"Skin Tight: The Bizarre Story of Guess v. Jordache," by Christopher Byron
April 12, 1992
AMERICANS LIKE TO THINK there’s a rational explanation for everything, from the twinkling of the stars to the vagaries of human behavior. Among other things, our faith in reason has given us the American legal system, which is based on the idea that there’s an objective truth out there, a quantifiable reality that can be nailed down if enough people hammer at it for enough time. But every once in a while, something comes along to suggest that the powers of reason we put so much trust in are actually little more than the hallucinatory firings of a hyperactive cerebral cortex. Something like the jeans war.
Designer jeans appeal to a more primitive region of the brain, the part responsible for (among other things) lust and greed. And in the final analysis, this is what Skin Tight, Christopher Byron’s controversial account of the unimaginably convoluted vendetta between two wildly successful jeans makers, comes down to—the primacy of primitive emotions, their ability to short-circuit all the high-minded institutions of Western civilization and go straight for the id. Coarse cotton fabric becomes invested with sex and catches fire with consumers, and then—whoa, stand back.
The story begins in 1977, when the three Nakash brothers—Sephardic Jews from Tel Aviv who’ve settled in Brooklyn—lose one of their discount-jeans stores to vandals during a power failure in New York. With $120,000 in insurance money, they launch their own jeans line, giving it the vaguely European-sounding name of Jordache and shrewdly putting their cash into a TV spot that shows a blonde wearing skin-tight jeans as she gallops through the surf astride a pounding steed. Having thus tapped into the universal language of adolescent female sexuality, the Nakash brothers see their enterprise mushroom within a year into a $75-million business. But then comes the recession of 1982 and the need to hedge their bets amid a softening economy.
The investment they settle on is Guess? Inc., an upstart jeans company owned by the Marciano brothers of Beverly Hills—a Sephardic Jewish clan from Morocco by way of Marseilles. For $4.7 million, the four Marcianos part with half their company and give the Nakashes equal representation on their board.
SKIN TIGHT: The Bizarre Story of Guess v. Jordache, by Christopher Byron. (Simon & Schuster, 364 pages)
Byron has prefaced his story with an account of the remote Moroccan village of Debdu, which for hundreds of years was riven by a blood feud between two families, each claiming a half-ownership of a synagogue—two families named Cohan and Morciano. Reading that the Nakash brothers have decided to hand over their money to descendants of these same Morcianos, one wants to scream out: Forget the $4.7 million! Go back to Brooklyn! Eat the loss and count yourselves rich! But no.
Guess? is an aptly named company, a place where nothing is quite what it seems. Just as Jordache captured the frolicsome sexuality of the ’70s, Guess? cultivates an image that’s mysterious and riveting, with a sinister edge—just right for a time when sex becomes freighted with death. And this seems to be one company whose image is an accurate projection of the people behind it. As Byron presents the story, for $4.7 million the Nakash brothers buy their way into a snake pit, an ever-widening sinkhole writhing with demons.
Because the Marcianos make their deal just as their company is about to take off, they soon succeed in persuading themselves that the Nakashes have fraudulently underpaid. What is to all appearances just a normal if ill-advised business deal becomes to them, as Byron puts it, “a fraud upon the Torah.”
Within months they file a lawsuit charging the Nakashes with racketeering. To bolster their case they hire a snoop firm, then go to federal prosecutors with allegations that the Nakashes are engaged in tax fraud. Armed G-men show up at Jordache headquarters in New York and carry off every piece of paper they can find. The district attorney’s office never follows through because it’s swamped by more serious cases—Wed-tech, Iran-Contra, corruption in the Bronx, insider trading on Wall Street. Nonetheless, the Nakashes hire their own private eye and go to a different set of federal prosecutors with their own allegations. And so forth.
Litigation is as common in America as street crime, but the Marcianos and the Nakashes bring a new level of ferocity to the game. They treat business as a form of Middle Eastern politics, with shifting loyalties and plots within plots and depositions that go off like car bombs. The spectacular profits of the designer-jeans trade give them access to the highest-paid legal talent in the country, which they deploy with the eagerness of oil-rich potentates drunk on military hardware.
Meanwhile, the snake pit becomes a yawning chasm, engulfing not only the seven feuding brothers and their two companies but the Internal Revenue Service, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, U.S. attorneys’ offices in New York and Los Angeles, grand juries on both coasts, a Congressional subcommittee, several top-flight Wall Street law firms, various private-investigation agencies, and much of the American media. Investigations are launched, and then counterinvestigations, and then investigations to investigate the investigators. Now, with a former associate and a key source virulently attacking Byron’s integrity as a journalist, the sinkhole is threatening to consume the book itself.
In an 11-page, single-spaced letter to Byron’s publisher, Times reporter Richard Behar, a former associate of Byron’s at Forbes magazine, charges him with a variety of deceitful acts, from conning a source to feeding the Marcianos confidential information. The source in question, onetime Jordache investigator Octavio Pena, has weighed in with several missives of his own, including a 17-page document in which he accuses Byron of distorting the facts in order to discredit him. A minor figure in the drama has accused Byron of racial slurs and compared him (somewhat hysterically, it would seem) to former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. All three complaints have been widely circulated to book reviewers, creating a group rebuttal that follows the book around like so much unclaimed baggage.
