Mary Hamrah, who transformed a small shop for children’s clothing into a luxury designer emporium, died of heart failure at her New Jersey home on Sunday. She was 97 years old.

This story first appeared in the December 9, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

After her husband died of a heart attack in 1953, Hamrah got a job working in real estate, but she wanted to do something that would involve her three daughters, Lilli, Joyce and Suzanne. In 1957, she opened a shop on Union Avenue in Cresskill, N.J., that succeeded despite naysayers that included everyone from loan officers to landlords. “My mother was very energetic,” said Lilli Hamrah-Corhan. “She was a very strong person. She approached everything with a can-do attitude. She developed our small store at a time when women weren’t in business.”

With the children’s store bursting at the seams, Hamrah in 1969 bought an acre property on Piermont Road in Cresskill. “She decided to focus on women’s wear,” Hamrah-Corhan said. “We had to reinvent ourselves. We had to have better merchandise. My sister [Joyce] started to go to Europe and my mother began joining her in the late Eighties.”

Hamrah’s success was in part due to the high level of service Hamrah and her daughters provided. When a customer called ahead, sales associates would pull appropriate outfits and have them waiting in a fitting room along with stockings and a pair of pumps. Hamrah insisted on having a children’s play area in the store because as a single mother and businesswoman, she knew how hard it was to shop with kids in tow.

During its 40 years on Piermont Road, Hamrah’s has remodeled and expanded several times. The store now occupies 10,000 square feet and features designers such as Lanvin, Marni, Piazza Sempione, Rick Owens, Yigal Azrouël, Alexander Wang, Jason Wu, Lida Bidet, Peachoo + Krejberg and Fabiana Filippi.

Hamrah was involved in the business her entire life, making store visits in the afternoon rather than morning in later years. She is survived by her three daughters.

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