There’s something about the way Mary Jane Denzer carries herself – the glide in the step, the head held just so, the face and hair impeccable. In conversation, the words chosen rather than just spoken.
A true sophisticate.
Mary Jane is the hands-on owner of the exquisite fashion store in downtown White Plains that carries her name.
How did she arrive at this station in life?
Boarding school? Check.
Fashion model? Check.
Working at Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf Goodman? Check.
Dealing with high-end clientele while running an executive showroom for Diners Club in Manhattan? Check.
Being the lucky recipient of genes mingled from a Southern belle and a college professor? Check.
Mary Jane’s mom was an identical twin who grew up in Moultrie, Ga., a small town dripping with Southern charm and the fragrance of magnolias.
“They were the femme fatales of the South in their day,” Mary Jane says. “They were both adorable and beautiful.”
Dad, on the other hand, “was a serious scientist, not at all like her.”
The Southern charmer and the no-nonsense chemical engineer met by chance in Atlantic City.
“Dad was a teaching professor at Columbia. He was so brilliant, an amazing and smart man. My mother was fun and never had education on her mind. It was more, ‘Let’s have a party.’ And my father was a teetotaler. Very serious about life. So it was quite a combination. They were so opposite. So I guess I kind of became a little bit of both of them. Because I always love to have fun, but I also have a very serious side.”
But that serious side was not apparent when Mary Jane was 14 years old and her father wanted to lock her in her room to keep her out of trouble. Her sentence was four years at Abbot Academy in Massachusetts, an all-girls school that would later merge with Phillips Andover Academy. The school helped mold her, she says. It was then onto Wheaton College in Norton, Mass. But two years in, Mary Jane was begging her parents to let her return to “civilization,” as in the family home in Woodmere, L.I.. She was accepted at Columbia University where her father was teaching. Six months later, though, he died and Mary Jane quit school and went to work as a model for Saks Fifth Avenue. That’s how she started her career.
“I had always said to my dad, ‘Let me go to a fashion school. I want to be in the retail business.’ I love clothes and I love everything to do with fashion. And he said, ‘Get your liberal arts degree. And then if you want to work, fine, but I’m sure you won’t. You go get married and have a family. And that’s it for you.’”
She did get married and had three children, leaving retail behind, but she needed to keep busy. So she started chairing every organization she could, including working for Thirteen-WNET. Divorce came and then she remarried shortly after and had a fourth child. When her daughter turned 3, it was back to retail at Saks in White Plains. Then it was on to Bergdorf Goodman. While there, a customer approached her one day and asked if she would be willing to set up and run a woman’s fashion shop.
“‘I’ll give you 50 percent of the business,’” Mary Jane said the woman told her. “And I said ‘OK, for 51 percent I’ll do it.’”
But after a year it just wasn’t working out so Mary Jane opened her own store on East Post Road in 1980. It was 2,000 square feet of hard work and problems. But through it all she endured.
Ever think of giving up? “Are you crazy? It was just so far removed from my life not to have it. It was like my best friend. It was so important to me to have my business.”
The store was on East Post Road for 15 years. Her husband, who was in the metal fabricating business, said he was going to retire and suggested, “Why don’t we retire?”
Mary Jane told him, “You can retire, I’m not going to. As a matter of fact, I think I’m going to open another store and you can manage it for me.”
And so he did for her next store in Westport in 1985. That freed her up to do buying in Paris and Milan. Ultimately, she decided to concentrate on the White Plains store and closed the one in Westport.
Wanting to create a new and larger space, Mary Jane began doing research.
“I went to Rodeo Drive. I went all over Paris. I went all over London. I went all over Milan. And I found the store of my dreams on Rodeo Drive. It was Christian Dior.”
She found out the architect was Stephen G. Lochte of Brand + Allen Architects of San Francisco, which also happened to have a New York City office.
In 1996, Mary Jane Denzer opened its doors at Mamaroneck and Maple avenues.
“I’ve been in business going on 33 years. I’ve probably been in this business longer than anybody. I have. I never thought I would say that, but it’s true.”
As far as who’s hot in fashion today, Mary Jane’s choices are Erdem, Roland Mouret and Giambattista Valli.
“Of course, I always love Valentino and Oscar de la Renta.”
Her other love is Bodhi, a true lap dog, living up to his heritage as a Papillon, a breed that is depicted in paintings by European artists as either sitting with or being coddled by its owners. This day is Bodhi’s ninth birthday, but it doesn’t prohibit him from remaining the official greeter of the store with a huge bark that belies his wisp of a body.
Mary Jane welcomes the bark. It means another client is at the door.