Fashion and Lifestyle
Main Line Times / MainLineMediaNews.com
On the second floor of a Lancaster Avenue storefront, design assistant Rebecca Haun hand embroiders delicate flowers on the top of a silk chiffon gown. A few yards away a seasoned seamstress labors over the matching skirt. When they’re finished, the two will have spent upwards of 200 hours on the project: a custom-designed mother-of-the-groom ensemble.
This is fashion in the slow lane at Agostino in Bryn Mawr, home to the Main Line’s only real couturier.
In this fast-fashion, outsourced era, Frank Agostino is a throwback to a more intimate, almost genteel time. He and his nimble-fingered seamstresses have been creating one-of-a-kind clothing for some of the area’s most affluent, discriminating women for decades.
“Don’t come to me with a picture of a dress and tell me to make it,” says the affable designer who’s been known to turn down work if he doesn’t feel a “connection” with a client or if the client wants a copycat design. “That’s what dressmakers are for. That’s not what I am.”
A woman who dons an Agostino gets an unspoken guarantee: no one else at the society wedding, charity gala or debutante ball will be wearing what she’s wearing.
Aficionados gladly wait up to five months and pay anywhere from a few thousand to upwards of $10,000 for his handiwork.
“It’s well worth the money,” insists Andrea Morrissey, a Newtown Square client with closet full of custom Agostino sportswear and evening clothes. “If you want something different and original in beautiful fabrics, he’s the one. I tell Frank what I like and we design it together.”
Morrissey once shopped at Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus and boutiques of similar ilk but switched to Agostino for the personal service and custom fit. “I’ve become harder to fit as I’ve gotten older. With Frank, you don’t have to spend extra for alterations, so I end up paying about the same as I did at the high-end stores.”
Another plus is longevity, she says. “Everything is so gorgeous, you can wear it for years, like a Chanel suit.”
Agostino says he’s seen clients wear his designs for 30 years. “I often joke with them that after three wearings, the stitches are going to break.”
The Agostino aesthetic is simple: make women feel good about themselves – even women with less-than-perfect bodies. “My goal has always been to enhance a woman in beautiful, timeless clothes that are comfortable and practical. Everything we make is lined in silk so it feels good. And I spend a lot of time with my fit model to make sure the garments work for them, that they can reach a pocket or a zipper. If she can’t go to the bathroom in it, we make adjustments. Men would never wear something that’s uncomfortable. Why should women?”
Valerie Bonner, a Radnor aesthetician who moonlights as an Agostino fit and show model, hired the designer to make her wedding dress six years ago.
“I knew it would be elegant, sleek and sophisticated,” recalls Bonner. “Frank knows what women want and what will make them look beautiful. And unlike other couture designers who stop at size 10, he sews for women of every shape and size.”
Many in his stable of loyal clients, including Morrissey and Bonner, have become personal friends, a by-product of the intimacy of the custom-design process and Agostino’s easygoing charm.
Longtime client Mary Ann Oaks sought an Agostino original when she learned she had ordered the exact same Carolina Herrera gown to wear to her daughter’s wedding as the mother of the groom. Since then he’s dressed the prominent Gladwyne woman for every major life event. “Frank takes a personal interest in what you’re doing and where you’re going,” says Oaks. “He makes sure what you’re wearing is appropriate to the occasion. You end up becoming good friends because he’s such fun. ”
While so many designers rely on their design teams, Agostino is hands on.
He sketches every design, he handpicks every fabric, and he even knows how to sew – a skill he learned as a boy from his Aunt Rosie, a former Italian couture seamstress who lived across the street from his family in Brooklyn. “I would watch what she was doing – all the old couture techniques – and I just loved it.”
But he was slow to embrace fashion as a career. “Being a boy in Brooklyn growing up on the streets and playing stickball, you don’t make dresses. So it took me a while to get into it.”
An early love was theatre. He sang, danced, choreographed off-Broadway shows then settled into costume design. His first official job in fashion was a stint as a dress buyer for Macy’s in Kansas City. In 1974, a similar job at Gimbels brought him to Philadelphia. He and his wife, Grace Ann, bought a home on Forrest Road in Merion and never left.
Agostino made the switch from retail to design when he was hired to run the dress division at Gloria Vanderbilt, where he says he built the business from “nothing to 12 million in seven months.”
That’s when he decided to strike out on his own. “I figured I had been in retail, I had been in manufacturing, I ran a design room, I designed a line … I figured if I did it for someone else, I could do it for myself.”
In the early ’80s, he started a design business in his home, then opened a small studio in Narberth.
By 1994, he had outgrown the space and moved to Rittenhouse Place in Ardmore where he had a retail shop, a modern art gallery – art is another passion – and workroom.
His last move – to Bryn Mawr in 2000 – will be his last, he says.
The first floor houses an elegant retail salon for his ready-to-wear and couture lines; the second floor is his workroom/design studio that employs five seamstresses and two assistants.
Agostino celebrated his 70th birthday last weekend but shows no interest in slowing down. Indeed his wife, Grace Ann, says the “possibility of his retiring is probably zero.”
He still shows new fall and spring collections each year in New York, still charms the ladies at charity events and trunk shows, and still advises area fashion students. (A career highlight came in late 2010 when Moore College of Art & Design mounted a special exhibit of 35 of his original designs.)
Ask Agostino to explain his staying power in the fickle world of fashion and he answers simply. “I do something that no one really does. I listen to the customer and make her what she wants: beautiful clothes that last.”
Photos taken by Caroline O’Halloran in the Clubhouse and Model Home at Athertyn, a condominium community at The Haverford Reserve