When fashion designer Mary-Margaret Quadlander met Grace Jones of Salado, a fashion legend like no other, she had no idea that the friendship would have such a long-lasting significance. In an exclusive excerpt from her re-released book, Grace Jones of Salado: A Biography, join us as we learn how fashion’s modern roots in Texas glamorously began…and some of the fashionable personalities within it.
A WOMAN FOR ALL SEASONS
When asked who his competition in the State of Texas was, Stanley Marcus of Neiman Marcus answered without hesitation, “Grace Jones of Salado.”
Grace Jones was a rare breed, a thoroughly practiced raconteur, and somewhat of an enigma. She would have told you that serendipity, being in the right place at the right time, was the lifeline of her success, but don’t be fooled; Jones could be a formidable opponent.
As a female pilot in World War II, Jones enlisted as a WASP. She and other Women Airforce Service Pilots flew and delivered fighter planes and along with many other unsung heroes, were an enormous support in winning the War. Then, while making a documentary about the WASP at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas, a director from Hollywood noticed Jones running to a pilot class and stopped to ask if she would agree to be interviewed for the film. This was an example of serendipity that Jones often mentioned. The director gave her his card and suggested, because of her beauty, that movies might be in her future. Following her service during World War II, Jones moved to New York to pursue the director’s suggestion, but as luck would have it, the movies weren’t calling…but the runway was.
Jones worked as a fashion runway and television model for the premier New York modeling agency at the time, John Robert Powers. Following her marriage to Lt. Col. Jack Jones, an acclaimed “Flying Ace” Fighter Pilot, she also modeled in Germany, Japan, and Berlin. From those experiences, she was introduced to many of the prominent designers in the world and became familiar with their collections.
While stationed in Japan with her husband, Jones had the opportunity to learn and perform the Traditional Tea Ceremony. She was the very first American woman allowed to perform this ceremony in public in Japan. In Germany, her frequent bridge partner was General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Jones took full advantage of every opportunity that presented itself, not knowing at the time that she was indeed designing her future.
If there was a word to describe the union of Grace and Jack Jones, it would be powerful. Together they created a bit of a dynasty, with newspaper society journalists following them all over the world: Berlin, Japan, Korea, Atlanta, and New York. Wherever they went, the public read about it. Photos of the handsome “Flying Ace” pilot and his beautiful wife, who also carried an impressive set of credentials herself, were seen in the society sections of all the top newspapers. They were the definitive Golden Couple.
When Jack’s commission ended, the duo decided to retire, and after much discussion, they chose Grace’s home state of Texas, specifically Salado. The society pages showed a photo of them disembarking an Air Force plane, with the heading, Famous World War II Fighter Pilot And New York Runway Model Return Home. Several Air Force officers, including Colonel Van Bibber and his wife Ruth, owners of the famed Stage Coach Inn, along with a dozen or so other officers, had also picked Salado as their retirement dream site. A group of them even went in together and built a short flight runway for the officer’s small private planes. Jack was content.
On any given day, Salado would be best described as a quaint little village, with an old-world atmosphere, nestled along the I-35 Highway between Dallas and Austin. With only 250 inhabitants at the time, it was merely a rest stop for weary travelers wanting a good meal. The Stage Coach Inn, a great place to stop and eat, pulled in many travelers.
Directly across the street from the Stage Coach Inn was a cluster of old limestone buildings, some with only a façade left. One of the buildings had a large opening on the wall that perfectly framed Mill Creek, surrounded by beautiful open pastoral fields. The thought of having a world-class couture salon in this little out-of-the-way town was unbelievable, if not laughable. But Grace Jones saw something more.
She had ideas of her own rumbling in her brain and told Jack that she wanted to use her world experience to open a boutique. In his mind, he envisioned a small dress shop where ladies could gather, gossip, have a cup of tea, and possibly buy a daytime dress. When he drew out a store sign on paper, it read Grace’s Dress Shop. Grace was speechless. Looking at his plans for the building, Grace was not happy. Her vision was nothing at all similar to Jack’s. A dress shop? The next thing she knew, he would be signing her up for weekly quilting bees. No, no, no, not for Grace Jones.
