by eve ziebart | August 18, 2014 | People
Albert and Pearl Nipon dressed some of the most famous women in the world during their clothing line’s heyday. After decades out of the fashion spotlight, the lifelong Philadelphians sit down to talk about the art of clothing design, visiting the White House, and a commitment to family that has been the foundation of their 60-plus year marriage.
Though they always preferred Philadelphia to New York, Albert and Pearl Nipon were runway show fixtures throughout the 1970s and ’80s.
She had the figure; he ran the numbers. She set the style; he worked the schmooze. And, as is quickly obvious, she’s a firecracker, and he’s the fuse. Together, Pearl and Albert Nipon built a $60 million international designer label that in its heyday dressed the well known, the well-heeled, and the well-publicized ladies (first and second) of the White House.
But when they walked away from the fashion whirl in the mid-’80s, they still had what they valued most: their family and friends, and Philadelphia. “We are born and bred,” says Pearl. “We never wanted to live anywhere else. We had a world of acquaintances, and a world of friends, but our closest friends from our young days are still our best friends today. Our kids, our friends’ kids, and their kids, are all so close. I look back and think how exciting our lives were then—traveling and entertaining. All the designers in New York knew one another, but here we are, with our children and our grandchildren, and I think how enjoyable our life is now.”
Glamorous, gregarious, and indefatigable, Pearl and Albert Nipon were everywhere. Stylish advertising photos with headlines like, “And the Albert Nipons were there,” showcased them at the Italian Market, alongside members of the Pennsylvania Ballet, in white tie and tails at the theater (with stable models Beverly Johnson and Carol Alt), on the ball field at the Vet with the entire Phillies roster (featuring Pete Rose and a towel-clad Mike Schmidt) and again in the team’s locker room (with Schmidt again wearing nothing but a towel). They built their campaigns, Pearl points out, around the city they love.
Yet, family always came before fashion. “Family values were the most important thing to them, and that was handed down to all of us,” their son Larry remembers. “Every morning, we had breakfast as a family, and every night, we sat down to dinner together, without fail. It was an unspoken law.” Even when they were working at their Manhattan office, Pearl remembers how she and Albert “would race out of the showroom on Thursday afternoons, yelling, ‘We have a wrestling match to get to!’” Albert nods. “Never missed one dinner,” he says.
“My mother told me to let him be the head, and me be the neck—because the neck can make the head move any way it wants,” Pearl says.
Fittingly, the whole business began in the family way: In the early 1950s, when Pearl was pregnant with Larry (the first of four), the most popular style of maternity wear was a bland skirt with an elasticized cutout to accommodate a woman’s expanding abdomen with a smock-like shirt to wear over it. Pearl, who’d been sewing her own clothes since she was 6 or 7, found the outfits uncomfortable and unflattering, so she crafted dresses that had bows and details and some flair. That launched the Nipons’ first fashion line, Ma Mère—French for “my mother”—a collection of pretty, empire-waisted dresses that still pop up on vintage-wear websites.
By the ’70s, with maternity wear in decline, executives at Saks Fifth Avenue suggested Pearl try her hand(s) at coming up with some “real” dresses. Saks would carry the new lines, and Bonwit Teller agreed to carry the designs.
It was a truly a Cinderella business story: Rosalynn Carter, Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush, Barbara Walters, Barbra Streisand, Ivana Trump, Mary Tyler Moore, and Lauren Bacall all started sporting the new Ma Mère looks. Reagan even had Pearl deliver a whole season’s designs to the White House for perusal while Pearl and her assistant bounced on the famous bed in the Lincoln bedroom. “We were running through the factory [on North Broad] yelling, ‘They like it!’ ” she remembers fondly.
The label became known for its details—faggoting, tucking, pleating, and a Chanel-like love of bows, cuffs, and collars. Reviews of Nipon fashion shows routinely used such adjectives as “elegant” and “feminine.”
