A few months back, my brother e-mailed me and told me he had reconnected with an old friend on Facebook through a popular neighborhood group page called, “I Lived in Carroll Gardens When We Still Called It Red Hook.”
He linked me to his old friend’s website, nataliesarabella.com, and commented with shock, “Do you see what Christmas ornaments are going for these days?” Incredibly, I agreed. But I was more intrigued with the fact that Natalie Sarabella had been born and bred Red Hook and had risen to become the “Rock Star of Christmas Ornaments,” reputably known to design and hand paint exquisite Christmas ornaments for a high-end clientele of people. It all started at Bergdorf Goodman’s. Did I say I was intrigued? Well, that was more of an understatement. I was pretty blown away by her success.
Just scroll through her website and one can’t help but feel impressed by the long list of collectors who own her work: Dallas Cowboys owners Gene and Jerry Jones, The Presidential Bush’s, Joanna Carson, Bruce Springsteen and….. my God, could this be true? The late Maestro Pavarotti?
When I read that she had Christmas appearances at Bergdorf Goodman’s, I knew I wanted to meet her. Fast forward two months and some Facebook contacts later; I journeyed to Manhattan on one of the nicest days of winter after a couple of heavy snowfalls. Making my way through well-dressed Christmas shoppers and international tourists, and surrounded by the ambiance of old-world money and elegance that only Bergdorf’s could tout, I found my way to the 7th floor of their flagship store.
I stepped out of the elevator into what looked like Bergdorf’s “Hall of Fame.” A corridor proudly boasting photographs of memorable events with such noted celebrities, designers and officials as Madeline Albright, President and Mrs. Kennedy, Georgio Armani, and Anne Hathaway – to name a few. At the end of this gallant display of pride, in a cozy green room normally used for fine china displays, but converted now into a showcase of her ornaments, sat Natalie. It was a perfect setting. She greeted me with a bright smile and a friendly demeanor. We hugged immediately. I never knew her, but being from “the neighborhood” connected us first hand. I saw a girl much like myself, raised by strict fathers, whose influence stayed with us through life.
The plushness of the green space, commonly decorated as a room in an old house with woodworking, cornicing and wooden floors, lured customers to flock to her display of ornaments and paintings which stood center stage as she sat demurely in a chair autographing one beautiful ornament after another – packaged in rich, satin-lined boxes. Her daughter, Carrie, was there warmly playing right-hand woman to a mother she apparently admired and respected. Among others, Natalie signed ornaments for Elton John, The Beckhams and Celine Dion.
When she had a short break, we had some time to talk. Dressed in a smart black dress to accent her hour-glass shape and hot, red suede boots – hey, I appreciate good boots when I see them – Natalie began to tell the tale of how Red Hook was where it all began for her.
When she was little her mother would take her to A & S’s Department Store on Fulton Street to see the animated Christmas window displays. Inside, she was overwhelmed by the beauty of the large, rotating tree that hung suspended from the ceiling over the escalator bank. Looking up, through the wonder of a child’s eye, she marveled at the sparkling tree and its oversized ornaments – a memory she credits to the creation of her own oversized ornaments that she claims brings back the child in all of us.
But she takes her memories further back to a younger child in her Red Hook apartment on Woodhull Street where she was allowed the freedom to express her love for colors by writing on the walls and watching melting crayons on her radiator. No matter where she is, her creations bring her back to that perfect place in her mind.
The lasting impression that this tree and its oversized ornaments had on her led her to notice how ornaments dwindled in size and beauty through the years. She made a conscious decision to re-create that lost wonder of Christmas past.
Ask Natalie how that eventually came to be and she will tell you an almost magical tale. “In 1994, after creating my very first oversized ornament, I realized I had something great. I shopped in Bergdorf Goodman’s, so what better store to start in? I felt that the quality and standards that the Neiman Marcus Co. (owners of Bergdorf Goodman) and their customers had, were exactly what I had to offer. I approached them on a whim. I walked in without an appointment and asked to see the buyer. My first words to her were, ‘I don’t have an appointment. I have something to show you. You will either love it or hate it. If you love it, I want an order. If you hate it, you will never see me again……except to shop, of course!’ They loved it and placed an order, and put me on the inside cover of their magnificent catalog/magazine and I have been the top seller in the Holiday Shop there for 20 years.”
