Beate Hemmann, 92, a self-taught clothing designer and German immigrant who rose to success in the renowned Philadelphia fashion house of Albert Nipon, died from complications of Alzheimer’s disease Monday, May 3, at her daughter’s home in Center City.
Ms. Hemmann designed distinctive one-piece maternity dresses for Nipon’s highly popular Ma Mêre line. Her creations were worn by many women, including Jacqueline Kennedy, and her design success extended beyond maternity fashion.
“She did well for herself here,” her daughter, Andrea Hemmann, said. “She was completely independent, and she had to be from a teenager on.”
Ms. Hemmann was the younger of two children born to George Hemmann, a veterinarian, and Hilde Hemmann in East Germany. Her father died when she was 7.
World War II started a few years later, when Ms. Hemmann was 10. Her family survived, but provisions were scarce, so she began making clothing.
“During the war, they didn’t have much,” her daughter said. “She raised Angora rabbits. She would bring their fur to be spun into yarn, and she would knit. Or she would make dresses out of curtains or whatever she could get her hands on.”
After the war, Ms. Hemmann fled eastern Germany on foot, only to be detained by the Soviets and ordered to go home and not try it again.
By her late teens, she made it out of East Germany, working in Munich and Frankfurt in West Germany and for a while in Sweden. “She designed clothing,” her daughter said. “It was always dresses.”
Ms. Hemmann later learned a friend had married and moved to Philadelphia. She decided to move, too, bought a ticket for a boat leaving Rotterdam in 1957 and arrived in Philadelphia a short time later. She was 27.
Soon after she befriended another designer from Europe, Rosina Feldman, who recommended that Ms. Hemmann work alongside her, creating maternity clothes at Ma Mêre.
“They became very successful,” her daughter said.
Ms. Hemmann later started a relationship with architect Frank Weise. The couple’s daughter was born in 1960, but they did not marry. Weise died in 2003.
“She raised me alone,” her daughter said. “It was 1960, she was new to this country, having a kid on her own. I think she was very brave.”
In the 1970s, when the demand for maternity clothing waned, Saks Fifth Avenue approached Albert Nipon about designing a line of woman’s dresses. Ms. Hemmann was given that task, her daughter said.
“My mother designed a line of 10 dresses, and it took off,” she said. “It became really successful.”
Albert Nipon was an internationally known fashion house for decades until a federal indictment for tax evasion and bribery got in the way, resulting in a prison term for the fashion leader and a bankruptcy filing.
Ms. Hemmann continued her successful design career both with Mothers Work and Jones New York.
“All our friends loved her,” her daughter said. “We would always invite my mother if we had company over.”
When Ms. Hemmann lived in Mount Airy, she loved gardening. In retirement, she knitted beautiful sweaters and sewed clothes by hand. She also visited East Germany, and became a U.S. citizen. In her later years, she volunteered with MANNA, the Metropolitan Area Neighborhood Nutrition Alliance. She lived with her daughter and son-in-law during the final years of her life.
Designing and fashion were at times a means of survival for Ms. Hemmann, but her daughter believes it was a labor of love, as well.
“I think it was in her blood,” she said.
In addition to her daughter, Ms. Hemmann is survived by two grandchildren and other relatives. Her brother died earlier.
A funeral will be at a later date.
Donations in her memory may be made to MANNA, 420 N. 20th St., Philadelphia, Pa. 19130.