Lawrence clothing designer teaches kids a ‘dying skill’: how to sew; fashion show will highlight their work

photo by: Kathy Hanks

Catherine Bell irons one of the dresses that will be part of the fashion show "Color of Fashion," at 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 20, 2019, at Springhill Suites by Marriott. The event includes 45 models wearing original creations by Bell and her sewing students.

It may not be Paris, New York or Milan, but models in Lawrence will be strutting down the catwalk, wearing the latest fall designs created by Catherine Bell and her students in celebration of Fashion Month.

The “Color of Fashion,” a fashion show from 7 to 9 p.m. Friday at Springhill Suites Marriott, 1 Riverfront Plaza, will include both original designs and sewing projects from young students enrolled in Bell’s Sew Simple sewing program. In the world of high fashion, September is when designers from around the world debut their latest collections.

“Everyone is ready for new fashion in September,” Bell, of Lawrence, said. This will be the first time the 24-year-old has organized a local fashion show. The event includes 45 models wearing not just her original creations but also the clothing created by nine students, as well as the work of two other adult seamstresses.

Together with her mother, Mildred Bell, Bell operates Properwear, where they do alterations, custom sewing and design.

“My passion has been in designing, and the teaching came by accident,” Bell said. After she agreed to give one private lesson, she discovered how much she loved teaching.

Now after a day of working in the studio, at 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday mother and daughter teach sewing classes to 7- to 15-year-olds. The students are mostly girls, though Bell has taught several boys how to sew. Currently, 35 children are enrolled in the program.

The sewing studio and classroom are inside the Prestige Hair Studio, 3115 W. Sixth St. Bell’s sister, Breanna Bell, operates a hair salon in the space, and her brother, Isaiah Bell, has a barbershop.

“It’s a one-stop-shop,” Bell said. They frequently work with couples getting married — Bell designing or altering the gowns and her siblings pampering the bride and groom.

Growing up in Lawrence, Bell can’t remember a time she wasn’t interested in sewing. With 11 children in the family, Mildred Bell sewed all their clothes. Catherine was very young when Mildred taught her to hand stitch. But Catherine began sneaking on the sewing machine when her mother was asleep. By the time she was 7, she was learning how to safely operate the machine.

“Our parents always instilled in us the importance of being creative and working with our hands. They told us to figure out what we want to do. They wanted us to keep our minds busy rather than sitting on the couch all day,” Bell said.

Sewing became her thing. After graduating from Lawrence High School, she earned a degree in fashion design and technology at Johnson County Community College. She had an intense internship in the design department of J. Crew and Victoria’s Secret in New York City.

On a recent morning, Bell was busy inside the studio ironing one of her original dresses for the show. Made of chambray material, it had an overlay of white lace. It’s her original style that can be worn every day, with detailing and style lines resembling parts of a wedding dress.

The studio has six sewing machines spaced around the room for the students. On the wall are rules for the class. The first rule is safety. The second is to respect one another’s work and respect the equipment.

“Our goal for the class was to teach a skill that we know is dying,” Bell said. “We also want to teach them something that will be beneficial to their life, not just right now, but in the future.”

General admission tickets for the fashion show are $30 and include a violin performance. Tickets may be purchased at https://kansasfashionshow.ticketleap.com/color-of-fashion/

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