As a little boy in East Boston, fashion designer Alfred Fiandaca was known to linger in bed, sewing costumes for his puppets. At 9, he was cutting patterns alongside his father, a tailor at the Harvard Coop. And by the time he was 21, he had his own salon in East Boston, catering to Boston’s women of means.
His classic, understated women’s garments, from business suits to evening gowns, were worn by Audrey Hepburn, Julie Andrews, Joan Kennedy, Nancy Reagan, and Ann Romney, among other prominent figures and socialites.
Mr. Fiandaca died Feb. 9 after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage in his Palm Beach, Fla., home. He was 72 and maintained a couture house in Palm Beach as well as in New York.
For more than 40 years, he had a studio on Newbury Street in Boston, which relocated to Albany Street in 2009.
“He was the foremost Boston fashion designer,” said Sondra Grace, chairwoman of the fashion design department of the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. “There were some seconds, but he was number one.”
According to Mr. Fiandaca’s daughter, Michelle, his accomplishments were all the more noteworthy because he was dyslexic. She remembers watching him design garments by sketching while looking into a mirror.
If there could be a genetic disposition to tailoring, Mr. Fiandaca almost certainly was endowed with it. He descended from a line of men’s tailors on his father’s side reaching back to his great-grandfather in Italy. His mother was a second-generation seamstress who made women’s clothing. It was Mr. Fiandaca’s paternal grandfather, though, who steered him toward women’s wear.
“He said that’s where the money was,” said Michelle, who lives in Winthrop. “That’s how the dresses evolved.”
Mr. Fiandaca studied fashion design in New York and at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, which had a retrospective of his work in 2000. The show included the first dress he ever made, a flowered print chemise, according to Grace, the curator.
“He was known for color, especially in the early days,” Grace said. “He loved that pop of pink. They were fanciful dresses that were flirtatious. Women looked like they were having a lot of fun.”
Mr. Fiandaca “always made you feel pretty and young and pampered,” said his former wife, Theadora Sabia Fiandaca of Winthrop.
She and Mr. Fiandaca grew up on the same street in East Boston and remained friends after their divorce in 1972.
“He had a real appreciation of femininity, in a classic timeless way,” she said. “Someone 20 or 70 could wear them and they would look appropriate. A lot of women from Palm Beach society wear his dresses from 20 to 30 years ago.”
His fashion design career had humble beginnings when he opened a tiny salon on Maverick Street in East Boston, two doors from his family home.
“It was just a small reception room and a dressing room with a curtain,” said his longtime friend Doris Yaffe of Boston, who worked for him.
It was there that the city’s Brahmin community discovered him, said Yaffe, recalling that one woman, “a big, big name,” pulled up regularly in a chauffeur-driven limousine. When Mr. Fiandaca moved his shop to Newbury Street, it became a regular destination for society ladies after lunching at the Ritz-Carlton.
“That was their playground,” Yaffe said. “They’d walk halfway down the block, and say, ‘We’re going to Fiandaca.’ ”
Not one to salute the latest trends, he nevertheless dazzled New York City one season in the mid-1970s when Bergdorf Goodman filled every store window with his garments, Yaffe said.
“He was a fashion genius,” Michelle said. “He was not a businessman. He was not one to promote his label like these so-called couture designers nowadays. He was truly a haute couture designer who made clothes exclusively for society women, never for mass production. It was always for the love of the art.”
Though away from the spotlight in recent years, his profile ascended again last year during campaign season when Ann Romney wore his creations to a presidential debate and on TV talk shows.
According to Mr. Fiandaca’s longtime business partner Caroline Collings, he vowed never to retire. He was fond of saying he’d never worked more than two weeks in his life.
“That’s because the rest of it was all enjoyment,” said a friend, Judith Nee.
Handsome, silver-haired, fit, with a generous toothy smile, “he was ageless, playful, joyful,” his former wife said. “He was guileless. He did not have a nasty bone in his body, which is unusual in the fashion business. It doesn’t make you necessarily a good businessman, but it makes you somebody everybody loves.”
Five months ago, Mr. Fiandaca married his longtime companion, Carl Bartels, a florist, in Boston.
A memorial service will be announced for Mr. Fiandaca, who in addition to Bartels and his daughter leaves a son, Alfred of Aspen, Colo.; a brother, Fred; and two grandchildren.
Mr. Fiandaca remained passionate about designing until his death. Though he did not publicly disclose it, he suffered a ministroke three years ago that left him blind in one eye, Michelle said.
“He never wanted anyone to know,” she said. “He wouldn’t allow himself to be upset about it.”