The History of Chez Ninon, the New York Couture Copycat

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Decades before Dapper Dan and his boundary-breaking counterfeits took over the streets of New York City, a quieter form of luxury lookalikes trickled through the upper echelons of fashion’s elite. Chez Ninon, a high-end boutique nestled in Midtown Manhattan, supplied a socialite-studded client list with exact copies of French and Italian couture designs. Every custom look was Europe-designed, American-made, and 100 percent legal.

Chez Ninon first opened its doors on Madison Avenue in 1928, with top-tier fashion lovers Nona McAdoo Park and Sophie Meldrim Shonnard at the helm. In lieu of original designs, Chez Ninon paved the way for an up-and-coming sector of the American fashion industry: line-for-line couture copies. Park and Shonnard attended every couture show each season, from Schiaparelli to Chanel, selected their favorite looks, and paid for the rights to produce those designs under license. Upon their return, the seamstresses of Chez Ninon began crafting line-by-line lookalikes with the same fabrics, trims, and buttons as the original designs—often supplied by the original house. When the couture collection was ready, it was shown to clients at an invitation-only opening in the store, at which fashion photographer Bill Cunningham fondly worked at for a time. Within weeks, shoppers could hold their very own couture garments, tailored to their exact measurements.

Chez Ninon’s client base grew quickly, steadily, and increasingly elite. Socialites, celebrities, and politicians flocked to the salon, infatuated with European couture but lacking the extensive resources needed to order it overseas. While line-for-line copies from Chez Ninon included all the client specifications and custom fittings of authentic couture, intricate machine detailing was substituted for handwork, discounting the price up to 70 percent.

By 1960 the Chez Ninon salon moved into the elite shopping district of Park Avenue, and secured its most prominent client yet: Jacqueline Kennedy. Chez Ninon quickly became the first lady’s source for American-made copies of French designs, after the media began bashing her high-priced international shopping trips. She publicly frequented the boutique not just to save money, but to boost her patriotic image for favoring American alternatives. Even the infamous Chanel suit Kennedy was wearing upon her husband’s assassination, splattered with blood and mirrored in countless works of film since the fateful 1963 afternoon, was in fact a line-for-line copy from Chez Ninon. The original suit debuted in Chanel’s Fall/Winter 1960 collection and cost upwards of ,000, while Kennedy’s American duplicate likely cost less than ,000.

Elizabeth Corbett, a former model for Chez Ninon, took over the store in 1970 and moved it into the luxury residential building Ritz Towers. Corbett upheld the rituals that Park and Shonnard put into place: frequenting fashion Week, purchasing the design licenses, fabrics, and trimmings of her favorites, then replicating them to the desires of New York City socialites.

After more than seventy years of Upper East Side stardom, Chez Ninon shuttered in 1996 upon Corbett’s retirement. With mobile phones and the World Wide Web increasingly connecting the world, purchasing authentic couture was less of a hurdle for those who could afford it. However, the high-profile community and meticulous methods of Chez Ninon would never quite be duplicated. While Schiaparelli lookalikes and American-stitched Chanel can still be found with a few clicks, the empire of Chez Ninon lives on fondly through the memories of the New York fashion industry, and those who frequented the legendary salon.

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