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Walter Oppenheimer, 92; started clothing firm Helga

August 11, 2007|Mary Rourke | Times Staff Writer

Walter Oppenheimer, a business entrepreneur, art collector and philanthropist who co-founded Helga, a line of women's special-occasion clothing, died Aug. 1. He was 92.

He died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, his brother Peer said. The cause was complications from a heart condition.

Oppenheimer launched Helga Inc. in 1947, with his wife as the designer of suits, dresses and evening clothes that were sold in specialty stores. He managed the business until the couple sold it in 1986.

"Walter was of a different stripe. He was very courtly," said Sylvia Sheppard, West Coast fashion editor for Women's Wear Daily in the 1950s. "The rest of the Los Angeles market was full of aggressive young people. Walter and Helga were more traditional."

On their frequent business trips to Europe to buy fabric, the Oppenheimers began to collect art by Georges Braque, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso and other modern European masters.

"It all started with one little Braque painting that we both fell in love with in Paris," Oppenheimer once said of the collection. The couple recently donated several dozen artworks -- primarily drawings -- to UCLA's Hammer Museum. They also funded an exhibition gallery in the museum that is named in their honor.

"The Oppenheimer collection fills in our early Modern European area," said Cynthia Burlingham, director of the museum's Grunwald Center the Graphic Arts. "We have had prints from that period but not as many drawings," she said.

Oppenheimer and his wife also made major financial contributions to the UCLA School of Public Health and the Department of Orthopedic Surgery, as well as Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, the City of Hope and Hebrew University.

He appreciated fine dining and invested in California restaurants, including the French Laundry in Yountville and the Patina restaurants in Los Angeles.

Oppenheimer was born in Berlin on March 21, 1915. After graduating from high school, he moved to London in the 1930s and worked in retail. There he met Helga Kallman, another native Berliner, who was working as a fashion designer.

They immigrated to the U.S. in 1938 and settled in New York City, where they married and continued working in retail.

Oppenheimer served in the U.S. Army during World War II. After his discharge, he and his wife moved to San Francisco and launched their business. They moved the company to Los Angeles in the early 1950s.

Oppenheimer's wife died in 2003. In addition to his brother, he is survived by nephews M. Randal and Matt Oppenheimer and niece Heidi Wolfe.

A memorial service is planned for October.

Contributions in Oppenheimer's name can be made to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Heart Research, Community Relations Department, Suite 2416, 8700 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90048.

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mary.rourke@latimes.com

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