White Dress Lady: Jeanne Dudley Smith

Jeanne Dudley Smith in her atelier.  All photos by Caroline Allison

Jeanne Dudley Smith in her atelier.  All photos by Caroline Allison

The first time I wrote about Jeanne Dudley Smith was for Wildsam’s Nashville field guide.

I was asked to contribute an essay about Nashville fashion. This was 2012, and the maker movement was in full swing here, with Imogene + Willie jeans, Peter Nappi boots and Otis James caps serving as the unofficial uniform of the local style cognoscenti. My initial impulse was to follow that storyline.

I spent a few days pulling my thoughts together. Something wasn't clicking. In order for the story to work, it needed to resonate with me personally. While I have great respect for our city’s heritage brands (and have proudly worked with more than a few of them), I've always maintained that there's more to local style than the selvedge-jeans-and-work-boots look. Nashville fashion is about more than just denim and leather.

Then it hit me. My introduction to local style had nothing to do with workwear. It came via Jeanne Dudley Smith, also known as “The White Dress Lady.” Jeanne is well known across the South for making custom wedding gowns and dresses for special events like graduations, confirmations, debutante balls and other big occasions that require a white dress, as so many traditional southern milestones do. In fact, she designed my deb dress in the late ’80s.

I had my story.

I first met Jeanne the summer after my freshman year in college. My mom had heard about her custom business from a friend in Chattanooga who had taken her daughter on a similar white-dress pilgrimage. (I grew up in a small town in southeast Tennessee. Other than visits to Opryland - RIP - and monthly trips to the flea market, Nashville was barely on my radar, least of all from a style perspective.)

When we visited Jeanne's atelier — located then, as it is now, in the first level of the home in West Meade she shares with her husband, Bob — we discovered that in addition to a custom clothing business, she operated a ready-to-wear dress company called Jeanne’s Fantasia. (Last week, Jeanne told me she chose the name because it sounds similarly vibrant in every language – fantastique in French, fantastico in Italian, fantastisch in German, etc.) While the look of her custom pieces changes depending on the style of the client, Jeanne’s Fantasia is a dressy bohemian mash-up that owes a lot to the casual ’70s vibe of both Laurel Canyon hippies and Renaissance fair maidens. These influences make sense, considering that the company was born in the Me Decade.

Ultimately, the Wildsam essay is about my experience having a special dress made. I love the piece for many reasons, but honestly it doesn’t do justice to the breadth of Jeanne’s incredible career, which started when she fell for the cotton dresses she found in the markets in her beloved Mexico. Using them as inspiration, she launched her own brand of special occasion dresses, made with Swiss batiste and handmade cotton lace.

Jeanne managed every part of her business. With no related experience and without the technical conveniences of today, she not only oversaw the design of her collection in a foreign country but also figured out how to have it manufactured there. (She still has dresses made in Mexico.)

Jeanne self-navigated the world of wholesale, as well. Jeanne’s Fantasia was stocked by iconic luxury retailers like Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus. All the while, she was making custom pieces for individual clients, some of them quite famous. Princess Grace wore a Jeanne’s Fantasia dress for an official portrait; you’ll read about Jeanne’s custom work for Linda McCartney and Priscilla Presley below.

Over the years, Jeanne’s been a touchstone to the dozens of young fashion designers who look to her for guidance and inspiration. She continues to pay it forward as a mentor: one of her recent mentee success stories is custom menswear designer Eric Adler, the winner of the 2016 Nashville Fashion Forward Fund.

Jeanne and I reconnected in 2010, at an event at The Frist Center for the Visual Arts. I hadn’t seen her in over 20 years at that point, but due to her regal posture and wonderful sense of style, I recognized her immediately. We’ve since reacquainted and I have spent many hours enjoying her stories, which are peppered with exotic locations and delightfully random celebrity encounters – fantastique, indeed.

Last week, photographer Caroline Allison and I dropped by Jeanne’s house for a chat and a quick shoot in her basement studio. Surrounded by photographs and memorabilia from her long, rich career (she has over 50 scrap books), not to mention dozens of long white dresses, Jeanne talked about her early dabbles in fashion, falling in love with Mexico, and how she made fake-it-until-you-make-it work in her favor more than once. Enjoy.

 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

TCR: Can you share the story of how you started you business?

JDS: Well, there are about five versions. Which one do you remember? The one about the wreck?

TCR: I'm not sure I’ve heard that one.

JDS: At West End High School, I was in Spanish class with three of my girlfriends. We really wanted to go to Mule Day in Columbia (a town about an hour south of Nashville), so much so that the teacher called us las mulitas, for the little mules.

So when Mule Day came, I borrowed my boyfriend’s car and we skipped school. So there were us four girls, wearing our waist-high cheerleading sweaters, which was a no-no. We drive to Columbia, no problem. We had a ball. We were up on the mule trucks, and they were taking our pictures. 

