Richard Perry, Francesco Russo, Mark Lee(Fashion Windows)
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Richard Perry’s Pet Projects

The new owner of Barney’s has also entered the Israel fray

Allison Hoffman
December 13, 2012
Richard Perry, Francesco Russo, Mark Lee(Fashion Windows)

The New York Times magazine just put up a terrific story about Richard Perry, a relatively retiring gazillionaire whose hedge fund bought out Barney’s last May. Because it’s by Cathy Horyn, the paper’s fashion critic, the feature is mainly concerned with how Perry and his fashion-designer wife, Lisa, intend to rescue what really is the last of the great New York Jewish department stores: Barney Pressman, an echt garmento by way of Elizabeth Street, opened his store in 1923 with $500 he raised by hocking his wife’s engagement ring. He grew famous for selling name-brand suits at discount prices, but it was his son, Fred, who decided to create new name brands by scouting European designers, and who changed the way we all dress by giving Armani and Prada a launchpad.

Horyn mentions that before she turned her attention to the fashion industry, Lisa Perry was an abortion-rights advocate and aspiring Democratic power broker, and lets her repeats that now-well-worn phrase–“I really wanted Hillary to be president”–to explain why she lost interest in politics. But it’s Richard Perry who is the real political player in the family. He got his start under Robert Rubin, the Goldman Sachs chief who went on to be Bill Clinton’s Treasury secretary, and, according to a 2008 profile in Fortune, switched allegiance to Barack Obama after he became that year’s Democratic presidential nominee.

In the last few years, Perry has quietly turned his attention to another cause: Israel. He is a board member of the Israel Project, a Washington-based advocacy group, and in 2010 hosted an event for Ziad Asali, the head of the American Task Force for Palestine, at his Sutton Place apartment, which really is, as Horyn put it, something else. (That event’s co-host was the Boston billionaire Seth Klarman, who subsequently launched the Times of Israel.) A few months later, Perry had a group of reporters to his equally art-strewn offices in the General Motors building, across the street from the Plaza, to hear from Ilan Mizrahi, a former deputy Mossad chief, about how Israel might handle the Iranian nuclear threat. In both cases, Perry seemed as intellectually curious as Horyn describes him being about the fashion business he’s now getting into.

But the Israel Project recently hired Josh Block, the pugnacious former AIPAC spokesman, as its second CEO, after the departure of its founder, Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi. The organization bills itself as bipartisan, but Block, a former staffer in the Clinton Administration State Department, is known for his preoccupation with the Democratic Party’s attitude toward Israel, and specifically with the attitude of those in its progressive wing. Which puts Perry, as he steps in to save a Jewish retail legacy, in the middle of the ongoing fight to define a particularly Jewish political legacy, too.

Allison Hoffman is a senior editor at Tablet Magazine. Her Twitter feed is @allisont_dc.