Ninety-two-year-old bridal shop owner Anita Fontana of New Rochelle
By: Catherine Censor
Anita Fontana is a Westchester icon of timeless style.
By Catherine Censor
At 92 years old, Anita Fontana is as sharp as the pins she uses to tack up the hems of the bridal gowns at her bridal and eveningwear salon, Scarsdale’s Fontana Couture. The grandmother of two and great-grandmother of two lives independently in a New Rochelle townhouse (the move from her big, beautiful home on the water is her sole concession to age) and drives her 2002 Honda Accord to and from work each day.
“I love my work,” she says happily. After work, she doesn’t go home and collapse but out to dinner. “I cannot stay home,” she says passionately. “I’m a young ninety-two.”
Long before Anita Cipriani Fontana sold ready-made bridal gowns, she was a designer in her own right—not just of bridal gowns, but of coats, skirts, and dresses for all occasions. Her career began early. Growing up on Sullivan Street in New York City, young Anita would make homemade versions of fancy dresses that caught her eye. Soon she was designing dresses for envious classmates and taking on beading work after school, earning $3 a week.
Her talents earned her a job working in the 40s and 50s for legendary designer Ceil Chapman (one of Marilyn Monroe’s favorites), whose dresses are still coveted by collectors of vintage clothing. She worked for Chapman for 10 years. During that time, she honed her skills and met her future husband, Sam. “He was a delivery boy and he worked for a pleating house,” she says.
After the two were married, they set up shop on 183rd Street in the Bronx. Sam, who died in 1991 at age 80, took care of the business, and Anita the fashions. “When I created my first gown, I put it on a mannequin in the window and I sold it that same day,” she recalls. “I thought, ‘Dear God, I’m going to be great!’” She soon developed a fashionable following. “I had a great clientele. Mrs. Robert Alder [wife of the famous actor], Jack Dempsey’s wife, and Mrs. Sadie Tisch. I dressed all of them up beautifully.” The Fontanas had one child, Frank, and settled into a happy and prosperous lifestyle on the Grand Concourse, a boulevard that rivaled Fifth Avenue for glamour and style.
But in fashion, change is as vital to survival as needles and thread. Concerned about price competition from Manhattan department stores like Alexander’s and their ready-made alternatives to custom couture, Fontana decided to shift her business towards custom-made wedding gowns. Sam took care of the practical side of the business. “He was my right hand,” she says. Business—and life in general—was good. “On Saturday or Sunday, I’d go and dress brides for their wedding day. Afterwards, my husband and I would go out to the Copacabana or Latin Quarter.”
When the bridal business changed and mass-produced gowns replaced custom work, Fontana followed suit. In 1977, her son, Frank, opened Fontana Bridal Salon (now Fontana Couture) in the Vernon Hills shopping center in Scarsdale. The Bronx store closed soon after. While the gowns have changed, though, Fontana’s role has not. Today, she’s still fussing over women and helping them look beautiful for their wedding day. “Some of my brides are the grandchildren of my clients from the Bronx,” she says.
“She’s like a rock star,” marvels her grandson, Cory, one of three generations of the Fontana family employed by the family business. Today, 35 people work at Fontana Couture but none is more popular with clients than the woman who runs the alterations room: Anita herself. Says Cory, “Everyone’s always asking to meet her.”