The relationship between Byron and his accusers is as tangled as anything else in this tale. Behar was the Forbes reporter who broke the story of how the Marcianos inveigled the IRS into the case; Byron was his editor and his mentor. They got their story from Pena, a private eye with a specialty in clandestine tape recordings, who fed it to them on behalf of the Nakashes. Behar and Byron originally planned to write a book on the subject together, but they lost enthusiasm for the project and dropped it. Byron resurrected it when he left Forbes, at which point Behar turned over his notes and some 45 tapes that Pena had given the magazine to substantiate his charges against the Marcianos.
Much of what Behar and Pena now have to say against Byron seems overblown, even silly. When Behar complains that Byron “does not even disclose that he was the editor of my piece until a footnote” near the end of the book, you have to wonder: Where was he supposed to disclose it? In flashing lights on the title page? Similarly, Behar’s charge that Byron downplays the significance of the Forbes story simply does not square with what Byron has written. But two charges cannot be dismissed so easily, and they are by far the most serious: that Byron seduced, betrayed and finally smeared Octavio Pena, and that he violated his word as a journalist, not only revealing Pena as the chief source of the Forbes story but sharing Pena’s tapes with the Marcianos themselves.
As the fallout from the Clarence Thomas hearings has just reminded us, exposing a confidential source is something most journalists would go to jail to avoid doing. Confidentiality is the sine qua non of serious reporting, since few sources are going to say anything inimical to their own immediate self-interest without it. Obviously a source could be using the reporter, hiding behind a veil of anonymity while making reckless or unfounded charges. That’s why good reporters check and cross-check and try to maintain a skeptical eye. But an honest reporter does not, for any reason, reveal a source whose identity he has promised to protect—not in print, not in court, and certainly not to the other side in an out-of-control legal dispute.
Did Byron do it? Shortly before the book’s publication, the magazine Inside Media reported that he denied the allegations as “baseless” and refused further comment. In the same article, Byron’s editor at Simon & Schuster said the publisher’s attorneys were “completely satisfied that there is no confidentiality agreement that binds Chris.” Does that mean there’s an agreement that doesn’t bind him? Pena told the magazine he was given a Forbes confidentiality agreement signed by Behar (but not Byron). Meanwhile, an attorney for Forbes has written S&S and Guess?, requesting the return of all confidential tapes and documents. The pit widens. The snakes hiss.
It’s difficult to believe that a journalist as experienced as Byron—now the business columnist at New York magazine and the author previously of The Fanciest Dive, a well-reviewed book on the disastrous launch of Time’s TV-Cable Week magazine—would do something as stupid as exposing his chief source to his enemies. (Behar says Byron did it after the Marcianos convinced him that Pena had planted false information in an attempt to get one of them deported.) On the other hand, stranger things have happened, many of them in the pages of this very book. And whether Byron betrayed Pena to the Marcianos or not, his treatment of him in the book is unfortunate.
Byron maintains a breezy skepticism through most of the volume, but when Pena crops up, the tone tends to downshift into ridicule. Describing the investigator as a Mexican-American who “had worked hard to make himself seem bigger than he was,” he then holds him up against a rogue’s gallery of pop-culture caricatures, from the Frito Bandito to Senor Wences. Although Byron never quite articulates it, his book suggests that Pena’s knuckleheaded schemes, which come off as bad imitations of the Marcianos’ devious machinations, are what keep the Nakashes from being purely the victim in this case and make them villains as well. Are his verbal jabs the result of some misplaced anger over Pena’s handling of the case? Or do they stem from more complicated feelings, arising perhaps out of resentment over Pena’s manipulation of Forbes, or misgivings over his own treatment (whatever it may have been) of Pena?
These issues aside, there is much that is disappointing about the book. Its organization, particularly in the early chapters, is disturbingly haphazard. In a story as complicated as this one, it doesn’t help to have the first meeting of the Nakashes and the Marcianos come 44 pages after they’ve consummated the deal. And in a weirdly clumsy reversal of new-journalism techniques, Byron repeatedly climbs inside his characters’ heads only to tell us he doesn’t know what’s going on there. “What Paul [Marciano] may have thought during those silent, spying moments is a mystery,” he writes at one point. “But it’s a fair bet he wasn’t thinking about . . .”
All the same, Byron succeeds in conveying the essential mindlessness of the dispute, so monumental in its inconsequentiality, yet so consuming of all who venture near it. His story comes to a fitting end when the Nakashes and the Marcianos, after seven years and an estimated $80 million in legal fees, settle with each other and turn against their lawyers. It seems similarly inevitable that the book itself would be caught up in the feud—that the story, having marred its protagonists, would turn against its chronicler as well. There are no heroes here, only victims. And if there is a moral, it is only this: