Fashionably Related: 10 Questions for Ilie Wacs and Deborah Strobin

– By Val Bitici –

Austrian-born siblings Ilie Wacs and Deborah Strobin are a brother-sister dream team. Ilie is a talented artist-turned-fashion designer-turned-artist again, best known for his affinity for bold form and strong color. His younger sister, Deborah, is a veteran philanthropist who devotes most of her time to organizing fundraisers for children, the American Cancer Society, and stem cell research, among many others.  In the 1980’s, she organized the single largest fundraiser in the country, by bringing the first ever haute couture Yves Saint Laurent fashion show to America, benefitting the San Francisco Symphony.  And did I mention that they dramatically fled Nazi Austria in 1939?

I had the chance to ask Ilie and Deborah about their lives while they were in New York promoting their memoir, “An Uncommon Journey: From Vienna to Shanghai to America A Brother and Sister Escape to Freedom During World War II (Barricade Books).  A chronicle of their escape from Nazi-rule, their time as refugees in Shanghai, and their final arrival and subsequent rise to success in the United States, this book proves that Ilie and Deborah are personifications of the American Dream. Below, the siblings describe exactly how far they’ve come since WWII, remembering the people and hobbies that helped them along the way.

Ilie Wacs and Deborah Strobin at a recent event for their memoir, "An Uncommon Journey" (left), and as children in Shanghai with their parents (right).

VB: You endured so much hardship early in life, but both finally ended up on top. At what point did each of you consider yourselves comfortable?
Ilie: Feeling comfortable was a gradual process. First the relief of surviving the war, then leaving Shanghai, studying in Paris, settling in the United States, and finally starting my own business. That was when I considered myself comfortable.
Deborah: I must say that my comfort wasn’t until the time I finally left Shanghai. After hearing ” tomorrow we will leave for America” for so long, tomorrow finally came.
VB: Who were the most influential people in your life and why?
Ilie: The most influential people in my life were my father, who instilled faith in me, and Charles Jordan, the head of the American Joint Distribution Committee in Shanghai- a Jewish relief agency that helped resettle Jewish refugees after the Second World War. He provided a scholarship for me to study art in Paris, and was later instrumental in my becoming a designer.
Deborah: My mother, father, and brother. I was influenced by their determination, as well as their perseverance and sense of individualism. I must also include my husband, who gave me a chance to have my own voice and think outside the box.  They were all strong individuals.
VB: Your lives have been filled with many chapters. What was the most important chapter in your life and why?
Ilie: There were many important chapters. The most important one was leaving Nazi Austria ten days before the outbreak of the war. It saved our lives. Sheer luck.
Deborah: The most important chapter in my life was leaving Shanghai and having the first taste of freedom.
VB: You each make the best of what you have been given. What inspires you to live each day to the fullest?
Ilie: I’m inspired by the realization that life is a game of chance. We never know what will happen next; therefore we should enjoy each day to the fullest. Carpe Diem—seize the day.
Deborah: Knowing that I have helped causes that I believe in. Living in the now, and not worrying about tomorrow. As I mentioned in the book, my whole life consisted of tomorrows. Learning that now is all we have is what keeps me inspired.
VB: How do you relax when you’re not working? 
Ilie: I paint much of the time. Other than that, I walk a couple of miles each day, play tennis whenever possible, and keep abreast of what is happening in the world, which is not always relaxing. I also read, visit galleries, museums, the theater, etc.
Deborah: To be honest, I have a hard time relaxing. However, when I do shut down, I like to read, exercise, and listen to classical music (during my exercise routine).

Vogue, Sept. 1971, with an Ilie Wacs coat on the cover (left). New York City window display of Ilie Wacs designs, Lord & Taylor, 1963 (right).

VB: Art and fashion are very closely related but at the same time extremely different from one another. What draws you to each, and why did you finally make the shift to art?

Ilie: Art and fashion are different expressions of the same impulse to create. I was drawn to fashion for its dimensionality and practicality. Beyond the pleasure of wearing something beautiful, a coat also keeps you warm. I finally shifted to art because I could respond viscerally to the visual world around me without having to think commercially. Also a painting lasts longer than a coat. It might even wind up in a museum someday—hopefully.

"Falling Man" by Ilie Wacs

VB: Who are the artists that most influence you and why?

Ilie: The artists that influence me most are Cézanne and Picasso. Cézanne, for his analytical approach to painting, and for laying the groundwork for cubism. Picasso, for actually inventing cubism—along with George Braque—and creating a new pictorial language. He showed the limitless possibilities of art beyond mere representation.

Mrs. Strobin, receiving a proclamation from San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom for her charitable efforts, benefitting stem cell research

VB: You have organized large-scale fundraisers. What charities are you most currently involved with and why?
Deborah: At the moment, I took some time out to write this book. However, I am thinking of doing a fundraiser for the International Medical Corps, an organization that trains health care workers alongside humanitarian assistance and launches long-term projects to restore local and international health systems in emergency settings. They are making an effort to replicate the model throughout the world, bringing health and self-reliance to hundreds of millions of people. I know how it feels to be deprived. I feel their pain and want to bring their efforts to the foreground.
VB: You have a knack for fundraising – what are your secrets to raising so much money?
Deborah: The secret is to feel passionate about the cause you represent—that passion will translate to others. I choose charities that I can relate to and believe in, and I always practice what I preach. I believe you must show honesty from the get-go.

Deborah Stobin (far right) with Jennifer Hudson, Broadway actor Leroy Reams, and composer Marvin Hamlisch (far left) at 2008's "Help Raise Healthy Children" gala.

VB: As a role model, you are expected to always look and dress the part of an influential woman. Who are your favorite fashion designers and why?
Deborah: Giorgio Armani and AKRIS. I have always liked simplicity. Their clothes represent simple and effortless style, timeless elegance, and are always well tailored.

To hear all about the Yves Saint Laurent show, and for more of Ilie Wacs on his iconic coats, please visit their Facebook page.


About the Author

Val is a writer and editor born and based in New York City. She started her editorial career at Teen Vogue, then moved on to Vanity Fair and Travel+Leisure. She is currently the head of content at StyleKist, a new social commerce app that allows fashionistas to shop and make commissions from their photo and video feeds. You may follow her @diaryofval