But she knew how to work with Jack and started planning one step at a time. He never saw it coming…the Grace Jones freight train. When they saw the old stone buildings on Main Street behind the Stage Coach Inn, they instantly fell in love with the limestone structure. It perfectly exuded provenance, history, and endurance. They had to get it. After much finagling back and forth, the building was finally theirs. But opening an exclusive clothing salon in the small out-of-the-way town of Salado was going to be hard enough. Getting those customers to the destination was as formidable a challenge as getting the very selective shoppers to buy. But Grace Jones knew from the get-go that her customers would be different. They would certainly not be looking for a shirt or a pair of jeans. Her customers would be looking for the world’s finest clothing, and she would carry the world’s finest clothing. Jack Jones could do nothing but surrender.
The day before her iconic namesake boutique opened in 1962, Jones walked through her store’s enormous wooden front doors to check on the furniture’s final placement. Her designer, Bryant Reeves, had found beautiful and luxurious French parlor furniture pieces from an old 1870s home in Waco. An exquisite Austrian crystal chandelier hanging from the high ceilings just inside the door was the perfect accompaniment to the austerity of the old limestone walls and oak floors. A large oak table covered in pale marble, placed just off the side of the entrance, was the setting for Jones’s favorite bouquet of fresh flowers and registration book, awaiting to be opened for the first of her new customers to sign. Nothing over the top, just simple provincial elegance. This proud owner wanted her customers to see her excellent taste reflected in the store, therefore assuring them of the quality of her merchandise. The store was not gaudy or ostentatious in any way, just the quiet suggestion of old money and opulent good taste. Very old money.
Getting down to business, Jones knew exactly the designers she wanted to carry and which collections. Her vision was to offer her customers a service they could not find anywhere else other than possibly Neiman Marcus. Even if they had to drive a little out of their way to get to her store, she would make it worth their while. The salon would offer exclusivity, personal assistance, confidential showings, and ambience. Tea and cocktails, along with finger sandwiches and cookies and her favorite hamburgers, were delivered on silver trays, carried by uniformed assistants. Exclusivity was the true ambience.
Opening day arrived along with a line of limousines, Cadillacs, and helicopters. The massive iron brand, with the name Grace Jones written out, was mounted on the roof above the front doors. It could be seen from blocks away, hanging in the air, as if an enormous branding iron had just burned Jones’s name into the hide of thin air. The parking lot was adorned with giant stone planters of red geraniums, her favorite of the month.
Almost immediately, the parking lot was full, and the large wooden doors opened for the crowd coming to see what Grace Jones had to offer. She had done a magnificent job of advertising. The salon was filled with the curious, of course, but among the visitors would be some of her most loyal customers throughout her store’s lifetime. This opening night would mark the start of a new endeavor for Jones, one that would would capitalize on her very best strengths and prior experiences to lead her to this final life challenge. She would call it serendipity, but others would call it dogged determination. Once she opened her store in Salado, clients started arriving daily with one goal in mind, and that was to shop at her eponymous boutique. Her enthusiastic customers came from all over the world, using the wide-open, smooth graded field behind the building for a perfect landing strip, even if it was a bit disconcerting to the cattle grazing the land.
With no training in business or merchandising, Grace Jones would, nonetheless, become an award winner year after year as one of only two destinations for couture in the State of Texas. Stanley Marcus and Grace Jones were inarguably the reigning royalty of fashion merchandising in the state. Her store became so iconic and recognizable that people would pronounce her name and the store name as if it was one and the same…simply Gracejonesofsalado.
During the sixties and well into the millennium, Texas would become the mecca of pioneering intellectual, cultural, technical, and political dreams; the whole world would eventually have an eye on the happenings in Texas, specifically Central Texas. Among her favorite customers would be Jane Sibley, Liz Carpenter, Joan Brashear, Carolyn Farb, Gray Hawn, Stella Rowan, Bennie Green, Dr. Nancy Heerssen, Janie Briscoe, Bennie Green, Clair Mashburn, Miriam Cox, Loretta Young, Gene Tierney, Governor Ann Richards, Lady Bird Johnson, Nancy Kissinger, Meg Heyer, and Sandy Leech. A veritable blue-book of Texas Blue-Bloods.
Born in Salado, Liz Carpenter was the real deal when it came to Texas Women. She was as comfortable in the country walking barefoot in a creek as she was at a White House dinner in Washington, meeting Henry Kissinger. There was nothing pretentious about Liz…what you saw in public was authentic. She was completely comfortable in her own skin, as the saying goes.
Jones and Carpenter could not have been more different. Jones was conscious of every move she made and every carefully chosen word that came out of her mouth. She was dressed perfectly from head to toe every minute of the day, always ready to make the best impression possible. There was nothing, absolutely nothing, more important to her than her external presentation. Always dressed in the very best designer clothing with her hair perfectly coiffured, she was a study in sublime control.
