Perched on the leather couch in her all-white retail showroom, surrounded by mannequins modeling vibrant, flowing eveningwear, Joan Lamonica dramatically clasps her hands and laughs.
“I basically started this by accident,” she says. “It’s a long story.”
In the 1970s, eager to see the world and unsure what to do with a political science degree, Lamonica—who sports a shaved fire-red ’do with a tuft of hair styled above her forehead—moved to San Francisco from Seattle to become a buyer for a department store. She worked in a “beautiful woman’s specialty store” until she relocated to New York City to fly with Pan American World Airways.
She traveled with both the Latin American and European divisions, dipping into what little salary she had to shop. “I like things that are a little unusual,” she says.
On a trip to Rio de Janeiro, she found hand-dyed dresses at a “hippy fair” that fit her unique aesthetic. She returned home to friends pleading for her to bring back more. The next trip, she suggested changes to the Brazilian dressmakers: Could they make a dress out of a top? Make this dress strapless?
“They were kind of funky and different,” she says. “They were the first eveningwear pieces that felt like me, that I would want to wear.”
Her mom suggested she take the dresses to Henri Bendel, a department store in New York City where young designers would line up on Friday mornings to show their collections.
“I didn’t call myself a designer for the first 20 years I was in business,” says Lamonica, wearing a version of her “uniform”: a black lace-trimmed top, lace leggings and black hoop earrings. “But I took my few little things and stood in line. The department head and the buyer started ripping off their clothes to try on my things.”
In 1978, she started dying the dresses herself in her teeny apartment—pots were bubbling on the stove, and the garments, which were hanging in the bathroom and around the living room, were rushed to the nearest Laundromat to dry.
In what at first seems like a side note, she mentions that on her days off in New York, she took an interest in ceramics. In an odd-but-fortunate turn of events, the instructor handed her the studio when she walked away from teaching. Lamonica turned it into a mini factory, where she taught herself to sew clothes inspired by her travels on a Sears home-sewing machine. She named the line Sara Mique, a reinterpretation of the word ceramic.
Despite not having design or business experience—“It was a lot of trial and error,” she says—the business grew to include a sales representative and a seamstress, and soon she was selling customizable, hand-dyed garments around the country.
Nearly nine years ago, Lamonica moved Sara Mique to Coconut Creek to be closer to her husband, who had businesses in South Florida and was ready to stop dividing his time between cities.
“I worked so hard for so many years, and we have a niche,” she says. “We do something very, very special. We make beautiful clothes, but we also give incredible service. It’s different.”
While she is still in the wholesale business, retail has become the main service. The team of seven works on design and production in the back room. Still customizable, the garments are cut from elegant silks, laces and velvets; feature embroidery, sequins and crystals; and are individually hand-dyed. Everything begins in white, making Sara Mique a favorite for brides.
“We’re constantly working on new things,” she says. “We add and subtract, but we don’t do totally new collections. We have to do a lot of testing on our fabrics because they are hand-dyed—we have to adjust our patterns for shrinkage and stretches.
“It’s like a lab,” she continues. “When you’re only doing wholesale, you don’t see the clothes on people and see what they need, what they’re asking for. It’s a good way of doing our homework, our research. It was scary [at first], and retail is a tremendous amount of work, but I did it. Through all of this, I’m very tenacious.”
Location: 4800 W. Hillsboro Blvd., Suite B-6, Coconut Creek
Info: 954.531.6800; saramique.com