Grande Dame

Joan Calabrese, legendary children’s couture designer, entrepreneur and all-around Renaissance woman, left a legacy of beauty that goes well beyond her beautiful dresses.

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Joan Calabrese

Joan Calabrese was the epitome of elegance, from her dark coiffed hair and signature red lipstick down to her couture outfits complete with high heels. Calabrese was never the type to conform and always dressed to the nines. Always. The legendary dressmaker is remembered by many fellow industry members for her poise, professionalism and, most of all, passion about children’s fashion design. Her rich catalog of work spans more than 40 years across her eponymous company and, later in her career, designing the Joan Calabrese for Mon Cheri label. Calabrese’s luxury clientele includes the children of the Bush and Kennedy clans, British royals and celebrities such as Natalie Wood and Betsy Bloomingdale. A young Dakota Fanning often wore Calabrese-designed frocks on the red carpet. Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus were among the luxury stores that regularly sold Calabrese creations at more than $500 a pop, because the quality and exquisiteness of the designs were one-of-a-kind keepsakes, often passed down from sibling to sibling and generation to generation.

Not only will Calabrese’s designs be remembered by her loyal retail accounts and customers, but a few of her creations are part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute’s permanent collection and installed in the Costume Collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

“She was the one that pushed childrenswear to become more couture,” says Elena Calabrese, the youngest of the designer’s two daughters. “Her designs were of much higher quality and sophistication than what most kids’ designers offered in the ’80s. I’d consider her one of the pioneers in elevating children’s fashion.”

“Her sketches alone were like pieces of art that you wouldn’t mind hanging on your wall,” says Monique Fletcher, a West Coast sales rep for Mon Cheri Bridals. “She paid such attention to detail, including meticulous placement of beading, flowers, pearls and bows.”

“Mom subscribed to tons of fashion magazines and drew much of her inspiration from adult clothing,” says Marisa Moore, Calabrese’s eldest daughter. “She went to Paris all the time to buy fabrics.”

Primarily inspired by European designs, Calabrese never took the lesser route—always striving for top quality. Her designs were elegant, sophisticated yet always age-appropriate. Youthful embellishments adored by her fans include floral or metallic lace bodices, lace-trimmed tulle skirts and simple satin belts.

“She never forgot that a child was a child—not a miniature adult—and should dress like one,” says Joanne Downes, owner of Occasions Boutique in Malvern, PA. “Her designs are classics.” Downes says Calabrese put Mon Cheri on the childrenswear map. “Mon Cheri’s children’s line became No. 1 in the industry in communion and flower girl dresses after Joan joined the team,” she says, noting that Calabrese’s trunk shows were like rock star events. “My store would be packed with customers from open until close anxious to meet with our famous local celebrity.”

Grace Pietrosanti, owner of Sacred Heart Gifts & Apparel in Mahopac, NY, shared similar stories of Calabrese events. “She enriched the media, the children and my employees with her charming personality, her history, her knowledge and her kindness,” she says, recalling a particular trunk show that Calabrese attended just months before she passed. “The journalist was enthralled by Calabrese and didn’t want to leave, the children were awestruck that the designer of their communion dress was present and my employees were inspired by her insight, which will never be forgotten,” Pietrosanti says.

According to Fletcher, Calabrese’s knowledge of fashion and personal style were some of her most alluring traits. She made couture fashion and lived it. The rep recalls one sales meeting when Calabrese walked in wearing “the chicest dress,” but with the security tag still attached. “She told us she had just bought it and the tag accidentally got left on,” Fletcher says. “But she didn’t care since it is what she wanted to wear. Something like a security tag would never stand in Joan’s way. She always exuded elegance and grace.”

Born to be Bold

While many women in the early ’70s settled into roles as housewives or pursued typical professions such as teaching and nursing, Calabrese was determined to blaze her own career path. She simply never was one to conform.   

“Mom was a go-getter,” Elena Calabrese says. “She was her own best salesperson. She was very feisty. She had a lot of integrity, and was certainly not a wallflower.”

