At downtown Haddonfield’s Pure Couture, a good story never goes out of style.
“Many customers tell us everything,” owner Denise Jonasz said from behind the counter at her Mechanic Street shop, as “Hotel California” played in the background.
“You see the whole gamut," salesperson Elizabeth Kreps said. "A customer could be picking out a prom dress or selling a fur coat to raise money.”
Jonasz, who earned a degree in fashion merchandising from the Art Institute of Philadelphia and was a buyer for a Canadian menswear chain called Henri Christian before opening her store in 2007, said customers talk openly “because it feels safe” there.
"I overheard a lawyer in town who took a call while she was walking around say, ‘I’m in therapy right now.’”
Like any good therapist, Jonasz, a 54-year-old Voorhees native and Salem County resident, doesn’t drop names.
And with all due respect to my own therapist, no session has ever remotely resembled a visit to Pure Couture, where even a khakis-and-button-down-shirt guy like me can find himself a bit … bedazzled by the one-of-a-kind items on display.
It’s like being in a gallery run by a time-traveling fashionista, or a brick-and-mortar version of eBay where good taste rules. Or an exotic pet adoption agency where finding the perfect forever home is job one.
“This is a Leslie Fay evening dress coat,” Jonasz said, expertly showing — make that offering me a tour — of a mint green, gold-brocaded garment lined with silk.
“Just feel the lining," she said. " It’s fabulous."
She was right.
Kreps held up a beaded, feather-trimmed aqua number she called “my Ginger from Gilligan’s Island gown.”
Indeed: That dress would look totally groovy on the 1960s sitcom character played by Tina Louise.
Kreps, 51, lives in Haddonfield and also works in architectural restoration. The craftsmanship of luxury vintage and contemporary clothing appeals to her and to Jonasz.
So does the old-school value of dressing for the occasion.
“I just can’t come in to work in sweats and a ball cap, because customers like to see what I’m wearing,” Jonasz said. “No one gets dressed today, but they get into dressing in Haddonfield. Everyone has parties in this town. Theme parties are big.”
Said Kreps: “One guy came in looking for a 1920s gangster suit.”
Unlike in France, where couture has an exacting definition, in America the term is often used in reference to high-end clothing, often but not always custom-designed or handmade. And unlike most thrift or used-clothing stores, consignment shops like Pure Couture are curated, and share sale profits with consignors, or original owners, of items.
“I do a lot of estate sales,” Jonasz said. “I try to treat them as if it were my mother who had passed away.”
Other customers come in to make room in their closets, or are moving to smaller homes. Some also like the sustainability inherent in pre-owned goods, and the artisanal element of a hands-on proprietorship.
“You’re supporting a small business, and you don’t have to feel guilty about having fabulous clothes,” said Diana Eichfeld, a customer-turned-consignor. Bringing an item in for consignment, she said, is “paying fashion forward” by enabling someone else to enjoy an article of clothing that has enriched her own wardrobe.
Jonasz described retired pharmaceutical company president Stan Wachman as "my top consignor.”
His wife, Barbara, died in 2014 after 47 years of marriage, leaving behind a pristine collection of unusual luxury couture items purchased during the couple’s frequent international travels.
“I wanted someone else’s enjoyment of the clothes and the handbags to be a living legacy of Barbara’s,” Wachman said from his Cherry Hill home. “I found in Denise a very knowledgeable person whose taste complemented my wife’s.”
Said Jonasz: “I never met Barbara. I wish I had. But through her clothes, those one-of-a-kind pieces that came from all over the world, it was as if Barbara were teaching me about pairing colors, layering, and draping the finest quality fabrics.
“To every piece there was a story — about where it came from, where she wore it, how she looked wearing it,” Jonasz said.
“These were the stories of a beautiful woman who had a vision of how she wanted to dress in the world. And now these pieces are being worn and admired by others.”
Still another story involves Alexis Souza of Berlin, who credits Pure Couture with helping launch her modeling career.
A lacy black prom dress she bought there a couple of years ago after Jonasz’s gentle persuasion (“she just knows what looks good on you”) proved so winning in photographs that Souza has used it to get print and special events work in New York.
“Without Denise I wouldn’t have found that dress, and I don’t know where my life would be right now," she said.
Jonasz put it this way.
“I just love the look and the touch of beautiful things.
“Look at this Anne Pinkerton cashmere turtleneck. It came from a woman who collected high-end vintage labels.
"Look at this.
“It’s beyond beyond.”