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Mortimer Levitt, 98; built fashion empire

LOS ANGELES --Mortimer Levitt, who built a men's fashion empire of made-to-measure shirts, starting with one Custom Shop Shirtmakers store in New York and growing to include more than 60 others around the country, died Tuesday. He was 98.

Mr. Levitt, who also wrote five books about men's style and related subjects and was an avid supporter of arts programs, died at his summer home in Greens Farms, Conn., of complications from a stroke, his daughter, Elizabeth Levitt Hirsch, said yesterday. He was a longtime resident of New York City.

The self-made mogul was born in Brooklyn and dropped out of high school to help support his mother and brothers. At age 20, he started his own business of custom-order shirts priced at $2.15 each. From then on, he kept his prices far lower than the typical cost of a custom-made shirt.

He opened his first store on Broadway near 36th Street in Manhattan in 1937. Before he sold his business 60 years later, he had shops in upscale malls and shopping districts in many cities. His stores also carried other menswear, such as ties and suits.

After amassing his fortune as a businessman, Mr. Levitt used some of it to support the arts. He helped create performing arts programs in Pasadena, Harrisburg, Pa., and Westport, Conn., near his summer home.

He was a founder of the Manhattan Theater Club in New York City, and for more than 25 years served as chairman of the board of Young Concert Artists, which fosters the careers of promising classical musicians. Pianist Emanuel Ax and violinist Pinchas Zuckerman were once part of the program.

Mr. Levitt's passion for classical music began on a ski trip when he heard the overture to Richard Wagner's opera ''Tristan and Isolde" on the radio. He returned to New York City and bought a record player and dozens of albums, his wife, Mimi, said yesterday. For some years, he held musicales at their Manhattan townhouse and, at age 47, started taking piano lessons.

''He was quite a character, a real original," Mimi Levitt said. ''He never cared what other people did. He did things his way."

A flamboyant dresser who knew the rules of good taste, Mr. Levitt wrote several how-to books about men's fashion. ''The Executive Look and How to Get It" (1981) and ''Class, What It Is and How to Acquire It" (1984) attracted attention in part because of Mr. Levitt's writing style.

''Fashion is an industry rip-off. Forget it! Stay with the classics," he pronounced in the first book. He scolded a prominent business executive he knew who boasted about buying ''rejected" shirts on sale, even though he bought them in Mr. Levitt's store.

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