Max Raab

Max Raab

Max Raab (1926–2008) was an American clothing businessman and film producer.

Max Louis Raab was born to Herman and Fanny Kessler Raab on June 9, 1926 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His mother died when he was twelve. Raab grew up in the city's Tioga neighborhood, attending Rutgers Preparatory School and the Wooster Academy He was drafted into the army during WWII and served in Germany and as part of the occupation army in Japan. After returning from Japan, Max began his career in the apparel business working at his father’s blouse company, Morgan Raab.

  Raab disliked his father's clothing believing it lacked quality and style; in his mind, his father's low-end shirts did not comport with the increasing domination of American fashion by teenage and upwardly mobile tastes. When in the late 1940s he observed college women wearing men's button-down shirts, he started manufacturing man-tailored shirts sized for women at his father's factory. After the enormous success of this line, Raab and his brother Norman started the company The Villager in 1958, which would define preppy fashion for decades. Max always had a prescient knack for identifying trends and his awareness of the emergence and importance of Ivy League clothing led to the Villager clothing company taking off in popularity.  This is when Max first made his name, creating the uniform for a generation of women that lead the New York Times to label him the “dean of the prep look.”  Villager quickly grew to be one of the preeminent brands in American sportswear, only to diminish in popularity with the advent of the late 1960’s counterculture and attendant styles in fashion.  During this time Max also launched the Rooster Tie Company and became known for his unconventional approach to neckwear in his use of unusual, non-traditional fabrics.
While Raab enjoyed many successes in his apparel business career, he always nurtured a love of movies. Initially invited to supply the wardrobe (gratis) for a small, low budget film (David and Lisa) shooting in Philadelphia in the early 60’s, Max agreed… with the caveat that he be allowed to hang around and watch the film being made. After three months observing firsthand, Max was intrigued by the process. In the first of a series of smart hunches, he acquired the film rights to John Barth’s novel End of the Road. With the help of director Aram Avakian and writer Terry Southern, Max adapted the novel into a film which featured the screen debuts of Stacy Keech and James Earl Jones. Max then purchased the film rights to Anthony Burgess’ controversial novel A Clockwork Orange. Initially, it was not only turned down by all of the major studios because of its touchy subject matter but also by the Beatles, Max’s original casting choice. Finally, when Stanley Kubrick showed interest in the story, Warner Brothers called Max and he was made an executive producer on the groundbreaking film. He followed with Walkabout, the critically acclaimed Cannes Golden Palm nominated directorial debut of Nicolas Roeg, and the film that Max was most proud of. A visionary who years ago recognized an essential need for something other than Hollywood studio fare, Max produced several other films including Lion’s Love with writer and director Agnes Varda, Mother of the New Wave. In 1974, Max returned to the apparel business fulltime and founded J.G. Hook. His instincts told him that the time was right for the reemergence of the classic prep style and once again he redefined the look of American women’s sportswear. Then, with a nod towards menswear, Max saw an opening in the field and created a new necktie company, Tango, and another success again using unconventional materials for his ties. Max saw similarities in his two seemingly disparate careers of clothier and filmmaker. “A film’s director is a designer. Just as the film director works with a story; the designer, with a theme. The producer sits in on the editing and works with all of the elements of the finished project, as I do in both worlds.” In 1998, after growing J.G. Hook into a $100 million empire, Max sold the business. His plans for retirement were short-lived however when less than a year later the film bug bit again. At age 73, with co-producer, photographer and long-time friend Seymour Mednick, Raab made his directorial debut with the documentary, STRUT!. Having watched Philadelphia’s annual New Year’s Day Mummers parade religiously since he was a child, Max set out to capture the world of the Mummers. STRUT! featured music heavily, from turn-of-the-century rags and Dixieland hymns to Broadway show tunes and pop chart hits. A longtime and devoted jazz fan, Max relished producing the film’s soundtrack which reflected his deep love for all types of music. When the confetti settled on STRUT!, Max invited his old friend and filmmaker Robert Downey to Philadelphia and had him sit in Rittenhouse Square, one of the city’s original park squares. Max had something in mind besides catching up with an old chum and asked Downey what he thought about doing a documentary on a year in the life of the Square, quoting the motto of the old radio show Grand Central Station, the “crossroads of a million private lives.” Downey saw Max’s vision and the result, Rittenhouse Square, was an impressionistic and, again, music-filled documentary. “Max Raab is the most inspired producer I’ve ever worked with and the funniest. His music choices were always impeccable”, says Downey. In the last two years, even while resisting the advancing stages of Parkinson’s which he had kept at bay for over ten years, Max recruited Downey again. The two began producing a musical documentary on composer Kurt Weill and his colorful wife and muse, singer and actress Lotte Lenya – a film Downey and Max’s wife Merle are determined see completed as the final chapter in Max’s film career. Max led a full, rich and rewarding life that included sailing catboats and catamarans along the Jersey shore and in the Caribbean. He had an impish quality and took a childlike joy in observing every detail of the world around him. He was erudite and extremely sophisticated yet never pretentious and he never took himself too seriously. He was confident but never cocky, for “you can’t intimidate an honest man,” as protégé Kevin McLaughlin put it. He had a succinct way of capturing the essence of a conversation, a concept or a product line; upon looking at a new clothing design once he said simply in his unique Max way, “that’s too hip for the jungle.” In life Max always thought outside the box and in his business endeavors conventional wisdom did not apply. He was constantly thinking of new and different product lines and ideas, scribbling new logos for products yet-invented on napkins during lulls in dinner conversation. He owned theaters and restaurants, started a small entertainment magazine years before any existed and pursued countless other business ideas his whole life. As a young man with a budding interest in rare cars, he opened a car lot on North Broad Street where, having few cars of his own, he offered the Sports Car Club of America a venue to display and was thereby able to stock his lot with (and drive) the finest cars around. Over the years, his entrepreneurial spirit never waned. In the last year of his life, Max opened a small shop and website selling collectible model cars, sailboats, airplanes, tin toys and anything else that piqued his interest. It was a shop that reflected his different facets and his interests, inspired by the quirky catalogs he had subscribed to all his life. The shop’s motto: You Never Outgrow Your Need For Toys. Max was truly loved by all who knew him. Quick with a one-liner (even when you thought he wasn’t listening), he loved a good laugh and those that knew him could always recognize the twinkle in his eye when something struck his fancy or a new idea presented itself. Max guided and mentored many young clothiers and others throughout his life. Eddie Jabbour speaks for them when he says, “Max has been an amazing person to all of us who have been privileged to know him - he simply changed the course of my life. As I'm sure for all of his ’alumni’, that experience has never been surpassed. It was simply a magical time with him... and among the most rewarding in my life.” Max is survived by his wife Merle, his daughter Claudia Raab, granddaughter Delia, son Adam Gould, son Paul English and wife Gaelle and granddaughter Madeleine.

References

  • http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/26/business/26raab.html
  • http://www.philly.com/inquirer/local/20080223_Max_Raab__1926-_2008.html
  • http://sfscope.com/2008/02/film-producer-max-l-raab-dies.html
  • http://www.variety.com/article/VR1117981358.html?categoryid=13&cs=1
  • Lockwood, Lisa. "Obituary: Max Raab, 82". Women's Wear Daily (February 25, 2008)

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