Me: Mother, how would you describe your sense of style?
Mother: You either got it or you don’t, kid.
It was a mild morning late in May when I heard my phone’s customary lone ring trill on for 10 minutes from the shower stall 10 feet away. “This can’t be good,” I said to myself. Sure enough the missed calls typed out HOSPICE like a macabre marquee flashing five times over. There were at least as many from Tracy, Mom’s right hand man.
Ugh. It was time.
I grabbed my pre-packed overnight bag, made arrangements for the dogs and bolted down Interstate 85, OJ-style.
Mother’s Day had come and gone, but this was our moment of truth. I told her she didn’t need to worry about me or anything else. She had given me the tools — and then some — to battle this beast of a world we live in and I was ready.
She died in my arms that afternoon like a baby bird and it was hard to distinguish the baptism of my still-wet hair on her brow from the tears. She died in her own bed in the very spot where my father had passed 30 years before. She died after 84 years of living life on her own terms and sharing much of it with me, her only kid.
So, in honor of mothers everywhere — especially the ballsy and stylish ones — I pay tribute to my favorite fashionista in the whole round world: my mother, Joann Crews.
Born Joann Pappas, mother was the youngest of five children born to a Greek immigrant shopkeeper and Canadian seamstress in Duluth, Minn., in 1931.
A “driven woman” as females were referred to when they eschewed early marriage, mother graduated from the University of Minnesota with an art degree and set out for New York. She taught art to support herself and enrolled in what is now Parsons the New School for Design. Her cousin, Margie Leftcourt, worked in fashion and got mother a gig as a fit model for designer Pauline Trigere.
“When I moved to New York I had three blouses and two skirts and rotated them endlessly,” said Mother. “I ate crackers I pocketed from the coffee shop for dinner and bought fresh fruit and vegetables when I could afford it. I ate and dressed like a French woman before anybody wrote about it.”
A fortuitous meeting at Parsons with Kay Lambeth of Erwin-Lambeth Furniture brought mother South in the late 1950s, where she entered the fields of furniture design and interior design — still rare for a female. (“I never understood feminists because I was too busy working,” is a favorite quote.)
“When I went to work for Bernhardt [Furniture] I remember John Christian Bernhardt’s wife telling me that ‘ladies in the South did not wear black, nor wear eyeliner’ and she took me to Montaldo’s and bought me a pink A-line dress with a green and white block-print silk scarf. I felt like an ice cream cone,” said Joann.
Through the years she worked designing high-end upholstery and showrooms for Bernhardt, Tomlinson, Century, Dansen, Lane and many more. She designed fabrics for several houses and worked as a consultant well into her seventies. Through it all, her chic, classic, workaday style has endured.
“I used to shop at Bergdorfs [Goodman], now it’s Land’s End,” said Joann, “because life is too short to worry too much about fashion.”