But it wasn’t just the look—it was the feel and the fit. Though the Nipons had workroom models with perfect figures, Pearl made sure their dresses would fit any form. “After we saw the designs on our models, I tried every one of them on myself,” says Pearl. “The alterations were made on me. I was the customer.”
“We were sticklers for quality,” Albert adds. “At one point, we were the biggest user of Italian fabrics in the industry.” Pearl even earned a nickname among the Italians, who called her “The White Tornado.”
And though naming the brand after Albert seemed instep with the high-fashion sensibilities of the time, Pearl recalls a different reasoning for letting her husband become the face of the brand, even if she was its hands. “My mother told me to,” she explains. “She said, ‘Let him be the head, and you be the neck—because the neck can make the head move any way it wants.’”
While working together so closely can put stress on any partnership, the couple—whose 60-year romance seems like something out of a storybook or feature film—have never felt the strain. Pearl even recalls the first time she laid eyes on him—on summer holiday in Atlantic City. “He had the body of an Adonis,” she says.
The Nipons in the locker room with the entire roster of the Philadelphia Phillies.
She wasn’t alone in her appreciation: When she asked who he was, she was told he was “Boom-Boom” Nipon—“Boomie” for short. Boomie had played semipro football with the old Camden Zuni Indians, boxed in the Army, and wrestled at Temple. “He was such a stud,” son Larry jokes.
And Pearl immediately set her cap—and, as it happens, her pearls—for Boomie. She took the initiative, asking him out on a date even though he was already seeing someone else. She settled for one of his friends, but when the two couples were out one night, she asked Albert to dance. He capitulated.
As they walked toward the dance floor, they passed a swimming pool, and Pearl mentioned that, aside from in the movies, she had never seen anyone actually thrown into a pool. He picked her up, she ordered him to put her down, and he did. But after teasing him for backing down, she found herself at the bottom of the pool—a movie script brought to “wonderful life” but with a somewhat-disastrous consequence. “My pearls broke and floated away,” she says, and she had to lie to her parents about having been caught in a thunderstorm. Eventually the story got around, but the two became sweethearts quickly. When her birthday approached a few weeks later, Albert asked what present she’d like. Her response? An engagement ring. They were married within two months.
Today, Pearl and Albert are in their mid-80s though they appear to be far younger, thanks to a commitment to exercise, including the tai chi Pearl does early every morning. Albert limps slightly in the aftermath of a pair of nasty falls, and he has to use a cane now. But he makes it seem dandyish.
And though they sold their label in 1988 (the brand now belongs to the Jones Group Inc. of New York), they remained busy, renovating their homes, traveling, and maintaining a presence on the social scene. They now live in The Residences at the Ritz-Carlton (owned by their developer son-in-law Craig Spencer and daughter B.J.), surrounded by antique Japanese netsukes, leather-bound and gold-embossed books, high fashion photography—including a pair of vertical triptychs of the two of them inscribed by Andy Warhol—and walls of windows filled with unmatched views of Center City. In perfect keeping with their refined yet bawdy sense of humor, they joke that their home faces William Penn’s backside.
“We’re enjoying each others’ company,” says Albert. Pearl, who’d once considered becoming a lawyer, began auditing classes at Penn, mostly in English literature and European history but also bioethics. “I tell Albert I don’t know how I had time to work,” she says. “I’m constantly busy with something.”
Of late, her time has been occupied with planning a family expedition of 21 Nipons—including children, grandchildren, in-laws, and more—to Israel, a trip that Larry says had long been his parents’ dream. The proud grandparents speak fondly of the bar mitzvah of their grandson Will in a small Sephardic synagogue on the West Bank.
But while they have left the fashion world behind, it hasn’t entirely left them. “People still stop me on the street and say, ‘I loved that dress,’” says Pearl. Albert nods. “They had life in them,” he says. No surprise there.
photography by mark hartman; courtesy of pearl nipon