Story by Liesel Schmidt
Looking at the beauty, grace, classic lines and femininity of Robert Fischman’s dress designs, it’s incredible to think of what the hands that so carefully sketched them have touched and what the eyes that envisioned them have seen. But much like the most seemingly simple piece can actually be a creation of the most complicated construction, Fischman’s unassuming presence belies the amazing life he has led and the legacy he has created. Making his entrance into the world on April 1, 1925, Fischman was born into a family whose roots in Del Ray can be traced so deeply that they seem almost an immemorial part of the community’s foundation. Civil War stories as well as tales of the Great Depression and Prohibition all color the family’s lore and Fishman grew up in a world that was only just regaining its footing after the Great War.
When war once again swallowed the world, 17-year-old Fischman enlisted in the Navy with his father’s signature, patriotically answering Uncle Sam’s call to arms. Assigned to the battleship USS Texas, young Fischman found himself in the thick of battles on France’s beaches, including a rescue mission on D-Day at Omaha Beach. Manning the captain’s gig, a small boat that Navy battleships had onboard at the time, Fischman left the ship under orders and made his way to the beach that was under heavy siege by Germans who had a high vantage point. “He had to push past all of the bodies floating in the water, thousands of bodies of dead and wounded soldiers, to pull out the wounded men and take them back to the emergency hospital on the ship,” says his wife of 74 years, Antoinette. “He rescued 35 men that day and only one of them was lost once they got back to the ship.” That day, 2,000 American troops were either killed, wounded or missing, but Fischman’s bravery and service throughout the war on the shores of France later earned him the honor of being decorated as a Chevalier (or knight) in the National Order of the French Legion Medal of Honour. According to the French Embassy, American veterans who risked their lives during World War II and fought on French territory qualified for this distinction if they fought in one of the four main campaigns of the Liberation of France: Normandy, Provence, Ardennes or Northern France. He received the medal from French Ambassador Gérard Araud on May 7, 2019, at the French Embassy in Washington, DC.
Fischman was a member of USS Texas’s crew for four years. When the war ended, he left the Navy to come back home to Alexandria. Starting life as a civilian, there was naturally a time of feeling unmoored, but Fischman took advantage of the GI bill that gave him access to a grant for college or trade school. Having a natural affinity and talent for art, he enrolled at the National Art School in DC, where he found that he excelled in sewing and dress design. Soon, his designs were submitted in a contest that would award the winner the opportunity to have their designs made and modeled on stage at the Capitol Theatre on F St in DC. Fischman’s talent won out. He and his wife, whom he married in 1948, watched the designs in his head come to life on the stage.
Firmly standing as an accredited designer, Fischman established his own business on Dupont Circle called Rojet’s Designs, where he made clothes for dignitaries as well as Miss Washington, DC. Over the next 55 years, the award-winning dress designer opened and ran several more clothing and tailoring shops including Robert’s, Ltd. on the 600 block of Washington St in Alexandria with the original gaslight in front of the store authorized by the city council. His second store was in the Fairlington Shopping Center. Now retired, the 97-year-old lives at Watergate at Landmark with his wife, with his designs on display in the community and where he continues to tell stories of the life he has lived in the town that is so much a part of him.