Dawn Bell has dressed Gabrielle Giffords for Time and Annise Parker for More, but if you really want to enter Bell’s world, skip the magazine aisle and head to her vintage-packed warehouse in Shady Acres. Part closet, part museum, the space houses rack after rack of carefully constructed period dresses, bookcases glimmering with jewelry, and the occasional random object, such as a Victorian baby carriage parked in the middle of it all. There’s the black high-necked dress she’s using for a shoot involving nuns in a New Orleans church, the ’60s-era black and red–striped turtleneck paired with a high-waisted bathing suit bottom for a future project inspired by the Russian Circus, and the ever-present feeling that you’re only seeing what she has deemed you worthy to see, because the racks and bookshelves hide bin after bin of more shoes, more bags, and more accessories. In 2010, the New Orleans–born stylist staged a fashion show to display pieces from her collection, an event that has grown into the festival known as Houston Vintage, which you can attend October 12 at the appropriately retro 1940 Air Terminal Museum.
What are you wearing?
The jacket is a 1960s Italian leather piece that I picked up in a London flea market. The skirt is also from the 1960s; it’s a silver lurex maxi that I found at a clothing auction in Scotland. The jewelry is all stuff that I made from vintage bits and bobs, the purse is a late-’70s clutch, and the shoes are from Anthropologie.
How does your upbringing in New Orleans come into your style?
I have a lot of fantasy in what I do, and New Orleans definitely encourages creativity. There are so many characters, and they dress however they like. And you can imagine the closets of some of these women who went to these Mardi Gras balls and would not re-wear a dress. When they were getting rid of things I would go, “oh, can I have that?” I never saw any boundaries. But mainly I am influenced by my mother, who was into design. I used to tag along with her as she visited flea markets and picked up things and redid them. I had five sisters—I am the youngest of ten—and I would always raid their closets.
Tell us about the genesis of your collection.
When I was 18 I would just scour the thrift stores, and that’s when I built up a really big collection—for five years I just collected and collected. Now it’s a lot harder to find pieces that are in good shape and collector-worthy. There are so many people collecting now; everybody has an Etsy store. I’m grateful that I was ahead of that.
It really is all about cut and design, the quality, the hardware. Designers cannot, the way clothes are now mass manufactured, afford to put the same quality into a piece anymore.
Was there a moment when you made the connection between clothes-hunting and styling?
Until Anna Wintour started giving credit to stylists, no one had done it before. Grace Coddington was one of the first stylists that started getting credit in magazines, and once I realized, “hey, that’s a job,” I knew I’d love to do it.
How do you define Houston’s aesthetic?
I think there are two different things that are going on. There is a subculture where you have young designers toughing it out, presenting their work at underground fashion shows, but those sorts of events are hard to find out about because they don’t have the resources to publicize. And then you have society wearing high-end designers. The women here dress so beautifully.
Is there a thrift store you love?
There is, and, hey, I’ll tell everybody—Value Village, two blocks from here.