Hearing Her True Calling


Scissors in hand, Mona Thalheimer snips into the air. The sound of the shears, the rustle of fabric, the rhythmic hum of nearby sewing machines bring a broad smile and childlike curiosity to the face of the 54-year-old Los Angeles-born designer. Deaf since the age of 9 months, Thalheimer entered the hearing world in April after a hearing device--a cochlear implant--was surgically inserted into her left ear.

Now, everything she hears--the scissors, the voice of a dear friend, the clack, clack, clack of Charlie's doggy paws running across the kitchen floor--is a revelation even though the implant's signals to the brain are much cruder than what normal hearing could ever provide.

Still, "it's a new world" Thalheimer says loudly, happily, her animated personality on full throttle. Before the implant she had tried conventional hearing aids "but now I hear deep noises. I can hear myself!"

To strangers, her words may sound as if they've tumbled out of her mouth in slow motion, maybe even distorted because, after all, she didn't grow up knowing what sound was. But her expressive eyes and her dancing hands speak volumes as she explains that she has always been unafraid to talk. She didn't learn sign language until she was 30--and only because other deaf people chided her for not knowing it. "My parents always wanted me to be a part of the hearing world."

And now, she really is. Except, "those darn sewing machines drive me crazy!" she says, and then laughs robustly, the sound of her own laughter making her laugh even louder--and making those around her join in, uncontrollably. Her friends say it's a Thalheimer thing--her infectious love for life, her "I can do it" motto she learned from her father, Max, and mother, Leisel. For sure, she has so much to be happy about--and it's not just because every day brings new noises.

She's back doing what she loves best: designing women's clothes.

After spending the last nine years as a movie costumer, Thalheimer decided to return to designing because she missed the creativity and the people in an industry that has been very "kind to me," she says. Working on more than 30 films, mostly low budget and independent movies and television, became too stressful, only because "so much is done on the telephone--you know, that's how Hollywood works--and not everyone had the patience to work with a deaf woman," she says.

So with about $10,000 from savings and the support of many friends, including clothing manufacturer Gordon Morikawa, who welcomed her to share his downtown workroom, she is busy putting the finishing touches on her new fall line for Mona & Company.

"This is a comeback for her," says Steve Wies, owner of the women's sportswear company Devan Apparel, who knew Thalheimer's parents and has known Mona since she was a child. "You know, the world doesn't owe anybody anything. But in my opinion the world owes Mona. Whatever success she gets will be hard-earned and deserved."

Several specialty boutiques such as Weathervane on Montana Avenue and Whispers in Pacific Palisades are interested in Thalheimer's collection of flowing, pleated skirts and fitted jackets, and sexy tops in silk, wool, rayon jersey and lightweight tweed. Though a small collection, each of the 15 pieces, priced from $95 to $350, is elegant, finely tailored and fittingly called "elegance pour la vie."

"After I master English, comes French," Thalheimer says, demonstrating her sense of humor, which has pulled her through some tough times in her life, especially through the deaths of her parents. Max Thalheimer, born in Heilbronn, Germany, fled a concentration camp in 1942 to France, then Spain and eventually ended up in Cuba where he operated a diamond business. In 1945 he came to the United States and settled in Los Angeles where he owned a clothing label company. He later met Leisel, a native of Cologne, Germany, who herself immigrated to New York in 1931 and later moved to Los Angeles in the early '40s to follow her dream: to become a designer. They married at the Coconut Grove.

Then came Mona, born healthy and with normal hearing. Three months short of her first birthday, she caught a terrible fever and "the prescribed medicine wasn't strong enough to cure the infection," she says. "That's all I know."

As a child she attended John Tracy Clinic, which specializes in working with deaf children, and later Mary E. Bennet Elementary and Le Conte Jr. High. She was the first deaf student at Fairfax High School, where she attended the prom in a dress she and Rudi Gernreich, a family friend, designed together. She danced away with the best-dress trophy that night for a simple, yet elegant ball gown. "At that time everyone wore '60's glitter. I walked into the prom and all the girls just stared at me."

