Last year, I was introduced to Inez Holden over a glass of dry white wine at a fundraising event in our community. Mrs. Holden’s story, told with humor and passion, reminded me that the fashion industry runs deep here in our community. Before Alabama Chanin and Billy Reid, there was Bubbles Ltd.
As Alabama Chanin continues to explore the world of machine-made fashion with our new line and manufacturing division, A. Chanin and Building 14, respectively, Mrs. Holden reminded me that we humbly follow in a line of companies that completely designed and manufactured a fashion line in The Shoals and the surrounding area.
We’ve previously spoken about the rich history of textile production in our community and some of the local manufacturers who led the nation in textile and t-shirt production, but we were excited to discover Bubbles Ltd.
Around 1983, Mrs. Holden got her start as a designer quite by accident. She bought an oversized top and banded bottom pant that she loved the style and fit of, but the material was very rough and scratchy. So, she asked a friend of hers to help her make more sets in a similar style, but out of jersey fabric. She had about five sets of these pantsuits made in different colors, but kept giving them away because so many of her friends and family wanted them.
After Mrs. Holden fielded dozens of requests for more of her knit “bubble top” sets, she started contracting with a local sample house and her label, Bubbles Ltd., was born. A regional chain of retail stores (Parisian) approached her with interest in buying some of her sets, and she was shocked that they wanted to order in large quantities. When she was never paid for the order, she called the company and the buyer explained that she was never paid because she never sent a bill. She laughs, “I was a housewife. I didn’t know anything about how to run a fashion design company, but I just had to teach myself. And I learned so much.”
She learned how to empower women, how to read people, and how to style her looks in both casual and glamorous ways. “There wasn’t a woman in town who wasn’t wearing one of my designs,” she says. “You could have called The Shoals ‘Bubble City’.”
Bubbles Ltd. expanded their designs and eventually outgrew the small sample house, moving to another manufacturing facility nearby in Tennessee. Mrs. Holden learned how to take her garments to market and sold the Bubbles line in every major market and most of the large, upscale department stores, including Bloomingdales, Macy’s, and Nordstrom. She says that she had a true passion for design and worked hard to hone her instinct for what buyers wanted. She was proud to design for women “from a size 4 to a good 22,” and had a desire to make every woman feel beautiful in some way. Some of her clientele included actress Morgan Fairchild, evangelist Tammy Faye Baker, and singer Selena.
She was quoted in a local newspaper article as saying, “When you buy things, you should buy things that make you feel good inside. If you feel good inside about yourself, the image that you project to other people is totally different.”
Mrs. Holden recalled some of her favorite styles. They included dress skirts and a popular cropped pant. Her palazzo pant sold very well. Her two favorite pieces were a shirt that she called the “Tuxedo Top”, which was cut short in the front and long in the back, and a pencil skirt with a peplum only in the back. In stylish 1980s fashion, she favored asymmetrical things. Her clothes were very colorful, but could always be mixed and matched with one another. Though she enjoyed bright colors, she never included prints or the stereotypical neon colors of the 80s. She gives color advice to all future (and current) clothing designers, “Don’t make clothes in ‘squash.’ Nobody wears it and I couldn’t give (them) away.”
Bubbles Ltd. styles were so diverse that they were worn by women of all ages, and in a couple of instances, by men. Mrs. Holden, whose husband was part of a local music festival, designed a very popular pant she called the “Lingo Pant.” A few of the jazz musicians saw the pants, which were loose fit and were “wrapper pants,” that featured an elastic waist band that wrapped around the top. Several of them got their own pairs and wore them for the entire week of the festival.
Eventually, like most manufacturers in The Shoals, she saw that manufacturing was moving outside of the United States. When taking her designs to market, Mrs. Holden found that companies from China and Japan had copied her line and were selling the clothes for a cheaper price. She ultimately made the decision to stop designing and sold all of her remaining inventory to a single buyer. She is passionate about quality and the idea of affordable manufacturing moving back to the United States (and Alabama).
She is proud that she never had to take on debt to finance her line and had strong sales during her entire run. “Like someone on stage,” she says, “people will keep acting as long as you are clapping.” In fact, Mrs. Holden still sees folks around town wearing her line—she is appreciative of the fact that she was able to create something so timeless and versatile that still impacts and inspires women today. “The thrill of it all is what was most important to me,” she says.
Mrs. Holden says that she “believes in destiny and in fate,” and humbly suggests that her initial success was due to being in the right place at the right time. She tells aspiring designers, “If you want to start your own line of clothes, you can do anything you really want. There’s a buyer for everything. The important thing is how you go about doing it. But, if you love something, if you really love it, it can make you successful.”
Photos courtesy of Inez Holden.