Thursday, August 19, 2010

Odette Barsa, the legend, the entrepreneur, the woman

Today we conclude our interview with Nadia Barsa Bardwil Gerrity in reference to her mother, Odette Barsa, the First Lady of Madison Avenue.

When I started to research the Odette Barsa label I found a change in the patent/copyright from Odette Barsa to FRESOEUR, INC. CORPORATION. When asked about this change Mrs. Gerrity stated, "Our mother started her business as "Odette Barsa and it was always this until she changed the name to" FRESOEUR" meaning brothers and sister years later in 1966. The reason she changed the name was to make sure that I was part of the business, "one sister and two brothers." Odette's sons, Gabriel and Albert, became involved in the day to day running of the business after World War II (both Gabriel and Albert were in the army during the war)and Nadia was involved in a financial manner. Albert was an engineer having graduated from Massachusetts Institute of Technology( MIT,) Magna Cum Laude, and Gabriel graduated Summa Cum Laude from Fordham University.

Odette Barsa in back row, and left to right: Gabriel, Nadia and Albert

Mrs. Gerrity said, "I worked there for two summers during the war, and got a kick out of watching her figure the cost of something in French figures ,because of course her education was in the French language in Cairo. It was so interesting to see how all the employees admired her and were devoted to her . It was like a family there."

Mrs. Gerrity provided us with many personal photographs and articles which were written about her parents and Odette herself. The volume of magazine spreads in Vogue, Harpers Bazaar, etc. is impressive. Odette Barsa's intimate apparel lines were carried by the finest stores including Bergdorf Goodman, Saks Fifth Avenue, Lord and Taylor and Bullocks to name just a few.

Advertisement from Harpers Bazaar

Cover of Harpers Bazaar April 1956

One of the articles I was provided mentioned that Mr. and Mrs. Barsa spent their summers in Mount Pocono, Pennsylvania, which is an hours drive from where I live. When asked why her parents chose the Poconos as their summer retreat, Mrs. Gerrity explained "My mother wanted to send the three of us to camp. My brothers went to camp in Vermont and my mother found Camp Tegawitha for me in Tobyhanna, PA, right near Mount Pocono. They came up every weekend to visit me. It wasn't far. They found out they had friends in the area and bought a house. Then they moved to a bigger house. Then dad built us a house next door to his and we lived there for a few years in the summer, after I was married and had children. That was our love affair with the Poconos. But as our seven kids got older it was too hard to leave once we moved to Rye with summer jobs and other summer activities. We loved our summers there. Mother and dad were so happy there . They had lots of friends and had loads of parties. It was such an exceptional time in our lives!. What a gift, to have the old and the children so happy together.!! My children will never forget those days!"

I asked Mrs. Gerrity to tell us about her mother in her own words. She said, "Mother was an incredible business lady. She was the designer, the promoter, and the best sales person because everyone who came into the showroom wanted to see her. She was such a great lady, and everyone knew it. In the eyes of my mother, the love for her family at home always came first, her children and her husband and how can we forget those grandchildren? She was such a loving and giving person. As hard as she and my father worked, they always knew their responsibility was to give to charity to help others in need . Their hands were always extended. Because of this, our mother will always be admired and respected in the business world and with her family and friends."

"After Mother died in 1975, my brothers stayed in business together and then decided to go their separate ways."

We will now close our blog with some beautiful examples of Odette Barsa's intimate apparel from the personal collection of Nadia Barsa Bardwil Gerrity. We would like to thank Mrs. Gerrity once again for sharing her family with us.

White lace robe

Turquoise Peignoir Set

Butterfly Robe

Odette Barsa with granddaughter, Betsy in 1973

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.

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Dingmans Ferry, Pennsylvania, United States
We are the owners of Mod Mary's Vintage on Etsy.