From hand-me-downs to high fashion, Bella Rose owner celebrates 35 years in business

November 16, 2015
Betty Spain, owner of Bella Rose, is celebrating her 35th year in business. Virtually all of that time, the women's clothing shop has been at the corner of West Maxwell and South Upper streets. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Betty Spain, owner of Bella Rose, is celebrating her 35th year in business. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

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.

Betty Spain

Betty Spain

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.”

Bella Rose owner Betty Spain, right, and her daughter, Haley Williams.

Bella Rose owner Betty Spain, right, and her daughter, Haley Williams.

 

Betty Spain, who has owned Bella Rose women's clothing store for 35 years, said part of her success has been the ability to dress women of all ages. Three regular customers are Jan Marks, left; her granddaughter, Sophi Clarke, center; and their friend, Laura Adams. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Spain said part of her success is the ability to dress women of all ages. Three customers are Jan Marks, left; her granddaughter, Sophi Clarke, center; and their friend, Laura Adams.

 

Betty Spain, owner of Bella Rose, packs a lot of inventory into her small women's clothing shop. The basement room has more than 800 dresses. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Bella Rose’s basement room has more than 800 dresses.

 

 

 


Faces at the races: photos from Saturday’s Breeders’ Cup

October 31, 2015

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Third-generation Lexington clothier Carl Meyers expands his shop

June 7, 2015
Carl Meyers, whose family has been a clothing retailer in Lexington since 1920, is expanding his upscale women's wear shop on Clay Street.   Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Carl Meyers, whose family has been a clothing retailer in Lexington since 1920, is expanding his upscale women’s wear shop on Clay Street. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

Every time Carl Meyers thinks he is retiring from the clothing business, a new opportunity comes up.

That’s what happened five years ago when Meyers, 63, moved back from New York and opened what he planned as a temporary shop at 111 Clay Ave. for the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.

Instead of closing at the end of the Games, the shop became Carl Meyers Sophisticated Style for Ladies. He just finished doubling the shop’s size and will celebrate with an open house from 4 to 8 p.m. June 11.

“I just can’t seem to stop,” Meyers said. “I’ve always had retail in me.”

His grandfather, Emanuel Meyers, was one of 11 sons of a Louisville vest tailor. In 1920, he and his brother Edward moved to Lexington to sell World War I Army surplus from a store on North Mill Street.

Much of their business was selling surplus khaki pants and boots to horse farmers. Through that, they got to know a lot of saddle horse people and eventually began making and selling custom riding apparel.

From 1938 to 1967, Meyers’ was on West Main Street beside Purcell’s department store. Carl Meyers’ parents, Marvin and Sydelle, burnished the brand with fine men’s and women’s clothing. In 1967, the store moved further east on Main Street, to the corner of what is now Martin Luther King Boulevard.

“They had just terrific taste,” Meyers said. “My mother ran the designer department and my father was the menswear guy.”

From childhood, Meyers seemed destined to be a retailer.

“I was ‘selling’ out of my mother’s attic when I was like 6 years old,” he said. “I had a little store with a little cash register up there. All of our friends would come up and ‘buy’ something.”

A few years later, Meyers started hanging around the riding apparel tailors at the Main Street store, learning about sewing, patterns and suit construction. After earning a fine arts degree at Boston University, Meyers joined the business.

“Then downtown kind of went bust,” he said, as retailers went out of business or moved to the new suburban shopping malls.

Meyers’ opened stores in Fayette and Lexington malls, but the changing business landscape doomed them. The downtown store closed in 1982 and the mall stores followed two years later.

Carl Meyers then refocused on custom riding apparel from a shop he ran for two decades on Walton Avenue, later moving to Romany Road. His flair for adding style to traditional riding “habits” earned him an international clientele.

In 2007, Meyers decided to mostly retire. He moved to New York for three years to oversee the riding apparel factory and enjoy big-city life.

“When I was in New York, I worked with a lot of young designers who would come in and get their samples made through me,” he said. “I really enjoyed it a lot, but I wasn’t making a whole lot of money.”

He started a short-lived menswear line with Crittenden Rawlings, a Kentuckian who had been president of Oxxford Clothes, a prestigious men’s suit label. (Rawlings now has his own menswear line, which he sells at his store in Midway and at more than 40 other retailers around the country.)

Meyers eventually sold the factory to his former employees and moved back to Lexington to help care for his elderly mother, who died in 2013.

“I thought I had retired,” he said, but the store he opened for the Equestrian Games attracted a following. “The women I was dealing with liked what we were doing.”

Meyers soon started adding dresses to his sportswear lines. With the expansion, he will carry more designer clothing and add shoes and furs.

Clothing trends keep getting more casual. “But when people get dressed up today, they really want to do it right, like for Derby and other occasions,” he said. “That’s where we’re finding the growth in the business.”

