When Sylvia Goldstein joined Neiman Marcus in 1972 , her first sale was a $132 boa. She was thrilled, but was soon destined for bigger and better things.
During a 43-year tenure as the top saleswoman at the Houston Galleria store and the entire Neiman Marcus chain, Goldstein sold close to $73 million in merchandise, including items at 86 Last Call sales.
Her biggest single sale: A luxurious $250,000 James Galanos sable coat.
Her biggest single day: $383,000 of Galanos gowns and Chanel attire to three international clients, including a Mexican customer who traveled with her personal assistant and her small dog on a private plane to meet with Goldstein at night.
"I never had worked a day in my life," Goldstein recalled, "but I learn fast. I'm a quick study."
The spitfire couture saleswoman with flaming red hair and hardly a wrinkle on her face — unlike many of her clients, she has never undergone cosmetic surgery and instead has studiously avoided the sun, noting there are no windows in the couture department — enjoyed her last day at the store Friday. At a morning staff meeting, she was placed on a throne and thanked for her service, and she shared an intimate lunch with 13 of her top clients at the store's Mariposa restaurant.
At 82, she has decided to retire, leaving a sales legacy that will likely never be topped.
"Every day I come and learn something new," she said during an interview amid designer fashions in the store's couture department on the second floor. "These customers are the loves of my life. Getting to know people and taking care of them is the thrill. It's a wonderful thing."
Goldstein didn't even have a Social Security number when she applied for a job in the Neiman's couture department on the advice on her sister, who worked in cosmetics at the store. "I never had worked a day in my life," Goldstein recalled, "but I learn fast. I'm a quick study."
Within two years, she was the No. 1 saleswoman, a title she has held through most of her career. "I could only have done this at Neiman Marcus. It's the best store there is. There is none better," she said.
First name basis
In a career that has spanned the breath of fashion design, Goldstein has been on a first-name basis with such stars as Galanos, who she admits is her favorite designer, the legendary Bill Blass, who famously chain smoked, leaving cigarette butts on the store's marble floor, the gentlemanly Oscar de la Renta, the mercurial Ralph Rucci, the masterful Geoffrey Bean and the idiosyncratic Karl Lagerfeld. And she's been quick to champion designers like Tom Ford, Azzedine Alia and Akris' Albert Krimler.
"I'd rather see my customers underdressed for an occasion that wear the wrong thing."
She was among the first to urge her clients to mix and match styles and not stick to just one designer head-to-toe. And she has never been shy about tell a customer if an ensemble doesn't work. "You can dress up something to be cocktail and it doesn't have to be a cocktail dress," she said. "I'd rather see my customers underdressed for an occasion that wear the wrong thing."
Although she had no formal fashion experience, having majored in dance in college before getting married and raising a family, Goldstein had long helped friends and neighbors put their wardrobes together. As a 1997 Texas Monthly article noted, many of her Houston clients wouldn't go out at night before calling her to ask what they should wear. “Almost everything I put on, head to toe, I buy from Sylvia,” said Elyse Lanier, who has remained a close friend. “I trust her judgment and her taste completely.”
Having had three back surgeries in the past 18 months, Goldstein has finally decided it's time to retire for good. She plans to continue to stay in shape by pedaling a stationery bike for 45 minutes every day, 7 days a week — but not at 5 in the morning like she has been doing before going to work. "I'm going to spread it out," she said.
"I've had a few lulls in my career, but the next day something opens up and you're back in business. I made my mark and that's what I worked for," she added. "It is bittersweet. It's hard to think that my customers are going to be taken care of by someone else."