Fashion For the Ages
For more than 40 years, Pat Costanza didn’t just follow fashion trends. She helped set them.
Pat Costanza is a striking woman. Petite with dark, almost raven hair, her olive complexion and dark eyes belie her heritage – she was born a Miletello, one of Monroe’s oldest Italian families. Like many Italian Catholic families in the late 1960s, her parents sent her to St. Frederick High School, where she began to chart her future.
After graduating in 1967, Pat took the next step down the path she’d chosen and enrolled at Northeast Louisiana University, where she majored in Physical Education and History. Pat Miletello was on track to become a teacher.
“Fashion wasn’t even on my radar,” says Pat. But Fate has a way of intervening, and sometime between college and her return to Monroe after a few years in New Orleans, she developed an interest in fashion and merchandising. At the same time, she reconnected with an old childhood friend, Joe Costanza.
“We’d known one another since childhood,” she says. “His family, the Costanzas, and my parents, the Miletellos, were friends.”
After a brief courtship, they married and Pat set aside the original path she had chosen in favor of a career in fashion and merchandising. For Joe, Pat became more than just a wife. She became a business partner, confidante and, ultimately, the face of a clothing business that evolved over the course of more than 40 years of fashions.
What would end up for Pat and Joe as a go-to destination for refined ladies’ fashions, had much more humble beginnings. In the early 1970s, Joe’s shop was little more than a blue jeans store. In fact, Pat remembers they didn’t even have sections for men’s and women’s jeans. Instead, she says they sold jeans European-style.
“Back then, women didn’t have jeans in sizes,” she recalls. “They just had waist sizes. Men’s and women’s jeans were unisex, European. They hadn’t evolved into separate departments.”
The shop at the time was tiny, less than 1,600 sq. feet. From that first shop, which she calls “so small,” the couple moved the store to Boyd’s Boutique and, eventually, to a much larger shop on North 18th Street. They remained there through the end of the 1970s, and by 1980 they decided to return downtown, setting up a boutique in the 200 block of Desiard, adjacent to the downtown branch of Central Bank.
Times were changing, though. Jeans were no longer just Lee, Wrangler and Levis, and they weren’t unisex any longer. Suddenly, jeans went from a pedestrian, unisex offering to haute couture. Gloria Vanderbilt had seen to that with her signature line of jeans for women. Other big designers followed suite and started getting into the game.
Moroccan-born American design magnate Georges Marciano and his brother, Paul, introduced Guess – and stonewashed jeans became all the rage. Another American designer, Calvin Klein, took high-fashion jeans to a new level when he started putting Hollywood starlets in glossy ads. Even a very young Brook Shields was a Calvin girl.
It would have been easy enough for Pat and Joe to follow the jeans craze for another few years, but another change was afoot. For more than two centuries, the intersection of Desiard and South Grand had been the center of commerce in the Twin Cities. Real estate developers on the eastern side of Monroe had designs on changing all of that. While designers were flocking to denim, retailers across the country were busy following another trend – the move to shopping malls.
Pat and Joe decided to evolve their fashion store.
JJ’s Fashions was born. Pat and Joe opened a 3,500 sq. ft. boutique catering to a new class of shoppers, and they introduced separate lines for men and women, including an important group — juniors. From 1981 through the mid-1980s were the biggest years for JJ’s Fashions.
“Before the mall opened, we were the store for fashions,” says Pat, who selected each item for its uniqueness and style. To stay ahead of the times and remain competitive, they knew the business would have to evolve constantly.
“When the designer jeans came in — $200 or $300 for a pair of jeans, we didn’t continue on that path,” Pat says. Instead, they transitioned their business into an entirely new direction. “We changed with the times because it was either that or go out of business.”
Pat selected styles that no one else had from lines that few major retailers carried. The result was a carefully curated collection of fashions and accessories and a unique, JJ’s Fashion experience. Every six or seven weeks, the entire stock rotated. Old items were gone and new looks came in. The result was a perpetually fresh look.
