“When those doors open ... whether good or bad, everyone is going to be talking about the monkey vests,” Barbara Bell says with an arched eyebrow and a smile, recalling the “unbelievable whirlwind” of creating uniforms for the SLS Las Vegas, set to open on the Strip August 23. From multi-threat designer Philippe Starck to star restaurateur José Andrés and the property’s President/COO Rob Oseland, the stakeholders are visionaries with particular tastes. But Bell and her team welcomed the challenge of crafting a style identity for the SLS brand’s Vegas evolution.
The 36-year-old native bounces from sample racks to look boards in Bell Uniform Design’s new nerve center in Downtown’s Holsum Lofts. When she founded her own company in 2008, it was focused on high-end fashion at affordable price points, not custom uniforms. And when she graduated from LA’s prestigious Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in 2001—after earning a degree in business/economics from USC—she thought her dream was to create her own line. But she found great opportunities in the custom clothing business, outfitting professional athletes in the NBA and partnering with Stephon Marbury on his private-label collection for Macy’s. And after she moved back to Las Vegas for her husband (he went to Gorman, she went to Meadows), a chance came up to go for a uniform contract with Trader Vic’s when it opened an outpost at Planet Hollywood in 2007.
“They hadn’t changed their uniform in 70 years,” Bell says. “Vegas was the first one to break from their traditional heavy, white, old tuxedo-looking suit.”
Breaking from tradition is the signature of Bell Uniform Design, or as Bell says, “non-uniform uniforms.” She might riff on a structured cap sleeve by Victoria Beckham, the shape of a BCBG blouse or a sweetheart bodice from Alexander McQueen. But her sense of current fashion doesn’t mean she’s afraid to use sequins. And when Starck asks, she delivers a vest that’s business in the front, sophisticated chimp in the back.
“We don’t have a catalog. Everything we do is custom. There’s definitely more money to be made to build a stock [line] and just resell things, but that’s not fun for me. … It’s more exciting to feel like you’re giving them something that’s special to their brand,” Bell says, adding that when employees are happy and confident in what they’re wearing, they perform better. And when clients know they can call you to fix a dress on a Saturday, that’s classic good business.
The combination of hands-on service and fashion savvy has made Bell Uniform Design a force in the industry, in spite of its size. While the new space is about building a bigger staff and areas for collaboration and presentations, the only full-timers are Bell and VP of Operations Melissa McDonald (manufacturing is done by local tailors and partners in LA and Thailand). Going up against much bigger competitors, Bell has landed contracts with nightclubs like Hakkasan and Chateau, restaurants like the Barrymore and Sugar Factory and resorts from Vdara to the Downtown Grand. She’s currently working with the Wynn on the first redesign of its cocktail server dress since it opened, and for Aria, she’s coming up with new looks for the entire casino floor, Sage and room-dining/banquet staff. And after her initial work for Hakkasan Las Vegas in 2013, she was tapped to create a uniform program for the brand worldwide.
Even with that cred, she had to fight hard for the SLS contract, starting with her initial meeting with Oseland.
“I sat in this room with him for an hour, and he was so intense and asked me how I had failed and all the mistakes I made and how I learned from it, but it was really exciting. At the end of it he said, ‘I’m so impressed with you. I think your designs are great; I like your concepts, but how can you do all of this? It’s just you.’”
Ultimately, Bell Uniform Design went up against national players ranging from Cintas to Competitive Edge. Bell broke the presentation rules, creating a magazine-style look book that wove her concepts with high-fashion “DNA” and environmental inspirations. Her guts paid off. “It was unbelievable,” she says of the moment she heard she had the contract to design custom looks throughout the majority of the hotel. “That was the moment where you go outside the building and yell in the street.”
Rifling through a rack—shimmery samples for Fizz at Caesars Palace, a red jumpsuit she pitched to SLS, Fourth of July costumes she created for Hakkasan—Bell chuckles at the fact that she started her business so she would have more time to be a mom. But being her own boss means she can bring her young daughter to the office, and her success sets a great example. Despite her original vision of heading up a label, she says this segment of the fashion industry satisfies both her artistic side and her head for business. Like a well-tailored jacket, it feels right.
“I feel really lucky,” Bell says, “but I worked really, really hard.”