Liz Carpenter was a whole different story. Out front and loud with a laugh that could echo, she was funny, irreverent, incredibly entertaining, and brilliant. Always shooting from the hip, throwing out story after story, the room would be rolling in laughter while she entertained and held court. Carpenter, a force herself, was a real Texas whirlwind, gathering up friends and allies in her cyclone. She could pull people from every social and political arena and make a party out of it. She knew how to have a good time and especially how to tell a good story. Her friends worshipped the ground she walked on and constantly sought out her company like a group of camp followers. In addition, with experience in the White House, and as a reporter, she was confident holding her own in all conversations, anywhere, anytime, and with anybody. Carpenter, as a result, also happened to have an enormous amount of influence.
If there was a flaw to her presentation, it was her wardrobe. Carpenter had some lovely features…beautiful sparkling eyes that were always alive with curiosity, a Texas drawl that could soothe the soul, beautiful skin, wonderful silver hair that framed her face, and a fabulous smile. These were her best assets, and she learned to use them well. As for her attire, she just never understood what looked good on her. So, she left it up to others to tell her what to wear.
When the news started traveling all the way to Washington that there was an haute couture salon in little Salado, Texas, Carpenter was fascinated. This state was her birthplace, and she could not imagine this type of store in Salado. So, the next time she traveled to Texas, she made it a point to visit the store and see about all this fuss. The day that Grace Jones and Liz Carpenter met, a best friend bond was permanently sealed. They hit it off immediately…two polar opposites without a thing in common, other than nearby birthplaces. But, they were both women from Texas, both born in the country. And they were both incredibly determined to get things done. This was the full extent of their commonality. Yet, their odd friendship would last for the rest of their lives.
If there ever was someone who needed the help of a personal shopper, it was Liz Carpenter. Never one to pay much attention to her attire, she would show up in the most unflattering ensembles, always loud and always big. Her taste ran from bright to brighter, with red being her favorite color as if that needed to be said. “When Grace and I met, we really hit it off. It was instant liking. Our vibrations just worked together, although we are not at all alike. Grace is a perfectionist. She is always cool, never gets ruffled. While I can’t say the same for myself,” said Liz Carpenter at the time.
The reporter had asked Liz what qualities she most admires in her friend, Grace Jones. “Even more than the store and her history in the big war and her modeling career in New York, I would say that I am most impressed with what she has done to put Salado on the map. Opening a store that is now internationally known for its sophistication certainly brought our little town into the limelight. Who would have thought we would have fashions from Milan (Liz said Me-laann, true to her Texas drawl), Paris, and Rome in this tiny town? Certainly not me, who grew up here when Norwood store was our only place to buy gingham.” Liz went on to add, “I am especially proud of her having faith in Salado. Nobody encouraged her. They all said it was too far for people to drive, too inconvenient, too out of the way. No one would ever find her store. But she did it anyway.”
Houstonian Carolyn Farb regularly bought from Jones and modeled in fashion shows, especially those involving charity events and philanthropic fundraising. Farb has received many accolades for her work, including an honorary doctorate. As a woman always wanting to wear the very best, she frequently shopped at Grace Jones. “Grace was such an extraordinary fashion beacon,” shared Carolyn Farb. “People came from far and near to get her fashion advice. It is not as if it was easy to get to her store in Salado, but it was always worth it. There are not many like her. Then, the designers were revered, not like these characters today on television fashion shows. Grace introduced us to the very best collections with such conviction; we always felt secure with our purchases. Of course, Grace had her opinions, but I admired her greatly.”
Jane Sibley, the well-known and respected Austin Arts enthusiast and philanthropist, was one of Jones’s earliest customers and best friends. She and her husband, Dr. D.J. Sibley, became good friends with Jones, but Jane’s initial interest was the exclusive designers she carried in her store. “I could barely believe my eyes when I saw the designer labels,” mused Jane Sibley. “This was just a little off-the-road shop. My Lord!” Sibley was a perfect size for modeling, but even better, she had the personality and presence that the audience loved. More than one husband wanted to buy the gorgeous ensembles Sibley modeled on the runway hoping their wives would look as great as she did.
By far, Grace’s favorite designer was Geoffrey Beene, a man of incredible and exquisite talent. His architectural genius, seen repeatedly in his designs, were Grace’s best-selling collections. Clean yet sophisticated, his collections always sold well.