At this point, Meyers has no plans to retire again. In fact, with his non-compete agreement up soon, he is thinking about getting back into riding apparel — so long as he doesn’t have to travel the horse show circuit again.

“I signed a five-year lease with another five year option, so we’ll see how it goes,” he said. “And there’s an upstairs here.”

 

Meyers' clothing store was at this Main Street location in Lexington from 1938 to 1967. Photo provided

Meyers’ clothing store was at this Main Street location in Lexington from 1938 to 1967.


Midway clothier gives jackets the royal treatment

August 7, 2011

When Crittenden Rawlings was president of Oxxford Clothes, he went to a Sotheby’s auction and bought a suit that had belonged to the Duke of Windsor. The former Edward VIII may have been a lousy king, but he sure knew how to dress.

Rawlings studied that suit, which was handmade in 1939 by a tailor in Rome, hoping to discover techniques Oxxford could use. Alas, it didn’t fit his company’s power-suit image. Oxxford customers may run America, but they are not flashy dressers.

A few years later, after a brief and boring retirement, the Kentucky native studied the Duke’s suit again. He loved the way it was made, and he thought other men would, too.

Rawlings also remembered a lesson from Ralph Lauren, whose tailored clothing division he used to run: “People in the industry would always say, ‘Ralph, this will never work,’ and he would say, ‘Just watch me.'”

That was seven years ago. Rawlings, 71, now designs and manufactures his own Crittenden Clothes line using touches from the Duke’s suit and his own taste, refined over a 52-year career in the high-end garment industry.

Crittenden Clothes are sold in more than 100 men’s stores across the country, and in a small shop in Midway, where Rawlings and his wife, Judy, live above the store. Loyal customers include John Calipari, the University of Kentucky’s sharp-dressing basketball coach.

Calipari said his Memphis haberdasher recommended Crittenden Clothes when he moved here, so he stopped in the shop. That was a suit, two jackets and several pairs of pants ago.

“He’s got good stuff, and it’s reasonably priced,” Calipari said. “And he and his wife have done such a great job with that little shop. I’m always looking for clothes that lay on me well and have nice fabric. I’m going back to get a Derby outfit next year.”

Rawlings has been thrilled with the patronage, especially since Calipari visited his shop again June 4 and mentioned it on Twitter.

“Within a few days, we had a lot of young guys walking in to see what it was all about,” he said.

What he is trying to do with Crittenden Clothes, Rawlings said, is create traditional dress clothing that is a little more casual and comfortable. He wants to use the finest fabrics and hand-sewing where it is most noticeable — for example, working sleeve buttons, which usually are found on only the most expensive jackets.

“I wanted to do a product that had custom features at a more modest price,” Rawlings said. Handmade suits cost $895, jackets go for $395 to $695 and pants cost $75 to $150.

Crittenden jackets are called “unconstructed” because, like the Duke’s coat, they don’t have shoulder padding or much internal material. Vents are on the side, European-style. Rather than full linings, Rawlings uses a construction method called French facing.

Here’s how it works: Outer material is wrapped inside the front to provide enough stiffness. Only the sleeves are lined. Body seams are piped with silk. There is no other lining except two triangles of silk on the shoulders. The style makes jackets lighter and cooler.

“I think it’s the future, particularly for sport coats,” Rawlings said. “In my opinion, no one in the industry makes a jacket this nice for this price.”

Rawlings said he searches mills in Italy, Scotland, Ireland, Japan and China for the finest woolens, linens, cottons and silks and interesting blends of them. His clothes are made in China and Japan, where he can get good hand-finishing and low labor costs.

Some Crittenden Clothes will soon be made in a Tennessee factory. Rawlings hopes to find a Kentucky manufacturer for some items. “I would love to be able to say some of our products are made in Kentucky,” he said.

Rawlings was born on a farm near Lebanon. Judy Rawlings is from Eastern Kentucky, although they met in Chicago when she was a United Airlines flight attendant. Their three grown daughters live in Los Angeles and Connecticut.

When Rawlings graduated from high school in 1957, he got a summer job helping a family friend who was a traveling salesman of men’s clothes. He liked the business so much, he never left.

Rawlings worked for Ivy League icon Norman Hilton and then the designer whose business Hilton helped launch, Ralph Lauren. He left there in 1995 to become Oxxford’s president, a job he held for seven years.

Retirement at age 63 bored Rawlings, and he realized there could be a good business in making the kind of clothing he wanted to wear. “This is a small business,” he said, “but it’s perfect for my age.”

Rawlings is especially proud that his clothes are attracting so many Kentucky customers. He designed a signature blazer for Keeneland, which is sold through the racetrack’s gift shop.

“I always had a great love for Kentucky,” Rawlings said, even after decades in New York and Chicago. “I always knew I was going to come back.”

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