If that is not impressive, I don’t know what is. Yet with all the success she has acquired (Harrod’s of London has again requested a line of her work for their 2014 Christmas season), Natalie feels it has not changed her. She believes strongly that, “You can’t change who you are, only the way you think. Letting the fame and notoriety take over is a bigger risk than loving what you do.”
Keeping “the brand” separate from one’s values, she emphasizes, is key. Paula and Chris Kavolus of South Carolina couldn’t agree more. They were there at Natalie’s signing, and have been followers of her work since 1993. They travel most years to New York to see Natalie and have collected five of her ornaments. They spoke of Natalie’s consistent kindness and hearty outlook on life. “It’s not just her work we love, it’s her.”
Natalie’s sentiments are synonymous, too, with her recent re-connection with many of her old Red Hook friends on Facebook, where she enjoys sharing photos and reminiscing about the old days. She is very proud of her Red Hook roots, noting that Red Hook was much like a small town where everyone knew each other and people watched out for each other. “Moms at the windows; Dads in the social clubs; shop and store owners were our parents away from home. Everyone seemed related.”
She recalls as a young girl that one of her biggest challenges was trying to sneak up to Carroll Park to hang out. Her father designated only two candy stores where she was allowed to “hang out in,” Lil and Dot’s and Frankie Penna’s, both on Henry Street. Lil and Dot’s was owned by her aunt! She admits that those restrictions and her self-learned street smartness carries out in her personal and business life.
Born on Luquer
Natalie was born Natalie Nocera on Luquer Street, (across the street from my own home by Defonte’s) before her family relocated to Woodhull and Hicks Streets when she was just two, and where she claims the bedrock of her artistic life was formed. She lived there until she was 11 when the family moved to 2nd Place and Henry Street. There she met and eventually married her husband and ultimately moved to New Jersey.
Her art began circulating when she worked as a young woman of 17 at the Marriage Bureau on Court and Joralemon Streets (not far from A & S’s.) There, her co-workers of various nationalities (Holland, England, Ireland) would ask her to paint small paintings to send to their families back home. When she looks back, she sees it as a foreshadowing of her life now as Christmas’ “Rock Star of Ornaments” and the international turn of events it has made in her life, citing Harrod’s for one, and her collectors from around the world.
Natalie further credits Red Hook as the cornerstone of her life as an artist when she and her sister, Carolyn Tunon, also an artist, teamed up to create “Woodhull & Hicks Art Gallery,” a Miami based online gallery showcasing their fine art of color. Natalie’s hand-painted creations and Carolyn’s background in fashion fused their interest and resulting inspiration.
Natalie is now celebrating her 20 Year Anniversary. (She’s created a limited edition Anniversary Ornament for the occasion.) She originally partnered with her cousin, Janet, also from Red Hook, under the name, Sarabella Creations. In 2011 after Janet retired, Natalie restructured her business, renaming it simply, Natalie Sarabella (MMXI), and expanded her line to include hand-painted purses, wine glasses, candles, etc. that observe all occasions, including – understandably – Valentine’s Day. (I happen to love her bridal line, but a word of caution when making purchases online: be aware of frauds who copy her work. The only website that is genuinely hers is http://www.nataliesarabella.com.) The change in business structure resulted in a higher demand for her work.
Her couture brand of six-inch ornaments, which is made from imported German mouth-blown glass and embellished with such touches as Swarovski crystals, is still her signature line and is what the Travel Channel centered their documentary on in 2012 when they dubbed Natalie the Rock Star of Christmas Ornaments. Her celebrity following prefers the “Diva of Decor” and the “Queen of Christmas.”
Natalie smiles with a little girl innocence and regards this as charming. She loves the attention her work has received by way of her new titles. But true to herself, she knows she is juggling her ever-growing art work with family obligations, while giving immense pleasure to those who share her love of color and beauty.
In her own words, “Fa, la, la….life should sparkle!” And she does.