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Nursing Home Resident Surprises Staff With Rare Talent, Unknown Past

Photo credit: Dick Dupuis

Richard “Dick” Dupuis’ therapist mentioned she wanted to crochet a dress for her grandchild’s Christening. Dupuis told her, “I can help you with that.”

"Then she brings me this fine thread, very fine thread. And I said, ‘This is no way going to look anything like what you’re talking about, because of the fineness of the thread.’  But I said, ‘I’ll go ahead and make the yoke for you. That would be for the fit, to get the fit,’” he said.

Bit by bit, he began creating.

"And I didn’t go into any details at the beginning. They’d say, ‘Oh, how’s the doily going?’ And I’d say, ‘Oh, fine,’” he said.

Finally, he revealed the finished piece of work:  a masterpiece of a baby gown, flawless, and made without a pattern.  The staff members began to inquire about his past.

At age five, growing up in the rural Bayou during the Great Depression, Dupuis found an old Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalog. His grandmother let him tear out some select pages.

"And then I asked my mother for scissors, and she wouldn’t let me use her scissors. So she said, ‘I’ll buy some children’s scissors for you.’ And when she gave me those, I went and got all of my torn pages. And then I started cutting out the people with the clothing,” he recalls.

When he cut the heads off the women’s pictures, his mother told the pediatrician she was worried that she might have a future serial killer on her hands.

By age 15, he was sewing for his mother and sisters—but Dupuis’ father was so embarrassed to have a son who sewed, he restricted the family from telling anyone the truth.  Eventually, people started raving about his family’s clothes, particularly one dress he made for his sister. That dress caught the eye of a local beauty queen.

“The Queen of Rice Festival—it’s like a Rose Queen or whatever—saw the gown and she asked my sister where she’d gotten it. Tita said she’d gotten it in New Orleans, at Maison Blanche. [The beauty queen] said, ‘Well, do you mind if I went and actually got the same gown?’”

Dupuis’ sister had to spill the beans, and soon, he was making dresses for locals.

He enlisted in the NAVY, and aboard every ship, he carried two things: a duffel bag, and his beloved sewing machine.

“I felt totally comfortable carrying this sewing machine.  ‘Oh, you sew! Can you shorten my uniform?’ The sailors wanted their clothes really fitted tight, so I was taking in clothes and putting in arm badges,” he said.

Serving in Korea, for a New Year’s Eve dance, he secretly designed and sewed fancy evening gowns for all of the nurses aboard the ship. When they came out dressed to the hilt, the sailors went crazy, he said.

After the service, he went to the Berkley College of Arts and Crafts. He fell in love with a model, and married her while he searched for work. Every day, he’d scan the Society pages, where he kept coming across one woman’s name.

“So, I thought, she has to be someone important. So I found out her phone number. And I called her up. I said, ‘You have won a couture dress. All you have to do is come in for the fittings.’”

If ever there were a fish taking the bait, this was it.

“I made a dress for her, and by word of mouth, she started talking about me. And then I started getting customers.”

Over the next two decades, he would work for some of the biggest designers in the United States: Edith Head, Miss Elliot’s, Jack Brine—fashion houses that usually got the credit for a designer’s work. He designed for celebrities like Della Reese, Penny Singleton, who was “Blondie” in the Blondie and Dagwood series, and Debbie Reynolds, nominated for an Oscar in “Singin’ in the Rain.”  

He showed me some old photographs.

Moore:  “I have to ask you, who is this dashing fellow here?”

Dupuis: “That’s me. You couldn’t tell by that…time is cruel!”

Moore: “What year would that have been taken?”

Dupuis:  “This was very early. This was probably in ’54 or ’55."

Moore: “And what are you doing in this picture?”

Dupuis: “I had gone to a client’s home, and I was showing her different designs.”

In the early ‘60s, he entered a design contest to create a dress for Jackie Kennedy…and won. Dupuis found himself at fashion shows in Paris, London, and Japan.

“You couldn’t possibly duplicate what you saw there, because it would be so outlandish, so much. But the thing you’d look at, you’d pick up a collar detail or a sleeve. The main thing would be, if you took each one of these garments and actually did a shadow of that person, you’d get the shape, the silhouette that was going to be the look for the coming season,” he said.

His wife passed away young, and he raised his five kids—and three foster children—with the help of a nanny and housekeeper.

This unsuspecting nursing home resident, along with other American designers, was partly responsible for bringing the fashions of Paris and Milan to the USA throughout the 1950s and ‘60s…and Tuesday morning, his nursing home is honoring him with one more fashion show.  Dick Dupuis will share his original sketches, and more of his story. His fashion show will at Christian Health Care East, located at 3535 E. Cherokee.  The fashion show begins at 10:00 a.m.

This is KSMU News. I’m Jennifer Moore.