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.