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George “Phil” Kelly, former CEO of Marshall Field’s, dies

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

George “Phil” Kelly, a retail executive who put the pizzazz back in Marshall Field’s famous State Street department store in the early 1980s, has died at the age of 74.

Brought in as president and chief executive officer to reboot the venerable department store’s increasingly dowdy image in 1978, Mr. Kelly made the Loop institution a place where top designers like Gianni Versace, Karl Lagerfeld and Oscar de la Renta and Hollywood legend Liz Taylor were eager to appear.

The revamp — promoted with a memorable advertising campaign that announced “Marshall Field’s IS Chicago” — saw the store’s fortunes recover before Mr. Kelly moved on to start his own chain of menswear stores, Mallard’s, in 1984.

He died April 5, in Jackson Memorial Hospital, Miami.

Born in New York City, Mr. Kelly grew up in Providence, R.I., attending Amherst College and Columbia University before beginning his long retail career at Bloomingdales in New York.

He was running R.W. Robinson’s in Los Angeles when he was hired to turn around Marshall Field’s.

When his wife of 50 years, Marilyn, arrived to join him in Chicago from California after a three-day slog through a blizzard, Mr. Kelly presented her with a shearling coat, despite her strong feelings about animal rights. Appalled, she refused to wear it, but relented when he told her, “Do me a favor — don’t take it back until you’ve lived here for three weeks.”

She kept it for more than 10 years — the length of the Kellys’ stay in Chicago, during which time they became patrons of the arts and Mr. Kelly served on the board of the Museum of Contemporary Art.

Though conservative in his personal style, Mr. Kelly was a devoted collector and was “always sensitive to trends in fashion,” drawing energy from his walks around the city, music and the visual arts, his wife said. A keen traveler, his trips around the world “never left a boutique unturned” for ideas he could bring back to State Street, she said.

The international themes were celebrated in “Irish Ways” and “Viva Italiano!” promotions at Marshall Field’s — and it was during the Italian event that Versace visited the store, according to George Love, who worked closely with Mr. Kelly.

“Phil was a gentleman in a sometimes ungentlemanly business,” Love said, citing Kelly’s caring and thoughtful treatment of staff.

Mr. Kelly’s long career also saw him become president and CEO of Garfinckel’s in Washington, D.C., twice, once to grow it and then, sadly, to close it down. More recently he worked as an international consultant in Bangkok, and served as the president of a department store chain in Ecuador, where he spent his final years.

He is survived by his brother and sister-in-law, C. Robert and Lynn D. Kelly of Barrington, R.I., and several nieces and nephews.

A memorial service is planned for next week in Guayaquil, Ecuador.

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