The Powerful Women Behind Dallas’ Game-Changing Shopping Center

$1.2 Billion in Sales a Year (and Counting)

BY // 10.19.15

While I was sitting in the living room of one of Dallas’ social luminaries, NorthPark Center’s 50th anniversary came up. The philanthropist and passionate art collector proclaimed, “Nancy Nasher is steel. She got it from both her parents.” The tone was saturated with admiration, the statement punctuated with palpable awe.

So, there you have it from someone on the inside of the city’s social stratosphere: Nancy Nasher makes an indelible impression. Moreover, she’s thoroughly Dallas: She’s gracious, affable, owns a Dallas icon (NorthPark Center) and is a woman who warmly welcomes people — including journalists. Thus, I found myself having tea with Ms. Nasher. Green tea for me. Espresso for you-know-who. It should have been the other way around; I was a distant second in the energy and stamina department.

Nasher is especially animated at this particular juncture; after all, “Gorgeous at 50” would be a fitting mantra for NorthPark Center, a 97-acre shopping Mecca with Neiman Marcus as an anchor and a collection of art unrivaled by many a museum. Magazines of every stripe are singing its praises, and well they should. While the shopping center — sometimes dubbed Dallas’ Central Park — perpetually gleams and shimmers, North Texas’ retail wonder seems especially splendid 50 years after its inception. It remains a juggernaut of extravagance and power — not to mention philanthropy.

If anything, it’s gaining velocity rather than resting on its enviable laurels. It remains at the top when lists are made that tick off places with stridently successful retail mojo. To understand this phenomenon, who better to turn to than two women who have been an integral part of its ongoing success? I refer to the aforementioned Nancy Nasher, and Karen Katz, president and CEO of Neiman Marcus Group. After all, under their aegis, the most successful retail enterprises since the advent of the Silk Road have been led to mind-numbing heights. And, it’s important to note, that while NorthPark Center founder Raymond Nasher and Neiman Marcus CEO Stanley Marcus, both ardently industrious men, worked together, today it is two equally ardent and strong women who carry forward their legacy and vision.

The history of NorthPark Center has been chronicled ad infinitum; we have all heard the story of cotton fields that were shrewdly transformed by Raymond and Patsy Nasher, Nancy Nasher’s parents, in 1965. Thirty years later, Nancy and her husband, David Haemisegger, purchased the center from her father. The question that begs to be answered: How is the legacy of the Nashers and Stanley Marcus being carried forward? Cue Karen Katz and Nancy Nasher.

ARTsPARK, NorthPark Center
ARTsPARK, in NorthPark Center, attracts thousands to events and exhibits.

Karen Katz became vice president and general manager of Neiman Marcus NorthPark in 1991. Her role grew as the Neiman Marcus brand expanded and evolved; today, she is president and CEO, Neiman Marcus Group LTD LLC, and is therefore privy to the inner workings of one of the most economically and culturally successful retail enterprises in history. Neiman Marcus NorthPark, as one of the original anchor stores, is also celebrating its 50th anniversary. Katz articulates what many North Texas visitors observe: “Texas women love to look beautiful, and our NorthPark store is ground zero for beauty. We sell 50,000 lipsticks per year in our NorthPark store cosmetics area.”

NorthPark Center ranks among the top five retail establishments in the country, racking up more than $1.2 billion in overall annual sales. Dallas is known for an almost fetishistic penchant for shopping; Northwest Highway at US-75 seems to be the locus for a perfect storm for both an infatuation with loveliness and monetary success.

While Nasher possesses what can only be termed a genius for conducting business, Katz, too, is a straight-ahead and highly articulate businesswoman. She has guided her luxury brand through good times and bad, and she adapts readily to changing cultural trends. “In the early days of the Internet,” Katz says, “I was appointed president of our online division and learned early and firsthand that technology was going to transform retailing. My experience with e-commerce has been invaluable as Neiman Marcus continues to introduce new technology to our customers — whether on our website, our mobile app or through exciting technology in our store like the magic mirror.” (The latter is a means by which women can view themselves in a variety of garments with full 360-degree scope, compare images and even send them to friends for style input.)
Screen shot 2015-10-19 at 3.31.39 PMWhile innovation is thoroughly embraced, Stanley Marcus’ vision for the luxury emporium is still invoked. “Neiman Marcus was founded on the principles of exquisite merchandise and outstanding customer service, and that is still true today,” Katz says. “Luxury retailing is as much about attention to detail as it is in the brands we sell and the service we deliver. Our customers have high expectations when they shop in a NM store, and we cannot disappoint them in any way.”

Like Nasher, Katz has obviously absorbed the legacy of her predecessor and is building on it in exciting ways. Neither of these remarkable women seems to find anything overly daunting — neither recessions nor shifts in international trends. After all, what can deter success when your formula includes artful attention to beauty, service and detail?

And then there is the philanthropy. “My family and I are very humbled by what Dallas has given us over the years, so investing in local organizations is a priority,” says Nasher. NorthPark has initiated a tremendous initiative dubbed NorthPark50: Fifty Years of Giving, whose ultimate goals, she says, are “raising awareness for organizations and inspiring others to give.” Through this initiative, organizations in the arenas of arts, health, education, social work, community service and more will be beneficiaries of the seemingly endless legacy of the Nasher and Haemisegger family.

NorthPark Center was originally conceived as a place of both retail excellence and cultural exchange. Katz refers to it as a town square. In fact, the distinction of NorthPark as a Center should be underscored, in contrast to the more mundane concept of a mall. One could say that malls are to NorthPark what rusted bicycles are to Maseratis. For NorthPark, pulse-quickening art, exquisite design and a flawless sense of aesthetics pay off, both literally and metaphorically. “Ray Nasher and Stanley Marcus shared a passion for art, and they were two visionaries who understood the profound intersection of art and fashion,” Katz says. “Stanley Marcus was as passionate about collecting art as he was about fashion. He believed that ‘art enhances the quality of people’s lives.’ He also believed that art improves the customers’ shopping experience, ‘and that was just good business.’”

Certainly the artwork at NorthPark Center vividly illustrates the regenerative power of beauty. The intersections of art and fashion are well-traveled, with works by Mark di Suvero, Anthony Caro, Joel Shapiro, Jonathan Borofsky and Henry Moore scattered throughout the sprawling complex, and works by Bjørn Wiinblad, Charlotte Smith, John Holt Smith, Jane Helslander, Otis Jones, Ted Kincaid, Doug Meyer, Morgan Sims and more installed in Neiman Marcus. But there may be something more subtle at work here. While visiting with Nasher, I observed that our culture is sometimes perceived as failing and that perhaps beauty offers a badly needed antidote. She looked at me with absolute delight and said, “Yes! That’s right. I think beautiful places can be healing.”

Art, architecture and beauty — which can all be splendidly experienced at NorthPark Center — are means by which individuals and even cities are vivified. Ergo, Nasher not only has unprecedented business acumen, but she’s also enormously wise. By understanding the nexus of beauty and culture, she and Katz ultimately make the world a lovelier, more humane place. We can hardly ask for more — and Dallas is profoundly enriched by their presence.

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