Designer Dress Days, which helps NCJW/Cleveland serve Northeast Ohio by offering discounts to the fashion-forward, celebrates 50 years
By Alyssa Schmitt
Inside a Warrensville Heights warehouse, volunteers work tirelessly – and year-round – sorting through nearly 10,000 pieces of new and gently used clothing. In their previous existence, these designer-brand dresses, coats, pieces of jewelry and accessories might’ve served as attire for a gala fundraiser or celebratory occasion. But in being sorted and inspected for quality by volunteers, they’re being prepared for second acts with noble purposes: NCJW/Cleveland’s Designer Dress Days.
This year, Designer Dress Days marks its 50th anniversary. Since its inception in 1968, the event has offered Northeast Ohioans high fashion at low prices, and in the process, it’s served as the National Council of Jewish Women/Cleveland’s major annual fundraiser. Money raised through the event has allowed the organization to support a variety of causes, from programs that aid those aging out of the foster care system to literacy courses.
Along the way, Designer Dress Days has become an event many in the community mark on their calenders well in advance. This year’s iteration, which begins with a preview day on Oct. 12 and continues Oct. 14-16, will again fill the Mandel Jewish Community Center’s Stonehill Auditorium with aisles of clothing racks (and, naturally, a dressing room). Shoppers typically line up outside several hours before the doors open.
Debbie Rosenthal, who’s co-vice president of this year’s event along with Michele Kaminsky, says Designer Dress Day isn’t a store or a retail operation, it’s an event.
Open for business
Before Designer Dress Days grew into what it is today, it was held in someone’s garage. The event was conceived by Liz Faulb, then vice president of NCJW/Cleveland, and dubbed “Sherry Hour,” most likely named after the adult beverages passed around during the sale. Available to purchase were items donated by local women.
“She thought it would be a really good idea to invite the women to a ‘Sherry Hour,’” says Rosenthal, an Orange resident and member of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple in Beachwood. “Basically, she asked the women in NCJW and in the community to … take the clothes off their backs and donate them to be resold to women desiring fashionable dresses at that time.”
The women left wearing paper dresses donated by a manufacturer. In the event’s first year, the women surpassed their $2,000 goal and grossed $14,000. Two years later, in 1970, the event was renamed Designer Dress Day.
In its early years, NCJW/Cleveland didn’t have a warehouse or any other location to host the event except for its headquarters, then located at 3535 Lee Road in Shaker Heights. During the weeks leading up to the event, most of the building was turned over for the sale, says lifelong NCJW member Jean Sarlson.
“It was a very tight headquarters,” says Sarlson, who chaired the event in 1981 and 1982. “We turned our auditorium into the main sales area. We did all the sorting and pricing in the building. All the clothes were dropped off in the building while this was still a very active, ongoing headquarters for NCJW. You can imagine the hundreds and hundreds of people coming to the building, dropping off their clothes and their accessories and still continuing the business of the organization.”
While she chaired Designer Dress Days, Sarlson, of Pepper Pike, saw the first uses of credit cards during the event and created the fine jewelery category after noticing “real” jewelry was being donated. One piece she remembers categorizing as such was a Cleveland Indians 1948 World Series ring.
Serving a community
Designer Dress Days’ early events generated the same buzz and level of excitement among shoppers and volunteers that today’s events do, says Sarlson, explaining those early events also served as the financial foundation on which NCJW/Cleveland built partnerships with other nonprofits in the community.
“They raise a tremendous amount of money, and that’s why Designer Dress Days was so – and is so – important. It’s a major fundraising event,” she says. “I think without Designer Dress Days, a lot of these community partnerships could not exist.”
Through years of support of the event, the organization has built 10 libraries in schools throughout Cleveland at which students have book clubs. Last year, NCJW/Cleveland started the TLC Project, which donates bags to hospitals for rape victims.
“NCJW purchased new items – like clothing, shoes, bras and underwear, health and beauty products – and gave them to MetroHealth Hospital,” Rosenthal says. “When a victim comes to a hospital and does a rape kit … they have to leave their clothes there, so (with these donations), they go home with brand new clothes. Some people come in without shoes, so they have flip flops for them. It’s more for dignity and a little bit of comfort to know that someone cares about what’s happening.”
Using support that comes from Designer Dress Days, NCJW/Cleveland has also advocated against human trafficking and created a Share What You Wear program through which children can pick out back-to-school clothes or backpacks for free, Rosenthal says. At last year’s Share What You Wear event, 600 backpacks were given away.
Saving always in style
When it comes to the styles one can find on Designer Dress Days sales racks over the course of 50 years, there’s been one relative constant: change. Such is fashion.
While pieces by high-profile Italian luxury fashion houses and well-known American fashion companies that specialize in handbags, accessories and clothing will be available this year, as they have in the past, organizers have some new additions in store for shoppers.
For example, this year’s Designer Dress Days will include pieces from a leading brand in athleisure wear as well as an award-winning American designer whose style was described as “preppy-bohemian luxe” by New York Magazine. Also, for the first time, jeans will be on sale during the event.
“The styles have changed, so we want to keep up,” Rosenthal says. “We want not only the people who have been coming for 50 years, we want people who are just starting to come and just starting to buy a work wardrobe. … We just want the people to be able to come in and feel like they’re getting something that is today’s fashion.”
Although Rosenthal doesn’t want to give away too much about this year’s event, she says there will be special giveaways in honor of the milestone anniversary as well as coupons offered on the 50th minute of every hour Designer Dress Days is open for business.
Volunteering in vogue
While fashion has changed during the last half-century, volunteering for Designer Dress Days has remained fairly consistent. The 250 volunteers expected to help make this year’s sale a success represent the same number of volunteers Sarlson remembers contributing when she served as event chair.
In fact, before she chaired, Sarlson volunteered – and she’s continued to volunteer for decades. She considers it just as much a draw as the discounted designer labels, and in recent years, she’s seen a positive trend among those who volunteer alongside her.
“I noticed last year there’s a new core of much younger volunteers participating,” she says. “That’s what’s so outstanding. I’m very active in the volunteer world in Cleveland and the volunteers are diminishing either because of age or because so many women have joined the workforce. Most organizations are struggling to have volunteer participation.”
Rosenthal and Sarlson are both second-generation NCJW members, and Rosenthal’s mother also once served as vice president of the event. Sarlson says that type of generational continuity will help sustain Designer Dress Days for another 50 years, thus allowing NCJW to forge and strengthen partnerships to better serve the community well into the future. js
NCJW Designer Dress Days
WHEN: Oct. 12; Oct. 14-16 (times vary)
WHERE: Mandell JCC’s Stonehill Auditorium,
26001 S. Woodland Road, Beachwood
INFO: Visit ncjwcleveland.org/ddd or call 216-378-2204