The Pearl of Fashion
The tagline for iPEARL Fashions, a clothing design company in Yardley, PA is “Luxurious fashions for elegant women.” Owned and inspired by Ilene Pearl Bannwart, the business grew out of a love for fashion, a lifelong challenge with body image, and the legacy of a grandmother. The name iPearl is fitting because, as Ilene says, “What I love doing more than anything in the world is to be in old fabric stores delving under the stacks of fabric bolts to find the pearls.”
Ilene’s Grandma Rosie was a coat finisher and lived with the family for many years. Ilene loved having nice clothes, but had a hard time finding anything to fit her self-described “zaftig” shape.
She often went shopping and when she got home, Rosie would look over “the goods,” inspecting the quality of the fabric and workmanship. Ilene tried making her own clothing, but the patterns and pieces were frequently upside down and backwards, and Grandma Rosie needed to come in and re-do everything. It was Rosie’s influence that planted the seed for Ilene’s appreciation of quality clothing.
Ilene grew up in St. Louis, MO, and went to college in Oklahoma and St. Louis. With a Psychology degree and a teaching certificate, she taught school for two years but felt too confined and left. It was when she worked in department stores that she really got a taste for dressing people and working with high-quality goods.
CORPORATE TO MANUFACTURING TO FASHION
Fashion as a business, however, came later. For the bulk of her career, Ilene worked in development and fundraising, starting with the United Way and ending up in Philadelphia, working in development at the University of Pennsylvania. She also had a job in fundraising at the Philadelphia Orchestra during the era of Ricardo Muti. Eventually, work stopped for a while, she married her husband, and they renovated a Victorian house in University City. By the time she re-entered the business world in 1989, she had to learn how to use a computer. She worked on a United States Senate campaign and went on to Hospital Administration. These were very public jobs, and her presentation was important to her. Ilene was very open about her journey with weight fluctuation, and when she could not find clothing that would fit her shape, she had it custom made.
THE ROAD TO FASHION DESIGN
Ilene was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to pursue her own business in 2007, but it took about seven years to get there. Around 2000, she and her friend Cookie were informal fashion consultants for each other. Cookie was an international business traveler, and she was very “fashion forward.” One day on an airplane, the esteemed fashion designer Alexander Julian literally stopped her, commenting about how fabulous she looked, and that was the catalyst. Cookie said to Ilene when she returned, “We could do this!” So they decided to try it; they went to New York City, picked out fabric, sauntered around the garment district, came back—excited to start—and ended up having to put it on the back burner for the next seven years. Ilene’s husband owns a small manufacturing business in Trenton, which is currently enjoying growth; but back then, Ilene needed to help the business during hard times, as more and more manufacturing was going overseas. Surprisingly enough, the seven years in that business gave her all the experience she needed to run a small business, from shipping to customer relations and everything in between. It served her well, and even though she never would have pictured herself in manufacturing, it prepared her in ways she could not have possibly imagined.
Living by the quote, “If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life,” Ilene was finally able to pursue her passion. When 2007 came along, the timing was right. Her husband’s company had stabilized, she had gained great business experience, and she had lost the bulk of her weight. It was time to launch her passion in earnest, and iPEARL fashions was born.
Ilene’s design methods are unique, and people might be amazed to find that, to this day, she does not sew. Getting ideas from her brain to the sewing machine is a dance of interpretation. When she designs, she has a picture in her head, visioning the garment with her pattern-maker more than actual drawing. The pattern-maker then interprets and translates what is inside Ilene’s mind of fashion, and the journey from concept to completion begins in earnest, from designs to samples to manufacturing to the runway!
High-end jackets and coats and a plethora of European fabric; Italian cashmere; French Bouclè and the raised design fabric called matelasse; linings made with silk charmeuse in unexpected and exciting colors and prints—these are some of Ilene’s favorite things. The pieces are unique and designed in timeless silhouettes that will never go out of style. True classics, Ilene’s designs are inspired by nature, sunsets, trees, water, ocean, etc. She loves fashion history, and her fashion icon heroes and “sheroes” include Coco Chanel, Halston, Oscar de la Renta, and Carolina Herrera, as well as some of these artists’ subjects, like Jackie O, Audrey Hepburn, and Grace Kelly.
iPearl customers range from the age of thirty-five to eighty-plus and are typically women who are social and civic community leaders involved in very public arenas. Ilene has clientele all over the world, including English aristocrats and European royalty. “This collection is for a special woman who appreciates the finer details, quality fabrics, and a distinctive look for any age and any size.” The clothing retails from $500.00 to just under $3,000.00 per item, or you may catch one of her semi-annual sample sales, where prices can be 40% to 70% off. Ilene explains that many pieces are one of a kind, based on fabric purchases in very small quantities, and all of that contributes to the cost of the garment.
Keeping the local and domestic economy growing is paramount to Ilene. “All iPearl clothing is made in the garment district of NYC, and the pattern-making and samples have been made between Bucks County and Philadelphia. I believe that the quality control and attention to detail could not be maintained without being closely and personally monitored.” Ilene also works with interns, mentoring them in all facets of the business as they delve into their own fashion careers.
Another important aspect for Ilene is to “give back,” bringing her business full circle. Dress for Success is one of the foundations that she supports, donating some of her collection for their auctions to raise money (www.dressforsuccess.org). She also supports Dr. Beth Dupree’s foundation for healing consciousness to help support breast cancer patients and survivors. Additionally, Ilene has provided fashions for the runway show entitled, “Designs for Healing,” which recently took place in our area (www.thehealingconsciousness.com).
Ilene is truly living her dream, and she refers to her collection as “investment dressing” —classic styles that will last a lifetime both in quality and style. And though she and Cookie did not go into business together, they are best friends, and Ilene refers to Cookie as her “‘traveling mannequin;’ she is basically the global ambassador for the clothing line.” Friendship, fabric, and fashion—an ideal combination.
Story by LisaBeth Weber