Fashion designer Jeanne Bjorn was walking down Fifth Avenue in 1980s New York when a woman asked her where she got her stylish fur coat.
When Bjorn replied it was her own design, the woman gave her a business card. It was Jean Rosenberg, vice president of iconic Henri Bendel.
The meeting would become fortuitous — not in launching Bjorn’s fashion star — but in ushering the now Tucson-based designer into compelling work in Oscar and Tony-Award winning costume creation, beautiful millinery and shoe design.
“She came to see my clothing and she said, ‘I think your work is really amazing,’ ” Bjorn recalled. “ ‘This is how much money you are going to need to go forward, if you’re going to compete with say, Donna Karan or Calvin Klein.’” “And I looked at that number and I was stunned. It was so much. It was like a New York wake-up call.”
Bjorn grew up on a Missouri farm, fascinated with her mother’s bolts of fabric. She would meticulously touch and study their textures, designs and sheen. Her passion led her to a degree in textiles and fabric design at the University of Georgia and then propelled her across the country to San Francisco, where she would launch her own label of women’s designer sportswear. Her namesake line, J Bjorn, would be featured in shows and stores in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York, where she had just relocated when she met Rosenberg.
After that Bendel moment, Bjorn instead sought out a job in costume design for stage and film with Barbara Matera Ltd. and would eventually help with creations for Broadway’s Dream Girls, The Secret Garden, the Tony Award-winning Crazy For You, Oscar-winning designs for The Age of Innocence, Hook and the New York City Ballet’s production of Sleeping Beauty. “I used to joke with my friends that I had to leave fashion because the pay was lower and the hours were longer, but the creativity was over the top.”
Bjorn also continued to take classes at the Fashion Institute of Technology. She chose millinery by opening up the class catalog and blindly pointing a finger. She instantly loved it and soon began making hats for clients and select lines for stores. But after a health-threatening experience at a New York costume shop where she was head milliner, she moved to Portland, Ore. There, she spent more than a decade teaching millinery and eventually shoe design, too. “I love designing and creating, but teaching is the best gift I can give someone because it passes the skill on, not to be forgotten.”
Indeed, some of her students included shoe designers from Columbia sportswear, as well as, rising young artisans who, after her instruction, ultimately moved to Italy to further their studies.
Now in Tucson, Bjorn has continued classes in hat and shoe making. Though she is awaiting her next move after the Covid-19 pandemic, the designer can look back proudly on a career that has seen her work featured in Women’s Wear Daily, California Apparel News, The San Francisco Examiner and The Oregonian, to name a few.
“We need a world of good designers,” she said. “Some of these skills, I worry we are close to losing them if we don’t teach a new generation.”
You can find out more about Bjorn’s classes on her website, jeannebjorn.com.