Boutique owner Frankie Welch, who helped First Ladies, diplomats’ wives and other hobnobbers in the Beltway dress stylishly for more than 40 years, has died at the age of 97.
Welch also earned national fame for her custom scarves for an array of clients including the White House, upscale retailers, corporations, universities and special clients. From the Indy 500 to McDonald’s’ first outpost in Paris, the designer was tapped by many to create printed scarves, designing 4,000 styles over the years. In 1968, Lady Bird Johnson recruited Welch to design a patriotic “Discover America” scarf to promote travel in the U.S. That design was given to attendees at what was the first fashion show to be held at the White House, an event that promoted the-then first lady’s “Discover America” travel program, according to Welch’s daughter, Peggy Welch Williams.
A private family service was held earlier this month. An exhibition of Welch’s designs and life is planned for January at the University of Georgia’s Athens campus, where she had done some graduate classes and subsequently donated much of her archives. The school’s Hargrett Library will unveil “Frankie Welch’s Americana: Fashion, Scarves and Politics” on January 21. Welch died Sept. 2 at the Westminster-Canterbury of the Blue Ridge, where she resided.
Before retiring to Charlottesville, Va., Welch established herself as a style setter and retailer in Alexandria, Va. In 1963, she opened her first boutique, Frankie Welch of Alexandria, in the city’s Old Town neighborhood. Located in the historic Duvall House, the location doubled as her family’s home for her first eight years in business. Welch, her husband and two daughters lived upstairs in the three-story house so that she was nearby when needed.
In 1967, at the request of Virginia Rusk, whose husband Dean was the-then U.S. Secretary of State, Welch was commissioned to design “something truly American” that the White House and State Department could use as gifts. Partially Cherokee in her ancestry, Welch used Sequoyah’s Cherokee syllabary as a nod to Rusk’s home state of Georgia, as well as her own heritage. Offered in square and rectangular versions, the scarf went through 40 printings and numerous design modifications. The “Cherokee Alphabet” scarf was always her bestseller and initial profits were donated to the Indian Education Fund, her daughter said. Framed versions of the Cherokee Alphabet were hung in a few U.S. embassies overseas and another is part of the Smithsonian’s collection, which also has one of Welch’s “Forward Together” scarves.
After Welch was honored at a White House luncheon for her “Discover America” scarf by Lady Bird Johnson, Betty Ford informed Welch, “You have to give us Republicans equal time.” Welch then created a poppy floral printed scarf for the Republican National Convention in 1968, as well as a dress, a parasol, a page’s costume and other styles.
When Richard Nixon resigned and Gerald Ford succeeded him, Welch and her husband were among the small group at the White House that watched Ford be sworn in. When the Smithsonian National Museum of American History asked Betty Ford to select a dress that she had worn at a White House state dinner, in lieu of an inaugural one for its First Ladies Hall, she chose one that Welch had designed for the 1975 state dinner in honor of the Shah of Iran. “She was careful to be nonpartisan,” Welch’s daughter said. “Washington wasn’t partisan as it is now.”
Welch was later asked by Herbert Humphrey’s team for an exclusive design for the Democratic National Convention. Scores of other politicians and their wives followed. The “Nixon Forward,” the “Congressional” and the “National War College” were some of the other themes. Welch went on to create custom scarves for IBM, the Princeton Club of New York, Saks Fifth Avenue, Bergdorf Goodman and for major figures like Ted Kennedy for holiday presents, promotions, simply sales, constituents or campaigns. McDonald’s Corp. founder Ray Kroc invited Welch to Paris for the fast-food chain’s opening there. “She traveled. She was very sought after. If a bank wanted her to design a scarf, they wanted her to come to present it because it gave them some local press and cachet,” Williams said.
Welch, whose maiden name was Barnett, did not set out to forge a career in fashion. Born in Rome, Ga., she studied clothing and design at Furman University in Greenville, S.C. After marrying her high school sweetheart, William Welch, during World War II, the couple relocated to Madison, Wisc., where her husband attended graduate school.
After the family relocated to Alexandria in 1953, Welch taught “clothes coordination” at the University of Maryland, became a guest lecturer and started a fashion consulting business. Many wives of congressmen or administration members who had moved to Washington, D.C., started phoning Welch for advice about how to dress appropriately. Welch decided rather than take them all over Washington, searching for clothes, she would open her own store in Alexandria. Taking off from the start, the store showcased such designer labels as Geoffrey Beene and Jack Lennor Larsen. Vera Maxwell visited for an in-store fashion show.
In 1974, Welch branched out, opening stores in Birmingham, Ala., which was then the second-fastest growing city in the nation. There were also stores in Atlanta and downtown D.C., but Alexandria was always the main store and it was Welch’s scarf designs that brought her a national audience.
Welch told WWD in 1974 that her greatest mission was to tell women to have some profession so that they have something they can really do when their children grow up. “There’s something about a woman earning her own money that gives her an identity. Community work doesn’t give you that. And you can contribute just as much as a working woman.”
Her work did not interfere with raising two children, whom Welch said learned to be more self sufficient and even more appreciative of her when they are together. “They actually thank me if I have breakfast with them.”
Retirement was not something that she anticipated, once telling WWD, “I’ll always work. It keeps you younger. It keeps you alive.”
After closing Frankie Welch of Virginia in 1990, Welch continued to design scarves for another decade or so. All in all, Williams said her mother would want her legacy to be about “being an American designer, an American businesswoman, entrepreneur and truly combining work and home. It was wonderful living in the shop because she could have her business and we also lived upstairs. She enjoyed being a wife and mother,” Williams said. “She went from Frankie Welch of Virginia to Frankie Welch of America with her scarves.”
In addition to Williams, Welch is survived by another daughter, Genie Welch Leisure.