By  on June 6, 2012

Joan & David cofounder and former chairman David Helpern, 94, died May 14 at Belmont Village in Westwood, Calif.

The cause of death was congestive heart failure, according to his daughter, Elizabeth.

Founded in 1967, Joan & David started out as a label for comfortable, stylish shoes and evolved into a major international brand. Along the way, the company introduced David & Joan’s men’s wear, a lower-priced line of footwear called Joan & David Too, women’s apparel, accessories, concept shops in stores such as Harvey Nichols and freestanding boutiques in Paris and Hong Kong.

In 1988, the company filed Chapter 11, and in 2000 Joan Helpern Designs was sold to Maxwell Shoe Co. for a reported $16.8 million. David Helpern retired around the time the company changed hands.

Born in Brookline, Mass., he attended Boston Latin High School, before going on to graduate from Harvard University in 1938. After earning a master’s degree in education from Harvard, Helpern taught briefly but “he liked being a scholar more than a teacher,” his daughter said. 

Helpern served in World War II in the Philippines as a sergeant in the radar corps. After he returned to civilian life near Boston, he wed Joan, who also attended Harvard for a Ph.D. and worked as a child psychologist. Aside from building a successful business, they established themselves as philanthropists helping to fight AIDS, enhance breast cancer and prostate cancer research and improving vision care.

Fond of reading European history and nonfiction, Helpern never envisioned a career in fashion, his daughter said. But after he wound up working in the shoe department of a local store, the business grew organically from that experience. Tantamount to that was Joan Helpern’s intent on finding stylish shoes that multitasking working women like herself could wear comfortably all day. After researching the field, she and her husband began scouting Italian factories to produce her designs.

After the duo separated about 10 or 12 years ago, David Helpern relocated to Los Angeles. “He was very adaptable and made people feel comfortable. He was always the same person wherever you put him,” Elizabeth Helpern said.

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