By Ed Karvoski Jr., Culture Editor
Waltham/Boston – For over four decades, David Josef of Waltham has professionally designed women’s special-occasion wear while fundraising for worthy causes.
His clients have included Cher, Gladys Knight, Cyndi Lauper, Judith Light, Diana Ross and Dionne Warwick. In 2018, The Improper Bostonian magazine named him “Best Wedding-Gown Designer,” and the Boston Fashion Awards honored his lifetime of achievements.
“Making clothes is a very good living and I love my clients – but I tend to get bored,” he acknowledged. “The philanthropic work perks me up.”
Raised in North Providence, R.I., Josef learned to sew as a youngster observing his mother working in her dressmaking and alteration shop. He began fundraising by making costumes for backyard shows that benefited the Muscular Dystrophy Association.
At age 16, he created an outfit for actress Kaye Ballard, co-star of NBC-TV’s sitcom “The Mothers-in-Law.” After Ballard thanked Josef on Merv Griffin’s nationally-syndicated television talk show, she wrote her teenage designer a reference letter to Parsons School of Design in New York City.
“I got accepted into Parsons, but was too scared to go to NYC,” he shared. “I saved enough money to open my own shop in Lexington and have been doing this ever since.”
Josef began building his clientele in 1977 while gaining notoriety via Boston-based newspaper articles and appearing on WCVB-TV’s “The Good Day Show” as its fashion consultant. He considers his on-the-job training in Lexington comparable to a college education.
“I learned how to listen,” he noted. “Every client who walks into my studio knows what they want to wear. I’m able to get it from their brain, onto paper and then into fabric.”
In 1980, Josef met Danny Forrester, now his husband. They relocated the studio to a loft in Boston’s Copley Square. Preparing a televised presentation of his holiday collection, Josef‘s request to borrow accessories led to getting his creations into high-end stores nationwide including Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom and Saks Fifth Avenue.
Josef’s studio expanded in 1986 to a 3,500-square-foot loft in Boston’s South End. After business hours, the space often hosted fundraising fashion shows for the AIDS Action Committee and Fenway Community Health Center.
“When AIDS came about, a lot of our friends were dying,” he explained. “It was a very difficult time, but it was easy for me to do shows because I had huge collections that I could put on a runway. All my beautiful models – who I still work with to this day – were 18-, 19-, 20-years-old. Now they’re in their 50s and 60s, and still gorgeous. We’ve become a Boston fashion family.”
Consistent attendees at these fundraisers were Boston’s then-Mayor Thomas Menino and his wife Angela, for whom Josef designed. On Josef’s 40th birthday, Menino proclaimed July 7, 1997, “David Josef Day.” Menino’s proclamation commended Josef’s “significant contributions to many worthwhile charities including women’s and AIDS-related organizations.” Josef fondly remembers Menino visiting his office soon after Massachusetts became the first state to legally recognize same-sex marriage in 2004.
“Tom said, ‘Make sure to tell me when you and Danny get married because I want to be there for you,’” Josef recalled.
In 2007, Josef learned that his landlord sold the South End building and they had 45 days to vacate. On the same day, Josef’s mother called to tell him that her brain cancer returned.
“My mother died within the 45-day period that we needed to move,” he said. “I was like a walking zombie.”
He accepted an invitation from iconic designer Yolanda Cellucci to relocate his business to her Waltham studio. In 2008, Cellucci retired and David Josef Fashions opened at its current location, 846 Lexington St. in Waltham.
When Josef and Forrester married in 2013, Menino was among their guests.
“It was a week before Tom announced that he had cancer,” Josef noted. “He was a dear friend.”
Among Josef’s most recent philanthropic efforts is Fashion to the Rescue for animal rescue causes. Held annually at various Boston venues, it benefitted the Arizona-based Aimee’s Farm Animal Sanctuary from 2015 to 2017. The 2018 benefitting charity was Swampscott’s Blue Ridge founded by Danielle Murr of WAAF-FM. Over $500,000 was raised in four years.
In 2017 and 2018, Josef partnered with the Rev. Liz Walker, former television journalist and current pastor of the Roxbury Presbyterian Church, to present Faith in Fashion at Newton’s American Legion Post 440. The fundraiser benefits the Cory Johnson Program for Post-Traumatic Healing. Nearly $200,000 was raised in two years.
“I moved to Waltham to retire, but my career has never been bigger or better – or more enjoyable,” Josef said. “I’m grateful that I’ve survived all these years.”