I first came to know The Two – in August of 2010 when I was desperately gownless for JO LEE Magazine’s 10th Anniversary Black- Tie Dinner to be held four months to the day! Milano, New York, Munich, San Francisco, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, nowhere could there be found the ball gown envisioned in dreams!

It was a beautiful morning as I gazed through my window onto the waters of Lake Ontario, and whatever made me think of an online search for the impossible – only the universe knew. I keyed in the designer label. It led me to but one possibility within the entire city of Toronto. Can you imagine? A boutique, seven minutes from my Fairmont Royal York Hotel residence! I placed the call, spoke with the incredible voice of Johanna, made an appointment for the coming week and the rest became history. Donna and Simon clasped me within their wings and over the next few months transformed my exact dream into reality!

Now, that’s power! This couple – this rare breed of innovative intelligence that built a retail fantasy where originality and power prevail.

Miami to Toronto! It was only a few years ago, well, back in 1985, when Donna and Simon and big business and big moguls were creating power from original thinking and inventing the niche so obvious that a cutting- edge Toronto boutique known first as F/X, and now as Original, would soar.

Donna and Simon’s Original at 515 Queen Street West – is breathtaking! As one enters through the tall, glass doors – elegance, a maze of high-end to funky shoes and designer bags, hose, and jewelry engulf you. As for the burgundy, roped-off, circular stairway that leads to some 5,000 gowns and original dresses, well – it becomes a phenomenon of its very own.

Amongst this wonder, I stood, with Donna and Johanna trying and trying to ziiiiiip up the dress of my dreams. “There,” they said. “We’ve done it!” Perched like a mannequin I said, “But I can’t breathe!” And the dress was transformed to flow {as only my father used to say} like The Duchess Jo Lee.

JO LEE: Donna and Simon, from the first afternoon we met, my gut said, “These two are rare!”

How did you create this incredible dream enterprise? What was that inner-pull that led to you both becoming the “business-savvy couple” that competition, today, cannot hold a candle to?

DONNA and SIMON: You’re too generous Jo Lee, but thank you for recognizing our journey.

DONNA SASLOVE: Jo Lee, we were both working for other people and one day Simon said “I don’t want to work for anybody anymore.” And that’s how it all began.

SIMON LUGASSY: I really never liked the retail business and I said, “Never, ever, ever, would I get into retail.” I just didn’t like it.

But Donna was so talented at it that when she graduated in design and began working for a company in Toronto’s affluent Hazelton Lanes: she was the store. She was the brand. The women would come, wanting only Donna to dress them.

I was managing and beginning to own shoe stores and becoming involved in distribution. But I always looked at Donna and thought, “That girl is the store,” and it really upset me that she wasn’t the owner.

JL: Donna, was there a synergy with what Simon was thinking – “maybe we should create together”?

DS: No, it wasn’t like that. We were already together. From the second we met, we were a couple. We were from different backgrounds but the same world. My family being more formally educated – doctors and lawyers and such, while in Simon’s world it was more about business. Can you believe – we met in a gay bar!

SL: I had returned from L.A. where I was acting and modeling and went to this bar where Donna was with one of her gay boyfriends. They were all blond and good-looking and sitting in the corner. I’m checking out Donna and finally walk over and say “hello.” But her boyfriend thought I was coming to see him.

DS: My side of the story is that my friend and I are in this bar and we were both looking at Simon and discussing which one of us was going to get him! My friend was certain he would. I said “I don’t know, I don’t know. We’ll see how it works out.” And Simon came over and said “hi” to me and eventually we exchanged phone numbers.

SL: She said she was Jewish and I thought she was joking.

DS: And I thought he was Italian.

SL: Jo Lee, as young as I was, 19 or 20, I knew I wanted to do something, something on my own. My world was that of business. It was very hard for someone as young as I was to be able to look at my parents and say, “I don’t know what I wanna be but I know I want to do something.” This kind of thinking was how it all started.

JL: Tell me about your decision to go to the U.S. Did you not open in Florida?

SL: Jo Lee – Canada was afraid of us. We wanted to open in Toronto but no one would give us an opportunity. They didn’t want to rent to us because we were too young. Everywhere we went, the situation was the same.

DS: Simon was working for the Romika Shoe Company, the European comfort shoe, and they wanted to open shoe stores in the United States and we wanted to move. But I didn’t want to go just to sell those shoes. We wanted to open a shoe store with fun stuff. Nice designer clothes.

SL: Romika agreed so we went to Miami in 1985 and we liked the idea because Donna’s grandparents were there.

JL: So you opened a store, two young business minds that, on a whim, went to Miami with an idea.

DS: And did we have ideas, Jo Lee! Simon will tell you the story.

