Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Odette Barsa: The legend, the entrepreneur, the woman

Amidst the ruins of the stock market crash of 1929, a young determined woman, mother of 3 children who had been brought up in a very sheltered family, rolled up her sleeves and started an intimate apparel business and what a business it became. This is the story of Odette Barsa, deemed "The First Lady of Madison Avenue: as quoted in "Intimate Apparel" magazine.

We’ve had the pleasure of speaking with Odette Barsa’s daughter, Nadia Barsa Bardwil Gerrity in reference to her mother and father. We would like to thank Mrs. Gerrity for sharing her parents with us.

Simon and Odette Barsa’s lives were very much the American dream. Both Simon and Odette were born in Damascus, Syria, the oldest city in the world and both Christians. Simon’s father was killed in Syria because of his religious beliefs. Simon’s mother decided to relocate to Lebanon and Simon, who was high school age at the time decided he wanted to come to the United States to make his way in the world.

Odette’s family also left Syria because they were Christian, however, they relocated to Egypt. Odette attended Sacred Heart Convent and there learned fine sewing and was taught in the French language. How Simon and Odette met is a real family affair.

Simon and his brother, Abdula worked for their uncle in his robe business. A few years later the brothers decided to go out on their own and started their business. The brothers named their business "A. Barsa and Brother." The brothers worked hard and did very well and made a great living with their business. They were living the American dream come true.

As Mrs. Gerrity recalls, "Our Uncle Abdula was married to a lovely lady he had met in Cairo. This was my Aunt Marie. He told my father "say, there‘s another one of these ladies over there." So my dad went over and met my mother, Aunt Marie‘s sister. Two brothers married two sisters."

Because of large donations my father and Uncle had made to Rome, the Pope wanted our parents to be married in Rome, but Dad wanted to be married here in the United States. Our parents were married at the Church of the Resurrection in Rye, NY in 1922. "Last year, one of my grandchildren was married there, which makes four generations of Barsa related family to be married there, most recently Jennifer Odette Lynch. Our mother and father had three children, two sons, Gabriel and Albert and then myself, Nadia."

From left to right back row: Uncle Abdulah, Aunt Marie, Odette and Marie's mother, Odette and Marie's brother and sister, Odette and Simon

front row left to right: Michael, Joseph, Violet and Mary Claire, children of Abdulah and Marie Barsa, and then Nadia, Albert and Gabriel, children of Odette and Simon Barsa

Odette and Simon Barsa at their 50th anniversary party

Mrs. Gerrity said, "Business was very good and our parents led the great life with an apartment on Riverside Drive (the place to be in those days before Park Ave was in style), a home in New Rochelle, were members of the Westchester Biltmore Country Club, had nurses, cooks, drivers, etc."

This all came to a very abrupt end with the stock market crash of 1929. As Mrs. Gerrity recalls, "Dad was heavy on margin. What was close to 2 million dollars turned into nothing just like that!! From what I understand from my brother, Gabe, who died last year, after the first blast the broker thought things were going to come back and dad put the business into harm and then lost that!! So there was the family with no money! My mother had to get rid of all nurses and cooks, etc. My mother said she took us to the park and did not have the money for a balloon."

"Our parents were tough. Our father took on partners and started his business up again with their money."

In 1931, Mr. Barsa's firm was experiencing difficulties during the depression. Odette Barsa felt that she should work and she wanted to design children's dresses. Her husband, however, suggested that she try the intimate apparel field, since it was very simple, with everything crepe or satin and just blue, pink or white. Of course anyone that knows Odette Barsa's work will smile at this, as her designs were numerous, made from a plethora of colors, fabrics, rich laces, and embroidery which was done in Madeira. Odette Barsa also introduced several new fabrics to her intimate apparel.

Mrs. Gerrity recalls, "Our sweet mother, the former princess, took one room at 16 East 34 Street, the same building that my father was in. Our Aunt Sophie became the salesperson, and our mother had one sewing machine operator. She started to design nightgowns and robes. She did not draw them. She made the patterns herself. She always tried them on. Mother always felt that this was the reason that she was so successful, because her things always fit. Every year she had to take more room, until finally she had the whole floor. By the late 1940s she was "The First Lady of Madison Avenue" as quoted in" Intimate Apparel" magazine."

Odette Barsa's creations were worn by Hollywood actresses such as Rita Hayworth and Italian actress and former model, Elsa Martinelli. Odette had a wonderful eye and when a shorter sleep gown was made in Paris, Odette translated this for the U.S. into a ballerina length which was the basis for the waltz length gown and robe set that became the industry mainstay.

Rita Hayworth in an Odette Barsa Robe

Life Magazine cover with Elsa Martinelli

Mrs. Gerrity stated, "Our mother introduced several fabrics to the public, one of which was washable velvet which was a huge hit!. Mother had all her embroidery done in Madeira. She purchased her lace from sales men who came into her office. It was probably from France or domestic. After silk fabric was dropped from the line the fabrics she used were made in this country. It was important to mother to have something that could be worn with elegance and washed as well."

The Washable Velvet Robe is introduced by Odette Barsa via a magazine advertisement

One wonders where Odette Barsa derived her ideas and styles for her intimate apparel . Mrs. Gerrity said, "Our mother designed new fashions three times a year. She made her own designs, and her own patterns, too, which made her so popular because everything fit. It was hard to come up with new designs that frequently. She often went to museums and looked at old costumes to get ideas. She named them too, for example, "The dream of Josephine."

The Dream of Josephine

This concludes the first part of our interview with Nadia Barsa Bardwil Gerrity. Please check back for our second and final installment of the Odette Barsa Story.


Jonathan Walford said...

Great information! There were so many smaller companies that will never have a retrospective of their work at the Met, so its great to capture the information while there are still people around who remember.

AlleyCatsVintage said...

I've always been a fan of Odette Barsa lingerie. I love reading this information.

Kim @ The Girl Can't Help It said...

What a great interview! Nice work!

finditforu said...

This was an amazing woman and thank you for telling her story...I can not wait to read the rest.

A Vintage Life ~ The Magnolia Collection said...

What a great article. I love Odette Barsa's work - her slips were so fantastic and had a sense of humor!

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