Fashion as Community

Chelsea businesswoman offering high-end clothing, opportunity at sister boutiques.

23 Aug 2020 | 08:16

One might think that for being a Black female entrepreneur, this would be your moment, but Deborah Koensigsberger is the kind of woman who makes her own moments.

The owner of Noir e Blanc, a chic, French-themed boutique on 25th Street off Broadway, moved to the United States from Jamaica at the moldable age of eleven. Her mother saw potential here in the states for growth and opportunity, perhaps a somewhat different state of affairs back then, that as a daughter, she has truly taken to heart.

Befittingly, the success of her store, and a desire to give back to the community, led her to found a nonprofit, appropriately named Hearts of Gold, whose mission is to support homeless mothers and their children living in NYC shelters. She subsequently opened the Thrifty HoG, a high-end thrift store.

Koenigsberger established Noir e Blanc in 1987. It is a beautiful shop, elegant and sophisticated with a sparkling, kinetic energy. She has curated the racks with a clothing philosophy similar to her own: “classic with a twist.” Sixty percent of the designs are imported from Europe, but they are not the ubiquitous, mainstream luxury brands that you find at malls or department stores, although they are just a stylish. Her inventory is unique, focused on quality, and appeals to her target customer: the busy businesswoman who might be short on time but loves the personal attention she affords.

“I don’t do hyper-trends,” she said, instead she’s providing beautiful, timeless pieces than are an investment rather than a frivolity.

‘You Live the Example You See’
Some of those stylish pieces, as well as other gently worn and sometimes brand new items, then end up at The Thrifty HoG next door, whose merchandise is purely derived from charitable donations.

At first glance, you might not know this is thrift; only the price tags give that away. The store is immaculately organized and curated with an eye for merchandising. This is intentional, as The Thifty HoG serves as a training program for single, homeless mothers, employed here to get them back on their feet. All net proceeds from the Thrifty HoG go to fund the Hearts of Gold charity (thus the store’s acronym moniker) and pay the women a living wage as they acquire valuable skills and develop their own resumes.

“You live the example you see,” said Koenigbsberger. It’s a philosophy she adopted from her mother, and has passed on to her sons: one a 25-year-old who will head this fall into the PhD program at University of New Hampshire, and the other a 27-year-old working in marketing at Google.

She’s set up a shop that serves as both a role model and boot camp for the women (they like to refer to themselves as The Moms). She’s not easy on her charges, because neither is life. But she has “graduated” 43 women since the program began six years ago, and plans to cycle through 50 more by the end of the year, as they have streamlined and perfected their stratagem. Each Mom starts off at The HoG, learning the business, which takes different women different lengths of time. But within two to four years, each one graduates with a HoG certificate of experience, and priceless and useful skills in customer service and administrative tasks — as well as a business understanding that is not limited to the retail field.

COVID’s Effect
The pandemic hit both stores hard, and while The Thrifty HoG does generate revenue, per se, it is what keeps the
Moms paid and the doors open. She notes that business has been off by about 90 percent, and while both stores qualified for Paycheck Protection Program loans, those funds cover less than half of just the rent expense alone.

Hearts of Gold historically holds an annual fundraising gala (last year celebrated its 25th Anniversary), complete with a fashion show, silent auction and celebrity appearances. Due to the pandemic, this will obviously not be happening this year, although she is figuring out a way to do it virtually. The store itself suffered some exterior damage during the riots that followed the Black Lives Matter protests, but she luckily suffered no theft or further damage to the store.

Still, Koenigbsberger lives the philosophy of empowering The Moms, a segment of society so often overlooked. Her work has the potential to cause a ripple effect that could have a profound reach. And at least in these women’s lives, it does. It’s hard to fix the world, but if you can fix one life, and those that surround it, that is a great thing. Koenigsberger’s own heart of gold has the potential to engender another in every life she touches.

“You live the example you see,” Deborah Koenigbsberger.