Detroit native Linda Dresner takes a look back at her illustrious fashion career. She shares stories of Jackie Kennedy visiting her boutique and how she introduced Metro Detroit to international designers.
By Stephanie Steinberg
Photography by Boswell Hardwick
Walk into Linda Dresner the store any weekday, and the woman behind the internationally renowned brand will be in the Birmingham shop, greeting longtime customers with a grandmotherly hug or offering new shoppers an experience she says they won’t get at department stores that have “ruined themselves.”
“There’s too much merchandise, too much of the same merchandise and there’s no experience,” Dresner says.
The Detroit native who lives in Birmingham built a name for herself — out of her name — the past 45 years. To many designers and fashion experts, Dresner is a pioneer who changed the fashion landscape in Metro Detroit, New York and worldwide.
“Through her store, Linda features designers that highlight cutting-edge apparel design,” says Rayneld Johnson, former Wayne State University coordinator of fashion design and merchandising. “Fashion is elevated to an artistic expression and that makes her unique and exclusive in the area.”
On a recent summer day, the high-end Birmingham boutique featured Japanese labels Comme des Garcons and Yohji Yamamoto — Dresner says she was their first American client — and a Leon Dickey sculpture draped with Daniela Gregis silk pants.
“It’s a multicultural environment,” says sales associate Christine Hildebrand, explaining the shop is a “melting pot” of artwork and designers from London, Germany, Italy and more. “A lot of time when stores want to put in an order, they have to have such a large quantity, but Linda has this little exception because she’s so well-known.”
Picking up her polka dot Martin Margiela train, a piece she’s had for 12 years, Dresner retreats to the basement, where her office features a mood board plastered with photos of her four grandchildren and fashion friends. Though Dresner won’t share her age, she happily shares she entered the fashion industry in her 20s.
“I used to model when I was young,” she says. “In those days, you didn’t have to be 5’10 and weigh 100 pounds.”
Through modeling, she bonded with women over the universal frustration of getting dressed.
“They’d say, ‘What am I going to wear?’ and ‘What will my husband say? What will my girlfriends say?’ I found that I really understood them,” Dresner says.
In her 20s, Dresner opened a shop with a girlfriend in an office building between Southfield and Greenfield. The experience led to her first trip to New York, where she’d scope out fashions that were difficult to find in Detroit.
The store lasted about three years, and then Dresner went into business with Hattie Belkin, who later went on to become a famous fashion retailer. They opened Hattie in a Franklin house, reportedly one of the first U.S. boutiques to carry Yves Saint Laurent and Giorgio Armani.
“We were very avant-garde in a gentle way, and we were very successful because there was no competition,” says Dresner, adding they were the first boutique in Metro Detroit to separate designers by name.
They also dared to go where no other local shops had. Dresner recalls one trip to Florence to buy jeans from a designer.
“They were $200 retail, and we were so nervous, ‘Who’s going to buy these?’ ” she says. “Today, $200 is no big deal.” But this was the late ’70s.
“We sold all those jeans in two days,” she smiles.
Eventually, Dresner went on her own and opened a 600-square-foot shop. At the time, it was the only upstairs retail space at Somerset Collection in Troy.
“This was before the internet and all that stuff. So I was very successful,” she says.
For Dresner, it doesn’t matter she lacks a college degree or retail training.
“I feel the trends before they’re really the trends. They’re my trends. I see things in a certain way. … I think my clothes have always been wearable, but a bit avant garde. But not crazy. I mean, anybody could wear them if they wanted.”
In 1984, Dresner opened a store in New York on Park Avenue.
“That took a lot of nerve,” she recalls. “I thought, ‘Well, they need me. They absolutely need me.’ ”
Her instinct was right. The shop flourished for 25 years, attracting movie stars and former first ladies — even if they didn’t go there to shop.
“Jackie (Kennedy) used to come and sit in the dressing room and ask, could she just sit quietly and have her tuna sandwich,” Dresner says. “She just liked to look at the young women who were getting dressed and wearing things. She came, not every day, but quite often. Every couple weeks. That was a thrill.”
She recalls a famous architect wrote in her guestbook: “The most beautiful store in New York and maybe even the world.” There was nothing in the window. Just a freestanding rack with some clothes.
“People still talk about that store,” she says.
Eventually, the lease was up. Dresner just met her third husband. “It was a moment to stop,” she says.
She describes her first two husbands as “tall and handsome — like they all are,” she laughs. “My third husband is a dreamboat. He’s also tall and handsome, but when he looks in the mirror, he knows who he is,”
Dresner met Ed Levy at Karmanos Cancer Center, where she was receiving treatment, and he was on the board. His wife passed away from illness, and mutual friends suggested they go out. Dresner jokes she didn’t know what to wear.
“I was nervous, because he’s going to think, I’m nuts coming out in an outfit like that.” She finally settled on a long Karl Lagerfeld suede skirt and matching sweater. “I went to the door and said ‘hello’ and he looked at me, and he said, ‘Oh, my god, just look at you.’ That was it.” Dresner wears the outfit every year on their anniversary.
She describes her closet as “her playroom” full of clothes 30 to 40 years old. “If I can still zip ’em up, I keep them,” she says.
When it comes to her personal style, she wears what she wants. “I think it’s cool if you can be self-confident and just do what you want. It’s not an easy thing to do because we’re always worried about making an impression,” she says.
As far as what the future holds for Linda Dresner the store, she says she has no plans to open more.
“In the beginning for many, many years, I worried that I was going to fail. I don’t worry about that anymore,” she says. “When I’m done, I’m done, and it’s not because I failed, it’s because I’m done.”
Johnson, who recently retired from WSU after 40 years and is a former regional director of Fashion Group International, which has honored Dresner for her lifetime achievement in fashion, says Dresner’s “fashion vision and understanding is legendary.”
“She maintains a high fashion presence in Detroit … which is credit to her experience and expertise,” Johnson says. “She’s remained, and through the years, so many other independent retailers have closed their doors.”
299 W. Maple Road, Birmingham