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Eileen Abato, fashion director

HIV - AIDSFashion ShowsBaltimore School for the ArtsMount Washington Pediatric HospitalMeyerhoff Symphony HallLeukemia

Eileen Abato, a retired department store fashion director who became an advocate for AIDS awareness, died of leukemia Thursday at the Gilchrist Hospice Care. The Towson resident was 69.

Born Eileen Mary Wible in a Philadelphia suburb, she grew up in Hermosa Beach, Calif., and was a graduate of Mira Costa High School there.

In a 1989 Baltimore Sun profile, she recounted that she wanted to go into fashion sales as a teen and joined a work-study program at the May Co. She initially sold hosiery and housewares, but as an 18-year-old, she talked her way into becoming a May Co. fashion coordinator in a newly opened West Los Angeles store.

In the article, she said she fell in love with a golf pro, Richard Mason, who was visiting California. They married and moved to Washington. There she became youth director for the old Hecht's stores. When her husband became a golf professional at Baltimore's Woodholme County Club, she became Hutzler's fashion director and lived in Towson.

"Eileen was a dynamo," said Lynn Rankin, a friend from Fairfax, Va. "She loved fashion and was a force to be reckoned with."

In the Sun interview, Mrs. Abato said she had been to Paris 25 times for fashion business but had "spent only 10 minutes in the Louvre."

She said she embraced the world of retailing and fashion.

"When she's working, she says, she's 'running all day, from 8 in the morning to 9 at night, going to the stores, the shows,'" the article said. "She has encountered the famous designers. She won't name a favorite, but she will say that one of the most compelling is Karl Lagerfeld."

She also worked with Bill Blass, Claude Montana and Princess Stephanie of Monaco, who had a swimwear business.

She recalled meeting Princess Diana at a 1988 reception in England: "As I curtsied, she said, 'We have the same dress on.' It was a bathrobe wrap style with a shawl collar. Hers was by Bellville Sassoon and mine was by Kasper.'"

After leaving Hutzler's in the early 1980s, she achieved a dream of opening her own stores, which she named Chez Michele after her daughter. She later said the experience taught her "another side of the business I didn't know, the accounting end."

She gave the shops up and became a sportswear and accessories buyer at Miller Brothers before she joined Woodward and Lothrop as corporate vice president and fashion director. She later was a regional fashion director for Saks Fifth Avenue.

She also owned EMA Productions, a company that ran fashion shows across the country, including an annual event for Israel Bonds.

Friends said that in the mid-1980s, she experienced the AIDS-related deaths of colleagues and felt the need to show support for newly diagnosed and sick patients by raising funds — and by overcoming ignorance about the condition. She conceived an event called Lifesongs for AIDS and assembled a committee for a Roberta Flack concert.

"We scrounged money and Eileen was amazing. She knew the people to call. We didn't even have a plan," said a friend, Lynda Ames, a retired jewelry designer, of Owings Mills. "The first year we gave away $200,000. We couldn't believe how it all came together. We were sitting in the Lyric and watching the people walk in. It was a black-tie event. It sold out."

She recalled how Mrs. Abato greeted comedian George Burns, who appeared in front of a capacity crowd at the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

"He was 94, and all he asked for was an ashtray and a comfortable chair," said Mrs. Ames. "Eileen sent down to Obrycki's for crab cakes."

Proceeds from the gala assisted a group called Baltimore Health Education Resource Organization (HERO) and AIDS Action Baltimore, as well as other organizations. The committee later brought in entertainers such as Eartha Kitt, Joel Grey, Tony Bennett, Tom Jones and Liza Minnelli.

"Eileen created Lifesongs," said a friend, Baltimore attorney Elliott A. Brager. "AIDS as a health issue was close to her. It wasn't something she had read about in a newspaper."

Mr. Brager said she organized a "comprehensive group of movers and shakers from various segments of the community." He called her a "woman of vast diverse talents and interests who knew people everywhere."

Bonnie Serpick, a Towson neighbor, recalled how Mrs. Abato asked her to join a Lifesongs committee and help.

"Eileen was a force. She knew how to approach people and to get what she wanted," said Mrs. Serpick. "At that first meeting, I volunteered my home. We had so many people, they were sitting on the floor."

Mrs. Serpick said that after a few years, Mrs. Abato remained on the Lifesongs board but also helped other groups, including the Baltimore Opera Company, the Baltimore School for the Arts, the Mount Washington Pediatric Hospital, the Living Classrooms Foundation, the Maryland Zoo and the House of Ruth.

A memorial fund has been created in her name at the Baltimore School for the Arts.

Services will be held at 11 a.m. Friday at the Ruck Towson Funeral Home, 1050 York Road.

Survivors include her husband of 37 years, Anthony A. Abato Jr., a retired attorney; a son, Anthony A. Abato III of Kingsville; a daughter, Michele "Mikey" Monaghan of Towson; five grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter. Her first husband, Richard Mason, died in 1974.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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