Irving J. Shulman, who died at the age of 96 on March 25, had fun making money. The discount clothing chain mogul, founder of the Daffy’s chain, was known almost as much for his promotional gimmicks as for his innovative approach to marketing garments.
Shulman came to the United States from Russia as a child of five, and grew up in Rahway. He and his brothers sold clothes door to door, and then opened a bargain store called Mickey Finn’s because of its “knockout bargains.”
He was 46 when he opened Daffy Dan’s Bargain Town in an old factory building on Dickinson Street in Elizabeth in 1961. By the time of his passing, after a brief illness last month, Daffy’s (minus the “Dan”) had grown to 17 stores in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York, with new ones planned for Times Square and the Bronx. In a 2009 interview, the company’s chair, his daughter Marcia Wilson, said it had $150 million in annual sales.
According to Gordon Haas, who heads up the Greater Elizabeth Chamber of Commerce, the name “Daffy” was said to have come about like this: “As a publicity stunt, Shulman wanted to sell silver dollars for 97 cents. He asked the government if it was legal, and they told him it was, but he’d be daffy to do it.”
That first Elizabeth store, since moved to Route 1, was a chaotic mess, but beloved of savvy fashion hounds. Haas remembers seeing it when he and his wife Yanina first came to the city in 1969. “I hated it, but my wife loved it,” he said. “Upstairs, the floor creaked so much, it sounded as if your next step might land you downstairs.”
When the store opened, Shulman tied a giant U.S. Navy balloon to the roof, which brought complaints from Newark Airport. Later he had a mannequin posed on the roof, prompting concerns of a suicide jumper. At other times, he had Rolls Royce automobiles parked outside, to make his point that rich people shopped for bargains there — which they did.
“I had a lot of fun at that store,” Shulman told The Record of Hackensack in 2005. He said he used to “lie awake at night trying to think of ways to get free publicity.”
When he opened his first store in Manhattan in 1986, it was described as a “coming-of-age of the off-price apparel industry.” The first one was downtown, on Fifth Avenue and 18th Street. The second was in mid-town, opposite the upscale Barney’s. Though it wasn’t quite as posh, it was much slicker than the old Elizabeth store.
Shulman hoped his two sons, Robert and Michael, would follow him into the business, but they had other plans. His daughter, Marcia, however, was fascinated by it. From the age of eight, she would go with him to the store in Elizabeth. She worked there on weekends and vacations, and later accompanied him on buying trips.
Shulman would tell his wife Shirley, who died in 2000, that he wished Marcia was a boy, but old ideas about gender proved moot. She and her husband Vance joined the firm in 1970. By the late 1980s, she was vice president of operations, and her husband was vice president of real estate and development.
Shulman stayed on, working with them. He only retired from Daffy’s last December.
In addition to his children, he is survived by eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. His funeral service was held March 27 in New York City.
JTA contributed to this article.