STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — Nestled in a remote part of New Dorp on a tree-lined side street lies an innovative business with a uniquely different, retro-style concept.

And though the establishment has been in existence for more than three decades, it still remains one of Staten Island’s best kept secrets.

Christie Helene

From the left, Diane Dalessio, Denise Watkins, Christie Helen Conforti, Mary Jane Tomasino and Danielle Longo of Christie Helene. (Staten Island Advance/Carol Ann Benanti) Staten Island Advance

The company, where one-of-a-kind fashion meets quality and creativity, is called Christie Helene, the namesake of owner and principal designer Mary Jane Tomasino’s daughter, who’s now 33. And it all started when she was just 2.

Mary Jane brainstormed the idea for the children’s formal wear business after she started a family and realized there was a gap in festive attire for youngsters. But she’s pretty much been in the business all her life.

Christie Helene

Mary Jane Tomasino and Juliana Arroyo holding her nosegay bouquet next to Juliana’s Communion dress. (Staten Island Advance/Carol Ann Benanti) Staten Island Advance

“Years ago, it was impossible to find stylish party dresses or flower girl dresses in the market,” the designer noted.

On the heels of her career as a retail buyer and bridal gown designer, Mary Jane, who graduated from the High School of Art & Design and earned a degree in costume design from the Fashion Institute of Technology, placed an ad for dressmakers to help her get the idea off the ground.

Christie Helene

Classic style Communion wear is among the selection at Christie Helene. (Staten Island Advance/Carol Ann Benanti) Staten Island Advance

“We just grew one employee at a time,” she said. “And the stores we were selling to convinced me to go into shows and expand.”

Also offered are Christening outfits and bridal, flower girl and bridesmaid collections and holiday clothing.

“Communion time is our biggest season,” the couturier points out. “But at the end of the season is when we do our best work,” a time when Mary Jane and staffers conjure up images, create sketches and prep and polish for the following season.

Christie Helene

Party dresses and accessories for little girls and boys are on display at Christie Helene. (Staten Island Advance/Carol Ann Benanti) Staten Island Advance

But one of her most important goals is to never lose sight of the quality behind her product.

“That’s what we do,” she said. “We spend a lot of time perfecting things and pay a lot of attention to the detail of the finished product. Because anybody can make a dress — but we like to make it perfect.”

Throughout the years the organization has not only managed to withstand the test of time — even with mandated restrictions due to the pandemic including the postponing of Communions — but they’re expanding their inventory and undergoing extensive renovations so that the name Christie Helene becomes even more recognizable.

Christie Helene

Mary Jane Tomasino, right and her daughters, from left, Christie Helene Conforti and Danielle Longo. (Staten Island Advance/Carol Ann Benanti) Staten Island Advance

MORE THAN JUST A BUSINESS

Mary Jane recounts when she saw the quality of clothing being produced, she wanted to bring back heirloom quality dresses for special occasions for people to cherish as they made memories for themselves and their families.

Her unique concept and the way it’s marketed is practically a lost art.

Christie Helene

Seamstresses are busy at work at Christie Helene in New Dorp. (Staten Island Advance/Carol Ann Benanti) Staten Island Advance

“Over the years we’ve gotten very invested in the kids. We keep in touch with families. Clients became my friends. We make dresses for special needs children and special headpieces for children who’ve been affected by alopecia. It’s not a business — it’s become a way of life.”

And since the day she created that little girl’s dress they’ve stayed in touch.

“Today that client is a nurse on Staten Island. It was an emotional moment. There was another girl who was a little overweight and couldn’t find a dress. We created a special dress for her and we’ve become lifelong friends. We are so close. She even came to my daughter’s wedding.”

Christie Helene

Rolls of delicate fabric dot the workshop at Christie Helene. (Staten Island Advance/Carol Ann Benanti) Staten Island Advance

CUSTOMIZING DRESSES — HER SPECIALTY

Now in its 30th year of operation focusing primarily on children’s formal wear with a concentration on the Communion market, customizing dresses and veils is an area of expertise where Mary Jane excels.

