story by Julia Steele
photo by Dana Edmunds
Deb Mascia calls herself a “crazy pack rat” — a description that’s indisputable after you’ve seen her sewing room. Hundreds of old muumuu crowd the place, casting a retro rainbow of color and form. Puce and paisley? Chartreuse and calico? It’s all here. But Deb is not some ditz obsessed with Goodwill hunting. In our purchase-and-pitch world, she’s a pack rat with a purpose: to repurpose. She keeps old mu‘umu‘u out of the landfills by giving them chic new lives as up-to-date frocks, and her shop Muumuu Heaven is a hit with surf girls and starlets alike.
There’s more to Deb, though, than the shop. Say you’re getting married and you’d like nothing more than to see your grandma’s silk kimono become your wedding dress. Deb’s your gal. Or maybe it’s your mother’s own wedding dress, a high-necked, puffy-sleeved fashion faux pas best forgotten—or transformed. Deb turned that into a sleek modern gown. Time and again, people have brought Deb old clothing full of sentiment and meaning and asked her to give it new life.
Deb’s most famous patron is the president himself, Barack Obama. His sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, is a close friend of Deb’s—and when Barack and Maya’s much-loved grandmother Toots passed, Maya brought sixteen of Toots’ muumuu to Deb. “Every single night after work, Toots would come home, take off her professional clothes and put on a muumuu,” says Deb. “Her closet was full of them. Some were so worn and soft. A couple smelled of scotch and cigarettes.” Deb took them all and began sewing. A favorite batik muumuu from Indonesia became a shirt for Barack and trim for a dress for his wife, Michelle. A taupe-and-black rayon muumuu became cummerbunds, bow ties and handkerchiefs for Barack and for Maya’s husband, Konrad. Deb has also used Toots’ muumuu to craft, among other things, dresses for Maya and Maya’s and Barack’s daughters.
“My only gift is I’m a great thrift shopper,” muses the designer with a laugh. “I’m not Mother Teresa but that’s who I am. I just like finding treasure and reusing it.”