On the way home, we had a problem. My boyfriend’s brakes didn't work. He had said, “Remember, you have to pump them about 13 times before you stop. And keep away from other cars.” Well, I was too close to the car in front of us — a friend of mine who had a brand new Pontiac. And I just totally accordioned and pleated the back of that car. My boyfriend’s car was barely hurt.

When it happened, we didn't call the police or anything. I’d never heard of doing that. We just proceeded home. 

So I drive up to my house in my boyfriend’s car and my dad comes out. He called me Ducky. "Ducky, where have you been? What have you done?" I told him. He said, "Well, I am not paying for this wreck. I don't have insurance for this. You'll have to pay for it." It turned out to be $800. Today that would be about $8,000.

To pay for it, my friends and I decided we would gather up our father's old shoes and coats and suits and have a yard sale. So we rented a house on Jefferson Street with a porch and for four Saturdays, we sold clothes. I had so much fun doing it because I'm good at selling.

We sold everything and made about $1,000 and I paid the car off. And I thought, you know what, I love selling these clothes. I think I love the rag business. So I'm going to stay in it. And I did.

TCR: What year was that?

JDS: Oh my goodness, that was the ‘60s.

TCR: You found your calling pretty early on then. How did you continue to pursue it while you were still in high school?

JDS: I got a job after school in the bridal department at Rich Schwartz (a now-closed Nashville fashion mecca). I was really young. I was 15, but I told Mr. Schwartz I was going on 18, which was the truth.

TCR: You were so precocious. 

JDS: And you know what? He sent me by myself to New York on a buying trip when I was 17.

TCR: Are you kidding? 

JDS: That was the best buying trip I’ve ever been on because I didn't know what I was doing, so it was all instinct. I wasn’t going by what I had heard, what I had read. I just looked at it and if I liked it, said, "I’ll take that.” Mr. Schwartz was real pleased with me. 

TCR: I know that going to Mexico was a turning point for you, and that the style of the country and the manufacturing opportunities there ultimately influenced your decision to start a company. At what point did you go to Mexico for the first time?

JDS: I went to Stephens, which was a two-year college. Then I went to Vanderbilt to finish. They had an exchange program with Mexico City College. So the same friends that were in the Mule Day accident and I all went to Mexico.

We stayed with a senora who was really pretty. She was divorced, so she had boyfriends coming over all the time. And they would play music and they would dance so we got into the rhythm of Mexico. She would take us out to these glamorous nightclubs; we had never seen anything like that in our lives. There were these gorgeous men and these wonderful bands that would circle around and never stop playing. So I said, "I never want to go home. This is what I've been missing all my life."

I learned Spanish very well. But I wasn't thinking about design yet. That happened on a later trip, when I was shopping at a market and bought a beautiful Mexican dress.

I had friends who worked in the market, so I asked them if they could hold my package while I went to get lunch. In a few hours, I came back and found they had opened that package, copied the dress, and it was hanging up all over the market. In two hours they had reproduced that dress. I had heard that Mexicans could make anything and it was true.

And it all started from there. I was the first one in this area to manufacture in Mexico.

There was another guy doing it at the same time and I know you know him: Fred Leighton.

TCR: The jeweler?

JDS: The jeweler. He had a little tiny dress shop on West 9th Street in Greenwich Village. You can research this if you don't believe me - I can hardly believe it myself! I'd go to his store and hang out. Back then he was nobody.

But anyway, I first met him in Mexico. How he became this world-renowned jeweler I don't know because he didn't have any money. But he started out selling these Mexican market dresses.

TCR: I've never heard that story!

JDS: Another story is how I got involved with all these department stores.

Bob was a banker, but he was also the honorary U.S. Consul to Mexico. One time he went to a meeting in Montreux, Switzerland, and I went with him. I decided I would make up 12 dresses and take them to New York, because our flight left out of there. On the way back, I planned to stay in New York and show them to stores.

So I made up about a dozen mini wedding gowns in cotton batiste and lace. That’s still my style, but no one was doing it back then except Gunne Sax, and they were cheap. My dresses were expensive. I don't know who was first but we were around about the same time.

So we come back from Switzerland. Bob was traveling with Andre Ambraum, who was the French Consul to Mexico. His wife, Rosemary, was a stewardess for Pan American Airlines. I had asked her if she would keep my dresses for me in New York while I was in Europe. I would pick them up when I got back so I could have my appointments with New York stores. At that point, I was already selling to Neiman Marcus. And every other store I called wanted an appointment. I sold to Bergdorf Goodman. I sold to Bonwit Teller. Saks. Bendels. All of them.

On the way back from Europe, Andre got very sick on the plane. I had just bought a white jean suit. It was the first time I had ever seen an all white jean suit. I thought I was hot stuff. And he threw up on me. 

Everyone on the plan kept saying, "Is he having a heart attack? Do you want the plane to stop in Nova Scotia so he can get off?" And we did stop in Nova Scotia before we headed back to the States. Bob went on to Washington with Andre and I stayed in New York.

But my suitcase didn’t arrive. That white denim suit was all I had to wear.

