Renee Firestone: From Auschwitz to LACMA


Former fashion designer Renee Firestone will never forget how devastated she was when she walked into her Washington Boulevard shop one morning in 1961, just three days before her first fashion show in Los Angeles.

The night before, she recalled, “We had just finished the line. I remember we brought drinks … and everybody was rejoicing.”

But when Firestone and her husband, Bernard, arrived at their shop that morning, there was glass all over the floor — the entire autumn collection had been stolen.

“Our hearts stopped,” Firestone said. “We thought: This is it. We’re finished. We don’t have the money for more fabric.”

After pleading with her fabric man, he agreed to give her the sample cuts, “so at least I’d have something,” she said.

Her husband hurried downtown to pick up the samples. At one point, while stopped behind a bus, he saw a woman get off the bus wearing one of the stolen outfits.

“Bernard followed the woman to a private residence. … And there, inside the house, hung the fashion line,” Firestone said. 

Her husband called the police, and the entire line was returned to Firestone in time for the show. 

“I’m telling you — some of the things that happened to me, I don’t believe myself,” she said.

***

Firestone’s life has indeed included a number of remarkable episodes. Along with her brother, Frank, she survived the death camps of the Holocaust (her mother and sister were killed at Auschwitz, and her father succumbed to disease at the end of the war). 

After the war, Firestone came to the United States and built a successful career in fashion design that spanned three decades, only to suddenly turn her design company into a contracting and consulting business in the early ’80s so she could devote herself to speaking publicly about the Holocaust, locally and around the world. She was one of five Holocaust survivors to appear in Steven Spielberg’s 1998 documentary, “The Last Days.” Despite having consisted of just a few years of her life, Firestone’s Holocaust story became the dominant narrative of her later years, eclipsing her renown in the fashion industry.

Until recently.

In 2012, her work was featured in “California’s Designing Women 1896-1986,” a Museum of California Design exhibition at the Autry Center. And, earlier this year, a number of her textiles were donated to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). Last month, seven of her garments were accepted into the museum’s permanent collection of costumes and textiles.

The donors to LACMA are Damon Lawrence, the son of Firestone’s best friend, Rita Lawrence (who died in 1999), and his wife, Marian; they also commissioned an oral history of Firestone’s life, which they’re donating to UCLA. In addition to preserving her work, “We wanted to have a record that would provide contextual understanding to accompany our donation to LACMA,” Lawrence said.

WATCH: Renee Firestone is interviewed and shows some ensembles from her new clothing line on a local Los Angeles television program, “Fashion for Living” in 1961.