Erica Clemmensen has owned a Dallas dress shop for just over three months, and she has already met with fashion’s reputable Tony Bowls three times. She first encountered him at a convention put on by Mon Cheri, the manufacturer that licenses Bowls’ gowns. His seminars at these regular events are not unlike a stage mother mouthing answers to a toddler pageant contestant in the interview round, and Clemmensen is a focused competitor. When she talks about the designer, it’s not his aesthetic she discusses so much as his sales doctrine.
To talk fashion with Bowls is to talk business. Sure, he still says things like, “Sequins, oh my God, they’re alive and well,” but marketing and branding are more common subject matters. It’s what separates a commercial designer like himself from so many amateur hopefuls, he says. Clemmensen’s parroting lends credibility to Bowls’ claim that hands-on sales involvement is high-octane fuel for his creative process, which goes something like this: scan multiple sketches daily and send to overseas factories, watch technicians via Skype as they cut fabric, discuss, revise and repeat until about 1,000 new dress samples are made annually.
But Clemmensen panics a bit à la Miss Teen South Carolina 2007 when asked why her shop doesn’t carry pageant gowns designed by Bowls. “It’s because I don’t think he has a pageant line,” she said. Actually, he does. In fact, his whole business was built on pageant gowns, but to Bowls, who seems eager to change his image, Clemmensen’s obliviousness signals progress. “I’m not really known as a pageant guy outside of this state,” he claimed.
True, he does design wedding gowns, cocktail dresses, prom dresses and more, but to say he’s not known as a pageant guy seems far-fetched. Just last month he was working on gowns for Miss Tennessee for the Miss USA pageant. This year, as the official designer for Miss America, his designs were worn by all 51 delegates. The executive director of Miss South Carolina pageant, who has worked in the business for 30 years, has known Bowls so long she can’t remember how they met. Tony Bowls is pageant fashion.
On the road—which he is about half the time with a travel assistant who’s just one of hundreds of employees—he’s treated with celebrity status. But here at home, it’s not uncommon for the flawless face of a multimillion-dollar fashion empire to go unrecognized. And many of the folks who do know his business don’t realize its magnitude. He’s generally not the fashion designer most Arkansans associate with their state, such as “Project Runway” finalist Korto Momolu. “I find that kind of amusing. Mmhmm,” he said teasingly.
Yet he is to legions of ladies what the late Alexander McQueen is to Lady Gaga’s little monsters. After years of designing for prom, pageant and television royalty—Vanna White is a frequent muse—Bowls has achieved some level of fame. Six thousand high school students turned out to hear him speak in Kansas City. A waterfall of comments washes down his Facebook page each time an “American Idol” contestant takes the stage in one of his gowns. Women and girls ask to pose for pictures with him on airplanes.
Then there’s the media attention this DEBI (Distinctive Excellence in the Bridal Industry) Award-winner has attracted. MTV and ABC Family have both expressed interest in television shows. “Of course, I was hugely endorsed by Ellen DeGeneres herself on national television, which, oh my God, to this day I still can’t believe happened,” Bowls said. “That’s kind of like Oprah.” He may not have to settle for “kind of like Oprah;” executives at her new network, OWN, are tossing around the idea of documenting his story.
Born to farmers in England, Arkansas, Bowls started out as a dancer. “Mmhmm,” he said in a matter-of-fact melody. (“Mmhmm” endearingly warrants repeated use in his vocabulary, apparently because, like black, it goes with anything.) His dance costumes, which once included a tuxedo tricked out with lights, were just as important to the three-time Overall Talent winner at the Arkansas State Fair as the choreography. It just so happened that his dance teacher always choreographed the Miss Arkansas pageant, and every year, Bowls would dance in it as an entertainer.
Fast forward through an array of experience in theater, retail clothing store management and amateur fashion show production, and at age 28, Bowls opened a high-end dress shop for women’s special occasions in the basement of Hot Springs’ Arlington Hotel. On the first day of business, he converted several appointments with pageant girls into lucrative sales. Three years later, Miss Russia was flying in from Moscow to consult with him.
Today, at 46, he has more than half a dozen of his own fashion lines, and his dresses are sold in countless boutiques stretching from Los Angeles to Hong Kong to Switzerland. To say the least, things have changed since the days of brazenly cutting into other designers’ thousand-dollar dresses, speculatively attempting to give a customer the asymmetric hemline she wanted. He doesn’t have much time to get scissor happy any more, and the iPhone is his main tool. He now takes bigger risks. He still has a reputation for pleasing the consumer, only now, “the consumer” means whole niches of them.
Perhaps the most lucrative creation of his career, though, is a network of former pageant contestants. “I wish they got a better rap,” he said. “Some of the most brilliant women I’ve met in my life were in pageants,” offering up Diane Sawyer and Sarah Palin as examples. Many of the women he knows went on to influential roles in fashion, media and show business, and they have helped him generate publicity by outfitting others like “Dancing with the Stars” host Brooke Burke in his gowns, fueling demand for his social occasion lines.
The newer crop of beauty queens is the other half of his equation for commercial success. “Barbra Streisand probably didn’t get a record deal just because she sang pretty,” he said. “She probably sang pretty, but she had to have people pushing her, endorsing her.” For that reason, a lot of his models are not runway veterans but girls he meets at trunk shows or social events who share a passion for his products and a vision for his brand. Girls like Erica Clemmensen. “If he does (have a pageant line), we’d probably buy it because we love his stuff,” she said sweetly, echoing the sentiments of thousands of women worldwide.