A friend of Bob's in Europe had told me, “Jeanne, you can have the penthouse of the Loews Hotel when you’re in New York.” He had great connections. So here I am, alone in this big suite. I don't have anything to wear and I don’t have time to go out to buy something. So I sent for a bathrobe from the hotel and wore that for the meetings.

Rosemary brought me the dresses. I hung them all over the place. They looked fantastic in this beautiful suite.  

My first customer was Bonwit Teller. The buyer was young but very knowledgeable. Her name was Janet Egan. We're still friends to this day. She loved my things immediately. "This is just what I need. We have all these people wanting to get married out at the beach at Southampton and this is the kind of dress we need for beach weddings." Nobody had done beach weddings except Gunne Sax.

TCR: And this is the late ’70s, right?

JDS: Yes. 1978 through 1981 were my big, big years.

So Janet gets out her pad and pencil. And I don’t even know the prices of anything. I don’t know how to write up an order. I'm trying to figure out what to do. She’s asking, "How much is that one?" So I went back in my bedroom and called Julie, the assistant to Priscilla of Boston — because, remember I'd been the bridal consultant at Rich Schwartz. I used to buy from them. They were my best resource. So Julie — who is a man — says, "Write the order like you write them every day. Write it as if that's what you do and don't hesitate, don't look up, don't look puzzled." And Janet bought them for every store. I didn't know what to do.

She left happy and I had this order and thought, "What in the world? How am I going to do this?" So I called Julie back. He said, “Tell them you can deliver in nine months and I'll help you figure it out. You’ll get it over time. But don't you ever tell Priscilla."

And next buyer was from Bergdorf. And oh, I remember that she had no eyebrows. And that she wanted to change every dress. "Now, I'd like that one if it had more lace, if it had a lower neck..." Well, I did it. She only bought, like, 12 dresses but that was good, to be in Bergdorf. 

Saks came. Caroline, the buyer, wanted one of my dresses immediately to put in the window of 5th Avenue. Just like that. "Can you loan me one?" So it went in the window. I have gobs of pictures of all this.  And then she wanted to take me to California the next week for a trunk show.

That's the way it started, Libby. It was like falling off a log. People can't do that anymore.

TCR: It’s a different world, for sure. Back then the fashion industry was so much smaller. These days, to make a sale like that you’d have to jump through so many other hoops. Not to mention the competition is so much greater.

JDS: Part of my success is my selling ability, which my father taught me. He was the best salesman. He could sell anything — an icehouse to an Eskimo. He had me reading all the Will Rogers books and How to Win Friends and Influence People. I was reading these in high school. And that's what it's all about. First you sell yourself, then you sell your customer. You make them want it. You make them beg for it.

TCR: You’ve had some pretty amazing clients over the years. Of course, there’s Princess Grace. But tell me about working with Linda McCartney when Wings was hiding out in Lebanon (a town about a half hour northeast of Nashville). That was in the ’70s, around the time of Band on the Run, right?

JDS: I don’t know who had called me, but someone asked me to go out and meet with them because they needed some clothes designed. They were going on a Western tour and Linda wanted a Western outfit. So we designed all these clothes for her.

I remember Stella (Paul and Linda's daughter, now a very successful fashion designer). She was little, like four years old. I remember her walking around picking up all the marijuana butts. [LAUGHTER] And I said, “Stella! Come over here and sit with me. Let’s draw some dresses for your mama.” And we drew culottes and an eagle with an Indian design on the back of her jacket. I think I may have inspired Stella to be a designer! [LAUGHTER]

I remember the band had an old barn to practice in. I took my little son Brad with me when I visited. Years ago, we were at a fancy dinner party in Mexico and the host went around the table, asking everyone to name their favorite memory. And I knew that Brad would say hearing Band on the Run being practiced. He did.

TCR: And you made Priscilla Presley some clothes as well.

JDS: I did. I went to California with my friend Carlana Moscheo to do fashion shows in Hollywood. We worked with a very famous choreographer: I always had choreography in my shows. The models did a little dancing and all.

Priscilla came because she was the best friend of Carlana. I had just brought a whole suitcase of old nightgowns and slips — you know those peach silk slips they used to wear? She wanted all of those made into dresses. And you know, today it’s all back to that. Everyone in fashion now is doing slip dresses.

TCR: And today, you’re still making custom dresses – the White Dress Lady carries on! Do you ever think of retiring?

JDS: I retired about five years ago. Didn't you notice? [LAUGHTER] And you know, I don't have a shop. People say, "Oh, I've been in your shop. Where is it?"  Well, you're in it right now because wherever I am, that's my shop. And that's the truth because I'm always selling and telling.



Our friend Caroline Allison is as talented as she is kind – and damn if she isn’t one of the most nicest folks we know. Lina’s photography has been shown extensively in the U.S. and abroad; this fall, an exhibit of her new work will open at Zeitgeist, the Nashville gallery where she has representation. A contributing photographer for Garden & Gun, Lina also shoots for Lonny, Southern Living and, ahem, The Callaway Report.