Sirvart “Silva” Kaloustian, a Paris-trained fashion designer who bedazzled her Main Line clientele with custom-made creations, lived on her own terms. And that’s exactly how she died on Christmas Eve — at age 89 of pneumonia — breathing on her own, unaided by a ventilator at her insistence, with a harpist performing in her room at Bryn Mawr Hospital.
By her side were her three children, five grandchildren, and one of her two great-grandchildren.
“It was heavenly,” her 60-year-old daughter Maral said Wednesday. “With the harp music playing so beautifully, it felt like the angels came and took her away.”
Mrs. Kaloustian, of Wayne, was indefatigable. Until last week, when she became ill, she got up at 5 a.m. each day to walk four or five miles before heading to her Main Line gym to lift weights and then to her clothing design shop, Couture Silva, on County Line Road in Bryn Mawr. She drove herself.
Mrs. Kaloustian was born in 1930 in Aleppo, Syria, where her parents had settled after being forced to leave their village in Armenia during the genocide of 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Empire.
As a child, she made clothes for her dolls from fabric scraps, and her mother recognized her talent and urged her to nurture it. As a young teen, she traveled alone to Paris to study fashion design.
In Syria, her family lived among Armenians displaced from their village, Malatya. She met her future husband, Krikor Kaloustian, at a community picnic in 1947 when she was 16. “My father saw my mother and he knew right away,” Maral Kaloustian said.
She married at 19 and moved to Beirut, Lebanon, where her new husband had opened a leather shop. Mrs. Kaloustian supplemented the family’s income by making dresses for friends.
When her husband died of pancreatic cancer in 1967, Mrs. Kaloustian was 37 with three children, ages 7, 14, and 17. Her then-17-year-old son, Vatche, wanted to attend college in the United States. “My mother said, ‘OK, we’ll all go together,’” her daughter said. Mrs. Kaloustian had made a dress for the wife of the U.S. ambassador to Lebanon, and that woman helped guide the family through the immigration process.
The family arrived in the Philadelphia area in May 1970, and Mrs. Kaloustian took a job with a tailor in Ardmore. She saved enough money to buy a home in Drexel Hill. She learned English by watching soap operas on TV while doing alterations from home. She spoke four other languages: Armenian, Arabic, Turkish, and French.
She opened her own design shop in Bryn Mawr in 1972. She catered to Main Line businesswomen, socialites, and entertainers, including an opera singer, although she was careful not to disclose her client list.
“Many accomplished women would wear her clothing,” said longtime friend Karen Barton, 76, of Bryn Mawr. “I didn’t push her for names, even though I was always curious. She was discreet.”
She displayed a photograph in her shop of one of her clients, a local lawyer, posing with President Bill Clinton. She’s wearing an outfit Mrs. Kaloustian had made for her to meet the president, Barton said.
Mrs. Kaloustian ordered fine fabrics such as silk and lace from France that cost up to $1,000 a yard. She made one-of-a-kind ball gowns and wedding dresses, creating her own patterns. She loved seeing photos of her clients wearing her creations in the society pages of The Inquirer, according to Barton, who befriended Mrs. Kaloustian nearly 40 years ago at the Main Line Nautilus in Haverford, where both were members.
Upon visiting her shop, Barton said, she would often find Mrs. Kaloustian blaring Armenian music from the iPhone that her daughter had bought her. When home, she whizzed around the kitchen, whipping up Armenian dishes such Kadaif, a sweet dessert stuffed with cheese.
Mrs. Kaloustian visited Armenia for the first time in 2002. She longed to return and shortly after Maral retired as a vice president at Bryn Mawr Trust, they traveled there in September.
Mrs. Kaloustian was active in St. Gregory’s Armenian Apostolic Church in Roxborough, where she sang in the choir every Sunday.
In addition to daughter Maral and son Vatche, she is survived by another daughter, Roubina Yeremian; five grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.
Services are tentatively planned for Dec. 30 at St. Gregory’s.