More Than A Dress

Little Black Dress Designer competition wows with dazzling styles, inspiring stories

Designer competition wows with dazzling styles and inspiring stories

Lily Jang, Alan Gonzalez at Little Black Dress Designer 2017
Lily Jang with designer Alan Gonzalez. His creation inspired by her won him first place and a $2,500 award. Photo by Michelle Watson/Catchlight Group
Vivian Wise, Dennis Stark Starks, Jerod Dame, Kelly Amen at Little Black Dress Designer 2017
Vivian Wise, Dennis Starks, Jerod Dame, Kelly Amen. Photo by Michelle Watson/Catchlight Group
Jeff Shell, Ally Shell at Little Black Dress Designer 2017
Brother/sister duo of Jeff and Ally Shell kept the night rolling. Photo by Michelle Watson/Catchlight Group
Michael Broderick, Michelle Reyna, Tiffany Halik, Todd Ramos at Little Black Dress Designer 2017
Michael Broderick, Michelle Reyna, Tiffany Halik, Todd Ramos. Photo by Michelle Watson/Catchlight Group
2017 Little Black Designer Dress Muses
The 2018 muses were unveiled at the Little Black Dress Competition. Photo by Michelle Watson/Catchlight Group
Dominique Sachse Florescu, Dika Obiaju at Little Black Dress Designer
Dominique Sachse, Dika Obiaju. Photo by Michelle Watson/Catchlight Group
Chris Goins at Little Black Dress Designer 2017
Muse Chris Goins spoke eloquently about her mentor, Mickey Rosmarin. Photo by Michelle Watson/Catchlight Group
Back Sarghi Sharma, Jessie Mann, Poonam Thandi, Amrit Thandi at Little Black Dress Designer 2017
Sarghi Sharma, Jessie Mann, Poonam Thandi, Amrit Thand. Photo by Michelle Watson/Catchlight Group
Romy Mitchell, Toyin Talabi at Little Black Dress Designer 2017
Romy Mitchell, Toyin Talabi. Photo by Michelle Watson/Catchlight Group
Lauren Geiser, Molly Stone at Little Black Dress Designer 2017
Lauren Geiser, Molly Stone. Photo by Michelle Watson/Catchlight Group
Gracie Cavnar, Kim Nguyen at Little Black Dress Designer 2017
Gracie Cavnar, Kim Nguyen. Photo by Michelle Watson/Catchlight Group
Molly Stone, Kitty Dupas at Little Black Dress Designer 2017
Molly Stone, Kitty Dupas. Photo by Michelle Watson/Catchlight Group
Max Sebrechts, Crystle Stewart at Little Black Dress Designer 2017
Max Sebrechts, Crystle Stewart. Photo by Michelle Watson/Catchlight Group
Little Black Dress Designer Competition 2017
The LBD took center stage at the Little Black Dress Designer Competition. Photo by Michelle Watson/Catchlight Group
Anika Jackson, Staci Henderson at Little Black Dress Designer 2017
Anika Jackson, Staci Henderson. Photo by Michelle Watson/Catchlight Group
Rita Garcia, Megan Brigham
Rita Garcia, Megan Brigham. Photo by Catchlight Group
Riyad Abu-taha, Dominique Sachse Florescu at Little Black Dress Designer 2017
Riyad Abu-taha, Dominique Sachse Florescu. Photo by Michelle Watson/Catchlight Group
Joy Sewing, Arielle Griffin
Joy Sewing, Arielle Griffin. Photo by Catchlight Group
Audrey Hepburn Champagne Girl at Little Black Dress Designer 2017
Audrey Hepburn Champagne Girl. Photo by Michelle Watson/Catchlight Group
Diane Caplan, Blanca Vargas at Little Black Dress Designer 2017
Diane Caplan, Blanca Vargas. Photo by Michelle Watson/Catchlight Group
Lily Jang, Alan Gonzalez at Little Black Dress Designer 2017
Vivian Wise, Dennis Stark Starks, Jerod Dame, Kelly Amen at Little Black Dress Designer 2017
Jeff Shell, Ally Shell at Little Black Dress Designer 2017
Michael Broderick, Michelle Reyna, Tiffany Halik, Todd Ramos at Little Black Dress Designer 2017
2017 Little Black Designer Dress Muses
Dominique Sachse Florescu, Dika Obiaju at Little Black Dress Designer
Chris Goins at Little Black Dress Designer 2017
Back Sarghi Sharma, Jessie Mann, Poonam Thandi, Amrit Thandi at Little Black Dress Designer 2017
Romy Mitchell, Toyin Talabi at Little Black Dress Designer 2017
Lauren Geiser, Molly Stone at Little Black Dress Designer 2017
Gracie Cavnar, Kim Nguyen at Little Black Dress Designer 2017
Molly Stone, Kitty Dupas at Little Black Dress Designer 2017
Max Sebrechts, Crystle Stewart at Little Black Dress Designer 2017
Little Black Dress Designer Competition 2017
Anika Jackson, Staci Henderson at Little Black Dress Designer 2017
Rita Garcia, Megan Brigham
Riyad Abu-taha, Dominique Sachse Florescu at Little Black Dress Designer 2017
Joy Sewing, Arielle Griffin
Audrey Hepburn Champagne Girl at Little Black Dress Designer 2017
Diane Caplan, Blanca Vargas at Little Black Dress Designer 2017

