Justina McCaffrey: How I got my name back

By Justina McCaffrey

For me, fashion is a journey that defies the constraints of the runways around the world. It’s an industry to which I have given myself for over twenty years. However, my journey as a designer and entrepreneur has not always been easy, and like fashion, I too defied constraints to find my way to where I am now. To help explain my journey, I feel compelled to tell the story of my name.

I was my parents’ first-born child and was given the name Justina Antoniuk. My grandfather had immigrated to Canada from the Ukraine and my namesake was my grandfather’s wife. As I grew from a child into a young woman, more than once I would change the name that was given to me. At four years old, I made a deliberate decision to change my name to Nina, and I stayed Nina for many years. As a pre-teen, I studied acting and played the role of Juliet. It was then that I realized that a name can divide families, despite Juliet’s proclamation, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose/ By any other name would smell as sweet.” (Romeo and Juliet, Act 2, Scene 2, 1-2). As a teenager reading Vogue, I saw that the names on the labels of clothes could signify luxury. And during my time at the Fashion Institute in LA, I discovered that no one in Southern California could pronounce Antoniuk. For all of these reasons, by the time I got married, I took no issue with taking the last name McCaffrey, but I kept something that had been so lovingly given to me twenty-three years before – my first name, Justina.

Why write so much about my name? I did not know as I portrayed Juliet that one day, my own name would be such a big part of a familial divide. Following my divorce, on the fateful day of February 18, 2008, I was locked out of a business in Ottawa that bore my name. My designs and materials were put away in a secret location and the constraints of being separated from my creative property weighed heavily on me. The store became a place with “my name” and “my stuff ” that betrayed me. Every day that my name was on that building was in some ways a broken day. I had to fight for and protect my name – my brand, and eventually, the Sussex store was rebranded to a different name. I began working from the bottom of my new life, consulting for bridal companies in Los Angeles and New York and beginning my collection, Justina Bridal, now sold at Neiman Marcus and Kleinfeld in New York.

As I focused on my current company in Toronto, I did not predict that circumstances would circle me back to “my long-lost stuff ”. A good friend notified me of the bankruptcy sale of the same business that had locked away my designs and thrown me out. With this friend’s support, I returned to Ottawa and finally saw this mysterious place. I was driven to tears as I saw the once-happy dress forms, now worn and misshapen, and was able to purchase back patterns, fabrics, and machines. I visited the sale every day and when it was over, the manager approached me with what looked like a bag of bones and said, “Justina, this is yours.” Inside the bag were the letters that spelled my name that were once attached to the Sussex store. She had given me my name. And just like that, I was free of those past constraints.

As I explained earlier, fashion is a journey that defies constraints and needs continuous giving. I am anticipating an imminent move back to Ottawa, with a desire to give. My new facility, a gorgeous Victorian home in Gatineau, will give clients a very different experience than the pressures of “Say Yes To The Dress” or my Sussex store. Clients will bring their friends, drink champagne and stay a while, like a bridal shower. It will be a retail experience as comfortable as purchasing online, but without restraints, as women will be able to touch and try on dresses. And so, like clockwork, my journey in fashion continues, and I welcome the women of the Ottawa area to join me.