Betty Spain grew up in Wolfe County, the eighth of 12 children in a family of little means.
“Never had a new pair of shoes until I was 12,” she said. “I wore lots of hand-me-downs.”
So it is with a mix of pride and amazement that Spain is celebrating her 35th year as the creator and owner of Bella Rose, a Lexington dress shop that has developed a national clientele for its stylish, sophisticated apparel.
Not that she has had time to celebrate. Spain said her shop at the corner of West Maxwell and South Upper streets had strong sales during Keeneland and Breeders’ Cup. Last week, some of her seven employees were busy decorating for the holidays, when Bella Rose does a big business with “wish list” suggestions many regular customers leave for the men in their lives.
Spain prides herself on being able to find the right dress for any woman, regardless of her age. Customers include two and three generations of some families.
One big attraction is the shop’s large inventory, which includes a basement showroom with more than 800 dresses by designers such as Nicole Miller, Kay Unger and Badgley Mischka.
“You go in so many specialty stores and they have a few items and you’re afraid almost to touch them,” Spain said. “For me, it’s come in and kick off your shoes and stay awhile, and let’s get you in the right dress.”
Spain, who travels to New York frequently to scout merchandise, does a big business in dresses for special occasions, from proms to the Country Music Awards. She also does personal shopping for several women who trust her to choose clothing that will make them look good.
“I have a client in Los Angeles that I ship a box to every month,” she said. “I have a lady in Florida that I ship a box to every month and she takes what she likes and sends back the rest. I’ve been doing this for her for 25 years.”
Bella Rose has been featured in Women’s Wear Daily and several fashion magazines. Spain’s awards include one from the National Association of Women Business Owners.
“Color, style, I just have an eye for it,” she said. “I think that my repeat clientele validates that fact. It is my gift from God.”
Spain also credits her talented staff, which includes store manager Allison Herrington, who has been with her for a decade, and Spain’s daughter, Haley Williams, the mother of two of her seven grandsons.
Spain didn’t set out to create a high-end dress shop. After high school, she moved to Lexington to work as a dental assistant. Then disaster struck. She was living at Clays Ferry when the great Kentucky River flood of December 1978 left her house filled with seven feet of water.
The only clothing that survived was what Spain was wearing. She went back to Campton, to a used clothing store where she had spent many hours as a child shopping with her mother. Forty dollars later, she had a new wardrobe.
“I started wearing those ’40s-style blazers to work with skinny jeans and patients were asking me where I got that,” she said. “I literally sold some things off my body. And some of those women still shop with me today.”
Encouraged about her apparent sense of style, Spain, then 23, started a vintage clothing store. She was open evenings and weekends for three years while she kept her day job as a dental assistant. After a few months on Clay Avenue, she moved to the location where she has been ever since.
Spain made the shop her full-time job after buying a warehouse filled with vintage clothing, some of which she wholesaled to boutiques in New York and Los Angeles.
“This warehouse is what put me in business,” she said. “I also found a resource that had antique kimonos, and I was having dresses made out of them that were one of a kind.”
Spain’s shop was called Déjà vu, which was a great name for a vintage clothing shop until a strip club with the same name opened on New Circle Road.
“We were getting phone calls of, ‘How much are table dances?’ and I was screaming, ‘I’m a mother! Don’t call here!'” she said.
Spain renamed her shop Bella Rose and took her inventory in a new direction. While stylish clothing is her business, customer service is what keeps her successful.
“I’m in the business of cheering up women,” she said. “I hear a lot of ‘Betty work your magic.’ To watch that woman put on the right dress and light up like a light bulb, it’s all worth it.”