Geraldina Shabani, a native of Albania, opened her Hartsdale, Westchester store in March of 2016. Drawing on her years of experience, Geraldina’s Couture specializes in everything from customized bridal gowns to alterations and restoration of vintage pieces. For Geraldina, her storefront is more than a business: it’s the realization of a life time dream, one that has accompanied her across the Atlantic Ocean. Having grown up in a family of tailors and seamstresses, Geraldina fell in love with fashion and design at an early age, creating her first dress when she was only 10 years old. At 18, she managed a full staff at her uncle’s fabric business in Albania.
In the late 1990’s, Geraldina moved to Greece with her husband, Arjan and their 13-month-old son, Redi escaping the Albanian civil war. Even though the couple had family in Greece, finding work in her new country was not easy. Much of the employment was seasonal and many business owners were hesitant to hire a woman with a young child. To find work, Geraldina had to make the difficult decision to return her son to Albania where he could stay with family while she worked in Greece. It took her 5 ½ years to reunite with her son. “My son didn’t know me. I promised I would never leave him again.”
She found work as a seamstress in an interior design store, a job she kept until 2010 when Geraldina was selected as a winner of a USA green card lottery and moved to New York in search of a better life. “I had no second thoughts in my mind,” she said. Speaking to family and friends in her home country, she learned about the fashion mecca in Manhattan. She found an apartment in Poughkeepsie and wasted no time looking for work. “The next day, my son found a job for me on Craigslist.” Just two days after arriving in New York, Geraldina and Redi took the train to NYC for an interview with design label Peggy Jennings. Because she spoke no English, 13-year-old Redi served as his mother’s translator. “They took me to the showroom and handed me a dress to alter which I completed in two hours. They offered me the job on the spot and began working the following day”. From there, she worked for several high-end designers, from Christian Dior to Dolce & Gabbana to Fendi.
Geraldina used her daily train rides commuting between Poughkeepsie and Manhattan to work on her English. She recalls sitting near a group of teachers as they were chatting excitedly about their plans for the day. I was sitting across from them, watching. They caught my eye looking at them and I said, “I’m so sorry, I’m just trying to hear so I can learn English,” she said. They quickly included her into their conversation and started to teach her. Redi also played a key role in ensuring his mother learned her new country’s language. He prepared a list of words every day which she had to learn during her commute, and Redi would quizzed her every night. Today, Geraldina continues working on her grasp of the English language and is preparing to apply for U.S. citizenship.
“But always I was looking for more.” Though working in the bustling city was exciting, Geraldina felt her work lacked the creativity she longed to share. During that time, she also did alterations for friends and acquaintances from her home in Poughkeepsie. When a client, a woman she met through another chance encounter on the train, persuaded her to visit Hartsdale, Geraldina fell in love. “I looked at this location and said, ‘This will be my future,” Geraldina said of Hartsdale, the hamlet in Greenburgh to which she and her family moved in 2014. During her many walks along Hartsdale Avenue, a vacant storefront caught her eye. Her dream of owning her own business became reality in 2016, when at long last she could open Geraldina’s Couture in that same storefront. Today, Geraldina’s Couture has four employees and her clientele continues growing steadily through word of mouth, drive-by/walk-ins and online presence.
Redi, now a student at SUNY Stony Brook, remains one of her biggest supporters. He programmed her website, helped her with social media outlets and creating her store logo. “I feel so proud,” Shabani says of her son. Another great supporter of her efforts is her best friend, Carol White
In June 2017, Geraldina became a WEDC graduate. She learned about WEDC through yet another fortuitous encounter. Her business was just starting while she was working part time at Neiman Marcus to pay her bills. She was let go when they found her business to be competition to theirs. Scared about having lost her job, she was sitting at a bus stop, crying. The woman next to her asked what was wrong. Once Geraldina finished sharing her story, the lady told her about the WEDC program. Geraldina signed up to the program as soon as she got home. “The program helped me in completing a solid foundation to grow my business. It was very helpful (for learning how) to be an American businesswoman,” she said. Geraldina hopes to put her existing and newly learned skills to grow her business. “I want to give my heart to my business.”
One of the most rewarding aspects of being a small business owner, is the being able to develop a direct relationship with clients. Her plans for Geraldina’s Couture include starting a sewing school this October and moving to a new, larger location. Her advice to all those thinking about starting their own business is simple: “Don’t think too much…JUST DO IT!”