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FASHION : Early Aerobics Queen Flexes Business Muscles : Marketing: Gilda Marx started out giving exercise lessons on her back-yard patio. Now she’s head of a major apparel company.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Before Jane Fonda’s Workout, before the Richard Simmons phenomenon, before Sports Connection and Nautilus machines, there was Gilda Marx.

And before Gilda Marx, there was a chubby girl who moved west from Pittsburgh at age 12 and felt self-conscious around Southern California’s slim and trim crowd. So she shed her 20 extra pounds by working out with weights, long before it was fashionable for women, and dancing--tap, ballet, jazz, acrobatics, you name it.

“That was the unconscious seed of my exercise business,” Marx said.

Today, at 54, the vibrant Marx and her husband, Robert (son of Groucho’s brother Gummo), head a $43-million fitness and fashion empire that she believes gave birth to the aerobics exercise-to-music craze.

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Workout clothes for active people of all ages, shapes and sizes are the heart of the business. And this fall Marx is adding Breathables--aerobic styles lined in a new fabric from DuPont designed to shed moisture quickly, keeping exercisers cooler and drier and therefore healthier.

“I understand the torso, arms, bustline,” Marx said. “Now, there’s another major reason to buy these clothes--for health.”

The clothes run the gamut from leotards and bodysuits to shorts and tights and come in peppy prints and sophisticated brights and pastels. Gilda Marx Industries, with headquarters in West Los Angeles and more than 300 employees, manufactures 50,000 garments each week that are sold in more than 5,000 retail outlets. Made primarily of Flexatard, a form-fitting fabric that Marx helped develop, the clothes are sold under such labels as California Body, Gilda Marx Sport, Gilda Marx Performance Wear and Gilda Marx Stars of Tomorrow, a children’s line. Gilda Marx Industries also recently began testing a line of men’s clothing nationwide.

In addition, it produces fitness tapes and accessories and, under the name Body Design by Gilda, operates five exercise studios in the East.

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It is perhaps surprising that Gilda Marx no longer has an exercise studio in Southern California. After all, the whole business goes back nearly three decades to when Marx taught housewives how to exercise on the patio of her San Fernando Valley home.

They called her Gilda of Encino back then.

About 1960, she recalled, “I was asked to choreograph a major charity production at the Cocoanut Grove. In order to get the women (performers) in shape, I took all the experiences and training from my dance background and classes, and I put it together and created a way to get an unconditioned woman in shape to perform four to six weeks later.”

When the show ended, her proteges weren’t about to let her get away.

So Marx bought some mats, hauled out a record player and soon had her neighbors and their friends hopping to the strains of Marvin Gaye, Chubby Checker and others.

“It was strictly word of mouth, but before I knew it, I had a business going,” she said.

She then opened a studio in the back of a store on Encino Avenue, complete with mirrors, barre and concrete floor. (Marx shudders when she thinks of the days when exercisers didn’t know better than to risk their joints by bouncing on a surface without any give.)

The students usually wore sweats or shorts, and Marx herself donned otherwise drab knit tights and leotards that she wrapped with scarfs for pizazz.

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Soon she was teaching several hundred customers five or six days a week while raising two children. Among the faithful were Shirley MacLaine, singer Marilyn McCoo Davis and models for Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. Efrem Zimbalist Jr. would occasionally stroll by and watch as Marx put her students through their paces.

Over the years, the business passed through several other studios and saw hordes of other celebrities. Juliet Prowse came, as did Simmons, then a restaurant maitre d’ who went on to build his own fitness company after Marx banned him from her classes for being, as she put it, “disruptive.”

A turning point was reached when exercise maven Gilda met Bob Marx, a former television director and producer turned insurance executive who realized that she was on to something with this exercise stuff.

They wed in 1973 (she admits to having been married and divorced “a few times” before) and in 1975 opened the studio of her dreams in the penthouse of a Century City medical office building.

It attracted Fonda, Barbra Streisand, Brooke Shields, Susan Anton, Madonna and scores of others from the ranks of L.A.'s rich and famous. (During an ill-fated franchising effort, the number of studios briefly climbed to 25.)

In 1977, the Marxes began manufacturing the Flexatard line, with an eye toward making flattering styles for women with imperfect bodies. They grossed more than $680,000 the first year in a field dominated by Capezio and Danskin.

After that, apparel became the focus, and the Marxes didn’t seem to mind that much when, after 10 years, the doctors and dentists in their building forced them to close the studio because the ferocious exercising was causing the place to sway.

“We really learned this business,” Marx said of the manufacturing side. She and Bob cut their own patterns, sewed garments, wrote the promotional materials and carried exercise togs to stores to show them to customers.

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“To this day, we probably know more about the individual needs of the business than most owners of large businesses,” Robert Marx said.

Today, Gilda Marx Industries uses California contractors as well as two firms in Taiwan. A new factory is going up in Mexicali, Mexico. Garments are sold in 26 other countries, and plans are afoot to establish Gilda Marx boutiques in Japan.

The Marxes, who travel frequently to promote the business and deal with manufacturing concerns, figure that the company can achieve $100 million in annual sales.

Gilda Marx still practices what she preaches, working out at least four times a week in a well-equipped studio in her opulent Beverly Hills home. It’s a long way from mats on the patio in Encino.


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