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Pretty Lady 

Helen Koenig -- Miss Helen to those who know her -- has been keeping Mardi Gras Indians looking good for more than three decades.

Franklin Davis peers into the display case and points out the stones that he'll soon be sewing onto a Mardi Gras Indian suit. Whenever possible, Davis prefers to give his business to Helen Koenig, the 81-year-old woman behind the counter. "I've been knowing Miss Helen since 1971," he says. "I like the relationship we have."

Davis, who masked for years with the Yellow Pocahontas and the Wild Apaches, is working on a suit for the Louisiana State Museum's collection, he says. He spells out his name for a visitor while Koenig listens. "I never did know your name was Franklin," she says, handing him his bag of stones. Since he was a teenager, she's known him as "Wingy."

"My friends call me that," Davis explains.

This city's Mardi Gras Indians have considered Miss Helen Koenig a friend since the early 1970s, when she started working over on Rampart Street at Greenberg's Fabric. Eventually, when owner Jules Greenberg retired, Koenig's son, Le Petit Theatre Executive Director Sonny Borey, opened up a shop here at 2737 Canal St.. "The Indians followed me here," says Koenig.

The store, sandwiched between a Burger King and a McDonald's just off the intersection of Canal and Broad streets, is officially named Broadway Bound Costumes. To most of its customers, it's known simply as Miss Helen's.

When Oliver Kroeten masked with the Guardians of the Flame, she bought all her stones here. Now, as the designer for the Shim Shamettes and the Shim Sham Revue, Kroeten stops here at least three times a month for marabou (feathers), jewels, feathers and fabrics.

And glitter. "She has the best glitter," says Kroeten. "Beautiful colors in huge jars." Zulu members buy Miss Helen's glitter for their coconuts -- by the pound.

On a recent Saturday morning, Koenig pads around the front of her shop in stocking feet. Snapshots of customers in their Indian suits cover one wall. Her role in those suits is small, Koenig emphasizes. "I can't sew, honey; I just sell," she says.

But if not for Koenig, many of those suits would not have seen the light of Mardi Gras Day, says Big Chief Larry Bannock of the Golden Star Hunters. "Miss Helen done helped many Indians hit the street. I'm talking about old Indians," says Bannock, who at age 55 puts himself in those ranks. He recalls going in to see Koenig when he first started masking, in 1971.

"Mardi Gras, they say, is the greatest free show on earth," Bannock says. "But it's not free when you gotta get five grosses [of beads] here, three grosses there. When your money's funny and your time is short, you need somebody that understands. Miss Helen has always been there."

"Most stores watch you and hound you," Bannock explains. "But even back during the days of the civil rights movement, Miss Helen always treated everybody with respect. Whatever she could do to help you, she did it."

Bannock still buys some stones from Koenig's but she now carries mostly acrylic beads, since that's what almost everyone uses these days. Since Bannock is a stickler for glass beads, he orders those and other supplies in bulk from out-of-town wholesalers.

Big Chief Allison "Tootie" Montana of the Yellow Pocahontas has never done that. "I like to be there to put my hand on my material and count my feathers myself. All the years I've been masking Indian -- 50 years -- I bought all my feathers from Miss Helen. Every one of them."

Montana, at age 80, has probably dealt with Koenig longer than anybody else. As a result, he says, he holds a certain status. "Out of all the guys that go there and shop," he proclaims, "I'm her most popular customer."

He's also her biggest fan. "She's been a good person to shop with. If I didn't want to get broke on just one particular item, but I needed other items, she would save that item for me. The material that I wanted, it wouldn't even hit the counter. It was up on the side for me." If he was trying out a color scheme, he says, he could take home several strands of colored beads and then bring back the ones he didn't use.

When Montana decided to quit masking in 1998, he says, "Miss Helen told me, 'Montana, you don't have to be so elaborate. Just make you a smaller suit.' I said, 'Miss Helen, I got to make it the way I know. I got to be big and pretty.'"

Miss Helen has earned her place in history, he says. "She should be remembered when they speak about Carnival because she does just as much work as the guys who build the floats." For his part, Montana will always be loyal to her. "When you say something about Miss Helen," he says, "I'm always ready to talk."

click to enlarge "I can't sew, honey; I just sell," Helen Koenig of the needed feathers, beads, stones and fabric she supplies Mardi Gras Indians. - TRACIE MORRIS/YOUNG STUDIO
  • Tracie Morris/Young Studio
  • "I can't sew, honey; I just sell," Helen Koenig of the needed feathers, beads, stones and fabric she supplies Mardi Gras Indians.
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