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It’s a quintessentially Tasha moment: Having just been fêted with a spectacular runway show of her latest collection as Guest Designer at the 2017 March Western Market at the Dallas Market Center, Tasha Polizzi—at 72 still as lithe as a leopard, her tawny mane spilling down around her shoulders—steps to the center of the stage to a thunderous standing ovation, briefly acknowledges the accolades, then throws open both arms as if to embrace her staff flanking her on her left and right.
Her message could not have been more clear: “I didn’t do this alone,” her expansive gesture says. “We earned this all together as a team.”
The recognition of this brand was well-deserved, long overdue, and just in the nick of time. Tasha Polizzi’s timeless-yet-modern fashions, crafted of natural textiles such as silk, cotton, wool, and leathers with embellishments of lace, beading, and embroidery that conjure up native American and classic Western motifs, have endeared themselves to women from 18 to 80.
“Of course, we had no way of knowing then that this would be her last market,” her son John Polizzi tells me. “But still, it was such a nice coda to her career. I wish she could be here with us for another 30 years.”
Tasha was diagnosed with cancer several weeks after that market, and after a fierce and valiant fight, succumbed to its assault on August 9, 2017. She is survived by her husband of 39 years, Jack Polizzi; her son John and his wife Ashley; her son Chris, a collegiate football coach, and his wife Kelli; her 95-year-old mother Ginger Bauer; and her siblings Lois, Ray, Bill, and their families.
Her passing sent rippling shock waves throughout the Western fashion industry, and in the fashion world at large. Kim Moncure, founder of Cowgirl Kim, one of the Western industry’s first online-only retailers, says “I felt as though I was in the presence of a queen when I was around her; she was one of the most honorable people I have ever met. When I first started Cowgirl Kim, many manufacturers were reluctant to do business with me, making me feel that instead of being an online pioneer, I was sub-par to the brick-and-mortar stores. Tasha endeared herself to me by treating me the same as she would any other retailer; that is, like royalty.”
“She was always so complimentary to other designers,” says iconic Western fashion designer Pat Dahkne. “She would come into my showroom before the market opened, and tell me how fabulous everything looked. I am so thankful that she was recognized as Guest Designer at the Dallas Market before she died, and that she could feel all of the great love and admiration that her peers felt for her.”
And although her family was left heartbroken at the loss of their matriarch, the structure of her eponymous company had been created in such a collaborative, interlocking way that the brand was able to not only survive, but thrive through its close teamwork—with husband Jack as chief financial officer from the very beginning, son John as president, and daughter-in-law Ashley as merchandise manager, along with a dozen or so other longtime staff.
How that came to be is a remarkable story, one I learned firsthand while spending a few glorious spring days with the Tasha Polizzi team—and with Tasha herself—several years ago at their headquarters in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.
From Model to Designer
In the late 1960s, Geoffrey Beene was arguably America’s top fashion designer. A year after founding his firm, he won the Coty American Fashion Critics’ Award, and his first collection was featured on the cover of Vogue magazine. Tasha (née Sandra Rose Bauer), a recent Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania high-school graduate, found herself sitting in Beene’s reception area to provide moral support to her friend Susan, who aspired to be a Beene model.
“I went to keep Susan company,” Tasha told me. “The New York fashion scene was a world away from what I knew growing up, where I fished and hunted rabbits and deer with my father. Beene’s office door opens, he pops his head out, and points at me, saying ‘You. Get dressed.’ He offered me a modeling job on the spot, and I coaxed him into hiring my friend Susan, too. Geoffrey was a fabulous mentor and teacher, and so generous with his knowledge. I got a real education on how clothes were made.”
After her stint with Beene, she went to work with a modeling agency that employed her as a runway model, both in the U.S. and throughout Europe, working with such prominent designers as Bill Blass, Perry Ellis, and Ralph Lauren. Blass gave her the “stage name” Tasha, which she liked so much that she legally changed her first name from Sandra to Tasha. But it was Ralph Lauren who made the greatest impression on the budding designer.
“Ralph and I had a special synergy and held many lively discussions on fashion design,” related Tasha. “I had been running around in my dad’s old hunting jacket for years and loved everything Ralph embodied. Ralph saw the designer within me: He told me to come see him when I tired of modeling, and he would teach me everything he knew about design.”
Tasha took him up on it, and for the next 10 years she would be Lauren’s chief of women’s design, followed by several years as director of women’s and men’s design for Calvin Klein.
Still, Tasha had the heart of a country girl, and after marrying Jack Polizzi, a ruggedly handsome corporate headhunter, the couple determined to devise a way to raise their two young boys outside the hustle and bustle of New York. They turned their focus to Great Barrington in the Berkshires, about two hours from the city, and purchased a large corner building on Main Street. Here, they would open a retail store, T.P. Saddleblanket.
