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For generations, Helen Cabrera’s Tampa shop was the place to say yes to the dress

Cabrera, 99, died April 3.
 
Approaching her 91st birthday, Helen Cabrera, pictured in 2014,  prepared to close her dress shop at 5110 Armenia Ave. in Tampa, ending four-plus decades of dressing Tampa's fashionable ladies.
Approaching her 91st birthday, Helen Cabrera, pictured in 2014, prepared to close her dress shop at 5110 Armenia Ave. in Tampa, ending four-plus decades of dressing Tampa's fashionable ladies. [ 2014 | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published April 23, 2023

Helen Cabrera kept a log near the cash register. And during prom season, she noted each dress a young woman bought and the school they attended.

Anyone who shopped at Helen Cabrera Elegant Fashion in West Tampa knew they’d be the only one that night in that dress.

For 43 years, the West Tampa shop dressed women in beautiful clothing – first casual wear, then formal and bridal. The woman behind it was equally well-turned out in colorful suits with matching shoes and a halo of blond hair that she brushed, sprayed, curled and teased herself each morning.

Cabrera knew how to make her loyal customers look their best. But that knowledge didn’t come from a debutante who got family money to open a shop and play dress up.

Like the dresses she learned to sew from feed sacks as a child, Cabrera’s success was all self-made.

She died of natural causes on April 3. She was 99.

Helen Cabrera's shop opened in 1971 on Armenia Avenue in Tampa. At left, the announcement for the shop opening that ran in the Tampa Tribune. At right, Cabrera, center, with granddaughters Tammy and Tianne, models a dress in the Tampa Tribune in 1980.
Helen Cabrera's shop opened in 1971 on Armenia Avenue in Tampa. At left, the announcement for the shop opening that ran in the Tampa Tribune. At right, Cabrera, center, with granddaughters Tammy and Tianne, models a dress in the Tampa Tribune in 1980. [ Tampa Tribune, Via Newspapers.com ]

For the style-conscious woman

“You are cordially invited to attend the grand opening of the Helen Cabrera new house of fashions,” read a 1971 Tampa Tribune ad, which took up nearly a whole page. “Helen Cabrera House of Fashion has been specifically designed for the style-conscious woman. The understanding born of experience and artistic involvement is reflected in the decor, from the impressive exterior to the beautiful display areas to the fitting and consultation rooms. All the fashions are individually hand-selected expressly for the junior petite to the young matron … from the elegant casuals to the sophisticates. Helen Cabrera invites you all to visit.”

It was a long way from the feed sack curtains and dresses her mother taught Cabrera to make growing up during the Great Depression. Her mother’s own dresses were simple and always included a pocket to carry her money. Still, the path from simple to style was a rather straight one for Cabrera.

“She said she always liked pretty things because when she was young, she didn’t have them,” said daughter Lucy Turner.

Cabrera dropped out of school at 15 to get married. By 16 she was a mother. She worked as a seamstress, at a cigar factory and for her brother, until she’d saved enough money to open her first boutique in the late 1950s, Two Sisters Dress Shop.

After more than a decade, Cabrera sold her portion of that West Tampa store to her sister and opened Helen Cabrera’s. At first, she sold casual wear. When discount stores moved in, she turned to formal wear. Cabrera pinned the dresses in the fittings, traveled to buy clothes and had a system for how everything worked.

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“When I walked in the store, I was not her daughter,” Turner said. “I was an employee, and I knew that. She was the boss.”

Longtime dress shop owner Helen Cabrera is pictured here in the 1980s. Her store evolved with the competition.
Longtime dress shop owner Helen Cabrera is pictured here in the 1980s. Her store evolved with the competition. [ Tampa Bay Times via Newspapers.com ]

Abuela

To her eight grandchildren, Cabrera was “abuela” and her shop was a second home. She took the oldest four grandkids with her on shopping trips to Miami, said eldest grandchild Tammy Steele.

Steele remembers sleepovers at her grandparents’, where she’d watch her abuela get ready in the morning and spritz the perfume she wore her whole life, L’Air du Temps.

Every day after school, their grandfather picked the kids up and brought them to the shop, where they’d play until their mom was ready to head home.

Tenille Turner-Trigg, Cabrera’s youngest grandchild, remembered years of playing in the racks of clothes and trying on dresses. In the ninth grade, she modeled in fashion shows for her abuela. And like all the grandkids, she worked there for a while, too.

Helen Cabrera’s dressed generations of young women for quinceañeras, proms and weddings, including the Turner kids.

“I always felt like the best dressed person at prom and homecomings,” Turner-Trigg said.

Cabrera passed her love of fashion onto her grandkids, and she taught them how to handle money.

“She always told us, when you are working, you need to put a majority of your money to savings and just a very little bit can be spent on yourself,” Turner-Trigg said. “You save, save, save.”

For Cabrera, that savings paid off. She took her grandkids on summer vacations for years and helped them buy their first cars and their first homes.

And if anyone was slouching? They got a nudge from abuela.

“Hold your shoulders back. Stand up straight,” Steele remembers her saying. “She was like the loving little general.”

“She always wanted us to be the best we could be,” Turner-Trigg said, “and look the best we could look.”

Since her the death of her husband of 67 years, Mario Cabrera, Helen kept his photo on the black leather stockroom chair he used to sit in while waiting to drive her home each day after work.
Since her the death of her husband of 67 years, Mario Cabrera, Helen kept his photo on the black leather stockroom chair he used to sit in while waiting to drive her home each day after work. [ 2014 | Tampa Bay Times ]

Timeless

On the day her West Tampa dress shop closed, Helen Cabrera’s daughter, grandchildren and great-grandchildren filled the front room for a champagne toast.

Fifty wedding dresses were headed to the Salvation Army. A liquidator would come to buy the remaining inventory. In 2014, at 90, Cabrera was ready to retire.

And though her family had all, at one point, worked there, the era of Helen Cabrera Elegant Fashion had been eclipsed by fast fashion bought online.

Her store closed. The era ended. But Cabrera’s example is timeless.

“Her life should be an inspiration to all women that want to be somebody and want to do something,” Turner said. “They can if they just work hard at it. I guess that’s her best legacy other than family. You work hard for what you want and you can attain it.”

Pictured here in 2014 was the sign for Helen Cabrera's dress shop at 5110 Armenia Ave. in Tampa.
Pictured here in 2014 was the sign for Helen Cabrera's dress shop at 5110 Armenia Ave. in Tampa. [ 2014 | Tampa Bay Times ]

Poynter news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.

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