“FABRICS INSPIRE ME A LOT,” Tony Bowls says, caressing an irregularly cut piece of embossed neoprene. The designer, clad in a hoodie, slim pants and pointy YSL boots, is sitting in his west Little Rock office across from a mannequin in a beaded-bodice teal gown, the fabric draping effortlessly to the floor. Down the hall, there’s a 4,000-square-foot warehouse stocked with thousands of his sparkly designs hanging in plastic garment bags from racks that stretch to the ceiling. The designs are shipped to thousands of retailers worldwide—400 in the United States alone.
Tony, who alternates between homes in Little Rock and Miami, didn’t get to this point without years of hard work. Born and raised in England, Arkansas, Tony had a passion for dance at an early age, and a teacher whose work as a choreographer at Miss Arkansas kept Tony actively involved in the pageant industry. He first launched his retail business in the basement of The Arlington Hotel in Hot Springs, where he began to sell the kind of pageant, prom and formal attire that’s earned him a stellar reputation in the South (so much so that his designs even brought the likes of Miss Russia to the store).
Soon enough, he became the premier designer for the Miss America pageant under his own brand in a new space, designing as many as 53 gowns for all 53 contestants in eight weeks, as he did in 2015. And this year—Tony’s 28th time at the show—when Miss Arkansas sashays down the Miss America stage, she’ll be decked out in a Tony Bowls original.
“I chose to bring my business back here to Arkansas,” he says. “My dad used to say that it’s always best to dance with who brought you, and Arkansas has always been great to me.”
1. “One of my favorite places for inspiration is Miami. It’s very culturally diverse. I’ve shot and done photography in the Wynwood District, and it’s very inspiring, just being around that high-energy vibe of Miami and Miami Beach.”
2. “I am very much a fan of [designer] Alexander McQueen. Several years ago before he passed away, his last collection was all about butterflies. And my mother was a butterfly collector, so [I found a lot] of inspiration there, if you will.”
3. Favorite season, clothing-wise? “Fall, for me as a man. I like to layer on different things and not typically just a sweater or something like that, but a vest underneath a blazer, or that type of thing. I like to do more of—how do I say this?—’dressycasual’ looks rather than formal.”
4. “My favorite hobby? This is probably where I get a little boring. Living in Miami, my favorite thing to do is walk for three to four hours at a time. I love being on the beach at South Pointe, where I live, and people-watching and taking it in and loving the sun, if you will.”
5. “I have a tendency to watch CNN way too much. I go to bed watching CNN; I get up watching CNN. But I have to say I never miss an episode of American Idol. I have never since it’s been on. I’ve dressed people on American Idol before, so that makes it more special.”
6. “I love Kelly Clarkson. You know, I love really humble people, and she’s from Texas originally. She’s real, and I like that.”