It’s a long journey from Herminia in Sewickley County to the top of the Spanish Steps at 15 Piazza Trinita del Monti in Rome.
About 4,544 miles, to be exact.
Although the late John W. “Jack” Savage may have grown up in a business town where some women wore dressing gowns and babushkas, he rose to the top of the fashion world in the 1960s, designing and selling silk jersey and chiffon creations to the wealthy. and famous in Italy from La Mendola, the fashion label and boutique he created with his partner, Michael La Mendola, also from Pennsylvania.
The clientele of the company they founded in 1961 included famous 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 the woman who became notorious for to her shoe collection, the first lady of the Philippines, Imelda Marcos.
News of the Day described Savage and La Mendola’s work as dramatic clothing in bright colors with a focus on cocktail and evening gowns, providing the jet set with fabulous combinations. One story says that the bold prints they designed rivaled those of Emilio Pucci and Bessa in the 1960s and 1970s. Their designs featured peacock feathers, giant palm leaves and wild stylized flowers.
Now some of those designs — ones that Savage kept in his personal collection — are causing a buzz among vintage fashion fans as they are being offered for sale in an online auction that ends Sunday.
“So far we’ve had a flurry of activity … with several hundred buyers” looking to buy items from Savage’s collection, said Talisa Harshman, co-owner of Turn Key Liquidators of Sarver, the Butler County-based company handling the sale.
“We had people (interested) from all over the United States and Canada. We had a lot of people from Los Angeles,” Harshman said.
One San Francisco vintage clothing store owner, Jason Galloway of Via Margutta Vintage, said the versatility of La Mendola pieces often attracts fashion enthusiasts. He sold three pieces of La Mendola from his shop, and when he displayed one of them in the window during the festival, he received a lot of questions about the piece from passers-by.
“There’s a timeless elegance to their pieces,” said Galloway, noting the label’s popularity with celebrities of the era. “They are simply very collectible, and they should have been as big as Pucci and some other designers of the time. I like bright things; bright things are very fun.”
As well as clothing and jewellery, the auction includes paintings, lamps and family albums containing photographs of Herminie and Savage’s family and friends from 1917 to the 1970s.
Pittsburgh personal stylist Suzanne Mauro said there are a number of pieces on sale that interest her. He likes the bright colors of the pieces in the collection and plans to bid on several of them. She was intrigued by a photo of actress Natalie Wood trying on an outfit, and there was also a scarf that caught her interest.
Mauro said high-end items like those in Savage’s sale are sought after by those interested in fashion. An old group like this speaks of nostalgia, she added.
“As a stylist, I’m always looking for the best pieces,” she said. “And the prices are reasonable. I love saying ‘Look what I’ve accomplished’ to my fashion friends who share my love of style.”
Savage died of cancer at age 47 in 1978, and the items are being sold by his descendants in the Greensburg area, Harshman said. Savage gave 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 the University of Pittsburgh, Savage served four years in the US Air Force and studied for two years at the former Pittsburgh Playhouse in Oakland. He played some small roles in films, but was rumored to have become disillusioned 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 Bergdorf Goodman stores in New York, 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 that they lived in a 16th-century villa in Rome and had a villa in Tuscany, according to Savage’s obituary published in the May 20, 1978, issue of the Tribune-Review.
He was in close contact with his family and friends, visiting when he and La Mendola made annual trips to the US to promote their fashion, the obituary said.
Savage remembered his roots. He secured the garment for the annual Southwestern Pennsylvania Heart Association auction 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 charity event for Westmoreland County Mental Health Services.
Joe Napsha is a staff writer for the Tribune-Review. Joe can be reached by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .