October 20, 1980 12:00 PM

When Nancy Reagan, who favors couturier originals by Adolfo and Galanos, appeared at the Republican convention in an off-the-rack white flowered georgette dress by Albert Nipon, no one in the TV audience was more surprised than the manufacturer and his designer wife, Pearl. Mrs. Reagan has never met either Nipon; she bought the dress in an L.A. department store. Nevertheless, she is the quintessential customer—feminine and practical. While the Nipons have never won a Coty Award nor become household names like Calvin Klein or Halston, their elegant, if conventional, clothes turn up regularly on such other elegant, if conventional, clients as Dina Merrill, Mary Tyler Moore, Barbara Walters and Rosalynn Carter. “Everyone’s discovering Nipon,” says New York Times Magazine fashion editor Carrie Donovan, “from the suburban executive’s frilly wife to the high-powered career woman.”

Quietly, Albert Nipon, Inc. has become one of the largest designer-label dress manufacturers in America—a $30 million-a-year firm that sells to prestigious stores like Lord & Taylor and Saks Fifth Avenue in New York, I. Magnin in San Francisco and Neiman-Marcus in Dallas. “We’re classic,” says Pearl. “I think a woman should be attractive, not an attraction.”

The Nipons themselves are as unflamboyant as the prim, neat dresses they make. Though they maintain a showroom on Manhattan’s Seventh Avenue, they carefully avoid the New York-Paris-Rome fashion axis. Their empire, in fact, is based in their hometown of Philadelphia.

“What makes Albert run,” smiles Albert Nipon, 53, “is Pearl.” Indeed it was onetime boutique owner Pearl Schluger, 52, the daughter of an electrical contractor, who engineered their union and subsequent entry into the rag trade 28 years ago. Spotting “Boomy” Nipon (a slang version of his Hebrew name) on the beach in Atlantic City, Pearl finagled herself an introduction. Albert, then an accountant for Du Pont, had a date but fixed her up with a friend. Pearl flirted so outrageously with Albert on their double date that he accepted her dare to throw her into a swimming pool. “There I was,” she recalls. “My pearls broke, my falsies came out, my shoes floated away—and I couldn’t swim!”

Albert thought she was such a good sport he asked her out. After dating a month he asked her what she wanted for her birthday, and Pearl was ready: “An engagement ring,” she blurted. “The next day,” recalls Albert, “she presented me with a sackful of diamonds she had borrowed from a jeweler friend and asked, ‘Which one would you like me to have?’ ”

Nipon (his father, a Russian immigrant, changed the name from Niepomaczyczk) was lured into the dress business by his wife a little more subtly. Pearl had designed a maternity outfit for herself during her first pregnancy, and was approached with an offer to manufacture clothes for expectant women. She accepted, but only after persuading Albert to take over the business end.

Pearl retired in 1957, when her second child was a year old, and Albert stayed on to run the company. “I loved being a housewife,” says Pearl, who remained at home for 14 years. But when, as she recalls, “I found myself on hands and knees scrubbing the bathroom tiles with a toothbrush,” she hung up her apron and went back to work. Accepting an offer from Saks to adapt her one-piece maternity dress into regular daytime wear, Pearl cooked up their first style—a classic silk shirtwaist. The Nipons soon added a scarf and touches like the “Albert Nipon” insignia lace trim at the hem. “We like to say,” Pearl quips, “that Albert Nipon is under every lady’s dress.”

The Nipons are also known for couture details like pleating, multistitching and tucking—”we call it the Nipon tuck”—all of which require highly trained craftsmen and sophisticated tools. Prices range from $150 to $400.

It is Albert’s name that appears on the label. But while he runs the factory and sets prices, Pearl is an equal partner. They both supervise the merchandising and make appearances at stores. She heads the design workroom, buys the fabrics and is the fitting model for each creation. Her often abrasive style (“Albert thinks I’m tactless”) is muted by his easygoing charm. “Sometimes he’s too nice,” complains Pearl. She defends her shoot-from-the-lip approach: “You never hit the bullseye unless you aim for it.”

Hitting the bullseye has meant a rambling estate on Philadelphia’s Main Line, home to Albert and Pearl and their four children: Larry, 26, and Leon, 24, who work in the family business; Andrew, 20, a senior at the University of Pennsylvania; and daughter B.J., 18, a freshman at Tulane. There have been hard times nonetheless. Five years ago Leon was thought to have epilepsy; it turned out to be a brain tumor, and he underwent risky but successful surgery. In 1978 B.J. cracked up her car and nearly died. “We think of ourselves as blessed, not cursed,” insists Albert, and Pearl echoes his optimism. Three years ago she had a mastectomy, and last July elected to have surgery for breast reconstruction.

Being based in Philadelphia has kept them out of the limelight, but the Nipons have never considered moving north to the fashion capital. She hoots at W.C. Fields’ wisecracks about Philadelphia. “If I were around when W.C. was here,” huffs Pearl, “you can bet I’d have changed his mind.”

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