Joan Helpern, Joan & David Shoes Co-Founder, Dies at 89



Joan and David Helpern in 1978 with samples from their line of shoes. They also sold apparel, bags and belts. Credit D. Gorton/The New York Times

Joan Helpern, the creative half of the husband-and-wife team that combined comfort and class as the eponymous owners of the Joan & David line of shoes, died on Sunday in Manhattan. She was 89.

The cause was respiratory failure, said her daughter, Elizabeth Helpern.

When they married in 1960 and she began studying for a graduate degree at Harvard, the Helperns might have seemed an unlikely pair to be popularizing apparel.

While Mr. Helpern’s family founded the Boston-based women’s clothing retailer Touraine, David himself preferred travel and history, which he had studied at Harvard, to running the shoe department in his family’s stores. Joan Helpern, a child psychologist who had developed programs for the New York City Board of Education, had no formal design training.

One day, though, accompanying her husband as he was choosing new inventory, Ms. Helpern concluded that she knew as much about what working women wanted to wear as the established shoemakers did, if not more.

Beginning a second career in the 1960s, she got a job designing for a small Boston shoe company, worked as a consultant to a firm that operated several chains, and finally decided with her husband to start the Joan & David label.

“We had noticed that women were running through airports,” Ms. Helpern told The New York Times in 2012. “We decided to make shoes for women who run through airports.”

She designed her first pair of classic navy blue and white oxford flats in 1967. Within two decades, the family-owned business, founded in Cambridge, Mass., was selling shoes and men and women’s apparel, bags and belts in about 100 outlets in the United States and Europe and grossing about $100 million. It had boutiques in the Ann Taylor retail chain and a flagship store on Madison Avenue in New York, where the company was later based.

“She understands her customers’ lifestyle and taste,” said Vivian Infantino, fashion director at Footwear News, which in 1986 named Ms. Helpern designer of the year.

While Mr. Helpern was the chief executive and managed the business, Ms. Helpern was the creative director. She designed and supervised the development of the moderately priced inventory of flats manufactured in Italy and the expansion into hundreds of styles, from jeweled moccasins to laced-up oxfords and flats in rich colors with silver-plated toes and zebra-patterned tops. Prices ranged from under $100 to well over $650.

Despite the flashy styles, Ms. Helpern leaned toward classic designs, explaining, “I like to see the person rather than what they are wearing, so my shoes are understated.”

Joan Evelyn Marshall was born in the Bronx on Oct. 10, 1926, the daughter of Edward Marshall and the former Ethel Tilzer, a teacher.

She graduated with a bachelor of arts degree from Hunter College in Manhattan, where she majored in economics, psychology and English. She earned a master’s in social psychology from Columbia University and a doctorate in psychology from Harvard.

When the couple married, Mr. Helpern was a widower with a young son, and her previous marriage had ended in divorce. David Helpern, from whom Joan was legally separated in 1998, died in 2012. In addition to their daughter, Ms. Helpern is survived by her stepson, David Jr., and three grandchildren.

In 2000, after five years of financial difficulties, the company sought bankruptcy protection and was sold to the Maxwell Shoe Company for $16.8 million.

Early on, Ms. Helpern recalled, Italian factory managers were reluctant to do business with a woman.

“When it was time to do the final closing, they wanted to look in the eyes of a man,” she said.

She originally enlisted her husband as the liaison in the manufacture and shipping, but, she said, the Italian managers eventually relented.

“I have made a dent in the fashion world,” she said, “and a step forward for women.”

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