Funeral services will be held July 27 at St. Anastasia Church in Newton Square, Pa., for children’s wear designer Joan Calabrese.

Calabrese, 77, died July 16 at her home in Newtown Square. The cause of death was uterine cancer, according to her daughter Elena Calabrese.

Joanne Calabrese

Joan Calabrese  Courtesy Photo

Collecting scraps of fabric from a family friend who worked as a dressmaker, Calabrese first took an interest in sewing by making clothing for her dolls. In high school, she passed up a full scholarship to the Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia and later as a young mother she started making clothes for her two young daughters. After a cousin, Tom Marotta, a former vice president at Saks Fifth Avenue, connected Calabrese with Linda Berman, the owner of the Children’s Boutique in Philadelphia, the retailer ordered 40 dresses from Calabrese, who stitched them together in her basement studio, and a business was born. Over the years, Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus were among the specialty stores that carried her collection.

Inspired by European designs, she made a point of attending fabric shows in Paris twice a year for more than 25 years. Her selectivity bout fabrics helped to differentiate her children’s wear from competitors. Two of her creations are part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute’s permanent collection. Her designs are also installed in the Costume Collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Recognizable by her red lipstick, all-black outfits and high heels, Calabrese preferred to be overdressed.

With dresses retailing for $400, Calabrese developed a well-heeled clientele dressing the children of U.S. presidents, British royals and other foreign dignitaries as well as those of Natalie Wood, Betsy Bloomingdale, the Bushes and the Kennedy family. As a youngster, actress Dakota Fanning wore Calabrese-designed dresses on more than one occasion, including on the red carpet.

In 2008, the designer joined Mon Cheri Bridals to create a children’s collection carrying the Joan Calabrese for Mon Cheri label. Those special occasion, flower girl and First Communion dresses were meant to be more affordable than the signature label she was initially known for. The collection will go forward, with Mon Cheri relying on the numerous designs that Calabrese sketched over the years. “She might hand sketch 150 dresses and 25 might be used for a line,” Elena Calabrese said.

While the licensing deal was less consuming than the more demanding couture collection the designer handled for years, working was just part of her DNA, according to her daughter. “That’s just how she was. Why would she stop? It didn’t matter how old she was,” her daughter said.

Off-hours, Calabrese was big on travel and family vacations. “She loved the ocean and sailboats — anything that was beautiful really,” Elena Calabrese said.

In addition to her daughter, Calabrese is survived by another daughter, Marisa Moore, as well as her husband of 57 years, Jack, and a sister, Lorraine Arena. Calabrese’s family has set up a memorial fund in her name for St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital.

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