RACINE — The fashion was vintage, the models were strutting, the cameras were snapping, the champagne was flowing and the people were smiling.
Isn’t it nice to be out and about again?
In an event that was was the perfect symbolic marriage between the rebirth of spring and our gradual re-emergence from the darkness of the COVID-19 pandemic, Madam D’s Vintage Jewelry, 1405 16th St., Racine Business Center, played host Friday night to the First Season Spring Vintage Fashion Show and Shopping Event.
And what a hit it was.
Hosted by fashion blogger Lauren Sturycz, a designer whose blog The Pretty Broke Blonde showcases sustainable fashion, Friday’s event was expected to attract about 20 to 25 people. It wound up pulling in nearly 100 at $10 per ticket.
Showcasing vintage looks put together by Yorkville resident Donna Willerth, the “Madam D” in the store name, the fashion show featured models wearing a variety of apparel, including Western, lingerie, formal and bridal. The fashions ranged from the late 1800s all the way through the 1970s.
“When I posted the event, I really didn’t think — again, this is a very niche market — I didn’t really expect a lot of people to show up or take interest in this,” Sturycz said. “I’m an old soul. I felt, ‘You know what, no one’s going to be into this. It’s fine. Twenty-five people, a couple little old ladies, is going to be fine.’
“And we’re looking at 90-some-odd tickets, almost 100.”
Yes, at its heart the event was a fashion show. But it was so much more than that.
It was a perfect microcosm of how communities have banded together to help small businesses — which by extension means family, friends and neighbors — pull through during the pandemic.
Started as a hobby
Willerth, a retired English teacher, spent her career in education. She grew up in Chicago, the daughter of a downtown jeweler.
“(I was) playing with diamonds when I was a little girl,” Willerth said.
That led to a passion for fashion and design, which she fostered into quite a hobby during her time off from teaching.
“This was just something fun to do in the summer,” Willerth said. “I went to an auction, and after an auction, I thought, ‘I can do this.’ So I started doing costuming. I did off-Broadway shows, and I did movies and plays, just for costumes. So then I kind of accessorized with the jewelry part of it. My dad was a jeweler, so it was kind of a natural (fit).”
Willerth said she’s now been in the fashion and design business for about 35 years, and she opened Madam D’s in the cavernous structure that contains the Racine Business Center about six years ago. The name of the business comes from Willerth’s father, who coined the nickname so as not to get her confused with her two brothers, who also have first names that start with D.
“My dad, to get my attention, rather than calling my brothers’ names, would say, ‘Hey, Madam D, come over here,’” Willerth said. “So that’s how I got my name.”
The business is open just one day a week, on Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., but Willerth takes customers by appointment for things like birthdays, women’s parties and other social functions.
Like every small business, however, Madam D’s has been impacted by the pandemic. Willerth said her sales were cut down by about 75%, though she knows she’s fortunate her business is something of a passion project, not her entire life’s work.
“My head’s above water,” Willerth said. “I’m still making my rent. And it is a hobby. I’m not doing it to make the mortgage payment. I would be struggling for that.”
And lately, Willerth said, business has picked up.
“Since the inoculations and everything, I’ve done great,” she said.
Passion for thrifting
This is where Sturycz — who also is a creative print and digital marketing consultant with the Wisconn Valley Media Group, which includes The Journal Times — comes into the story.
With her focus on sustainable and affordable fashion, Sturycz said she frequents thrift stores all over southeastern Wisconsin. But she hadn’t heard of Madam D’s until the aptly-named The Thrift Shop in Racine informed her of it.
That was only about six weeks ago.
“They said, ‘Well, if you like vintage clothing, you should check out Madam D’s,’” Sturycz said. “I said, ‘Who’s that?’ And this building here, this dilapidated building, you go through here, you think it’s haunted. You think you’re being sentenced to your death. I’m like, ‘What are these ladies talking about?’
“And then I turn a corner and it’s this glam chandeliers everywhere, and I immediately fell in love.”
That got Sturycz quickly thinking of how she could help a small business survive the pandemic. She hosted her first fashion show in Milwaukee in 2016 and has previously designed pieces for Milwaukee Fashion Week, so the idea was right there.
“I said (to Willerth), ‘You know, I haven’t coordinated any fashion events for a while. Let’s do one if you’re interested,’” Sturycz said. “We kind of just made it happen. We had a lot of volunteers, which I’m very grateful for. Artists, models, photographers.
“We thought this would be a great way to have the community know about this, because I wouldn’t have known about it had someone (not) said. So a little word-of-mouth, old-school guerilla marketing.”
With her store bustling with activity Friday night, Willerth seemed almost overwhelmed by how much buzz Sturycz’s efforts generated.
“She’s a dynamo,” Willerth said. “She’s awesome.”
Willerth also used the event to help her friends, like Jane Tallman of Wadsworth, Ill. Tallman runs Sun Rags Studios, and her designs were modeled in Friday’s show.
“I love my customers,” Willerth said. “They’re some of my best friends, of course.”
Walking the runway
With music provided by Jordan Stocker and a floral display by Elise at Era of Blooms, nine models — including Willerth’s granddaughter, Dominique Baird — strutted their stuff for an excited gathering.
How many times did the models have to change?
“Six times,” said model Emma Gebhardt of Mequon, who said she recently signed with an agency in New York as a model and make-up artist.
The outfits, of course, reflected sustainable fashion.
“A lot of that’s coming around, because sustainable fashion is a movement,” Sturycz said. “So rather than buying something new, buy something used and keep it going and keep recycling and hand it down. That’s really a cool thing.”
The models also had a say in what they wore.
“All the models got their intake and their input on what they wanted to wear, which is really unique and cool,” Gebhardt said. “Because in a lot of fashion shows I’ve done, a lot of the stylists take over. But Lauren, the runner of the show, she gave us all an opportunity to style ourselves, and I thought that was really awesome.”
In addition to helping Willerth’s business and Sturycz’s blog, the show was great for the designers involved.
“I’m going to be getting a lot of exposure from this,” said model and designer Alexis Wood, who’s originally from Pittsburgh but moved to Racine about four years ago with her husband.
Indeed, it was as much of a win-win situation for everyone involved as could be imagined.
“We’ve noticed that with like Oliver’s Bakery and places in Kenosha — like Common Grounds, things like that — if we hear of a struggling business, even if it’s off the street in another neighborhood, in Racine, we’re looking to always help,” Sturycz said.
“(Donna’s) a great lady, a great person, and this is great to give back to her in a way, all while having a little fun while we do it.”