SL: One day, we were coming off a Miami beach, walked into a mall – and saw the ideal location. We began negotiating with the business office and the next thing we knew, we were opening a store in a Florida Mall with Romika backing us. We had performed miracles in Toronto with their product – the comfort shoes. These people gave us the opportunity.

DS: It was a cute little location. Perfect! Not too big.

SL: So off we went.

DS: It was fun! I was matching Jean Paul Gaultier with comfort shoes and making a fashion statement. Everyone seemed to love it.

SL: And the next thing, we’re not selling any shoes.

DS: No, no, no. The deal was I wasn’t going to move to Florida unless we had clothes. The clothing was always part of it because I was not moving for those shoes. Even though they were fabulous shoes.

JL: Was Comfort Shoes your label?

DS: No it was Romika Shoe Store from West Germany – a huge company back there. Jo Lee, we took their product to another level!

JL: Donna and Simon, take me back to 1985. How long would it be – before realizing a profit?

DS: Jo Lee, we did everything very quickly including realizing profit. We opened in a few months and the next thing we knew, we were working seven days a week. It was good, we learned a lot there. We got a lot of exposure to different things that we would never, ever have seen here in Canada.

JL: Were you married during this time?

DS: Yes. We got married while living in Miami – and the wedding was held in Ottawa, Canada.

JL: So, why did you leave Miami?

SL: Because we started to see reality. There were a lot of bad things happening there.

DS: So we went to New York for a few days and found a really nice location for a store on the Upper West Side. We negotiated, talked to builders and returned to Miami to close our doors and move.

When we got home, ALL of our valuables and money had been stolen. It was our last week of business, the banks were closed, and thinking we were organized and safe, we’d stored cash from the store at home.

Much of the money we were to open with in New York was gone. We felt we had no choice but to come back to Toronto.

Simon’s sister was getting married and offered her apartment – we could stay there until we restarted our life.

SL: The next thing we knew – we were opening a store on Toronto’s Yonge Street near Wellesley Street – that was our first, in July 1989. And then, yes, yes, we opened many stores – I think 11 locations?

JL: And you have power- built an extraordinary reputation! Was it a huge struggle getting to the top of your game?

DS: Yes, and I’ll tell you how it went.

As I was saying, the first Toronto F/X boutique was on Yonge Street. Then we opened F/X on Queen West in 1991. We kept moving to the next “happening” area, sometimes closing locations when it made sense.

Queen Street was so hot, we opened a second boutique right next to the other one. The first Queen F/X store was one-of-a-kind dresses. The other was everything else. Respectively, we opened on Yonge north of Eglinton Street and then the shop in Yorkville.

After that came Spadina Avenue – a huge, 10,000 square-foot space where we had a candy bar, ice cream parlor, photo booth and great gifts. We did nail polish – I had 250 colors. And the best? We sold fudge. Salespeople and customers rollerbladed; it was like a department store that was continually changing.

SL: The location was amazing for a lot of things. Seriously, anyone who was anyone more than likely shopped there. We had fashion shows for some big names. Duran Duran held a huge fashion show and party in the store. Donna also produced an amazing show for Pat Field around this time – before she did Sex and the City – that was at the Phoenix Concert Theatre.

JL: How clever you were! Always targeting, always the happening location, always ahead of the curve! What a marquee!

DS: We fell into things. Simon loves creating.

SL: I like building stores. So anytime there’s something to build…

But the funniest scenario was with our boutique on Cumberland Street in Toronto’s fashionable Yorkville. The Yorkville Association wanted to have us evicted from the area because we weren’t traditional – until they realized we were attracting shoppers; we were good for the area!!

DS: Never mind. The clients loved us. We were even featured in Yorkville post cards. We had men’s wear on the second floor. Do you remember that?

JL: And all this time you were conserving?

DS: I don’t know. We were responsible.

JL: That is why you’re successful! Progressive, gutsy! Not foolish.

SL: That’s the way it works. You’ve got to be a rock.

DS: And through all this we had four kids, all boys, one after the other. I once came to work on the way home from the hospital after giving birth. We just kept going and the kids joined in.

JL: Lord! That must be easier said than done?

DS: Sometimes. Right after one of my boys was born, I had an important trade show I had to get to – there were things I had to buy for the store. I was breastfeeding. I got to the show, and they refused to let me in with my baby. This was New York, 1993, I want you to know. It was terrible.

JL: Did you leave?

DS: No. I was mad. Alex, who worked with me, helped put the baby in a backpack and covered the baby with his coat. We smuggled him in!

JL: And this littlest angel didn’t cry?

DS: No, because I fed him. So I started buying – and when writing an order, Security showed up to kick me out, again. The people I was buying from said, “Over my dead body is she leaving. This order is paying my bills!”

JL: What made you condense the number of stores you had?