“We can take a top from one dress and a bottom from another and accent it with sparkly Swarovski crystals, intricate beading trim or whatever the client desires. We hand create nosegay bouquets with the same fabric and personalize heartwarming inscriptions or Bible verses inside their dress — a wonderful touch, as well as personalizing COVID masks. I want their day to be special. That’s what makes each piece in our line unique.”

Christie Helene

Mary Jane, left, discusses adjustments to Juliana Arroyo’s Communion dress, while a seamstres looks on. (Staten Island Advance/Carol Ann Benanti) Staten Island Advance

Mary Jane can also create Christening and Communion ensembles out of bridal gowns belonging to a family member. “It’s a beautiful touch and we can try to keep the cost down,” she said.

At one time she marketed the Christie Helene line at leading department stores, but now deals exclusively with smaller boutiques.

MASTER SEAMSTRESSES – ALMOST A LOST ART

Craftspeople in the workshop range from young ladies right out of design school to women who’ve been practicing their talent for years. And Mary Jane classifies her workers as a major part of the business’s creative lifeblood.

Christie Helene

Juliana Arroyo poses in her Communion dress. (Courtesy/Carla Arroyo) Staten Island Advance

With more than 30 people on staff, including seamstresses, sales representatives and a marketing team, dresses, pant sets, baptismal outfits and silk shantung separates are produced and sold on a daily basis.

“And they are all very much part of my design staff,” she adds.

Christie Helene

A Communion dress with matching cape can also be created at Christie Helene. (Courtesy/Mary Jane Tomasino) Staten Island Advance

A FAMILY AFFAIR

“We all work on the designs together,” said Danielle Longo, Mary Jane’s oldest daughter who’s in charge of the marketing of Christie Helene.

Christie Helene

A Communion dress created by Christie Helene. (Courtesy/Mary Jane Tomasino)Staten Island Advance

“For a significant portion of my life, I’ve had the pleasure and honor to work side by side with my beautiful and talented mother, as well as many other amazing women. It’s an exceptional experience to design and create special occasion dresses for children. Their excitement makes what we do all worthwhile. I’m blessed and full of gratitude to work in a field that I love and enjoy.”

“It’s amazing to see the passion and dedication that my mother has for the business for 30 plus years,” said Christie Helene. ” I know her biggest joy comes from making someone’s special day even more memorable. Seeing the growth of Christine Helene from when I was a young child to now in the year 2021 is truly incredible.”

Christie Helene

A mom’s bridal gown is converted into a Communion dress for her daughter. (Courtesy/Mary Jane Tomasino) Staten Island Advance

THEME FOR 2021

The theme for their “2021 Collection is “Joy” — being “joyful” as children celebrate the experience of God’s love through the rituals of the sacraments,” Mary Jane notes on her website.

“This year we’ve customized our designer shoe collection to complement our Communion dress line. Next season we’re expanding our boys suits and shoes line. We just finished dresses for a wedding party — five little girls and a boy and two Christening gowns,” said the entrepreneur.

“At this point we’ve dressed several generations for Christenings, Communions, proms and weddings — and their children. And everyone of my office people are terrific. The business grew bigger than I ever thought. It became bigger than me. We branched out and we’ve even sewn for sports and entertainment celebrities.”

CRUNCH TIME IN THE COMMUNION MARKET

“With Holy Communions reinstated on Staten Island and with many dresses shipped out of state, it’s been a home stretch crunch time for us,” Mary Jane said.

“With church restrictions lifted and Baptism dates being restored, business has been extremely busy. Within a short time, we’ll get ready for next year’s line. My down time is the month of July. When we return in August we participate in trade shows — but this year not too many. Last year there were virtual trade shows, but it’s not the same thing.”

“I’ve been in the industry for some 50 years,” she noted. “This isn’t our first rodeo. We’re reliable and people put themselves in our hands. They get the very best in design on a couture level. And we’re very blessed to have to have survived the pandemic,” she said. “People can call us and we can direct them to the right places.”

WHERE TO FIND CHRISTIE HELENE

The Christie Helene collection is featured mainly in all of Staten Island’s children’s boutiques and stretches to areas of Brooklyn and parts of New Jersey.

Interested in Christie Helene? Phone 718 668-9402 for further information.