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Longtime dress shop owner, 90, retiring; store closing

TAMPA

Every cocktail dress and wedding gown, veil and tiara — everything is marked down for final sale as Helen Cabrera prepares to close her N Armenia Avenue dress shop.

Customers flock, but not just to shop. The reduced prices are certainly a draw, but they also come to thank the fashionable lady who has dressed them for special occasions for 43 years.

"I love beauty and elegance," says Cabrera, who turns 91 next month and is still in command. Since recovering from colon surgery two years ago, she has continued to work at her eponymous shop five days a week.

Many of the women she calls by name, sometimes remembering a gown they bought and when they wore it. When she doesn't recall a certain Latin American Fiesta princess or homecoming queen, daughter Lucille Turner likely does.

"I don't care who you were, how rich or poor, they all got the same service," says Turner, 74. "We didn't sell a dress that we didn't think looked good on you."

She laughs remembering how they would sometimes hide a gown so classmates couldn't buy the same dress. "We recorded the school and style number of every sale so that wouldn't happen."

Fittings were Cabrera's forte. She taught herself to sew on her mother's pedal machine during the Great Depression. Before long, she was making her own patterns and copying chic designs from newspaper ads.

"It's very important to know how to sew," Cabrera said. "To know the quality of a garment."

Originally in the 1970s and 1980s, casual wear was her mainstay.

"Until the discount stores started moving in," she said. Her solution, wedding attire and tuxedo rentals, offered one-stop shopping for the whole bridal party.

Business thrived for years.

"I had to give out numbers waiting for a dressing room," Cabrera said.

Now a liquidator is likely to buy the inventory remaining in the 3,500-square-foot shop. The Salvation Army already received a windfall of 50 wedding gowns.

Born Helen Mendez on Sept. 17, 1923, she is the youngest of five siblings. Her brother, the late Charles Mendez Sr., founded the C. E. Mendez Foundation, which supports drug and violence prevention programs.

She vividly recalls growing up in West Tampa without plumbing or electricity. Milk, cheese and butter came from the cow her mother milked. Vegetables, citrus and grapes were homegrown. Clothes were rarely store bought.

"I learned to sew making sheets and curtains from feed sacks that we boiled in a tub in the back yard," she said.

At 15, she eloped with her boyfriend, Plant High School basketball star Mario Cabrera. She dropped out of Hillsborough High School and raised their daughter while working a variety of jobs: seamstress, cigar bander and payroll clerk for her brother's trucking company, Redwing Carrier. She co-owned Two Sisters dress shop in 1957 with her sister, Lita Diaz, before building her own store.

Turner has worked alongside her mother since the boutique opened in 1971, while raising eight children — six girls and two boys — with her husband, Billy Turner, a longtime football coach for Chamberlain and Hillsborough high schools.

"All my granddaughters have worked here at one time or another, and three great-granddaughters," Cabrera said, adding wistfully that it has always been her wish to see one of the grandchildren take over the business. The girls loved to accompany her on buying trips in Miami, shopping with her while the boys played golf with her husband.

In retirement, she will continue to solve crossword puzzles, beat the computer at solitaire and Scrabble, and watch detective shows. She also hopes to paint the water lilies behind her Lake Magdalene home.

"I've been working since I was 17," she said. "I'm ready to stay home and relax. It's been a beautiful experience."

Contact Amy Scherzer at ascherzer@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3332.

Helen Cabrera's dress shop is at 5110 N Armenia Ave. in Tampa.

Longtime dress shop owner, 90, retiring; store closing 08/21/14 [Last modified: Thursday, August 21, 2014 2:57pm]
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