Joan Helpern, the petite matriarch who was half of the footwear duo Joan & David, died Sunday at the age of 89 at her home at the Carlyle Hotel in New York.
The cause of death was respiratory failure, according to her daughter, Elizabeth Helpern.
Helpern was born in The Bronx and graduated from Hunter College. She obtained an M.A. in child psychology at Columbia University, and went on to get her doctorate in psychology from Harvard University. Her first career was as a psychologist and teacher at New York’s Yeshiva University and in public schools in New York and Lexington, Mass.
Helpern’s husband, David (from whom she was legally separated and who died in 2012), was working at his family’s women’s apparel stores, Touraine’s, running the leased shoe department when he was introduced to Joan, who was working in the Lexington public school system. Joan, at the time, complained about high heels and the lack of comfortable shoes for work and began designing women’s shoes, traveling to Italy with David.
They founded their footwear company in 1967 in Cambridge, Mass., and began manufacturing comfortable, stylish shoes. Joan Helpern served as designer and creative director, while David was the chief executive officer. As her daughter explained, in the Seventies people told them that no one would buy the footwear without a designer name, so the Joan & David label was introduced in 1977. Along the way, the couple introduced David & Joan men’s footwear (designed by David), a lower-priced line of footwear called Joan & David Too, women’s apparel, accessories, and jewelry and concept shops in stores such as Harvey Nichols and freestanding boutiques in Paris and Hong Kong. Over the years, the company evolved into a major international brand.
The shoes sold well in the U.S., and by 1990 the label was available in more than 100 retailers throughout the U.S. and Europe, including Ann Taylor, Neiman Marcus and the Helperns’ own Joan & David boutiques. In the early Nineties, sales were approaching $100 million. The Helperns sold their company and the rights to their label in 2000 after a series of business reversals. In March 2000, Joan & David filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Later that year, Joan Helpern Designs Inc. was purchased by the Maxwell Shoe Co. for $16.8 million. Today, the intellectual property is owned by Nine West, which doesn’t produce a line.
Footwear designer Sam Edelman had known Helpern since he was a child as his parents were friendly with her. “I knew her very well. I built Sam & Libby as the new version of Joan & David. I did that partly out of respect for Joan and David, whom I grew up in awe of. Joan revolutionized how we used Italy. It was a time when we moved from American factories to Italian factories,” he said. “She really understood her customer and did it so well. Joan was an intellectual, beautifully educated and she influenced me and Libby,” said Edelman.
Kenneth Cole said, “Joan was a legend in the footwear business. She was committed to creating what others hadn’t in ways that others wouldn’t. Her passion for her shoes, her business and her dog (and not necessarily in that order) were unparalleled.”
Josie Natori met Helpern through their mutual involvement in the Committee of 200, a professional organization of preeminent women entrepreneurs and corporate leaders. Natori said that Helpern would spend months in Italy and would rent a villa at the Hotel du Cap on the French Riveria to work. “She really did it in style,” said Natori. She said she designed footwear for women running to catch a plane or on the go. “She had such a passion,” said Natori.
Elizabeth Helpern added, “She was tiny, but was larger-than-life and was an amazing public speaker. She never wrote a word beforehand and she brought people together and introduced them to each other. She was an amazing networker of women,” she said.
Helpern won an American Fashion Critics Coty award in 1978, in addition to many other honors from the footwear industry. In 1995, she won the Girl Scouts of America Woman of the Year. Helpern was also the recipient of Hunter College’s Athena Award, given for outstanding personal and professional achievement.
In addition to Elizabeth, Helpern is survived by her stepson, David Halpern Jr., and three grandchildren.
Helpern was cremated and a memorial service will be held at a later date.