This year’s annual “Fall into Adventure” fundraiser for the Woman’s Club of Redondo Beach at the Salvation Army building in King Harbor on Oct. 26 wasn’t an ordinary fashion show, even when models wearing outfits from CJ Fashions in Torrance walked the catwalk in colorful silken vests, Christmassy shrugs and slinky dresses.
For one, it featured appearances by “Sally Ride” and “Mountain Charlie.” (More on that later.) For another, CJ Fashions owner Cynthia Cohen has her own brand of over-the-top commentating.
Per Cohen, all the clothes were “fabulous” and “wonderful” and “just adorable”; and all the models—who came in all shapes, sizes and ages—were equally “fabulous” and “wonderful” and “just adorable.”
Most present, including Woman’s Club president Pat Dreizler, agreed that the pint-sized Cohen stole the show.
“She’s so energetic and upbeat,” Dreizler said, "a veritable love-fest when it comes to women and fashion."
Not only were several women in the audience wearing CJ’s outfits (one even hopped up in the midst of things to show off her black-and-white jacket), another attendee, who was helping the boutique owner after the show, labeled Cohen as “Redondo's best kept secret.”
In truth, Cohen lives in Torrance, her store located in a strip mall on Sepulveda Boulevard. (She used to have an additional CJ's next door to Bristol Farms in El Segundo but had to relinquish it when the rent skyrocketed, she said.)
The 5-foot-1-inch (if that) dynamo has been a staple at women’s club fashion shows all over the South Bay (not to mention all over Los Angeles), almost since she began in the business 35 years ago, she said.
The exclamation-point delivery, part of her charm, attends everything from her personal way with customers to her cloak-and-dagger buying habits.
“I don’t use any buying services,” she stressed numerous times during Friday's event. “Everything you see, I bought it.”
Before getting to how she manages to offer high-end clothes at bargain basement prices, you might get a better idea of the Cohen flavor by asking her what the "J” in CJ’s stands for.
“That’s a long story,” she said over the weekend, a statement that, like her accolades, is oft repeated.
“I had a partner, and we are the best of friends to this day. But in every partnership there’s a rich one, a poor one, a dumb one and a smart one. She’s the rich, smart one and I’m the dumb, poor one.”
Consequently, Cohen said, her rich, smart partner was able to retire, “and I’m still in business.”
A belly laugh worthy of someone three times her size followed the zinger. But Cohen expresses the same candor when talking about her diminutive stature. “I’m short and fat! I’m not going to lie!”
That same candor has allowed Cohen to make a distinctive mark on the L.A. Fashion Mart, where she goes “every Tuesday, probably 48 out of 52 weeks a year,” she said.
“I go to all the fashion shows. I sit in the same room with buyers from Nordstrom’s, Saks, Neiman’s (and) a few high, high-end stores in Beverly Hills. And they all think I have this huge store!”
For one thing, she said, buyers are always seeking her reaction to certain styles. Why? “I’m opinionated! … I’m honest!”
Unlike buyers from the above-mentioned stores, Cohen doesn’t buy at the Fashion Mart. “I take all these notes, do all my homework, then I go to the factories and say, ‘When are you shipping (such and such) to Nordstrom’s?’”
They tell her, she said, and then save whatever they have left of the styles she has selected. Thus, Cohen can offer a jacket for $30 that a high-end store sells for triple that amount.
Born in Notre Dame, Indiana, Cohen came to the South Bay 50 years ago. With scant college (“We had four kids in six years”), she began by selling a local company’s excess pants and blouses, learning the ins and outs of retail as she worked her way up.
Despite how she tends to ridicule her intelligence, Cohen is an example of hard work paying off in more ways than one. A caregiver to her husband, Marvin, who suffers from MS, she spends every morning caring for him—this after raising four children, three daughters and one son.
“My one claim to fame is that I sent them all to university,” she said, beaming.
She’s also dead-set against offshoring. Prefacing the next story by saying she hasn’t had an argument with more than two or three customers in all her years of business, she will never forget telling off one customer.
