Mary Ann Restivo

The designer, who opened her own signature company in 1980, died Sunday at the Mary Manning Walsh Home under hospice care.

Funeral services will be held today for Mary Ann Restivo at St. Ignatius Loyola Church.

This story first appeared in the January 8, 2015 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

The designer, who opened her own signature company in 1980, and only retreated from the fashion scene a few years ago, died Sunday at the Mary Manning Walsh Home under hospice care.

The cause of death was a rare form of small intestine cancer, according to her husband, Saul Rosen. Restivo was in her mid-70s, though her husband of 38 years said even he did not know her exact age.

Born in South Orange, N.J. Restivo first studied retail at the College of St. Elizabeth for two years and then design at the Fashion Institute of Technology, where she earned an associate degree in Applied Arts. Her father, Joseph, was a master tailor who ran a women’s shop in their hometown called The Mary Ann Little Shop. She first made her way on Seventh Avenue by joining junior sportswear label Abby Michael in 1961. Over the years, she worked in design for Bernard Levine, Petti for Jack Winter, Something Special, Sports Sophisticates and Mary Ann Restivo for Genre. In 1974, she became head designer of the women’s blouse division of Dior New York, where she stayed until 1980.

That year Restivo ventured out on her own with the help of a few investors to set up shop as Ann Restivo Inc., a resource known for its tailored looks that were in line with the style of the career-hungry women of the high-powered Eighties. In 1988, Restivo sold her company to Leslie Fay Corporation for an amount that (like her age) she did not share with her husband. “I don’t think I ever knew how much she sold it for,” Rosen said Tuesday. “She was very independent that way.”

Restivo continued to head up design at her company until 1992, when Leslie Fay closed the division. Asked Thursday what made him so confident that buying Restivo’s business would be a wise move, former Leslie Fay chairman and chief executive officer John Pomerantz said, “Her. She conducted herself wonderfully – she was a class act.” After leaving Leslie Fay, she reinvented herself as an independent design consultant working for clients such as Saks Fifth Avenue and Burberry. When uniting with the latter in 1995, she said, “Everything classic is chic again. Burberry is a name associated with quality and sophistication. I want to bring it into the Nineties without being predictable.”

A longtime member of the Council for Fashion Designers of America, Restivo introduced a scarf collection in 1999 and also delved into home accessories that year. Monika Tilley, whose friendship with Restivo strengthened when they both served on the CFDA’s board, described her as “a passionate professional. She was involved in every aspect of making every one of her designs, and she loved every minute it — from the beginning of choosing fabrics to the end at retail. She knew all the people, she loved it and she cared very much. Her designs were the first to make working women look pretty.”

Tilley and Restivo were part of an annual lunch club that helped Eleanor Lambert celebrate her birthday — and continued to meet for many years after Lambert died. Cathy Hardwick, Mary McFadden, Patricia Underwood and Stan Herman were among the others. Hardwick, who met Restivo in the Sixties, said Tuesday, “She was so sweet and soft-spoken. We all adored her. She was such a whimsy.”

Restivo’s honors included the Hecht Company Young Designers award in 1968; Mortimer C. Ritter award from Fashion Institute of Technology in 1973; an honorary doctorate of humanities from her alma mater, the College of St. Elizabeth, in 1986; the Alumnus of the Year award, American Association of Community and Junior Colleges, in 1992 and Ellis Island Medal of Honor award, 1993.

In the late Eighties, when society was all about excess, Restivo told People magazine, “People need fashionably sensible clothes.” So much so that Gloria Steinem once described Restivo’s designs as “the kind of clothes that, after you’ve died, another woman would find in a thrift shop and like.”

“In 1980, Restivo was one of the first female designers to take the helm of a fashion company, and as a result she helped others to look at such a prospect differently,” said Herman, adding that she also championed other designers.

Accomplished as she was professionally, her husband said her greatest success was a more personal pursuit. “Mary Ann had what really is what the world needs, which is not a mean bone in her body. She could not say or do anything mean.”

In addition to her husband, Restivo is survived by a sister, Florence.

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