Pearl Nipon, 90, the fashion designer behind the Albert Nipon label and one of Philadelphia's most widely acclaimed purveyors of haute couture, died in Philadelphia on Sunday, Sept. 2, of heart disease.
Mrs. Nipon frequently described her relationship with her husband and business partner, Albert Nipon, the same way: He was the head of the family, but she was the neck, "and the neck turns the head anywhere it wants it to go."
It didn't always play out like that. Family members said Mrs. Nipon was sometimes the neck and the head, and the body, too. Over 65 years of marriage — and decades of partnership in their fashion design empire that counted Nancy Reagan and Barbra Streisand among its devotees — the couple complemented each other well: He had the administrative chops and business acumen. She was the visionary.
"They were two sides of a perfectly matched coin," said the couple's oldest son, Larry Nipon. "An incredible love story."
Mrs. Nipon resided for decades in Gladwyne with her husband and their four children, but the couple had lived at the Residences at the Ritz-Carlton in Center City for the last decade.
Born Pearl Schluger to an appliance salesman and garment worker, Mrs. Nipon was a native of Philadelphia and a graduate of Overbrook High School. She got her start in fashion without her husband, the namesake of the acclaimed black-on-white "Albert Nipon" label. In 1950, she and her sister, Dorothy, opened a dress shop at 18th and Sansom Streets.
Mrs. Nipon met Albert when they were both in Atlantic City, with different dates, and she dared him to throw her into the pool. He did, and a couple months later, asked her what she wanted for her birthday. She said "a diamond," and then showed up the next day with a bag of diamonds she borrowed from a jeweler and held it in front of Albert, asking: "Which one would you like me to have?" They married in 1953.
Two years later, Mr. Nipon left his accounting job at Du Pont to manufacture maternity clothing that Mrs. Nipon designed under the company name Ma Mere, which they grew into a nationwide chain of more than 100 stores. Mrs. Nipon retired in 1957 to raise her children.
But maternity clothing retail revenue dipped by the late 1960s, and Mr. Nipon convinced his wife to make a comeback. Saks Fifth Avenue buyers were interested in the style of her pieces, made with high-end fabric and known for elegant collars and bows, and asked Mrs. Nipon to design a line of about a dozen women's dresses.
It was a gamble — women at that time were more often wearing pantsuits and sportswear. But Saks loved the line, and Mrs. Nipon helped to bring back femininity, creating a line that was more ladylike than the other top labels at the time.
"She had a taste level from God," Larry Nipon said.
Albert Nipon Inc. exploded in popularity, becoming one of the preeminent labels of the 1970s and '80s and establishing the couple as industry celebrities. In the mid-1980s, the Nipons released a survey showing Albert Nipon was the second most-recognized designer name in the country, behind only Calvin Klein. Mary Tyler Moore, Barbara Walters, Rosalynn Carter and other women of note frequently donned Mrs. Nipon's designs.
At its peak, Albert Nipon Inc. grossed $60 million a year and employed 600 people in a North Broad Street factory, making it the city's biggest employer of unionized garment workers.
In 1988, Mr. Nipon sold the company after completing a prison term on tax fraud charges. Leslie Fay Cos., the New York-based sportswear company that acquired Albert Nipon Inc., shuttered its Philadelphia operations in 1992.
But the Nipons had, even at 90, remained an integral part of Philadelphia high society, and Mrs. Nipon was known for keeping a full social calendar.
"It's hard to even accept the fact that she's not going to be calling us and telling us what we're doing," longtime friend Ron Rubin said, "or what we should be doing."
Though her designs were dainty, Mrs. Nipon was described by friends and family as a "force" — she was strong-willed, high-energy and a little chaotic, and was known by some in the business as the "white tornado," because she never stopped going.
She's remembered as a woman who had strong opinions and wasn't shy about them. Larry Nipon said she loved a good debate and started most sentences with: "I disagree." Marcia Rubin, a longtime friend, described Mrs. Nipon as having a "bravado" that she marveled at.
"Her comfort in saying what she thought was something I really admired," she said, "to the point where I would say out loud: Be like Pearl."
In 1984, Mrs. Nipon pointedly told an Inquirer reporter about dealing with the death of her own mother, who'd died a few years earlier and was buried in a red dress.
"Me? I think I'd like to have my ashes scattered over Philadelphia," Mrs. Nipon told the paper. "Or maybe over Seventh Avenue [in New York]," she said. But then she reconsidered, after looking out over Philadelphia's bustling garment district. "No, I'd like to stay right here."
Besides Albert, 90, and Larry, Mrs. Nipon is survived by children Leon, Andrew and B.J. Nipon Spencer, as well as nine grandchildren.