There’s hardly a Main Line socialite, debutante, or fashionista who hasn’t adorned herself with a Frank Agostino creation, and for good reason. Thirty-five years of acquired knowledge and experience guarantees that every Agostino that leaves his Bryn Mawr atelier has been personally fitted to his client.
“After learning the art of couture at the knee of his aunt, who brought her skills from Italy to Brooklyn, Agostino has taken this legacy to a new level. Whether it be a showstopping dress for the red carpet, a sublime gown for a bride, or even a nattily tailored suit for the boardroom, all Agostino garments are hand-sewn by his tight-knit staff of five pattern makers and seamstresses using traditional methods of cutting, stitching, and finishing.”
“My clients include lovers of fashion and those who will invest in the perfect dress or suit that will make them look and feel their best,” he says proudly, ticking off the names of such high-profile customers as Dorrance Hamilton, Bhavna Shyamalan, Vicki Le Vine, and Faatimah Gamble. And unlike the offerings at most boutiques, every piece that Agostino creates is the result of collaboration between designer and client. “I adapt my design to best serve and fit the woman who wears it,” says the fashion master. “Every body type is enhanced to make each customer feel radiant and glamorous.”
By Marni Prichard Manko / Photography by Evan Sung
Main Line Times Article Profiles AGOSTINO
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
Frank Agostino reviews the Golden Globes Best And Worst Dressed on the 10 Show
Fashion expert Frank Agostino runs through what was hot and what was not at this year’s Golden Globe Awards during his guest apperance on the NBC Philadelphia 10 Show.
Completing the cycle in a yule tree
Nothing like sitting down by the Christmas tree with a cup of hot apple cider this time of year and reading your – Christmas tree.
You can read your Christmas tree, sort of, when it’s made of newspapers, which is exactly what fashion designer Frank Agostino has used this year in his annual endeavor to create a different holiday tree for his Agostino clothing store in Bryn Mawr.
He and an employee spent four days cutting hundreds of sheets of newspapers, bunching and twisting the middle of each one, and inserting the “stem” into holes in a homemade tree stand.
The result is about 10 feet of shadows, highlights, and unexpected elegance. At night, when the store’s spotlight shines on it, he said, the tree looks snow-covered.
Observers are surprised and delighted, Agostino said, when they realize the tree’s material. “To see them walk by and smile. . . . That’s part of the joy of Christmas.”
Philadelphia Inquirer reviews Agostino Exhibit
The couture creations in a new exhibit at Moore College of Art and Design look as though they belong to a certain kind of Main Line woman, one who wants a little something special for her daughter’s wedding, a timeless suit for corporate meetings, a stunning cocktail dress for a charity ball.
Nothing too out there or trendy, just beautiful, elegant, classy.
For all that, she goes to Frank Agostino, a native New Yorker who designs sumptuous made-to-order pieces and ready-to-wear collections from his jewelbox of a store in Bryn Mawr – a designer/stylist who makes sure his clients look their best.
The Moore exhibit showcases 40 years of his work with 35 original designs, including evening gowns, cocktail dresses, opera coats, pantsuits, and day wear, many of them culled from the closet of his wife, Grace Ann. The show, which opened Thursday night, runs through Dec. 11.
Agostino’s work has graced society events and red carpets nationwide, including the 2000 Academy Awards, for which he designed a gown for M. Night Shyamalan’s wife, Bhavana.
“This is the first dress I ever made,” Agostino said, standing in front of a pale-blue silk cocktail dress from 1966 with a hand-beaded pearl and rhinestone yoke, as curators put finishing touches on the exhibit.
“I made it for my wife when we were dating.”
Every woman should have such a boyfriend. Those who don’t can acquire - buy sounds too gauche – the high-end, sophisticated pieces that Tracy Lord from High Society – or Grace Kelly herself for that matter – might have worn.
Regulars know to enter his shop through a side door and go upstairs, where a team of Italian ladies sew all his designs. They also know Agostino won’t sell the same dress twice for a big event.
“These are wealthy Main Line ladies who . . . don’t want to take a chance and buy the Yves Saint Laurent at Saks, because someone else might have it,” said Janice Lewis, chairwoman of Moore’s fashion design department. “He’s the go-to guy to have an original, custom design.”
The gilded threads running throughout Agostino’s work are elegance, top-notch workmanship, and timelessness, say the 68-year-old designer’s admirers.
“His work is extraordinary,” said Jane Carton, former fashion director at Saks Fifth Avenue. “Many, many times, when I see a lady socially and say, ‘Oh my God, that looks fantastic,’ – it’s Frank.”
The courtly Agostino grew up in Brooklyn and learned to sew from his Aunt Rosie, who made couture in Italy. Learning that trade was as much a part of his youth as playing stickball and kick the can.
“I was fascinated with glamour from the movies,” he said, dressed casually in running shoes and black pants and jacket. “I loved the way fabric draped, the way my aunt matched stripes and plaids, overlapped lace.”
Because he had to make a living, he went to work at Xerox while attending college at night, thinking he would be a math teacher. On the side he directed and designed costumes for Off-Broadway shows. Because the sets were so small, the costumes had to tell the story, he said.
He spent years in retail as a buyer and merchandiser while doing freelance custom work. In 1974, he moved his family to this area to work at Gimbel’s Market East, then John Wanamaker and the Gloria Vanderbilt Dress Division.
In 1981, tired of running other people’s businesses, he opened his own on the third floor of his Victorian house in Merion. He wanted to do knit dresses and beaded sweaters, so he contacted a church looking for women who could knit. He’d lay out the design and they would knit the beads into the pieces, up to 1,000 for a full-length dress.
Because it was the ’80s, he also used a lot of leather and suede, such as a pair of black, tucked, glove-leather pants that are as soft and creamy as a debutante’s cheek. In the show, he pairs it with a black-and-cream mohair and cotton knitted sweater, another of his wife’s pieces.
For years, he made all her clothes, including her satin and lace wedding dress and lace-appliqued veil. He designed and cut the pattern and his aunt sewed it.
“I could wear it all now,” said Grace Ann Agostino, who designs high-end handbags. “I had the most gorgeous maternity clothes you’ve ever seen . . .. I loved everything Frank made.”
The show’s most eye-catching creations are the gowns – many accented with lace or beads or paired with knits – that have been lent to Agostino for the show by clients. But they are also light and airy and look as comfortable as a pair of sweats – at a cost of upwards of $10,000.
“My philosophy has always been to make beautiful clothes. That’s the bottom line,” Agostino said of his style.
Rochelle “Cissie” Levy, an artist and Moore board member, has a closetful of Agostinos, from evening gowns to three-piece suits she wears to the races at Saratoga.
“They never go out of style,” she said.
The one person Agostino no longer dresses is, alas, his wife. He’s too busy, what with designing about 50 custom pieces a year and two ready-to-wear lines.
His wife’s last Agostino creation was for their son’s wedding four years ago. Agostino also made the bride’s dress, which has become something of a subspeciality. “It was beyond gorgeous,” Grace Ann Agostino said.
Asked whether there was a woman he dreamed of dressing, the designer thought a few seconds, then said he has a thing for a certain middle-aged movie star who would look at home on the Main Line.
“Michelle Pfeiffer,” he said.