From the Red Carpet to Masks
by Melissa Griegel
Designer David Josef is known for his fabulous gowns but with all red carpet events, award shows, weddings, and other big celebrations on hold, David has found a new way to use his talents and also help people. His design studio has been turned into a seven-day-a-week mask-making endeavor. Theater Pizzazz’s Melissa Griegel had an opportunity to talk with David and find out more about where he got his start, how he ended up making red carpet gowns for Broadway stars, and how he started volunteering his time to donate masks to people all over the country in need.
Q: You started sewing when you were just a kid. Tell us about the trajectory of making costumes to becoming a full-time designer. What did your peers think?
DJ: I first started sewing when I was seven years old. No one taught me — I just decided to be a little shit and sit at my mother’s sewing machine and see what I could do! No one knew that I was doing it until I started producing backyard plays for Jerry Lewis’s muscular dystrophy telethons. My mother, of course, would attend those little plays and noticed that the costumes on all the princesses look like her sheets. They were her sheets! LOL! And that’s how it all began.
Once my mom and grandmother knew that I had a natural ability, they nurtured me and helped me along the way. By the time I was 12 years old, I was an expert stitcher learning at the knees of both my mom and grandmother.
While I was in high school, I was horribly bullied for many years, and yet I still had the chutzpah to wear my own designs every day. Knowing I would get bullied or accosted, it didn’t matter. I also designed the Cheerleader outfits and Prom gowns for all the girls in my class. There was just something in me that didn’t care because I was going to be me, no matter what.
Q: How did your foray into making gowns for celebrities get its start?
DJ: Everything changed in my senior year at Classical High School, in Providence Rhode Island.
I had a fake ID. All of my girlfriends and I went to a nightclub to see Broadway and television personality Kaye Ballard perform her music and theatrics. To make a very long story short, I got to meet Kaye face-to-face that evening and told her that I was a budding designer. She asked me to make a dress for her. If she liked it, she would wear it for a taping of the Merv Griffin show the following Tuesday. I met Kaye Ballard on a Friday night and had to have the gown done by Monday as she was flying back to LA Monday afternoon for her taping of the Merv Griffin show!
She loved the gown, wore it on the show, and she talked all about the 16-year-old boy from Providence, Rhode Island who made the dress for her. (My legal name being David Prignano at the time.) From that moment on. everything changed. The trajectory of my life changed.
The bullying stopped and suddenly I was the big star in my high school.
Q: This is not your first time volunteering and fundraising for charitable causes. Tell us more about your charity Fashion to the Rescue.
DJ: It was seven years ago that my friend Aimee Takaha from Aimee’s Farm Animal Sanctuary in Gilbert, Arizona reached out to me because she was in need of emergency financing for a horse just rescued named Crystal, who was in such bad shape, she needed an immediate $15,000 or she would have to sell the horse. She knew that if she sold Crystal, the horse would be destroyed and sold for her parts.
I went online and started a GoFundMe and we raised $20,000 in about three days. That started my affinity towards fundraising and animal rescue.
Fashion to the Rescue is a non-profit and is an annual event, however this year our event was supposed to be April 16 and with the pandemic, the whole thing is postponed. This year would’ve taken us over the $500,000 mark for animals in need, and animal rescues and sanctuaries.
It’s a funny thing, Melissa, I never knew that I had an affinity towards helping people, or fundraising until one day, when I was being interviewed by someone and my husband Danny was sitting in, and he recognized that I have been doing it since I was eight years old with those Jerry Lewis telethons!
All through the 1980s we produced events to raise money for AIDS awareness, and AIDS Research funding. We’ve always been involved in cancer benefits. It just seems to be the thing that I enjoy doing. It’s simply organic for me to give back. It’s just who I am.
My career has taken me so many places and more recently to Broadway! I’ve had a wonderful friendship with actress Judith Light for over 30 years as I used to design special ensembles for her character Angela Bower on Who’s The Boss?
I’m going to tell you a quick story about one act of kindness that has taken me all the way to Broadway — it involves my dear friend Mary Callanan!
Mary was a struggling singer, actress in the Boston area and I believed in her. She couldn’t afford my designs but I loved who she was, I love her comedy, I love her big personality and her brassy voice! So I would dress Mary for different events at no cost.
It was just a matter of time before Mary did make it on Broadway! Starring in the closing cast of Mamma Mia; starring in Andy Blankenbueller’s Bandstand; Bridges of Madison County; My Fair Lady; and so many other shows to follow. Because of Mary’s kindness and the fact that I made her look so damn good… LOL… I got to meet the legend herself, Beth Leavel.
Beth loved my designs that I did for Mary for many of her shows at Feinstein’s/54 Below in Manhattan. Beth then asked me to design her gown for opening night of the musical The Prom!
Beth’s gown was a sensation and we have been dear friends ever since. More recently, I had the pleasure of dressing Melba Moore for Broadway‘s Women of Color Awards as she received a Lifetime Achievement Award. Singer and actor Amy Spanger from Rock of Ages and Chicago was another client. Brilliant Lisa Howard has been wearing my designs for her one-woman shows. And one of my personal icons, the legend herself, Melissa Manchester has recently become a dear friend and client.
Q: When did you decide to convert your operation over from gowns to masks?
DJ: I can tell you exactly the day and time when my husband Danny and I started making Masks. It was March 20th and our governor in Massachusetts put us into lockdown mode three days earlier. After three days in the house, I was already losing my mind. Danny and I were watching MSNBC’s Morning Joe. Joe and Mika were talking about Governor Andrew Cuomo and the tweet he put out to all of the New York designers that masks were in desperate need.
I turned to Danny and said, let’s go to the studio this morning, figure out a pattern, and make a couple of hundred masks. We did and then put together a tutorial for YouTube which has already reached over 10,000 views. We are now at about 3000 masks that we have banged out seven days a week, eight hours a day since March 20, without one day off.
Ironically, I found making masks very gratifying. Unlike making gowns that take months, making masks and delivering them to people in need or people who are purchasing, is immediate gratification. You go into the studio in the morning, make 100 masks, distribute them to the folks on the list, and you’re done for the day. The next day you go in and do the exact same thing. All without interruptions, without having to sit and chat with clients. It’s a very fulfilling endeavor.
I have been blessed with making masks for all of these folks on Broadway: Christian Borle, Beth Leavel, Adam Heller, Melba Moore, Amy Spanger, Danny Burstein, Nik Walker, Mary Callanan, Judith Light, Melissa Manchester, and legendary singer, Sarah Dash from LaBelle.
All of my masks are designed with a slit on the inside of the liner, that a filter is slipped into. They also have a wire across the nose and removable filters so the mask can be washed. The filters last for six months. We provide filters with every single mask.
We have provided masks to various hospitals, nurses, supermarkets, nursing homes, community centers, veterans centers, any people in need. More recently, we started taking orders from the general public.
This mask making movement has been an incredible journey. It truly has given me a new purpose in life! As sad and overwhelming as it can be at times, it has been a remarkable ride.
This mask making journey has given me a new purpose in life! And I am grateful.
Q: Thank you so much for all of the masks you have made for essential workers and everyone else who has not been able to get masks from other sources. I love my Marilyn Monroe mask. I never knew a mask can be so fashionable! How can people order masks from you?
DJ: I will be posting information on my FaceBook page, including photos of prints and instructions of how to order and Venmo payments. Check out my page for updated info. Thanks!