As Neiman Marcus Struggles, Former Employee Rawlins Gilliland is Still Minding the Store

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Yesterday, in the comments to the item about Neiman Marcus's latest bit of bad news, noted man of letters Rawlins Gilliland deposited a comment intended to gently shoosh those experiencing even the slightest twinge of schadenfreude at the luxury retailer's misfortune. I had intended only to highlight the essay-in-miniature in a separate item for the Friends of Unfair Park who missed it.

But Rawlins and I exchanged a few e-mails late yesterday -- during which he wrote about working for Neimans for almost 18 years, up until 1999. Indeed, upon the store's 100th anniversary in September 2007, Rawlins wrote this love letter for The Dallas Morning News; it began, "Dallas owes its soul to Neiman Marcus."

So what you'll find after the jump is a hybrid -- an introduction offering context for the comments he made yesterday, along with his original note concerning Karen Katz, Neiman Marcus's chief executive of stores, and the role the store has played as "a huge contributor to all things charitable," among many other things. Got it? Swell. Then jump.
I worked for Neiman Marcus from 1981 till 1999. I had prior been a National Endowment for the Arts Master Poet in residence in Alabama, and returned to my hometown Dallas broke and needing a job. Through the years I rose through the sales ranks, all through the Reagan years as head of Personal Shopping at NorthPark. By the Clinton years, I was running all of fine apparel at NorthPark when, around 1991, Karen became General Manager.

The first thing she did was demote me because I was resistant to her new style. In fact, my office became the room where they store the beverages for In-Circle customer parties. My 'chair' was a case of Calistoga sparkling water.

BUT: I was raised by strong women, and I began to recreate my role and to acknowledge Karen Katz as the talent she was. I paid secretaries after hours to teach me computer programs and then created reports for Karen. We became great allies. It was an amazing opportunity she gave me to salvage my career and, in fact...

Within 4 years, I was the Director of Sales and Product, promoted to corporate shortly before Karen was herself promoted to being the Director of Stores, in which case I once again reported to her. Karen has a talent to admit what she does not know and then make you aware how much she DOES know. She also has a great joy at making work tough AND fun. Had it not been for Karen, I would have stumbled along in mid management, tired of my work and uninspired.

Instead, she, like Stanley Marcus before her, saw what I was capable of doing, and allowed me to grow and learn and become something uniquely suited to my skills and talents. Only at Neiman Marcus was it possible to have year-after-year jobs created for me rather than my filling and existing niche.

After I left Neiman Marcus I created a consulting biz to the industry, wholesale and retail. And returned to writing opinion and poetry based pieces on KERA and NPR. I have remained friends with Karen and her husband Alan to this day, although, of course, they are all too busy.

Luxury is not the "problem"; greed is. They are not one of the same.

Neiman Marcus has always been an easy target for ridicule, but anyone who knows or cares about Neiman Marcus' history in Dallas knows that it has always been a huge contributor to all things charitable ... and, in the case of the turbulent years of Civil Rights, etc., a mouthpiece per Stanley Marcus for logic, fairness and reason. And in the case of feminism, a landmark of opportunity for mentored women for decades. Hence the female CEO who is, like Neiman Marcus, born in Dallas. I know no one who cares more and does more to lead and inspire those who want a future, a career; to be respected for who they are as well as what they can do.

Trust me, I live in the more-than-real world and have not been dousing myself with Don Perignon during the Bush years that favored Neiman Marcus and all things wealthy. But I also know this turf, and Neiman Marcus deserves not only our respect but our hopes for its future. They are not the problem. They are a huge part of Dallas' past and we should not kick anyone who is, at this point in this economy, down. And certainly not an institution that has done so much for so many, be they nonprofits or individuals, who needed help and had talent.

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