Pioneering Chicago designer, shop owner, model Debra Ward dead at 62

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Biba boutique owner Debra Ward with her customer Oprah Winfrey. | Supplied photo

Designer Debra Ward knew how to make women feel glorious.

Take event planner Paulette Wolf, who needed a dress for a gala. Ms. Ward found the material for her dress in Europe.

“It was a chocolate brown, beautiful French lace fabric,” said Wolf. “It’s all flowers. It’s one of a kind. It’s the prettiest lace fabric I’ve ever seen. It was so magnificent, and she designed this whole thing. I felt so glamorous in it.”

When Wolf walked in to the gala, strangers clustered around to ask where she got her gown.

Ms. Ward, 62, died of cancer June 14 at the Warren Barr facility at 66 W. Oak, said her husband Albert Gray.

A model, stylist and designer, she was also a pioneering African-American boutique owner on Chicago’s Gold Coast. In the mid-1980s, she and her husband opened Biba. The shop would operate out of different addresses in the 700 block of North Wabash and at 744 N. Clark and 732 N. Wells.

Customers included Madonna when she was in town filming “A League of Their Own.”

“She walked [over] from the hotel with her bodyguard,” Gray said.

Spouses Debra Ward and Albert Gray owned Biba, a chic boutique. | Supplied photo

Spouses Debra Ward and Albert Gray owned Biba, a chic boutique. | Supplied photo

In Chicago to make “Backdraft,” actor Robert DeNiro picked up a few things for then-partner Toukie Smith. Actress Kelly McGillis dropped $3,000 at Biba in 1994 while making “The Babe.” Michael Jordan’s then-wife Juanita was a customer. During the early part of Oprah Winfrey’s Chicago career, stylists bought her items at Biba.

Model and designer Debra Ward operated Biba boutique on the Gold Coast. | Supplied photo

Model and designer Debra Ward operated Biba boutique on the Gold Coast. | Supplied photo

Nia Long and Julia Roberts shopped there. Some Biba fashions wound up in Long’s film “Love Jones” and Roberts’ “My Best Friend’s Wedding.”

“Her style was impeccable — it was unbelievable,’’ said designer Barbara Bates, who worked in the 1980s with Ms. Ward at Contessa. “It was very easy but wonderful style.”

“Elegant, classy, smart,” said Helena Kogiones, who also goes by Contessa, the name of her boutique at 1 E. Delaware.

Ms. Ward “absolutely stood out in a crowd and had great presence,” said publicist Dori Wilson.

Red-lipsticked and regal, “People noticed her,” said her friend Grace Sniezynski. “They would ask me: Who is this beautiful woman?”

“She walked in a room, you would turn around. She was that pretty,” said Wolf.

She and her husband were written about in Essence, Elle, Vogue and The New York Times.

Like Ms. Ward, Biba’s style was simple but striking. Sniezynski met her more than 30 years ago when the windows of the boutique caught her attention while she was out walking. “Impeccable. That’s how Debbie was even when she wore jeans,” said Sniezynski, owner of Spa Emilia, 21 W. Elm.

“Very simple, it was never overdone — like tons of accessories or big bracelets or 12 rings,” said Wolf.

Fashionista Debra Ward. | Supplied photo

Fashionista Debra Ward. | Supplied photo

Ms. Ward explained her flair to the Sun-Times at a 1997 after-five event where she’d thrown a silver jacket over her black velvet jumpsuit. “I never go anywhere dressed exactly (like the invitation says),” she said. “I always add my own style to it, and do things slightly offbeat.”

Ms. Ward sold her own designs and other lines. She was one of the first to bring Dolce & Gabbana to Chicago, according to her husband. And whether they needed to be shorter or longer, tighter or fuller, she’d tweak purchases to flatter the wearer.

“She wouldn’t let me walk out unless I looked perfect,” said Laura King, who counted on Ms. Ward to help her find suits that accommodated her long arms for her work as a Lutheran pastor.

Even her packaging had style. “If she wrapped my clothes, [there was] a little bow there,” Sniezynski said.

Young Debra was born in Mound Bayou, Mississippi. Her mother came north ahead of her and settled in Chicago, where she worked as a stylist at her own hair salon near 85th and Stony Island Avenue, Albert Gray said.

“Her mother used to buy her magazines all the time,” he said. “She used to mail her Vogues and [Harper’s] Bazaars.”

She attended Kenwood Academy High School and studied nursing at Howard University. While modeling in 1976, she met her future husband, who was planning a fashion show at the Park West. He said she honed her style during buying trips to Italy, Paris, Hong Kong and Germany.

A gourmet cook, Ms. Ward started another business selling organic and healthy food to clients.

No services are planned. “She just wanted the people to remember her the way she was,” her husband said.

Friends and clients say they’ll never stop using her clothes.

“Everything I bought 30 years ago, I still wear them because of the quality,” Sniezynski said.

“It’ll never go out of style,” said Wolf.

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