“She came in bragging that her clothes were made overseas and she could buy them cheaper than mine.” Cohen, rising to her full height, looked the woman in the eye and read her the riot act. “Don’t you know, as Americans, if we take everything and off-shore it, we’re not going to have a damn thing left here?”
The woman walked out. To which Cohen remembers thinking, “I ate before I met her, and I’ll eat after.”
One Remarkable Fashion Show
So why were Sacagawea, Sally Ride, Jane Goodall and Mountain Charlie at the Woman’s Club fashion show?
They were their to have their stories told, which is exactly what fashion show chairwoman Gina Radocchio did.
As some 90 South Bay women listened to the histories of these “adventurous” legends, models paraded about in appropriate attire: Andrea Gargaro as Sacagawea, the Shoshone interpreter who assisted Lewis and Clark; Janice Petrosino as Sally Ride, the first female astronaut; Kate Griffin as Jane Goodall, the British anthropologist and chimpanzee authority; and Sheila Kutkus as Charley Parkhurst, one of the greatest stage coach drivers of the Old West—who just happened to be a woman.
Don’t forget Vicki Callahan as the Wicked Witch of the North, who rode in on her broom at the conclusion of the event.
The adventurous women offered periodic breaks between CJ’s models, their antics including Mountain Charlie (Sheila Kutkus) lashing a whip and wearing a floppy stuffed horse as part of her Western costume and Jane Goodall (Kate Griffin) bottle-feeding a stuffed chimpanzee.
But as Radocchio noted, the stories of these historic women, all firsts in their fields, was worth recounting.
Sacagawea, for example, traveled thousands of miles from North Dakota to the South Bay between 1804 and 1806 to assist Meriwether Lewis and William Clark in their exploration of the Western United States. Married to a Frenchman known as Charbonneau, also a guide, the Shoshone woman became pregnant during the journey, yet continued to interpret and guide the expedition.
Meriwether Lewis recorded the birth of Jean Baptiste Charbonneau on Feb. 11, 1805, noting that “crushed rattlesnake rattles” were used to hasten the delivery.
British anthropologist Jane Goodall’s love of animals began as a child when her father gave her a lifelike chimpanzee named Jubilee. But it was a meeting with famed archeologist Louis Leakey that resulted in Goodall’s study of the Kasakela chimpanzee community in Tanzania in 1960.
Goodall found that, “it isn’t only human beings who have personality, who are capable of rational thought [and] emotions like joy and sorrow.” Gestures, including hugs, kisses and pats on the back are evidence of "the close, supportive, affectionate bonds that develop between family members and other individuals within a community."
Physicist Sally Kristen Ride broke the U.S. gender barrier in the space race when she joined her all male astronaut crew in the space shuttle Challenger in 1983. (Two Russian women preceded her.) She got the job by answering an ad in the paper, one of only 35 chosen out of more than 8,300 applicants.
Once selected as an astronaut, Ride was deluged with chauvinistic questions from reporters, such as: "Will the flight affect your reproductive organs?" and "Do you weep when things go wrong on the job?" Ride insisted that she saw herself in only one way—as an astronaut.
Perhaps the most interesting history was the lesser-known story about Charlie Parkhurst. Known as Mountain Charlie, One Eyed Charley or Six-Horse Charley, Parkhurst was born Mary Parkhurst in 1812 in New Hampshire. After growing up in an orphanage, she masqueraded as a man most of her life, moving to California around 1849 and going to work for the California Stage Company.
Although she lost one eye after being kicked by a horse, it didn’t stop her from becoming one of the finest stagecoach drivers in the West. Parkhurst died in 1879. Not until she was laid out for burial was she found to be a woman.
Proceeds from the event went to various projects sponsored by Woman’s Club of Redondo Beach. For more information on how to donate to the organization, call Dreizler at 310-540-8585.
Cynthia Cohen of CJ’s Discount Fashions may be reached at 310-530-8701. The store is located at 2822 Sepulveda Blvd. in Torrance.