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Personal service draws VIPs to chic D.C. clothing shop

Perle Mesta shopped there. Betty Ford bought her inaugural gown there. Lady Bird Johnson stops in occasionally while visiting her elder daughter, wife of Virginia's Governor.

The draw is Frankie Welch of America, a chic shop (''not a boutique - we're all-American'') in a historic house of a Washington suburb where George Washington once dined. Mrs. Welch, who started as a clothes consultant to her high school girlfriends in Rome, Ga., carries a line out of New York that is ''tasteful, up to date, but not so way out that you can't use it more than once, '' says Nancy Thurmond, an active patron.

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The clothes, modestly priced for Alexandria, one of the most expensive cities in the country, draw customers. But what keeps them coming back is the way the clothes are presented: Frankie Welch is big on understated elegance, discretion, and confidence-building advice.

''We keep a card on all our customers that gives their sizes and lists clothes they have bought here,'' she explains. ''That way, if they call looking for a particular blouse, we can tell them what we have available in their size, and what it will go with in their wardrobe.''

They also advise patrons on dressing for Washington parties, showing everything from lingerie to jewelry, makeup, scarves, and tote bags, not to mention suits, dresses, and gowns. All of this is offered with a minimum of disturbance, and the knowledge that ''when our salespeople go home,'' says Mrs. Welch, ''they know not to talk about who was in today, and what color slip they wore.''

Customers like Perle Mesta, who cherished her privacy, are given private dressing rooms, says Mrs. Welch. But the rest ''are treated like everyone else.''

She tells the tale of the wife of a British ambassador who came during her first month in Washington for advice on how to dress for the American political scene. ''While we were helping her, a young woman came in with her baby and her husband,'' Mrs. Welch says. ''The girl had been saving her nickels and dollars to buy a coat, and had brought her husband in to see it. Well, that was so important to us that we nearly dropped the ambassador's wife in our effort to help this young woman.''

The personal touch has been Mrs. Welch's calling card since she came to Washington over a quarter of a century ago. Then, she ''met some congressional wives through these parties - you know how it is,'' she says, and started as a clothes consultant to the VIPs.

The connections have worked well for Mrs. Welch, who values herself more as a designer than a merchant. The shopkeeper designs scarfs, tote bags, napkins, and fabric for everyone from the Watergate Hotel to the Reagan inaugural bus, an industry that opened up for her during Lyndon Johnson's term.

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''Bess Abell and Liz Carpenter (Mrs. Johnson's secretaries) were in my shop one day,'' she explains, ''and I asked each of them if they thought the First Lady might like a scarf reflecting her Discover America program. Well, the next Monday, Mrs. Johnson was on the phone asking me to come to the White House,'' she says with a gracious smile.

The First Lady asked Mrs. Welch if it would be in order to hold a fashion show in the White House, using the scarf, ''and of course I told her the fashion industry had been waiting 200 years for this opportunity.''

So the first fashion show ever held in the White House began two weeks later, and started off with models showing the Frankie Welch scarf. ''I started to cry, '' says the soft-spoken designer. ''It was only the second scarf I'd ever designed.''

Since then, Mrs. Welch has designed over 2,000 scarves on silk and polyester for people and industries ''because they make good gifts - they're lightweight and easy to carry in a suitcase.'' Fourteen of her industrial designs were included two years ago in a one-woman show at the capital's Textile Museum, including a design she made for McDonald's.

Picture a red square with four golden arches going around the sides, and you will see the basic module of the Frankie Welch McDonald's scarf, repeated along the fabric. ''I design in the module, like Frank Lloyd Wright,'' she explains.

In fact, she tried to study under the famous architect-designer at the University of Wisconsin, where she went with her graduate-student husband after graduating from Furman University in South Carolina. ''But he wouldn't take women students,'' she sighs. ''So I found out that he went to the bank every morning at 10, and I used to follow him there, hoping I would meet him.''

The hope was never realized, though she did get ample opportunity to observe ''his sense of style - every day, he had on a different outfit.'' She also purchased much of his material ''and made things for around the house, like shower curtains. I wish I could find those curtains now - they'd be worth a fortune!''

Later she dabbled with the idea of opening a textile design store when she first bought her Alexandria shop ''during the era when Jackie Kennedy was reigning,'' but decided instead to ''be a merchant.'' The textile designs did slowly evolve as part of her store, however, and now that her youngest daughter, Jeannie Roberts, has taken over the retail end of the business, Mrs. Welch is able to devote her full attention to the design work.

It is a work she clearly enjoys: ''No one can rob me of my happiness,'' she says, ''because I have this work, this creativity. Even if they took away the shop, the VIPs, and everything else,'' she believes, ''I would still be happy, because I would still have my creativity.''

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