The owner of Bella Rose designer clothing boutique is known to some as “the dress whisperer”. For 35 years, Betty Spain has been dressing women of the Bluegrass, as well as those who arrive to Lexington from other parts of the world. They attend the Kentucky Derby wearing a one-of-a-kind Derby hat from Bella Rose; they go to Keeneland, Breeders’ Cup, the Central Kentucky Heart Ball and galas galore, engagement parties and rehearsal dinners, and all manner of soireés.
Bella Rose is a destination year-round, but particularly during the races and horse sales. Spain also ships packages to California, Florida and New York every month, and certain repeat customers are out-of-towners who stop in when they are in the Bluegrass. The 2015 Breeders’ Cup at Keeneland, for example. “At 1:20 on Breeders’ Cup day I was cutting off tags from an outfit,” Spain said of a particular customer. “She needed red lipstick and I gave her mine and sent her on her way.”
Although she doesn’t namedrop when it comes to clientele, Spain is happy to drop a few designer names. “I have worked with Nicole Miller for 31 years,” she said. “We are the same age and we both think we are 28.”
When designer Shoshanna came to Lexington a few years ago as she was launching her kids’ swimwear line, Bella Rose literally rolled out the red carpet for her. In 2010 Mark Badgley and James Mischka celebrated Bella Rose’s 30-year anniversary. “They still talk about that party every time I see them,” Spain said. “What a blessing to work with such incredibly talented designers.”
“I believe in beauty,” Spain said. “I believe every woman is some stage of a rose: delicate, beautiful, blooming.”
Bella Rose’s motto is “Big-City Fashion, Small-Town Charm” and she comes by the small-town part honestly. Spain is from Campton in Eastern Kentucky.
“I am one of 12 children,” she said. “I never had a new pair of shoes ‘til I was 12.” She loved fabric, and used scraps to make Barbie doll clothes. She also made halter tops out of her mom’s aprons. She would cut open her bell-bottom jeans below the knee and put patchwork pieces of fabric in there. Yes, she took home economics in high school, but found she didn’t have the patience to complete projects. “Some things never change,” she joked.
“In high school, I worked in in a dental office and spent every penny I made, I spent on dresses,” she explained. After high school, she took a full-time position as an expanded duty dental assistant. When KY river came bellowing out of its banks in 1978, her house at Clays Ferry flooded with 8 feet of water, destroying everything she owned. She went back to Campton to a used clothing store. Today, as she earns a living with clothes, she says her faith is her “strongest suit”.
She soon moved to Lexington and purchased some 1940s suits with padded shoulders. She made her own statement with them by glamming them up with other fabrics (and high-heeled Candies) to go out discoing. “I like layering pieces that are unpredictable,” she said. “Everywhere I went, people were trying to buy my outfits of my back.” On a fluke, she decided to open a shop. It was 1980.
Spain rented a space on Clay Avenue for a few months before moving to her current spot on the corner of Maxwell and Upper. The name of her store was Déjà Vu and for the first several years, she kept her job, and insurance, at the dental office at nights and on weekends.
“The father of my children, Ken Williams, and I found a dry goods store with two floors of vintage clothing still in original wrapping,” she said. There were zoot suits and poodle skirts, and 1950s sweater sets in Easter colors with intricate beadwork. She started wholesaling them to Poodles and Cowboys in L.A. and Reminiscence in New York, and then to Tokyo and London. She found a resource for vintage kimonos and redesigned them into dresses and tops. That’s where the working capital came from to run her own clothing boutique.
“I took a shipment of vintage merchandise to New York and while in the city placed my first order on Seventh Avenue,” Spain said. “To be a girl from Campton, Kentucky, in the City doing business, I was just thanking God for the adventures ahead.”
Spain still goes to the New York market very frequently, constantly looking for new resources to bring wearable innovation to the Lexington community. “I focus on bringing clothing that is wearable, from the runway to the runway of our lives,” she explained.
In the mid-1980s, Spain had a rather unusual business challenge. A strip joint opened on the other end of town, also named Déjà Vu. After some thought, Spain decided to hold a contest to rename the store, offering a $500 gift certificate for the winning name. She split the prize between two winners, one of whom came up with the Bella part and the other with the Rose. Spain combined the two and Bella Rose had its new name.
“Ladies frequently walk in and hand me their purse and say ‘work your magic’,” she explained.
Her seven rowdy grandsons call her Gigi; three are in Texas; the other four are in Lexington. “I’ve spent my life clothing women and am so blessed to have these grandsons,” she said. In her spare time she loves cooking for her husband of 18 years, Robert Spain–who she calls Mr. Wonderful–gardening, collecting art and spending as much time as possible with her grandsons, as well as her daughter Haley, son Mason and his wife Lindsey and bonus son Jason and daughter-in-law Jill.
Spain supports the arts in Lexington and several charitable organizations, such as The Nest, Make a Wish Foundation and Susan G. Komen. She was the winner of the National Association Women Business Owners Winners’ Circle Award in 2011 and Woman of the Year with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. “Every February we give a heartfelt thank you and a percent of sales to the American Heart Association.”
“I’m in the business of cheering up women,” she said. “I’m thrilled with my work.” She has dressed girls for their first cotillion dance, mothers of the bride/groom, galas galore, wedding guests, Keeneland and Derby goers, and a 97-year-old woman for her great-granddaughter’s wedding. “I’m so blessed I get to share in people’s big life events.”