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Step Into Joy Bianchi's Stunning Helpers House of Couture

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Photos by Aubrie Pick

When you arrive at Joy Venturini Bianchi's Helpers House of Couture, she will certainly be excited about a piece of clothing. Today it's a black satin tiered skirt with a matching strapless top circa 1950, which she'd just received as a donation. Also, a green Pucci gown with an asymmetrical slash across the torso worn by none other than Beyonce in her "Run the World (Girls)" video, will have her squeezing your arm: "Could you just die? I'd wear that in two seconds." When her seamstress, Anita, gives her a look she adds: "I'd wear it modestly!"

At 74, Bianchi looks as elegant in a gown as she did 40 years ago. A recent bout of cancer has done little to hinder her social schedule—she can be found dressed to the nines for galas and philanthropic events in San Francisco most any night of the week. But her love of beautiful clothing is not some superficial endeavor. It's directly connected to her desire to help people.

"At the end of the day, the clothes are just a vehicle to make a connection with another human being through joy or suffering. I believe in human connection; I believe that's the only important thing about life."

Bianchi, a San Francisco native, began her charitable life as a child in Catholic school when she says she fell head over heels in love with Saint Vincent de Paul. At 14, she helped the nuns at her school with an organization called Helpers of the Holy Innocents, and she eventually became director of the program, now called simply Helpers. Also in the '60s she somehow found time to get married (she's now divorced) and have two daughters, who still live in the Bay Area. She has two grandchildren.

Her Helpers House of Couture on Fulton Street is a jam-packed fashion-collector's dream: see the Beyonce-worn dress above, plus you'll find gowns from Halston, Balenciaga, Courreges, Chanel, Christian Dior, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Louis Vuitton, Alexander McQueen, Ralph Lauren, Oscar de la Renta, Pucci, Ralph Rucci, and much more, plus shoes and accessories by every covetable designer imaginable.

Photos by Aubrie Pick

The two homes on Fulton Street that house all of this glamour were once a haven for men and women with developmental disabilities. From the '60s until 2002, six men lived in one, six women in the other. They had live-in staff and enjoyed full lives. Wilkes Bashford, a close friend of Bianchi's, dressed the men, and many lived there until they died. Bianchi fondly remembers a project she spearheaded: the residents handmade stuffed mice wearing designer outfits (some are still available on 1st Dibs).

"We created the most gorgeous animals. They were so exquisite, I can't even begin to tell you. They took some 1,000 hours of work and some sold for $2,000. I had this dream that Tiffany would put them in their windows, and they did for 12 years. People are afraid of mice like they're afraid of people with disabilities, so I wanted to do something with that."

When it became too difficult to find qualified staff, Helpers closed the houses and they were eventually transformed into the couture program, which receives clothing donations from around the world. Proceeds help build customized wheelchairs for patients at Laguna Honda Hospital and the Janet Pomeroy Center, train caregivers of the disabled, and fund the L'Arche Tacoma Hope Farm and Gardens in Tacoma, Washington.

These days, the Fulton house is the place to find that dress no one else will be wearing at your formal event. The likes of Stella McCartney (who also sends donations) and Hamish Bowles have spent time shopping there, which is by appointment only---"but it's easy to get an appointment," Bianchi says--just call 415-387-3031. She knows the place like the back of her hand and zips around the nine-room house pulling pieces she thinks you should try. Trust us, even if you're half her age you'll have trouble keeping up.

"I have such a good time dressing people for events," she says. "It's part of the celebration, giving yourself as a gift to all your guests. I especially love dressing women size 12 and up."

When it comes to designers, Bianchi has her opinions. Ralph Rucci is a favorite: "I feel he's our Balenciaga of today." She also loved Balenciaga, Yves Saint Laurent, Bill Blass: "that man was an American genius," and Jimmy Galanos. "These men really cared about what they produced and they all loved women. Alber Elbaz is a miracle man. He likes women. He's a darling teddy bear and a loving man who adored his mother."

Helpers House of Couture has many pieces by Alexander McQueen, who holds a special place in Bianchi's heart. "McQueen, Jesus Christ almighty. I have a dress by him with a hood so chic that I can't even stand it." And she's on board with Sarah Burton as the new creative director. "She honors his legacy because she knew him spiritually. McQueen is still a first-rate house."

As for younger designers taking over the old houses? "For the younger generations it's exciting, but I'm used to something different."

The prices at Helpers range from $10 to $10,000. But if you're more interested in browsing vintage finds than shopping by appointment, check out Bianchi's Helpers Boutique in Ghirardelli Square, where she can often be found manning the register, and where shoppers have been known to score gems including cashmere Hermes overcoats for less than $200 and new-with-tags Wilkes Bashford shirts.

At either location, whether or not you find the dress of your dreams, any time spent with Joy Bianchi will leave you feeling a little more in love with fashion and a little happier to be alive.

For an appointment at Helpers House of Couture, call 415-387-3031.
· Helpers House of Couture [1st Dibs]
· Joy Venturini Bianchi's Helpers House of Couture [SF Gate]
· See SF Bloggers Model Vintage Jewels From Sweet & Spark [Racked SF]