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Helen Gagalis, Tastemaker of Throws, Dies

Helen Gagalis, who along with her husband, Nick, helped to create a market for high-priced carriage-trade fashion throws in luxury fibers a quarter century ago, died at her home here July 22 of a heart attack.

In 1970, the couple carved their first niche market in the American home fashions business, forming Gagalis Co. to import Flokati rugs from Greece, creating a new look in casual floor coverings. Their first customer was Mike Gould, now Bloomingdale's chief and then a dmm at Abraham & Straus.

A decade after that business took off, and at Gagalis' urging after a trip to Heimtextil in 1980, the couple brought in vibrantly colored throws from Norway. Mr. Gagalis recalled his wife saying, “I think we can sell those. There are plenty of throws, but there's no fashion in the U.S. market.”

The first to pick up the new look was Macy's New York, which bought the entire collection on spec, in the days when buyers could still take a chance. Abraham & Straus followed, then Saks, all at that time breaking new ground. After success with Norway, she brought in collections from Ireland, Germany and Italy, then mohair from England and Switzerland, touching triple-digit price points, unheard of in the early '80s.

Perhaps the apex of her success as both tastemaker and marketer came when Macy's showcased a range of Gagalis throws in the new Lap of Luxury boutique. Mr. Gagalis recalled, “We sold 160 throws in one day, the opening day. Helen was ecstatic, and so was Macy's.” Drawn by that success, Nieman-Marcus picked up the Gagalis line for sale in stores and tony catalog.

After the couple penetrated the top tier of the department store market, “then everybody wanted to get into the business,” said Mr. Gagalis. “They started bringing in product from China, driving the price and the quality down. That was it, the business was over,” and the company withdrew from the throw business in 1998. “It was Helen's idea to get into the business, and her idea to leave it. She said, 'Let's get out now before we lose everything we built.'”

Besides her fashion flair and marketing savvy, Gagalis was the company's organizational spine, handling all the record-keeping. To her husband's chagrin, she insisted on paying bills the day they came in. “I would say, 'Helen, are you crazy? Why are you writing the check today?' And always she would say to me, 'Because some small business needs the money. And I don't want to be bothered. I don't like it when people do it to us, and I won't do it to anybody else.' It used to drive me crazy to watch her write those checks right away.”

In 1996, the couple sold the Flokati rug business and retired. A year later, Gagalis had surgery for heart valve repair. “The doctor told me there was a lot of damage, but I could never tell her” said Mr. Gagalis. “She enjoyed things too much.”

For years, the couple who had been married for 42 years when she died, spent half the year at their New York City home, and wintered in Florida. While in New York, the couple made a second home at Ben Benson steak house in midtown. “I do a lot of things, but not cooking,” she insisted.

A passion in her later years, was having her hair done at Kenneth's at The Waldorf. “Can you believe,” said Mr. Gagalis slapping his face, “$400 to have her hair done every two weeks! And she tipped, tipped big! And you know what? Every time she would say to me, 'I worked hard for it, I earned this money, so don't you tell me how to spend it. What would you do with it anyway? Spend it on your next wife?'”

After 42 years of marriage, Gagalis died while organizing papers and paying bills in the couple's apartment in preparation for this year's trip to Florida. “That was what she loved to do, organizing everything. So she was happy,” said her husband. After a funeral service, she was buried in Perth Amboy, N.J. He remains disconsolate, walking the streets, and lunching at Ben Benson for the company as much as the food.

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