Kathleen Sommers, one of San Antonio’s best-loved fashion designers and entrepreneurs, died early Saturday after a years-long battle with cancer. Only a few family members and close friends knew of her illness.
“Kathleen was fiercely independent and strong, and had been quietly and courageously battling cancer for a number of years with the single-minded purpose of continuing to live a full and rewarding life,” according to an email Sunday from her store of the same name. “Like many things she pursued, she succeeded until the very end.”
Her Kathleen Sommers boutique has been located for more than 30 years on the corner of Main and West Woodlawn Avenues in Monte Vista. Her clothing line exceeded typical ready-to-wear fare in its comfort and textural fabrics. Women who encountered others wearing her designs felt they had met a new friend.
Locally based fashion designer Veronica Prida said she and Sommers met in the early 1980s at the now-defunct Svelte Veldt boutique in Alamo Heights where Prida worked and Sommers provided her fashions. Sommers had only recently arrived from Acapulco, Mexico, where she sold her own line of bikinis and coverups. Prida said she was inspired by Sommers’ “determination as one of the first known women designers to establish her own line and retail store.
“At that time, it was challenging, and Kathleen was not to be deterred,” Prida said.
Sommers conceived her boutique as more than a place of commerce. Her clientele’s calendars were marked with an array of creative events she developed, including an annual bracelet show featuring local designers, Girls Night Out, book signings and readings, trunk shows, and product seminars. She also met with up-and-coming designers to assess their creative products and give supportive suggestions or bring their work into the store.
“She had great gusto for creative projects and creative lives,” said friend and poet Naomi Shihab Nye. “She was interested, she was a great listener, a great question asker.”
That spirit of creativity, reflected in the store’s aromas, pop music, books, handmade jewelry, handsome clothing, and sophisticated gifts created an atmosphere that attracts customers seeking an infusion of joy along with a new dress or scarf.
“It was like an oasis of contentment,” said Nye. “You would dash in there for a last-minute gift or just to feel better about things.”
The two became acquainted a few years after the store opened when Sommers asked if she could stock Nye’s anthology, This Same Sky.
“I always told her one of the greatest glories of my life was seeing my first anthology in the arms of her mannequins in the window,” Nye said. “I just thought that was so cool.”
Sommers grew up in Saddle River, New Jersey, outside New York City, where her father, James, worked for a light bulb company in the Empire State Building. Her mother, Erlene, died when Sommers was 12. Her three sisters – Sue Moffatt of Chapel Hill, North Carolina; Valerie Arber of Marfa; and Pat Gundlach of Roanoke, Virginia – survive her.
After studying design at Elmira College in Elmira, New York, Sommers learned about the business of fashion by working for a buyer at a store in Manhattan. In 1968 she traveled to the Olympics in Mexico City, then found her way to Acapulco. Sommer’s former life and business partner, Jim Dawes, said one of her customers at her beachside store was fashion designer Donna Karan, who encouraged her to move to New York.
Instead, in the mid-’70s Sommers moved near Albuquerque to be close to sister Valerie. She continued designing and selling clothes, with a baby son, Alexander, called Xander, born in 1975. Deciding she needed a larger selling market, she found her way to San Antonio.
Cappy Lawton, whose Cappy’s restaurant is next door to the former Svelte Veldt, knew Sommers and introduced her to Dawes in 1979. Before long they were living together at his apartment in the former River Road Country Day School in the River Road neighborhood. By coincidence, the school building later became the home of local jazz musician Jim Cullum; Cullum’s daughter Blanquita Sullivan is the current manager of the Kathleen Sommers boutique. Dawes said Sommers recently called Sullivan the perfect manager she never thought she’d find.
In 1982, Kathleen and Jim had a daughter, Kate Sommers-Dawes of San Francisco, who is expecting to give birth soon to a son.
“I’m saddened by the timing,” Nye said. “When my own grandchild was born, Kathleen kept saying, ‘I want one, I want one!’”
In the early days of Sommers’ store, she employed seamstresses who worked from their homes and used the upper floor of her building for production. As she outgrew this arrangement, she bought a warehouse in Tobin Hill for cutting pieces from patterns and moved production to shops in Dallas and Arlington.
“We bought a box trailer and I hooked it up to a Ford pickup,” Dawes said. “I’d go up with bundles of fabrics and trade them for finished clothing, and rack them up in the trailer and bring them back here, where they’d get distributed to her store and others in Corpus Christi and Austin and far-flung boutiques.”
One of the biggest events of the year at Kathleen Sommers is the Poetry for the People party each November, which Nye says was Sommers’ favorite. Packed with both women and men, Nye and other poets such as Jenny Browne pen spontaneous poems for paying patrons, and artists Jeanette MacDougall and Terry Ybanez paint individualized artworks. Proceeds go to refugee-oriented charitable projects.
“It was more popular than we ever could have dreamed it would be,” said Nye.
This year Poetry for the People is scheduled for Nov. 28 from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the store.
Around town Sommers was often dressed in soft clothes for doing tai chi, which she practiced for decades with local teacher Horacio Lopez, traveling to China with her class to study with a master.
She also loved reggae music and would go to concerts in town and in Austin at every opportunity, Dawes said.
Upon learning of her death, friends had at least two questions: her age, which Sommers kept to herself, and whether the store would continue.
“She is ageless, which was one of the inspiring things about her,” said Mary Pat Waldron, a longtime friend. “She carried herself with such grace.”
Dawes speculated the store will continue. The family and store announcement also said Kathleen Sommers Inc. will reopen for business on Tuesday.
On Sunday, a picture of Kathleen and a notebook for remembrances sat on a table at the store. Nye, who is working in Taos, said she has been deluged with texts, emails, and calls from friends of Sommers who need to connect after hearing of her death.
“I always felt that in many ways Kathleen was a few steps ahead of the next good thing we could do or create,” Nye said. “She was an engaged human being, a force, and a visionary spirit. She’s going to be part of our lives and our conviction to be the most creative and generous people we can be, forever.”
A memorial at the store is planned in the coming weeks. The family said that anyone wishing to make a donation on her behalf could contribute to the Planned Parenthood Action Fund.