“Americans love change,” says Jack. “It’s in our nature. We want new, fresh things. A lot of New Yorkers were buying second homes up here at that time and had to shop for cabin décor in the city and haul it up here with them. We wanted to give them a reason to buy it here, to support the community, to revitalize Main Street.”
As Tasha and Jack had hoped, the store filled an unmet need: When the doors opened the first day, the line wrapped around the block. Nearly three decades later, it’s still going strong, testament to the charmingly curated goods, eye-catching merchandising displays, and the eclectic collection of vintage items used to display goods—all enhanced by warm lighting and lifting music.
With the retail store providing the “engine,” Tasha Polizzi launched as a brand in 2001, its corporate headquarters across the street from T.P. Saddleblanket, in a spacious, sun-drenched open-floor-plan loft overlooking the village.
From Student to Mentor
The young designer that Beene, Blass, Klein, and Lauren had mentored now became a mentor herself, hiring Audrey Downer, who had interned as a high schooler for Tasha Polizzi before attending fashion design school, as design director. Son John returned home to Great Barrington from New York City in 2005 to work fulltime for the family business. “I really started in the company long before that,” says John, “as I was packing boxes in the warehouse even before high school.”
Over the years, Audrey became like a daughter to Tasha as they worked so closely together, traveling to China, Europe, and around the world in their search for color and inspiration.
“Audrey truly ‘grew up’ in Tasha’s shadow,” says Jack. “Tasha trusted Audrey, helping her to blossom and to thrive in Tasha’s world of beautiful, functional, lifestyle collections. Today, Audrey heads our design team and, along with Ashley, is really driving that part of our company. Tasha’s mentoring of Audrey was close and amazing to watch. You can see that now as we watch our design team take direction from Audrey the same way they did from Tasha.”
Tasha retained her keen eye for modeling talent, as well. As I shot photos of her model Katie Norfleet during my visit to Great Barrington in 2014, Tasha leaned over and whispered in my ear: “Isn’t she fabulous? I saw her at John’s sixth birthday party when she was just a child and thought, ‘She’s going to be my model someday.’ ”
“In 2013, I was a single mother and living with my parents,” says Norfleet. “I will forever be grateful to Tasha. It was at this time that she asked me to start modeling for her. She dressed me up in her designs, applied makeup to me, and told me I was beautiful. Eventually, I started to believe her. She changed my life.”
Tasha cultivated a collaborative workplace, where everyone’s thoughts and contributions were valued, and that embracive culture is firmly in place as the Tasha Polizzi brand continues under John’s and Jack’s leadership.
“We’re in a small town, not on Seventh Avenue where people can walk across the street to a new job,” says John. “So our culture is one where we cultivate people, groom people, and help each and every person take ownership of the brand. Just recently, we had two applicants for a design position, and Ashley and I agreed that they both had strengths, but in different areas. We decided to hire them both and make it work; we believe in hiring good people and then helping them find their way in our culture. Our meetings–whether they be design meetings, sales meetings, post-mortem meetings on shows—are inclusive, so we’re all on the same page.”
At the time of his mother’s death, John and Ashley were pregnant with twins, whose expected due date was November 30th. Tasha, just before slipping away, held her hand on Ashley’s belly and the twins kicked for the first time. Their grandmother-to-be smiled and then was gone. Lucy Jean and Amelia Rose would be born prematurely on August 29, just three weeks after Tasha’s death and a full three months early, necessitating a months-long stay in a neonatal intensive care unit. At press time, both Lucy and Mellie continue to thrive.
Needless to say, John has been a busy man, both at work and at home. He makes the hour-long drive to the Baystate Hospital Neonatal Intensive Care Unit each afternoon, using the time to decompress and to think about how his mother would have handled decisions that he now must make. Thankfully, both John and Big Jack have strong, broad shoulders on which to carry the business and are fully committed to growing the Tasha Polizzi brand. The design talent that Tasha mentored and that they now cultivate continues to create sumptuous interpretations of classic Western fashions.
“It’s important to us to keep the culture that she’s built alive,” says John. “That’s what really pulls us through. When I ask myself, ‘what would Tasha do?’ I always get the same answer: She would trust us to do the right thing. Everything we do is in service to her.”
And as for Tasha, I have no doubt that she’s keeping an eye on things. In fact, as I admired a photo of Lucy and Mellie together for the first time in their neonatal unit, I heard her whisper, “Aren’t they fabulous? I saw them just as I was leaving and thought, ‘They’re going to be my models someday.’ ”Photos courtesy of John Polizzi.