It’s a long journey from the coal patch town of Herminie in Sewickley Township to the top of the Spanish Steps at 15 Piazza Trinita del Monti in Rome.
About 4,544 miles, to be precise.
Although the late John W. “Jack” Savage might have grown up in the company town where some women wore housecoats and babushkas, he rose to the top of the fashion world in the 1960s, designing and selling silk jersey and chiffon creations to the rich and famous in Italy from La Mendola, a fashion label and boutique he created with his partner, Michael La Mendola, also from Pennsylvania.
Among the clientele of the company they founded in 1961 were famed actresses Rita Hayworth, Elizabeth Taylor, Natalie Wood, Ursula Andress and Loretta Young, as well as celebrities such as Nelson Rockefeller’s wife, “Happy,” syndicated columnist Ann Landers and a woman who became infamous for her shoe collection, Philippine first lady Imelda Marcos.
News stories of the day described the work of Savage and La Mendola as dramatic clothing in bright colors with a focus on cocktail and evening dresses, providing those in the jet set with amazing ensembles. One story said the bold prints they designed rivaled those of Emilio Pucci and Bessi in the 1960s and 1970s. Their designs featured peacock feathers, giant palm leaves and wildly stylized florals.
Now some of those designs — ones that Savage kept in his personal collection — are creating a buzz among vintage fashion enthusiasts as they are being offered for sale in an online auction that ends Sunday.
“We’ve had brisk activity so far … with several hundred buyers” wanting to purchase items from Savage’s collection, said Talisa Harshman, co-owner of Turn Key Liquidators of Sarver, the Butler County-based firm conducting the sale.
“We’ve had people from all over the United States and Canada (interested). We’ve had quite a few people from Los Angeles,” Harshman said.
One vintage clothing store owner in San Francisco, Jason Galloway of Via Margutta Vintage, said the versatility of La Mendola pieces often attracts fashion enthusiasts. He has sold three La Mendola pieces from his shop, and when he displayed one of them in the store window during a festival, he received a flurry of questions about the piece from passersby.
“There’s a timeless elegance to their pieces,” Galloway said, noting the label’s popularity with celebrities of the era. “They are just very collectible, and they should have been as big as Pucci and some other designers of the time. I love the bright things; the bright things are very fun.”
In addition to clothing and jewelry, the auction features paintings, lamps and family albums containing photos of Herminie and Savage’s family and friends from 1917 into the 1970s.
Pittsburgh-based personal stylist Suzanne Mauro said there are an array of pieces in the sale that interest her. She loves the bright colors of the pieces in the collection and plans to bid on a few. She is intrigued by a photo of actress Natalie Wood trying on an outfit, and there is a scarf that has piqued her interest.
Mauro said high-end items such as the ones in Savage’s sale are sought after by those interested in fashion. A vintage grouping such as this one is about nostalgia, she added.
“As a stylist, I always look for the best pieces,” she said. “And the prices are reasonable. I love to say, ‘Look what I scored’ to my fashion friends who share my love of style.”
Savage died of cancer at 47 in 1978, and the items are being sold by his descendants in the Greensburg area, Harshman said. Savage had given the items to his sister, Dorothy Hrtyanski of Hempfield, who died in 2014. Her husband, William Hrtyanski of Hempfield, died in August.
Savage’s surviving relatives declined to comment on the sale.
After graduating from the former Sewickley Township High School and from the University of Pittsburgh, Savage served in the U.S. Air Force for four years and studied at the former Pittsburgh Playhouse in Oakland for two years. He played some bit parts in movies but was said to have become disenchanted with the film industry and moved to Italy in 1960.
Archived stories do not detail where Savage studied fashion design, but in his partnership with La Mendola, their creations were so popular that they were sold at stores at Bergdorf Goodman in New York, in Pittsburgh’s Shadyside neighborhood, the Hess Brothers chain based in Allentown and stores in Philadelphia, Chicago and Palm Beach, Fla.
The partners were so successful they resided in a 16th-century villa in Rome and had a villa in Tuscany, according to Savage’s obituary published in the May 20, 1978, edition of the Tribune-Review.
He kept in close contact with his family and friends, visiting them when he and La Mendola made annual trips to the U.S. to promote their fashion, according to the obituary.
Savage remembered his roots. He provided a garment for an annual auction to benefit the Southwestern Pennsylvania Heart Association, which was held at the former Ben Gross Restaurant in North Huntingdon. A few months before his death, he donated a scarf that was sold at a benefit for Westmoreland County mental health services.
Joe Napsha is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at email@example.com or via Twitter .
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