Despite having almost no training in either fashion or business, Claire Bodner ran a successful fashion design company that was featured in top magazines and stores. Bodner began working in the garment industry at age fourteen, first as a seamstress, then designing her own clothes and acting as a sales representative to department store buyers. In 1941 she created Ducaire Timely Separates, a company that made both day wear and high fashion for women, with innovations like elastic materials for form-fitting bodices. She oversaw every aspect of manufacturing, from fabric design through construction, and inspected every garment before it left her workshop. Her designs were featured in Vogue, Mademoiselle, and the New York Times, and sold at Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus.
Fashion designer, publicist, entrepreneur, and sales representative, Claire Bodner, with virtually no formal training in fashion or business, developed and ran her own successful fashion business, Ducaire Timely Separates, in New York City from 1941 to 1949. She worked with innovative fabrics such as Lastex, an elasticized material that permitted form-fitting bodices, and styled and marketed high-fashion women’s blouses, jackets, and skirts as well as play clothes. She was one of the first American designers to feature the circle skirt. Her designs were bought and featured by stores such as Saks Fifth Avenue in New York, I. Magnin in San Francisco, and Neiman Marcus in Dallas. Her customers were exclusive women’s specialty stores in every major city in the United States; her designs were featured in fashion journals such as Vogue and Mademoiselle, newspapers such as The New York Times, and were photographed by fashion greats such as Richard Avedon.
Historical Context and Early Life
When Claire was developing her signature styles, New York was the center of the development of American style in fashion. After World War I, more women were working in offices, participating in volunteer work, clubs, and sport, and clothing was evolving towards comfort and ease. Blouses and skirts that could be interchanged and matched, mass produced instead of custom made, and relatively inexpensive, were becoming standard day-wear. Designers using more luxurious fabrics were also developing separates for evening dress. This was the niche that became the Ducaire Timely Separates designer line.
Claire was born in Frysztak, Galicia, in 1903. Her father, Abraham Bodner (1868–c. 1932), was also born in Frysztak and her mother, Hencze Kreiswirth, was born in 1878 in Subcarpathian Ruthenia, which was then part of Hungary. The father was in the lumber business. The family emigrated to the United States in 1908. They were living in Brooklyn when Hencze died, leaving nine children. Claire was fourteen years old. When her father re-married shortly thereafter, she and her older sisters moved to their own apartment and she began to work in the garment industry. Learning to use a sewing machine and working in women’s fashion companies such as Jean Adams Inc., she took the opportunity to observe and then to design separates, also acting as a sales representative to department store buyers and to owners of small exclusive shops. She developed extensive personal relationships to persuade a cadre of store buyers to promote her designs. Photographs of her at this time show a woman of flair and confidence, happy in her achievement. An aggressive and creative woman, she was self-educated and took great pleasure in traveling the world, but was the quintessential New Yorker, never considering living anywhere but in Manhattan.
Ducaire Timely Separates, a small independent garment business, located in Manhattan, had a loyal non-union work staff and virtually no staff turnover. Claire herself oversaw the entire operation, designing clothing and fabric, and constructing the sample. No article of clothing left her workshop without her personal inspection. Once, when she was sued over a business matter, she even represented herself in court, to the dismay of her lawyer, but the praise of the judge. She won the case.
In 1950, seeing new opportunities in designing, manufacturing, and selling hand- decorated ceramic table lamps, she and her husband, Herman Esterman (b. 1900), whom she married in 1951, formed a new business located in Greenwich Village. His untimely death in 1957 forced her to sell this company and become a sales representative for Austin Products, a firm manufacturing art reproductions, and for H.G. Strong Inc., a manufacturer of ceramic gift ware. Here too her business sense and sense of the market led to her becoming their advisor and she helped develop the market in museum reproductions and primitive African designs. Today the products of these two firms are becoming collectibles.
Later Life and Legacy
Upon her retirement from business in 1967, Claire, always a dues-paying member of Jewish organizations, began to regularly attend meetings of B’nai B’rith Women, District No.1. She realized the importance of becoming involved and in 1973 became president of the Chelsea-Greenwich Chapter No. 654 and delegate to the Manhattan-Staten Island Council. Her newsletter columns included original poetry and expressed her interest in developing more effective young leadership auxiliary groups, properly prepared to assume the increased demands of a complex society. She acknowledged that though the going was often rough, “that little voice in me whispered, you love a challenge, you must continue.”
Claire Bodner died on January 2, 1995.
Scrapbooks and letters of Claire Bodner.
Oral interviews and written reminiscences , January 2001–August 2001. Milbank, Caroline Rennolds. New York Fashion: The Evolution of American Style. New York: 1989.