For local clothing designer Carole Kenney, fashion and passion go hand in hand.
By Anne Gonzales - Sacramento Magazine, January 2003
A pair of puffed sleeves signaled a turning point in Carole Kenney's life.
"They were big, puffy, silk organza sleeves with tiny bows all over them, and they could sit up on their own," she recalls. It was 1984, and Kenney was designing a ball gown for a young woman attending the Sacramento Debutante Ball. "When I looked at them, I practically cried, and I still get emotional. It was a defining moment for me. I knew I had found something I wanted to do."
Since then, the Sacramento designer has been passionate, almost obsessed, about her work. Her enthusiasm for fashion and quality has taken her from making $12 drawstring pants for Oakland Raiders football players in the 1970s to a career as one of Sacramento's premier wedding gown designers and fueled her expansion into designing women's suites and dresses. She now charges anywhere from $1,700 to $3,000 for a wedding gown, and her client list sparkles with local celebrities, television newscasters and politicians, including former California first lady Gayle Wilson.
When the Wilsons first moved to Sacramento in 1991, Gayle Wilson asked around for a tailor and found Kenney, who ended up designing the Wilsons' daughter-in-law's wedding gown. The bride "looked like a vision in it," Gayle Wilson recalls.
"She's an engineering marvel," Wilson says. "She must have a good sense of spatial relationships. I couldn't have done without her while I was [in Sacramento]."
As the proprietor of Carole Kenney Design, Kenney, 44, juggles as many as 15 to 25 clients at a time, and business is booming. Her career highlights include designing a gown for Gayle Wilson to wear to the Governor's Ball at the White House and a gown for one of only two Americans attending the wedding of Britain's Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson.
Even today, Wilson, now a Los Angeles resident, still brings complicated alterations to Kenney. "She's very easy to work with, always responsible and reliable, which is not always the case with creative people. In the end, we became friends." In Kenney's brightly lit, work-tousled studio at the back of her East Sacramento home-which she shares with her husband, 17-year-old stepson, 7-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son-a design can start with something as small or vague as a swatch of fabric, a color or a feeling.
"My business is all custom, geared toward the person I'm designing for," she says. "Sometimes it starts with a piece of fabric or a pair of shoes."
Kenney's favorite part of the design process is trying to understand a client's wishes and dreams, then matching that to body type, fabric and color. Her studio is a jumble of visionary fashion coming to life: bolts of rich fabric, headless dummies swathed in sumptuous silk gowns, pattern pieces fluttering on the ample work table.
Clients can pore over Kenney's portfolio, nearly 1,000 photos of gowns she has made since the early 1980s.
"They may love a neckline or have a feeling about a skirt," she explains. "They'll describe what they like, and I start sketching and interjecting my opinions. I keep trying until I hit something they like."
A self-described perfectionist, Kenney knows she's done her job when she hears the words, "It's perfect!" come out of her dressing room. "Then I know I've made a piece of fabric turn into a dream come true," she says. "That's art, and it makes me feel successful and lucky when I can do it."
Kenney never dreamed of a career in fashion design while growing up in Southern California and the Russian River area. One of nine children, she started sewing at the age of 10 after her sisters taught her the basics. "Mom made sure we all knew how to sew and swim, because those are two things she didn't know how to do," Kenney says simply.
After high school, she attended the now-defunct Bauder College, a fashion school in Sacramento. While on summer vacation, she moved to her mother's home in Santa Rosa and got a job as a cocktail waitress at El Rancho Tropicana hotel and restaurant, where Oakland Raiders players and coaches stayed during summer camp. At the time, she was making and selling men's drawstring pants for friends. Once the players found out, Kenney soon found herself stitching pants for the likes of Kenny Stabler and John Madden.
"I remember Art Shell, a big, beefy guy, tapping me on the shoulder and then grabbing his behind and saying, 'Can you fit these pistons?'" Kenney recalls, laughing uproariously. "It was the late '70s, so I did wild things with color, making orange pants with big squares. I was young, and they were famous. It was a fun time in my life," says Kenney.
Making men's clothing, however, just wasn't her niche, and it would be years before Kenney would find her calling. After graduating from Bauder College, she worked for five years for a Sacramento woman making uniforms. Still, she continued to make her own clothes and some for friends and started to consider a career in fashion design.
In 1982, a bride-to-be approached Kenney about making a knockoff of a $600 wedding gown she saw in a magazine.
"Something about that design connected with me," Kenney says. "I couldn't believe that I could actually get paid for doing something I love."
The following year, at the age of 25, Kenney walked into Canfield's, an exclusive women's clothing shop at Country Club Centre, and asked for a job in the alterations department. Owner Linda Canfield Scott was impressed by Kenney's gregarious personality and strong energy. "We hired her to do alterations but soon realized that her talents as a designer could benefit us," Scott says. Kenney moved up to the custom clothing department, where she designed and made clothes to accessorize the designer and golf apparel sold at Canfield's, which later moved to Pavilions before closing 10 years ago.
"There aren't a tremendous number of people who can do both construction and design," Scott says. "It takes the talent of an engineer and mathematician to make something fit properly, and you have to be very self-assured to cut into a $400 or $500 piece of material. But the fun came when, aside from the construction part, she could make things happen for our customers."
Kenney could add touches like beadwork to clothes, or make a jacket to go over a bare dress for a church wedding, or add sleeves to a sleeveless dress. Scott was especially impressed with Kenney's work on vintage gowns and family heirlooms.
"She can do something that's custom and unusual for her clients," Scott says. "Most people don't have the artistry to do it."
Kenney discovered her calling working at Canfield's, getting to know local celebrities and working on designer clothes.
"My whole business grew from the people I met in that store," she says. "Some of them are still my clients today. I had never sewn on silk, and here I was, altering strapless silk dresses by Albert Nippon. I learned so much about how clothes were constructed by working with these beautiful garments."
In 1988, Kenney left her full-time job with Canfield's and struck out on her own. The move was a risky one for her, but one she's never regretted.
Kenney loves working with today's styles. "The fashions today are wacky and far out, but put-together," she says. "Crazy combinations are working, like mixing silk with leather."
And she's got bigger plans for Carole Kenney Design.
"My dream is to have a dress go to the Oscars," she says bluntly. "I would love to dress the stars, and I'm capable of it. I just need to connect with them."
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