story with her literally turning the tables (she flipped over the whole dining table, coffee and water splashing anyone nearby) at an upscale restaurant when an unofficial meeting became a battle with a lawyer, and we see a formidable person who is able to take risks.

"Defying the Odds" gives us delicious glimpses of retail life, from the trips to Paris to the patented design of the anti-theft device we all know well. The "fuzziest angora sweater" from Italy and the five-pocket jeans are styles that survive today and were part of the Judy's look 50 years ago. The Gap and The Limited borrowed from the best, though other stores have been less successful at imitation.

Israel-Curley spent most of her business years letting others believe her husband was the owner of Judy's. But, her customers knew better. Her respect for them shows throughout the book. When faced with a union push that threatened to shut her down, she asks, "Would a union employee give the kind of personal service Judy's stood for?"

Named Woman of the Year by the Los Angeles Times in 1964, fame finally caught up with her. She wasn't the "boss's wife" any more. She was the boss.

Today, she gives credit to her "lucky star" for her success in life. But courage, intelligence, ethics and lots of hard work helped too. Between her business and her devotion to her family when her children were growing up, long hours and long buying trips were enough to bring anyone to their knees. But when you love what you're doing as much as Judy's founder, the work is your life. And life was good.

Black -and-white photographs of Marcia Israel-Curley with celebrities, friends and family accompany the text. Reproductions of Judy's Pixie and fashion sketches give the book its own charming style. "Defying the Odds" is a must-read for fashion buffs and business entrepreneurs alike.

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Marcia Israel-Curley began a retail revolution with her Judy's women's clothing stores in a time when few women were part of the workforce let alone creating and running their own businesses. Defying the Odds gives readers a look at how an innovative concept and a...
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Monday, 04 November 2002 12:00 AM
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