Moore chalks up her mother’s strict Catholic school upbringing as fueling her desire to live life by her own rules—even if it meant passing up a full scholarship to the Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. Instead, Calabrese started out as a secretary while still practicing her love of art. When she became a mother, the aspiring designer would often sketch and sew outfits for her daughters in her spare time. When her cousin, Tom Marotta, former vice president of Saks Fifth Avenue, happened upon a few of Calabrese’s creations, he urged her to connect with Linda Berman, the owner of The Children’s Boutique in Philadelphia. The owner ordered 40 dresses from Calabrese, who stitched them together in her basement studio. Thus, a career in childrenswear began.

“She was one of the first to really offer couture for kids,” Moore says, explaining the ornate embellishments and quality materials behind each and every dress. And as the company grew, the quality never wavered. “If a mother was wearing an expensive gown toan event, her daughter could get the same kind of dress through Mom’s designs.”

After more than 30 years of running her own couture label, Calabrese decided she no longer wanted to deal with the daily grind of managing a business in her late sixties. She preferred to focus on her favorite part: the designs. “She found it especially frustrating when the economy started to turn that people were stealing her designs and producing them in China for less,” Elena Calabrese says. “She thought, ‘I could do a much better job of this—I’ll knock myself off!’” With that, she joined Mon Cheri Bridals in 2008 to create a more affordable children’s collection under the Joan Calabrese for Mon Cheri label.

Steve Lang, CEO of Mon Cheri, recalls the first time he met Calabrese and how it must have been fate. Calabrese, he says, was a very spiritual woman, and when she was in the process of finding a company to sign with she told him she sought guidance from her soothsayer. “The clairvoyant told Joan she would see two companies based in New York,” Lang says, noting that the second company would have a French name and the owner would have red hair. “So when she walked in the door for the first time and saw me, the first thing she said was, ‘Oh my God, she was right.’”

Calabrese’s family cites her long-running partnership with Lang as one of the greatest accomplishments and joys of her career. “She always joked that Steve is her other Jewish son-in-law,” Moore says. “The Mon Cheri group was like a family to my mom.”

The nine-year collaboration between Mon Cheri and Calabrese produced season after season of beautiful special occasion, flower girl and first communion dresses. “Joan and I had a different type of chemistry than I had with all the other designers,” Lang says. “Since she was a business owner already, a great level of mutual respect grew between the two of us.” In fact, Lang says the collection will continue beyond his dear friend and business partner’s passing, noting Calabrese left several sketches that have yet to be created.

Fierce and Fashionable

Joan Calabrese for Mon Cheri

During the times that Calabrese wasn’t busy poring over sketchbooks and swatches, she was a voracious reader, an ardent student of early American history, a masterful chef, a world traveler and never afraid to try something new. Even at the age of 60, her family recounts Calabrese taking a first-time sailing trip, complete with deck-hand duties and snorkeling. Even just two years ago, coming off a round of chemotherapy treatments, she marched onto a Hawaiian beach in her bathing suit, climbed into an outrigger canoe and paddled out into the Pacific—chemotherapy port, wig and all.

Not only was Calabrese bold, confident and unapologetically passionate, she was fiercely dedicated to her family, especially her three grandchildren. While Calabrese didn’t exactly blend in at soccer games—dressing down for her was barely less than formal dinner attire—she was always up for anything the grandkids were doing. Moore recalls one particular game when she mentioned to her mother that the girl defending her daughter looked very mad on the field. “I noticed that as well,” Calabrese replied, adding, “Do you think she’s mad because her uniform doesn’t fit very well? I know I would be mad if my uniform didn’t fit right—and who picked those colors?”

At the age of 77, Calabrese lost her battle with uterine cancer in July. In remembrance, her family has set up a memorial fund at St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital. In addition, the designer’s tremendous legacy lives on through the stories of her family, friends and colleagues. Not to mention her designs in the closets and memories of thousands of girls who wore her pretty dresses. Her daughters, both business owners in the interior design field, say that their mother’s wisdom and business mantras constantly come to mind when they make decisions at work. Some nuggets include: “Be yourself, and don’t worry about what everyone else is doing.” “Integrity, integrity, integrity—if you lose that you’re worthless in business.” “Go for it, and don’t take ‘no’ for an answer.”

“Even my friends have coined the phrase, ‘What would Joan do?’” Elena Calabrese says. “We are constantly reminded of how great this loss is—to be here without my mother to inspire us both personally and professionally. She truly lived for the industry that she helped to build.” 

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