When Jeff Shell created the Little Black Dress Designer competition in 2009, he didn’t realize he would literally change the course of people's lives. Sure, it would bring attention to aspiring designers and add a fashion event with a philanthropic spin to the calendar, but it has become so much more over the years, awarding $130,000 in scholarship money and encouraging designers of all ages to pursue their dreams.

Alan Gonzalez is one such designer, who until a few years ago, was using hot glue guns and staplers to create theater costumes, which was perfectly acceptable because at the time he was a theater major, not a clothing designer. 

Gonzalez was one of the first-place winners at the Little Black Dress Designer Competition at Spire Nightclub. He was awarded $2,500 for the LBD he created for his muse Lily Jang and the sheath dress with voluminous open front train reflects the direction he’s moving toward for his fall collection. Also winning top prizes of $2,500 were designer Dika Obiaju for her black dress with a detachable train for muse Dominique Sachse, and designer Jean Weber for muse Chris Goins' swingy, open-back LBD.

If it weren’t for a friend who encouraged him to attend a Little Black Dress Designer Competition for fun in 2012, Gonzalez would never have been on that stage.

“I was torn between fashion and theater. I had no sewing experience, but my friend and I went, and it changed my life,” Gonzalez said.

Those are the moments Shell and his sister Ally Shell van Kollwijk find the most rewarding. The duo, who are co-owners of the Neal Hamil Agency, collaborated on the 2017 Little Black Dress Designer Competition and fashion show and while Ally calls Jeff her best accessory, Jeff refers to Ally as his best friend. The LBD competition is a passion project they are only too happy to cultivate together.

“It’s so rewarding. These kids are in the classroom and have no exposure. It’s wonderful to see designers like Alan develop and mature,” Jeff Shell said.

Nine designers were paired with nine muses, women choses because they are “iconic in the community, social and diverse,” he said. Their interest and ability to be true inspirations to the designers is paramount.

The 2017 LBD roster also included designer Megan Brigham for muse Rita Garcia, designer Kitty Dupas for muse Molly Stone, designer Arielle Griffin for muse Joy Sewing, designer Kim Nguyen for muse Gracie Cavnar, designer Toyin Talabi for muse Dr. Romy Mitchell, and designer Blanca Vargas for muse Diane Caplan. All designers received cash awards for their work.

Each designer is tasked with elevating the LBD while also customizing it for their muse. Mentors worked with the designers as well throughout the competition. A total of $15,000 was awarded among the nine designers.

“It’s a really hands-on process and wonderful to see it all in person,” Jeff Shell said.

When it comes to his own mentors, Jeff Shell counts Jeanne Ruberti, the special events coordinator at Elizabeth Anthony, and designer Carmen Marc Volvo among his most special.

“Jeanne was there for me early on and really guided me,” Jeff Shell said. “Carmen Marc Volvo is a special friend of mine and really helped me get the Little Black Dress Designer Competition going."

The 2018 Little Black Dress Designer Competition is already revving up for 2018. At the end of the fashion show, Deborah Duncan, Debbie Festari, Staci Henderson, Leisa Holland-Nelson, Caroline LeBlanc, Stacey Lindseth, Jennifer Molleda, Miya Shay, and Crystle Stewart were announced as next year’s muses.