An antique Singer sewing machine stands among ornate gowns in the window of Sylvia Cecunjanin's boutique. Inside, are more evening gowns and business suits. The back of the store contains her work area, with cutting tables and a modern sewing machine.
Sylvia has been a member of the Tri-Lakes community for 16 years. She came to the Adirondacks in 1992 with her two children as a refugee, fleeing war-torn Bosnia. Her husband Ere arrived a year earlier to prepare the way. They chose the Tri-Lakes because he had a cousin who owned a restaurant in Lake Placid where Ere could work.
In Sarajevo, Syliva's home town, narrow streets, ancient buildings and colorful markets contrast sharply with Olympic facilities and modern skyscrapers. Home of the 1984 winter Olympics, it is set in rugged, mountainous Bosnia, where three distinct nationalities have lived as neighbors for hundreds of years. But in the early 1990s, cultural and religious strife made it a city under siege, terror and tears - its pain exposed daily for all to see on television screens around the world.
Sylvia with customer Darlene Ploof, who is picking up her original wedding dress
(Photo —Yvona Fast)
In Bosnia, Sylvia had finished nursing school and worked as a registered nurse. With two small children, however, going to work at the hospital was not a possibility. To practice as a nurse, she needed three things: Her Bosnian credentials had to be verified and she needed to pass both the test of English as a foreign language and the CGFNS nursing exam. Although Sylvia is fluent in German, French, Serbian and Croatian, she didn't speak English. And as a new immigrant, she needed help with many things, from learning English to shopping. Her English is much better today, though she still speaks with a heavy accent.
So Sylvia stayed home, caring for her two children, learning English and adjusting to life in a new country, while Ere worked at the restaurant. An excellent seamstress, word of her sewing abilities spread quickly. In America, few people today know how to cook or sew.
Sylvia began making alterations for friends, but she soon found that she had more work than she could manage at home. So in 1998, she opened a tailoring shop in Lake Placid.
In Bosnia, her family owned a leather shop, and her business is an outgrowth of those talents. Never using a pattern, Sylvia makes everything from scratch, designing everything from wedding gowns to curtains. She has made draperies for many local camps and motels. She also works with leather and makes furniture cushions and slipcovers.
Sylvia is a lover of beautiful, elegant clothes. Although she doesn't mind shortening slacks, putting on buttons or taking in seams, she said the best part of her work is creating formal wear, like party dresses or wedding gowns. Very creative, she takes great pride in her original designs, and she loves working with young brides.
"They're so full of excitement and expectation," Syliva said. "It is such a major event in a girl's life."
Her business has grown, and in 2001, she opened Sylvia's Boutique at 126 Broadway in Saranac Lake. In addition to sewing and alterations, she sells formal wear, evening and business attire. Sylvia chooses high quality designer brands for her store including Calvin Klein, Badgley Micshka, Jessica McClintock and Xscape, which are just a few of the labels she carries. These augment her inventory, adding to her own original and beautiful designs.
Syliva said she tries to make sure the dresses, suits and gowns are affordable as well as beautiful. "There are many weddings and lots of cocktail parties in the area, but until I opened my shop, there was nowhere to buy beautiful, fancy clothes, like prom dresses, so my store filled a void," she explained.
Sylvia has adjusted to life in her new home well. Her boutique is a busy place, with many loyal customers coming in, and business is booming. Many area residents depend on her skills with needle, thread, scissors and sewing machine. With the economy in a downturn, there will be an even greater need for her services.
"It took me a while to get used to the climate," Sylvia said. "The winters are so cold and dark. But the people here are warm and more than make up for it. My children and I are happy here. People are very friendly. My oldest daughter graduated from SUNY Plattsburgh and is happily married. My son is in his second year of college. My two youngest children, both born here, are still in school. Saranac Lake has truly become our second home."
"We still have family and friends in Sarajevo and go back to see them," she continued. "It is a beautiful, ancient city and will always be our first home. But Saranac Lake is our home now, and we have many good friends here."