Making a fashion statement: Catholic values meet beautiful attire

by Kiki Hayden

North Texas Catholic

Co-founders Audrey Cole, right, CEO, and Mary Kunkel, CCO of Paris Bloom, pose with a dress titled Clemy at TLCI Manufacturing in Dallas, July 17, 2019.
Co-founders Audrey Cole, right, CEO, and Mary Kunkel, CCO of Paris Bloom, pose with a dress titled Clemy at TLCI Manufacturing in Dallas, July 17, 2019. The line of dresses are made ethically by workers who are paid appropriately for their skills. (NTC/Ben Torres)

At the mall, Audrey Cole and her younger sister Mary Kunkel felt isolated. Mannequins displayed dresses with plunging necklines and short skirts, designed to sexualize. Alternatives were outdated, frumpy styles. Cole and Kunkel longed for beautiful but modest dresses. Cole thought, “We must be the only people that want this!”

They weren’t. Later, they found many Catholic and Christian women online who longed for elegant, high-quality modest clothing that honors the dignity of life — the antithesis of the fast-fashion industry, which sells objectification and exploitation, according to the sisters. Modest clothing garnered more respect for women, and observers were more likely to treat provocatively dressed women as objects, according to published studies by behavioral science researchers Dr. Bhuvanesh Awasthi and Dr. Regan Gurung.

There was a demand and a need for beautiful, modest dresses. Furthermore, their store-bought clothing didn’t last long; it seemed wasteful to keep replacing it. Cole and Kunkel tried to find out where the clothes were sewn. “We were slightly horrified to find most of the clothing we wear in the U.S. is made by people who are barely making [a living],” Cole told the North Texas Catholic.

From that dilemma, an idea was born.

 

FILLING A NEED

Cole, a parishioner at St. Benedict Parish in Fort Worth, is the Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Paris Bloom, a dress company that sells beautiful, modest dresses sewn by workers who are paid fairly and treated well.  She founded the company with her sister, Kunkel, who is the Chief Creative Officer.

One winter morning in late 2017, Cole sat on the couch of their parents’ family home in Ohio, nursing her first-born baby. Kunkel called; she was at a crossroads. She worked as a paralegal in Kentucky, and the next logical step in her career was law school. But she dreamed of starting a modest and elegant clothing company. Cole encouraged her sister to follow the inspiration in her heart.

“I said, ‘Oh, yeah, sure,’ but I didn’t think it was really a reality,” Kunkel recalled.

Cole felt convicted and determined to make a difference. “Modest clothing is empowering because it reveals a woman’s total dignity… That’s what the Church teaches us and it’s interesting the science supports that as well,” she said.

So Cole sent Kunkel dress ideas. She researched the manufacturing process. Still, it didn’t feel real to Kunkel until the spring — when Cole arranged for the first patterns to be made.

Sisters Mary Kunkel, left, volunteer Sophia Kunkel and Audrey Cole, right, of Paris Bloom, look over illustrations their younger sister Sophia made for possible dress lines for Paris Bloom, photographed at TLCI Manufacturing in Dallas. (NTC/Ben Torres)Sisters Mary Kunkel, left, volunteer Sophia Kunkel and Audrey Cole, right, of Paris Bloom, look over illustrations their younger sister Sophia made for possible dress lines for Paris Bloom, photographed at TLCI Manufacturing in Dallas. (NTC/Ben Torres)
Sisters Mary Kunkel, left, volunteer Sophia Kunkel and Audrey Cole, right, of Paris Bloom, look over illustrations their younger sister Sophia made for possible dress lines for Paris Bloom, photographed at TLCI Manufacturing in Dallas. (NTC/Ben Torres)


They named their business Paris Bloom, inspired by French fashion. Throughout 2018, Cole and Kunkel sought help from their family and other businesses. Cole’s husband designed and manages the website (parisbloom.com), handles shipping and returns, and takes photographs for their catalogue. Other companies provide fabric, buttons, and zippers. Paris Bloom works with American companies whenever possible to ensure their workers are paid and treated fairly.