DS: At one point, we were thinking that it would be better to have one large store rather than several smaller locations. Then the landlord in our big location on Spadina sold the building – it was going to be knocked down. We had three kids, another on the way, and we’d just bought a new house. What, why are you making a face?

SL: Well it wasn’t just a house. It was a mansion.

DS: We’d bought this huge house – far from downtown. Now we had a deadline to move the entire Spadina store – 10,000 square feet. Guess what we did? We ended up walking away from the house deal.

SL. Then I found this location at 515 Queen Street where we are now.
DS. No I did.

SL: Go ahead.

DS: Did I find it or did I not? Rents were $20,000 to $25,000 a month. That’s a lot of money.

SL: So we bought this building, Donna, instead of renting because we couldn’t find a space within our budget to rent that was big enough for our store inventory.

DS: My story is – there were other people bidding on this building but we were the only ones who wanted the building as-is, and that’s how we got it, drunks falling in through the doorway and all.

JL: How many square feet?

SL: Sixty-five hundred.

DS: But that’s not the issue, you see. I need to have so much space because you never know who’s going to walk in. And you have to have something for everyone or else what’s the point?

SL: Pay the bills. That’s the point.

DS: No, no – but you know what I mean. If you own a dress shop don’t you want to have something for everybody who walks in your door?

And we did have something for everyone. So now, at this point, we had four boys and one location – Original at 515 Queen Street, West that turned out to be a great address – again.

JL: In 2006, there was a fascinating twist?

DS: Oh yes. That is when F/X was sold. In 2006 a group approached us and we sold. I didn’t think we should sell but Simon insisted that we could do it all over again one day if it felt right. “They’re not buying you; it’s only merchandise,” he said. So it was a good idea and I listened. We sold our business after not having had real days off for 25 years. Isn’t that right?

SL: You know what I think? I think a group of people with a lot of money thought they could run this operation and we said, “Give us the money.” We went to Florida and “relaxed” for 21⁄2 years.

DS: We did not! Not entirely true.

SL: Bottom line – for the 21⁄2 years, we took care of our kids. We went to Israel. Donna did all the costumes for Fiddler on the Roof and Oliver! at our kids’ schools – and I was on my boat, I was at the golf course all the time. I was bored.

After 21⁄2 years, the purchasers of F/X went out of business. It was a lot more work than they expected it to be. They moved out and we moved back into this location.

JL: And you recreated, right here, in the same spot? You incorporated as F/X Original, but called the store Original?

DS: We did a total renovation. Simon did the whole thing. The original floors were kept – the glass front is brand new. The name of the store is Original because in the ’40s it was known as Original Furniture. You can see it in the marble floor at the entrance. Our son preserved their logo – he developed ours from theirs, copying the exact writing that was on the floor and on the old dark sign in the basement with the original glass embroidery. It’s etched and it’s wonderful. We worked with history.

SL: We had to decide if we were going to open for prom season – March Break. It was December 29. By January 1st we had to know because the buying and renovations to open were going to be huge. We opened on time.

JL: How old is the building?

SL: Probably as old as Toronto. The original owner’s son is 95 years old. He was so happy with what we’d done. I can remember him standing, watching, saying, “It looks even better than before.”

JL: You don’t advertise ever – not in Miami nor here?

DS: Never have. We’re involved with a lot of people. Production houses, film houses. Our stores have been an icon stopover for a lot of people and events over the years – it’s known as word-of-mouth. Last summer we won first prize for our store window during the Toronto Grand Prix – it was a contest bringing some unexpected attention and a lot of fun.

JL: I’ll bet you could name names that have come through.

SL: Over the years there were so many: the Rolling Stones, Darryl Hannah, Pat Field, Billy Newton Davis, Goldie Hawn, Anne Dudek and lots more. They didn’t want to leave. Elizabeth Perkins – nice girl.

JL: What’s the click? What makes Original different from anything else out there?

SL: Jo Lee, just imagine a retailer who is doing it for the money. What they’re doing is buying the top 10 that sell. We’re not that kind of a business. Donna is not that kind of a buyer. We are true retailers.

DS: I buy what I like and what I would like to see on others.

SL: And you know what, you’ve got to fill the stores up as much as you can.

DS: No it’s not that at all. It’s because of the service. Service is THE most important thing.

JL: Ah! But that click you have – is different!

SL: It’s because of Donna! You know what’s amazing, when a girl comes in and she’s large, and she’s slinking away in the corner as her mother is saying, “Come on honey, they’ll find you a dress.” And we take that girl and we dress her from top to bottom!

DS: That’s my favorite client.

SL: The mother has tears in her eyes. The daughter’s looking at herself for the first time in her life and you can see she likes herself. And let me tell you something, that moment when that girl leaves here and she’s happy and she sends you an online picture of how beautiful she was on that day with her date: that’s when it’s worth it all!

