Claire Dratch, a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany whose eponymous boutique in suburban Maryland has gowned Washington society for seven decades, died Sept. 20 at her home in Chevy Chase, Md. She was 96.
The cause was congestive heart failure, said her son David Dratch, who now serves as president and chief executive of Claire Dratch Inc.
Washington gossip columnist Diana McLellan once called the high-end clothing store — which specializes in formal attire and accoutrements for weddings, galas, proms and other soirees — a local “institution” that catered to “Washington women from Cabinet wives to soccer moms, from country clubbers to patent lawyers.”
“Three generations of Washington brides,” she added, “have been Dratched.”
Mrs. Dratch and her husband, a clothing industry veteran, opened shop in Bethesda in 1948. Its location initially drew quizzical looks from peers in an era when ladies of leisure traditionally donned their white gloves and matching shoes and drove downtown to Garfinckel’s, the department store that defined the region’s elegant fashion taste. But her husband saw opportunity for an upscale store amid the proliferation of bucolic country clubs and well-tended homes in the postwar years.
Claire Dratch Inc. quickly developed a loyal clientele drawn to the versatility and craftsmanship of the clothes, which Mrs. Dratch saw to it were made by designers whose styles could not be found everywhere else. The Dratches opened a bridal department around 1960, weary of customers asking for advice about where in New York they could find a wedding dress.
Wedding gowns became one of the shop’s most popular items, and for years the store displayed a gallery of brides, photos sent in by beaming newlyweds. Mrs. Dratch recounted to McLellan one repeat bride’s request: “You have to take that picture off the wall. That was my first husband, and I’m here for my fitting for my fourth.”
“I was quite surprised,” Mrs. Dratch said, “because she was fitting a very weddingy gown with a three-yard train. But she explained — ‘Well, for my first wedding, I was far too young. My second, I married on the rebound. My third was killed in a motorcycle accident. Now, finally, I am going to be the bride I always longed to be.’ ”
The Dratch Hatch — a wing of the store that catered to teens — opened in 1965, but Mrs. Dratch said it later shuttered because young women preferred to hang out at the mall instead of shopping with their mothers.
Over the decades, the store increasingly became one of the dwindling sororities of local specialty shops. Its survival, Mrs. Dratch said, depended in part on fostering a sales staff that not only was courteous but also could discern a customer’s sense of well-being.
“When a woman comes in and declares herself in a rut, we tell our sales consultant to find out why she’s wearing the same things,” Mrs. Dratch told The Washington Post in 1987. “Because it makes her feel marvelous? Or because it’s simply safe?”
“Before you can help her, you’ve got to get inside her head a bit,” she said. “Once you understand the motivation — if, say, it’s to be safe — you can take action. Maybe spark up all those awful boring gray suits with bright blouses, even break the suit habit with different jackets and skirts that go well. After all, the smart shopper, the most intelligent, is the one who knows herself.”
Claire Bacharach was born on Dec. 17, 1919, in Seligenstadt, Germany, which she described as a small community where its few dozen Jewish families mixed easily with the dominant Catholic population. As a child, she often accompanied her best friend to midnight Mass at Christmas.
After the Nazi rise to power in the early 1930s, the social dynamic changed ominously. “Friends no longer walked with me, or sat in the train with me, or wanted to be seen with me,” she later recalled. “I was no longer welcome to participate in school functions. My name could not be mentioned in the class yearbook.”
She was devastated and, at 16, made her way to the United States to live with her elder sister in Chicago. Her father, a butcher, was beaten during the anti-Semitic attacks of 1938 known as Kristallnacht.
Her parents managed to escape the next year just before the borders were sealed on the eve of World War II. Once vigorous, they were now broken — “two crippled, elderly people” — that she barely recognized. But they avoided the fate of many of the town’s remaining Jews, who were rounded up and sent to concentration camps.
Meanwhile, Claire Bacharach altered her surname to Bachrach, which she figured sounded more American, and became a U.S. citizen. She found a sales job, eventually with a Chicago department store’s negligee department.
“I loved it, the wonderful lace, the workmanship,” she told McLellan for Washingtonian magazine. “Then the buyer recommended me for the executive training course.” She later left to join a co-worker who had opened her own store.
In 1942, she wed Joseph B. Dratch, and they settled in the Washington area for his job as a regional supervisor with the Adeline chain of women’s specialty stores. Mrs. Dratch spent several years working at the tony Erlebacher’s clothing store in the District before she and her husband decided to go into business for themselves.
Mrs. Dratch was widowed in 1992 and retired by the end of the decade. Besides David Dratch of Chevy Chase, survivors include three other children, Howard Dratch of Santa Monica, Calif., Peter Dratch of Fort Collins, Colo., and Gail Dratch of Bethesda; and five grandchildren.
Mrs. Dratch, a founding member of Ohr Kodesh Congregation in Chevy Chase, seldom liked to discuss her years in Germany and refused to speak her native tongue for a half-century. In 1989, Seligenstadt invited her back as a gesture of reconciliation, and she agreed after talking it over with her family and several rabbis.
She gave several talks, one exhorting younger Germans to be vigilant against “those who influence you to choose evil.” In another talk, attended by the city’s older residents, Mrs. Dratch announced, “I came here to forgive,” but in reality, she told a reporter, it took all her energy to muzzle her still-considerable anger about the elimination of the town’s Jews.
As she met many non-Jewish German contemporaries, she silently raged: “What did you do? Where were you?”
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