In 2018, Cole and her husband moved to Fort Worth.  Her mother and youngest sister, Sophia, helped care for Cole’s first and then her second child. 

 

LOCAL VENTURE

On a hot July day in 2019, Cole and Kunkel visited TLCI manufacturing in Dallas to inspect progress on their debut collection, scheduled to be released on August 23 in their online store. A rack of identical dresses hung in the middle of the room. Nearby, paper patterns rested on large stacks of dark green fabric. Rolls of cloth and half-finished projects lined the walls, tables, and most available surfaces. A portable radio somewhere among the piles of cloth played ’70s hits.

José Portillo got straight to business: “I’ve gotta show you; we have a problem.”  He led them to the dark green fabric; he could smell laundry detergent.

Kunkel bit her lip. “We thought the detergent would help,” Cole offered.

Portillo shook his head. Using detergent could cause the fabric to shrink unevenly, making it more difficult to cut. This fabric could still be used to make high quality dresses, but Portillo asked Cole and Kunkel not to use detergent in their next prewash. They listened carefully.

Portillo is a master cutter and owner of TLCI: there isn’t a fabric or cutting tool he doesn’t know. He often gives advice to newer customers, and Cole and Kunkel are the first to admit they are learning as they go.

Jose Portillo, owner of TLCI Manufacturing, cuts sheets of paper containing dress patters before making cuts to fabric for a dress at his shop in DallasJose Portillo, owner of TLCI Manufacturing, cuts sheets of paper containing dress patters before making cuts to fabric for a dress at his shop in Dallas
Jose Portillo, owner of TLCI Manufacturing, cuts sheets of paper containing dress patterns before making cuts to fabric for a dress at his shop in Dallas. (NTC/Ben Torres)


Like Paris Bloom, TLCI is a family business; the letters stand for the nicknames of Portillo, his wife, and their children. Portillo often teaches his employees new skills, and he ensures his seamstresses do not work more than eight hours a day. “We’re Catholics too,” he explained. “You always have to keep in mind to do the good — that’s part of the faith.”

Portillo respects Paris Bloom’s commitment to employ local workers. “Many companies start in the United States, but then move their manufacturing to China or Mexico,” Portillo shrugged. “It’s sad, but that’s the reality.”

Cole and Kunkel examined the dresses as Cole’s oldest son, now a toddler, ran back and forth across the room. Her youngest slept in a baby carrier next to a stack of brightly colored vests. Cole pointed out a few imperfections to Portillo. He assured her he would fix them and warned her not to pull any threads.

In the heat of summer, Kunkel sewed the prototypes for next year’s spring collection. Her studio is in the apartment she shares with several other Catholic women in Dallas. Kunkel moved in during July. The next day, there were no cardboard boxes to be seen. Her sewing machine was already on its table. A grey mannequin stood next to a window overlooking magenta crepe myrtles.

After an hour of cutting and sewing, Kunkel pulled a chambray (light blue denim) prototype dress over the mannequin. “Come on, you can do this,” she muttered, tugging it down.  This fabric has no stretch; the pattern would require modifications. Kunkel snipped one last strip of chambray to wrap around the waist of the dress. The prototype still needed a gather stitch at the waist, and Kunkel wasn’t sure about the sleeves yet. 

Even when the prototype is finished, this particular dress has a long journey before it will be manufactured, stocked, and sold. For now, the prototype serves as an inspiration and a guide for Cole, Kunkel, and their team.

Cole told the NTC, “Pray to help us stay strong to our core beliefs. This is a way to make it easier for Catholics to dress better but also to re-evangelize the world through beauty.”

Co-founders Audrey Cole, right, CEO, and Mary Kunkel, CCO of Paris Bloom, pose with a dress titled Clemy at TLCI Manufacturing in Dallas, July 17, 2019.

At the mall, Audrey Cole and her younger sister Mary Kunkel felt isolated. 

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