For the Love of Fashion

Sitting smiling, talking on the phone at a desk in the back of Saks Jandel amid racks of stunning Armani creations, Harriet Kassman seems to have shaken off much of the heartbreak the last few months have thrown her way. Flipping through papers with hot-pink nails that match her lipstick, the Washington legend, renowned for dressing area celebrities and politicians for the last 35 years, looks comfortable amid the luxury labels. Though perhaps not quite as comfortable as she would have looked a year ago, among her own hand-picked designer goodies.

“I’ve come full circle, I’m right where I’ve started from,” says Kassman, looking around Saks Jandel. Kassman worked at the high-end clothing store for two years when it opened in 1975, but then set out on her own adventure. In 1977 the spunky grandmother, standing just a shade over five feet tall, opened her namesake luxury store: Harriet Kassman.

For 35 years she did business that seemed more like pleasure: perhaps a cool aunt helping to dress friends and family in garments that happened to be stunning couture. But in September of this year, the crumpling economy got the better of Kassman’s revenue stream, and she had to shut the doors. “I didn’t just open a store, I put my whole heart and soul in it,” says Kassman, stopping smiling for a moment, “and when you lose it it’s like losing part of yourself.” Though understandably deeply affected by the loss of her beloved store, Kassman refuses to wallow. She allows herself only a few moments sadness to ponder the year’s events, a solemn reflection not at all bogged down by self pity. “I've learned over the past couple months that you’ve got to go on, that you cant just live in the past.”

And boy has she lived by those words. Instead of moping about past misfortunes, Kassman has thrown herself into a new venture: consultant for her onetime rival Saks Jandel. The owner of Saks Jandel, Peter Marx, is the same age as Kassman’s middle son Nicholas, who worked with his mom at the boutique since graduating college. “He’s such a nice human being,” Kassman says fondly of Marx. When he heard that Kassman's store would be closing, he did something many people would never have even considered. "He walked up to my store and said ‘what can I do to help?’" says Kassman, "And you never hear that from people.” Marx’s generosity has given the 88-year-old Kassman a new lease on her lifetime in fashion, something she is deeply invested in.

Kassman's career in fashion began in her home town of Daytona Beach, FL. Then twenty years old, she began a lifetime among famous designers in her father's dress shop, and in the intervening decades her desire to work in fashion hasn't wavered one bit. “Some people just work at their job, and other people have a passion," says Kassman, looking around at designers whose names have become something like family: "I have a passion. Where it came from, I don’t know, it doesn’t matter. But I like it.” Her love of beautiful clothes has lasted for nearly seventy years, and not even the economic collapse forcing Kassman to shutter the doors on her beloved store has dimmed that passion.

So now Kassman lends her expertise to another renowned boutique in D.C., and so far is loving it.

“I’m so pleased when somebody walks out in something that’s beautiful, and they love it and they get compliments on it,” says the effervescent grandmother of seven, looking around at the Vera Wang bridal boutique in Saks Jandel. Adorned with two long rows of frothy tulle confections and stunning lace numbers in white, ivory and cream, this is one of the most high-end rooms in the store. But, insists Kassman, there is something at Saks Jandel to fit every price range. "I mean, you can spend $5,000 if you like, but you can also spend $200,” she insists, pointing out lovely autumn cashmere pieces that are a priced quite reasonably. Citing quality as one of the premier factors in deciding which brands to buy, Saks Jandel focuses on stocking beautiful clothes of exceptional quality, regardless of the number on the price tag.

Kassman's boutique featured many of the same designers as Saks Jandel, and many of the clients she worked with have now come to do business at Peter Marx's store, which Kassman couldn't be more pleased about. Pulling a stunning red Valentino cocktail dress off the rack, Kassman looks right at home. It would be unfathomable for her to consider retiring: she simply has too much fun in fashion.

“When the clock runs down, you’re finished," says Kassman, smiling around, “But I'm not finished.”

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Sat, 29 Nov 2014 03:32:38 -0500

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