“We wanted something that no one else had – always reaching for the look, the appearance that everyone else lacked,” Pat says. “That’s why you came to JJ’s, because we had those things that everyone else didn’t have.”
In addition to separate men’s and women’s lines, the larger store on DeSiard also afforded them another innovation that, suddenly, shoppers in Monroe were lacking. The store had more than 40 feet of frontage to one of the busiest commercial corridors in the Twin Cities – and display windows along all of it.
Pat hired artists and designers to come in every week and change the windows, from top to bottom. She credits the window designers with helping make the store’s reputation a part of the fabric of Monroe itself.
“The most successful stores are the people who know how to merchandize,” she says. “It’s an art. Like drawing a picture, you put the pieces together and that’s what people like to see when they come in the store.”
A focus on merchandizing had a combined effect of boosting sales and educating customers. People saw the looks in the windows and, inside, on the mannequins, and they decided that’s what they wanted for themselves. An effective window design or mannequin ensemble proved to be a great sales booster, she recalls.
“As the styles came in, people who didn’t know how to put it together could come in and buy the whole thing —and be unique,” she says. “Merchandising the styles that came in was the key to success.”
Also, she employed sales associates who knew how to help people find the best looks for their body shapes and skin tones. That’s also something Pat felt was missing from the “modern” retail experience at shopping malls.
“Knowledgeable, talented salespeople play a vital role,” she says. “Sometimes people don’t know what it’s going to look like. But get them to put it on their body and look at it in the mirror, that’s a key part of the experience.”
Over the years, the store continued to evolve. Pat and Joe made the decision to focus on ladies’ fashions, introduced sizes for larger women and moved toward professional and more refined attire. Eventually, she introduced ladies’ hats as well. Always, along the way, the window displays remained fresh and vibrant. Pat and Joe sold JJ’s Fashions a few years ago, after more than 42 years of providing stylish looks to Monroe shoppers.
Today, a new iteration of JJ’s Fashions is still providing stylish ladies’ wear to a new constituency from a location on 165 in Monroe. She is still eager to share the fashion and style tips she’s collected over a long and storied career. At the heart of Pat’s style philosophy: simplicity.
“Simplicity makes you look more elegant,” Pat says. “You don’t have to do a lot to look elegant. Too many people go overboard.”
She starts with her hair and makeup, suggesting that these two activities make up the bulk of her style efforts. While makeup is important, she adds it’s almost impossible to overstate the importance of hair care and styling.
“Hair plays a huge part in the rest of your look. If your hair looks horrible, it doesn’t matter what you’re wearing,” she says. Beyond hair, it’s important to also keep styles and accessories simple – and flattering to a woman’s body shape and coloring. For her, she favors basics on the bottom – pants, skirts in solids and trending toward the darker. Also, she says pay attention to the lines of your body and how they intersect and compliment your clothing choices.
“Most women are dressing to hide areas they feel aren’t as flattering and to accentuate those areas they like,” she says. “Knowing how to wear things that are flowing and have movement is important.”
That doesn’t mean piling on more fabric, she says. Instead, it’s just the opposite. Too much fabric, even flowing, can make even petite women look larger. So, too, can unflattering prints on skirts or slacks. Instead, she points to a simple edict.
“Solids are universal on people,” she says. “Know which colors look best on you, avoid those that don’t and wear those that do.”
Black is almost a universal color, she adds. But even with black, keep it neat and simple.
Since selling JJ’s Fashions, Pat has turned more of her professional attention to her insurance business, the Costanza Agency. Also, she and Joe continue to evolve their diverse real estate holdings. But fashion is still her first love, and she keeps abreast of the latest trends.
“I probably won’t ever stop working all together,” she says.
Pat and Joe Costanza operated numerous iterations of their fashion and accessories stores for 42 years. They are still anchors of the Monroe Downtown community, hosting gatherings, encouraging the burgeoning arts scene, and operating one of the area’s premier event venues, BellaStanza. And, as always, you can find Pat and Joe at art crawls and other happenings around the Twin Cities. Just be on the lookout for one of the most fashionable couples there.
By Michael DeVault