Geoffrey Beene was one of the very first designers to show in Jones’ salon. Upon arrival to show his newest collection, Beene grew slack-jawed at his first glimpse of the country back road entrance to this exclusive salon. But the sight of a huge grain mill across the street shocked him even more. With a bit of sneer, he asked, “Is that really a grain mill?” Grace Jones was quick to reply, “It certainly is. And we in Salado are very proud of it.”
The longtime receptionist at Geoffrey Beene, Joyce Hinklin, remembers Jones’s sophistication. “We all really loved her, but especially her accent. After I spent time around her and Mr. B, also a Southerner, I found myself talking just like them. Everyone would ask, ‘Joyce, why are you talking like that? You aren’t a southerner!’ And I’d tell them, ‘Lord no, I’m from the South Bronx!’ I just can’t help myself when I am around Grace Jones.”
As a special gift exclusively for Jones, Geoffrey Beene created an Ombre dyed multi-layered silk chiffon gown in one of his most ethereal creations. After it was photographed for Vogue, Beene had it carefully wrapped in tissue and asked his assistant to mail it to Jones with a card that read, I designed this for you.
Fashion leaders like Geoffrey Beene, Ron Amey, Michael Vollbracht, Count Sarmi, Jean Louis, Pauline Trigere, Bill Blass, Adolfo representative Oscar DeLavan, Mollie Parnis, Bernard Perris, George Halley, Christian Lacroix, and so many others who came to Salado had to blink twice to believe what they were seeing. Was it really possible that Grace Jones was showing and selling haute couture out of a rock bunker in the middle of nowhere? A rock bunker with its own landing strip.
Is it conceivable that some panicked, calling back the design studios to confirm they were at the correct address? Salado, Texas? But Jones always made the trip memorable for every designer who put forth the effort to trust in her. Count Fernando Sarmi, the Italian-born American fashion designer and businessman, squealed the first time he caught a glimpse of a cow behind the store. In his heavy accent, he was startled into asking, “Ewwww, Is that a coo?” Again, without haste but with a smile, Jones answered, “why yes, and it can moo, too.”
REALLY, IT’S A RUNWAY
One of the most memorable events held at her salon was a fashion show for Christian Lacroix. He was the newest darling of the fashion scene in the 1980s and regularly featured on the front page of every fashion magazine from Texas to Paris. Many stores in Texas, the state with more Lacroix customers than any other place in the nation, were all fighting for the exclusivity to carry his collection, with Neiman Marcus fighting the hardest. But Grace Jones was the only store chosen.
Upon arrival in Salado, Lacroix was startled and speechless to see that the runway for his show had been built in an open field behind the store. Crazy Texans, he must have thought. But as the limousines began arriving, he felt somewhat relieved. As the excited guests took their seats, the music began. Jones took the stage to introduce her guest designer, and after signaling to start the show, the music was turned up. The beautiful backdrop of Mill Creek running behind the stage and the ambience of the pastoral setting surrounding the audience must have been memorable. As the models Jones had hired for the event started their runway walk, the audience was already applauding. Then, out of the corner of her eye, Jane Sibley saw something moving to the far right. As she turned to see what it was, a cow lazily sauntered up and walked directly in front of the stage and then continued meandering through the audience. There was a loud gasp from the onlookers, and especially from Lacroix. But Jones just signaled for the models to keep walking; she never lost her focus. The cows were just part of the ambience, as far as she was concerned. Lacroix looked horrified. But at the finale, the audience gave his collection a loud standing ovation. He said that he wasn’t quite sure the applause was for him or the cow. He sold 150 dresses at this one show. Crazy Texans, indeed.
Another reminiscence came from the designer, Michael Vollbracht. “I worked for Bill Blass and Geoffrey Beene and then went out on my own for a while, designing prints,” recalled Vollbracht. Grace was so gracious, supporting me in every way, including hosting a fashion show in Salado. Well, I know Texas…but I wasn’t at all prepared for it. I barely remember riding to one of the fashion shows…Grace was driving. I had no idea where we were or where we were going. Somehow, when the evening ended, we were all in a hot tub with Liz Carpenter.”
Grace Jones passed away in Salado in 2008. However, she will long be regarded as the First Lady of Texas Fashion, from an era of elegance we can recall fondly and with hopes that she would still have her favorite designers today. For more information on the book, visit http://www.gracejonesofsalado.com.