The First Lady of Under Fashions
by Christina Erteszek
Chin Music Press (2020, 299 pp.)
A refugee couple from Poland arrives penniless in Los Angeles during World War II and starts making garters. Over the next 40 years their family company will dominate the ladies undergarment industry -- a truly American rags-to-riches fairytale.
It would all collapse with a hostile takeover in 1986 and the deaths by illness of founders Jan and Otylia Erteszek soon after.
Author Christina Erteszek is the youngest daughter of this remarkable couple, creators of the Olga Company in 1942. Now living in Durango, Colorado, she worked as a product manager in the girdle dynasty and became the creative force behind Olga's Christina line, which embraced in the '80s a more contemporary cotton-Lycra branch of intimates for the "baby boomer multitasker."
Erteszek's work is the fulfillment of a deathbed promise to her urbane, highly educated father, Jan, who implored her to finish the memoir he had been working on much of his life. Her mother, Otylia, the quiet artistic genius behind the company, had also written about their early life story, dramatic escape from Poland and foray into the ladies undergarment industry in their adopted country.
But the author encounters a wall of secrets in trying to tell their story, beginning with their repudiation of their Jewish identity once they arrived in America.
Both Jan and Otylia came from conservative Jewish families in Krakow: Jan's family had a haberdashery business; Otylia's father was a watchmaker and her mother ran a corset shop, where her daughter learned the trade making and fitting bespoke corsets and brassieres using whalebone and tape. The young people met in 1933, catching sight of each other through their neighboring windows during a storm and subsequently meeting through friends. Jan had suffered a bone disease in his hip and several surgeries; he eventually graduated from law school and planned the couple's future together, first in Denmark, then America ("Now that would be a great country," he told himself). It was 1939 -- their wedding was scheduled to take place Sept. 3.
"How could they have known then that Hitler would invade Poland on Sept. 1?"
It took a harrowing year to get out of war-torn Poland, alternately through German and Soviet zones of occupation. Jan, whose brother lived in Los Angeles, was able to secure a visa first and the couple was separated; it took months of lonely travel for Otylia to make her way through Siberia to Japan to Hawaii then San Francisco, where they were reunited. Much of their family left in Poland perished in the Holocaust.
From snippets in her parents' respective memoirs the author reconstructs these early definitive moments, such as the spring day in 1942 when Otylia spies a stylish woman climbing the steps of the LA trolley, revealing rolled-down stockings "like sausages" just beneath her knees. The new nylon stockings needed garter belts to stay up, and the stores carried only the "utilitarian and dowdy." As Jan's work selling pots and pans door to door wasn't paying the bills, he rented a sewing machine and bought some fabric, and urged his wife to start making pretty corsets, with her Old World sense of style. The Olga Touch, it was called. He pedaled the samples at the upscale Bullock's Wilshire, and earned their first two-dozen orders.
Thus began the fairytale beginnings of the Olga Corsetry Company in making ladies' elegant unmentionables. The business grew by thighs and midriffs; they soon needed grander space, a team of salespeople and designers and constant new ideas for products to accommodate the ever-evolving needs of the discerning American woman customer. Styles with names like Secret Hug, Lady Long Legs and Young Secrets, earning Otylia U.S. patents for her innovations. Ultimately, Jackie O herself purchased the exclusive brand.
The high life allowed the family, now with three girls, to live in luxury Los Angeles homes and acquire a ranch in the Tehachapi Mountains, on the Mojave. The couple also embraced Christianity with a particular American vengeance, all part of what Jan wrote as "the American experiment."
He expressed in his memoir: "I suddenly realized that the Puritan tradition, with its preoccupation with righteousness, was part and parcel of American life … The romance of the New World captured my imagination, and I became one of the countless millions with a new loyalty, commitment and passion for this country and its way of life."
As they built the company, Jan became a self-styled business guru, who created a whole scheme of ethical corporate values called the Common Venture, embracing a "belief in human dignity" (also written as "Judeo-Christian ethics") as the best way to productivity and growth.
It worked, until the author, fuming as her mother was dying of breast cancer in 1989, wondered, "Who is this woman? I never really got to know her because she was so skilled in avoiding the discomfort … in places she refused to go."
There was much more going on behind closed doors.
The author will be reading from her work at SOMOS tomorrow, Friday (Aug. 27) at 5 p.m., hosted by Sean Murphy. Link to this free Zoom event at: somostaos.org/calendar/#events. For more information, call 575-758-0081.