It doesn’t matter who you are. When you come in here to us – we’ll dress you. If you’ve got $200 we’ll make you feel like you’re buying $2,000. Everybody feels special in this store.

There’s another story. A young girl comes in with her mother, her boyfriend, her cousin, her other friend, and two more people and she’s looking for a prom dress. She can only spend $300 and she tries a dress on but: it’s $600. She comes out of the change room. Seriously, she looks like the world’s top model. But no one had really noticed until she put the dress on. And everybody went “Wow!”

Do you know what happened? Every one who came with her went into their pockets and every one of them pitched in to the last penny to buy her that dress. That was magic and it happens once in a blue moon.

JL: And with magic – comes love. What is your least and most expensive dress?

DS: Jo Lee, some have a budget of $100 maximum. This could be a grad dress, casual. If someone is really on a budget it’s good that they tell me how much they want to spend. I will find them a dress. And then there are mothers who buy $600 dresses for their grade eight daughters.

Most expensive? I don’t know – we have a wedding dress for $2,500.

JL: How difficult is making a good dollar in today’s economy?

SL: There’s no recession in this kind of business.

DS: Not really. Maybe instead of buying two dresses you’re going to buy one and maybe think about it a bit longer. People are still getting married, there’s still going to be bridesmaids, mother- of-the-bride, a bar/bat mitzvah, people going to parties. And people will still have birthdays – turning 18 or sweet 16 or 21. Many times we can do the whole family thing from youngest on up.

A lot of people call this dress heaven. When they walk upstairs – it’s like a very large closet that you’ve always wished you could play in for days. People always say, “Lock us up overnight.”

JL: So before you reach heaven, you must enter the golden gate. Tell us about going through your golden gate.

DS: Jo Lee, as you know, our first floor has many, many, many shoes from all levels of comfort to designers – to the most different things you could want. We carry handbags of all types from casual to evening to Vivienne Westwood, which are always beautiful. We have a lot of accessories, jewelry, hosiery.

JL: And then – you enter heaven!

DS: There are easily 5,000 dresses or more from the tightest to the poofiest. You can buy a basic black or the most elaborate thing on earth. For competitions, anything you want.

JL: Do you ever think of yourselves as the power couple?

DS: I never think about what we are. I think about the goodness of what we can do tomorrow.

SL: There’s no time to stop and analyze.

JL: Tell me about your four boys?

SL: Well they’re all good looking. None of them are even close to being alike but they are all artistic. They have big hearts.

DS: They’re sweet boys; 11 to 17 all doing their own thing.

JL: What would you tell young people asking, “Where do we begin?”

DS: Don’t get into a business if you’re not willing to commit all of your time to it. If you’re going to just hire a manager I would say, “Don’t open.”

SL: At the end of the day: it’s about having the business sense, the passion and the taste.

JL: When you think of what you’ve achieved – you’ve had luck!

DS: We’re very lucky. Luck is very important. That’s what my grandmother used to say. All you need is luck. I thank God every day.

SL: Every day I feel like I’m standing on a stage. This is the store and this is my stage.

JL: And what do you say to women as they grow into age?

DS: There are people my age and I look at them and say, “How can that be?” They tell me “I couldn’t wear that because I’m 35.” “Pardon?” I ask. I tell them they should try something fun.

SL: It doesn’t really matter if you’re not standing straight some day. It doesn’t matter that you’re not as good looking as you were. It’s the miracle of life that is everything.

Donna’s grandfather was my hero. I remember he would come into the mall and watch us build the store. The way he stood, watching us work was so important to me because everything we did was important to him. He was watching us and taking care of his Donna.

JL: Gosh, I’m in awe! What quiet elegance you have with heart. This rare breed of innovative intelligence that built a retail fantasy where originality and power prevail. The Incomparable Two!

SL: Donna, retirement is not a good thing.

DS: Oh, I don’t know.

SL: That’s how I see it – if you want to stay young.

3 Responses to “Jo Lee Talks to the Power Couple: The Incomparable Two! Donna Saslove And Simon Lugassy”

  1. Bob J. | 04.13.14 at 6:42 AM said…

    I am proud to say I went out with the lovely Donna S over 30 years ago. I thought she was a bit ditzy.
    It appears that I was the ditzy one. Congrats to Donna.

  2. Adrienne Kimberly | 01.07.14 at 12:07 PM said…

    I recently met Mrs. Donna Saslove and her son in NYC. I must say, she is an amazing person/women and her son was just a fascinating & cool (I actually thought he was her boyfriend at first, lol). Anyway, I was very inspiring by her vibe & graciousness. Truly wish their business and family the best! Now all I need is an “Original” dress!

  3. Elika Stagg | 11.17.12 at 2:11 PM said…

    Great inspirational story for couples and families…