Ursula Garreau-Rickenbacher was a young, 23-year-old Swiss immigrant in the fashion capital of the Western World, knocking on the doors of large fashion houses pitching her talent for design.
“I was never a loud person,” she recalled from the 19th century factory that houses her company’s center of operations in Waterford. “I knocked on the door.” Exhibiting what she called a “quiet” confidence, to stand before established individuals 40 years her senior to say they will take her designs despite the anxiety she felt inside.
“And, they did.”
She started creating hats for Henri Bendel and Saks Fifth Avenue 60 years ago. She played to both hands, Saks’ conservative tendencies to Bendel’s more contemporary tastes. All the while, saving up to establish what would ultimately become Ursala of Switzerland.
“When you start something, you are so involved with trying to succeed,” said Rickenbacher. “Sometimes when I look back I say, it can’t be 50 years.”
With New York City’s Fifth Avenue established as the hub of the fashion industry in the New World, Mohawk Avenue would be the annex. And, by Mohawk Avenue, it is not The Big Apple to which we speak, but rather, Waterford. The stark, brick façade of what was a ribbon factory a century ago hides the soft and elegant dresses designed by Ursala of Switzerland, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last month. More than 40 of those years have been spent on Mohawk Avenue, where the 35,000-square foot factory houses nearly all the operations – from concept design, to customer service, to shipping. To tour the facility is to witness a microcosm of the fashion industry.
In the backroom behind Ursula’s showroom, Rickenbacher is surrounded by a handful of her employees. Some going over the details of wholesale shows scheduled for the upcoming weeks. There’s one in Atlanta, another in Las Vegas. A line of wedding garments was just shipped out the door for England. Rickenbacher stands in the middle of the room donning large brimmed sunglasses, reminiscent of Jackie Onassis. The 83-year-old matriarch of the company borrows an iconic look to be chic, or so the impression was. Instead of invoking Audrey Hepburn from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the sunglasses serve a more practical use, to prevent the lights from hurting her eyes. It’s that attention to sensibility that defines her line of clothes.
The base of operations lies on the second floor. Laurie Huneau, Ursula’s customer service manager has bounced from the showroom, to the backroom, to a conference call with a customer in Central America, and back to the second floor, where product design is discussed and drawn out.
“Our fabrics are sourced all over the world,” said Huneau. “Some from Italy, China, Spain. What can be found that is affordable and fits to our patterns. … Novelty fabrics – texture. That’s what women are looking for.” Rolls of fabrics are labeled under the design table – stretch lace, chiffon, matte jersey. When asked if there was anything more exotic in the collection of fabrics, Huneau thought and said, “Exotic? No, that’s not our clientele. … Our customer is more conservative than eccentric.”
Ursula of Switzerland markets to the special occasion, the “Mother of the Bride Dresses,” evening wear dresses for the petite, missy, plus and woman’s petites.
“The mother of the bride and groom is still very important,” said Rickenbacher. “They are who make the bride and groom successful. They are the wholesome generation who makes family as well as the country go.” When conversation turns to how in some cultures, it is the mother who leads the family, she said, “The Swiss are not far away.”
Each design is developed in Waterford. When a design is complete, a mock-up of the piece is cut and sewn to be critiqued by Rickenbacher for final approval. Once approved, the design is emailed to contractors back in New York City.
Ursula’s first dresses were sold to retailers in 1965. The company would not be founded for another two years, and would later be incorporated in 1969, doing business out of the Capital District. Moving out of New York City was a risk she took on, as her then-husband went to study and teach in upstate New York. From here, she established four retail shops in Albany, Schenectady, Troy and Saratoga. Ultimately, the storefronts were closed in favor of a wholesale business in 1972, when she moved her business to Waterford.
In 1983, Rickenbacher dressed Miss New York State, who would go on to be crowned Miss America 1984: Vanessa Williams. News clippings and pictures from those days hang in the second floor conference room. The beauty pageant winner would resign her title, but go on to star in Hollywood films and chart songs on the Billboard Top 40.
The attention garnered from Miss America later translated to more accolades for Ursula, as it would go on to earn the Debi Award for Distinguished Excellence in the Bridal Industry in 1988. Its collection is sold through more than 5000 bridal stores in North America, as well as Mexico, England and Australia.
It doesn’t seem like 50 years, said Rickenbacher. It started long before that, walking the pavement, knocking on doors and convincing others that they would “sooner or later” take to her designs. “I just went there and bothered them,” she said. “I was never a loud person, so I knocked at the door … I was quiet confident. What do you lose? If you don’t try, you never have a chance. When you have a dream, dream it. It’s not tomorrow, maybe. Not next year. But, you work on it and suddenly, it happens. And, it’s such a satisfaction when you get there.”
Michael Hallisey is managing editor of Spotlight Newspapers.
This message is only visible to site admins
Problem displaying Facebook posts. Backup cache in use.