After graduating in 1971 from Chounaird Art College--known today as the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia--Thalheimer worked for local design firms such as Fred Rothschild Inc., Lanz Original and Abrizzi Inc. In 1987 she opened her own business, and soon her creations were on the racks of Bergdorf Goodman, Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, Nordstrom and Fred Segal. Then she accomplished another dream: working as a costumer.

"I owe my drive to succeed to my parents," she says over lunch at Massimo Ristorante at the California Mart with her friend, business partner and occasional translator, Bruce Johnston. The two met after the Northridge earthquake in 1994, Johnston likes to say, explaining that damage to his home resulted in moving across the street from Thalheimer in Santa Monica. They met while walking their dogs and began dating.

"I would say 'hello' to her from across the street, but she'd ignore me," he says, not realizing at the time she was deaf. Thalheimer corrects him. "I saw you. I was just playing hard to get." She likes coming to this restaurant because the owner, Massimo Mazzarini has a 6-year-old daughter, Ariana, who also is deaf. Often she and Mazzarini share stories and he welcomes Thalheimer's advice.

"Today, kids are different. So many of them don't want to listen to their parents," she says. "And that's sad because your parents can be the best gift in your life only if you take the time to realize that."

"I was extremely close to my parents," Thalheimer says. So close, in fact, that after Max passed away at age 70 one week after her college graduation she turned down offers to work and study in Paris with Givenchy and Valentino. But as an only child, she couldn't leave her mother, not so soon after her father's passing.

But her mother insisted that her daughter, who was 25, get a place of her own. " 'You didn't go to Paris so you have to move out and try another adventure,' " my mother told me. So I got my own place and you'll never guess who were my neighbors--Tom Selleck and Sam Elliott. . . . I was so glad to have listened to my mother."

Thalheimer's parents never treated her hearing loss as an embarrassment or a disability. "My parents always trusted me like a hearing person. They always said to me, 'Mona, read the lips,' " she says. "They gave me this great gift to go ahead in life and not to be afraid and most of all, not to be ashamed because they were never ashamed of me. At parties my parents would go up to people and say 'I'm Mona's mother. I'm Mona's father.' "

After her mother's death at 77 in 1992, Thalheimer says, "I lost myself." She pauses, fighting back her feelings, struggling to find the right words to express her emotions. Then slowly she says, "I didn't know where to go or what to do." She relied on friends to guide her through that difficult period, which included selling the family's label business because to operate it was "too overwhelming."

She stuck with designing and is glad to be creating a new brand and new look with her creations. She's taking her cues from store owners who have customers that want specific fabrics and styles.

Jan Brilliot, owner of Montana Avenue's Weathervane shop, has known Thalheimer for years and is interested in carrying the designer's collection. "Mona is filling a real hole in the market. Women want timeless, sophisticated and elegant clothing that is not matronly and boring. Mona's concept is very European in that regard, with pieces that a woman can build her wardrobe around."

Sharon Keasling, co-owner of Rialto Collection, a design and manufacturing company in Los Angeles for 40 years, is a fan of Thalheimer, whom she has known since 1979, and her work. "I've seen the collection and it's beautiful. The details are just perfect, but that's Mona. She has a flair for everything."

Thalheimer appreciates the encouragement from those in the business, one she realizes has changed. "Today, women dress much more casual than the last time I had a line of clothes," she says. "They want pantsuits, not cocktail dresses. They want easy but chic clothes. That's what they're telling me."

And Thalheimer is listening.

In fact, next week she starts classes with an audiologist to practice word enunciation. At home, she turns up the television and radio and the compact disc player on her computer where she communicates via electronic mail with friends. And she wants a cell phone.

"I believe in all of the possibilities of life," she says. "I challenge myself because I am used to obstacles. I owe it to myself. I owe it to my mother and father."

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