The Studio Turns a Personal Challenge Into Cause Celebre

by Susie Davidson —The Brookline TAB
August 30, 2001

Sandy Gradman is a survivor. Then again, so is her store.

For 22 years, in this era of abandoned storefronts and mergers by the moment, Brookline’s The Studio has graced its 9,600-strong clientele with more than high-end, comfortable apparel.

Unusually housed in a windowless, second-floor office building locale, Brookline natives Gradman, identical twin Ilene Epstein and best friend Marcie Brawer have long catered to the social, emotional and community needs of the women who have chosen to shop there. At the Studio, gab truly goes with the garb—but always in the context of support and camaraderie. Here, women of all shapes and stages of life are greeted and guided toward flattering, practical and high-quality wear.

In 1979, the three, lacking retail skill and venture capital (each put in $500), but with a great interest in providing, “real women” with “real clothes,” launched the unlikely endeavor. Brawer, a graphic artist, Epstein, a mother of three, and Gradman, a medical school administrator, soon saw their client base, mainly in the 30-55 age range, grow far beyond expectation. Pouring their personalities and acumen into their enterprise, they began producing an eclectically informative newsletter as well a displaying the literary works of their customers.

As the store thrice expanded, they branched out into sponsorship of fundraisers and local events, which have included a film and speaking presentation on the politics of fashion as well as a fashion show featuring models ages 25-60, which netted $10,000 for women’s shelter Rosie’s Place.

Prices? They’re high, but not atypical for the genre. Loyal patrons include doctors, lawyers, academics, CEOs, TV personalities and judges, who feel that the warm, personal attention, as well as the efficient and sage advice, are invaluable.

Recently, Gradman faced a hurdle far more formidable. Diagnosed with a gynecological cancer, she decided to transform the experience into something beneficial. Upon completion of treatment at Dana-Farber, she instinctively knew what she had to do to ease her customers’ reaction as well as give back to the community.

“I had seen ‘The No Hair Day’ documentary,” Gradman recalls, “which featured Elsa Dorfman’s photographs of women cancer survivors, and I had read the Boston Magazine supplement on breast cancer.

“I knew I had to go back to work, and I just thought, ‘why not take a picture without my wig for our summer sale?'” The card went out, with Gradman’s gray buzz cut. The partners decided to donate 10 percent of the sale’s proceeds to the Women’s Cancer Program Survivors’ Clinic, which will open this fall at Dana-Farber.

To Gradman, it was par for the course. “So many women were so inspiring to me when I was diagnosed; I thought that this would be an opportunity to give back.” The Studio will continue to enclose donation suggestions with their newsletters. Gradman, who says that notes and checks come in regularly, expects a large and ongoing response.

“The clinic will focus on the psycho-social effects of living with cancer, which wcould be very helpful in developing future treatment.” When she made her decision, her thoughts, as always, were with her shoppers. “The nature of what we do is so public, and we see so many women. If I hadn’t done this, I would have been in the position of having to tell the story over and over again.

“People are uncomfortable with this. Some wouldn’t have asked any questions, but might be looking at me and thinking ‘cancer victim.'” True to form, they came in, their esteem for their clothier only enhanced.

“People were completely, emotionally uplifted. A lot of people said they cried. There isn’t anybody who’s untouched by this.” Elsa Dorfman called, moved beyond measure that her film had inspired this effort. Oprah Winfrey took notice; the story will appear in an upcoming issue of O Magazine. But to Gradman, it’s the women in her life that matter most.

“It has turned into a very life-affirming and positive thing for everybody.”