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Story by Susan O'Connor, Photos By Dero Sanford

As a little girl, Shelley Kelley crafted beautiful clothes for her Barbie dolls. Now, she designs gowns for Miss America contestants.

“My mother, Jean Black, was a self-taught seamstress with lots of scraps of fabric left over from customers’ garments,” Kelley said. “When she got her first electric sewing machine, she gave me the old treadle sewing machine. She patiently taught me the basics of sewing, and I whiled away the summers with Barbie and that wonderful old machine out on our big screened-in front porch.”

Kelley’s love of design was further ignited at Arkansas State University when she was given the task of creating costumes for the ASU Museum’s antique doll collection.

“One of my projects was to research, design and create costumes for the antique doll collection,” she said. “What fun it was to go through the beautiful collection of fabrics, trims, clothing and jewelry.”

Kelley’s first business venture was a partnership with her mother in a small fabric shop.

“When we went to apply for the loan, Larry Worsham gave me great advice and said, ‘specialize.’ Having been an avid reader of fairy tales, of course I chose the Cinderella look of formalwear.

“I remember the first wedding gown for the daughter of a very special friend, and the dresses I designed for Christy Moller when she became Arkansas Junior Miss and went on to win America’s Junior Miss. I have had the opportunity to work for and with so many different, wonderful women.”

What year did you begin your retail formal wear business? In the spring of 2003, Joan Clark told me that she wanted to sell the bridal store. In July of that year, I became the owner of Clark’s Bridal and Formal (i.e. the person responsible for making the payment to the bank every month). It’s funny. I thought that I would have more free time because the former staff stayed on. I was so naïve. Wow was I in for a surprise. The day I walked in after signing on the dotted line it became a full time and overtime almost 24/7 job. The trade off for the time is that I almost always look forward to going to work.

You have created some dresses for Miss Arkansas, Ashlen Batson, to wear to Miss America. What did you design for her? An on-stage question cocktail dress of white silk taffeta, and a brilliant marigold silk dupioni ramp gown. I was so excited for her when she won last summer! I’ve known her and her mom since she was in elementary school.

If you could only pick one of your designs to represent your work, which one would it be? One of my favorites would have to be the turquoise strapless silk chiffon gown with a draped ruched bodice and full circular skirt that I created for Karissa Rushing’s talent gown when she went to Miss America about 15 years ago. She was a petite blonde who reminded me of Grace Kelly with a beautiful voice. She was great to work with because she had a sense of her own style and she was so comfortable in her own skin.

When someone comes to you for an original design, where do you find inspiration? When someone wants an original design, I try to gather information about the event, their style, body type and what they are comfortable with. Most people come saying they want something different, but when we really get into different, they’re not as comfortable stepping out of the box as they thought they would be. As a starting point, we usually look at clippings from fashion magazines and try on dresses in the store and check out what they are drawn to and look good in. From there, we change necklines, waistlines, skirt styles, shoulders, etc., and take a good look at which colors are most flattering. Fashion isn’t about a piece of cloth on your back, it’s about excitement and fun and an expression of style or mood. What you’re wearing can either make you stand out and be noticed and show that you are willing to take a chance, or you can choose to fit in and be a part of the crowd.

Did you like First Lady Michelle Obama’s gown for the inaugural balls? I loved her gown. It was classic in design and at the same time it was soft and flowing with a touch of whimsy in the tiny little flowers that were scattered all over the skirt. I’m so glad to see the fuller skirts coming back in style. I think they’re pretty in the way that they move with the body as you walk.