LOOKING BACK: Mike Benet Formals — 1957-2000
Pittsburg was once home to a design house that earned national and international acclaim for its stunning beaded and sequined creations.
Family-owned Mike Benet Formals designed and manufactured special-occasion gowns popular with fashionistas from prom-goers to pageant contestants.
Earl and Earline Bigbie founded the company with Earline Bigbie’s younger sister, Nan Carpenter, in 1957, operating initially from a small, downtown shop and then a larger manufacturing facility in Pittsburg. Carpenter, whose father-in-law, Dewitt Carpenter, offered the fledgling business owners the downtown space, left the company in the mid-1960s and Jan Bigbie Crowell and her husband, Mickey, joined the business in 1975. Mickey Crowell went into the business end with his father-in-law, while Jan Crowell worked with her mother designing the dresses. Crowell’s sister, Anne Pevehouse, worked in sales in showrooms across the country. When Earl Bigbie became ill in the mid-1980s, Mickey Crowell took up the mantle with his wife until he suffered a paralyzing stroke in 1997. Earl Bigbie died in 1998, and after 43 years in business, a Dallas-based company bought the brand in 2000. That company has since closed its doors. Earline Bigbie died a year later in 2001.
Today, the vintage gowns are still highly-sought after and discussed in online forums.
Liza Dolensky, owner of Better Dressed Vintage in Atlanta Ga., a Vintage Fashion Guild trade member and member of its board of directors, shared a photo of her circa early 1960s Mike Benet Formals gown with the group. She posted, “How ‘bout this gem, ladies? My initial guess was the late 50s, based on the princess silhouette, nipped waist, short overlayer, metal back zip, and general feel of the thing. I really love this dress.”
Dolensky wore the dress as her wedding gown, even though it wasn’t explicitly designed as a wedding dress. According to Jan Crowell, the company made wedding gowns for just a few years in the mid-1970s, opting to focus on evening wear.
Former Mike Benet employee Tamara Quinn wrote on the forum, “I worked for them in the 80s and 90s and my mother-in-law, Dorothy Quinn, worked for them in the late 60s, 70s, and 80s. If you got a Mike Benet pre-sellout, you have a well-made garment. After the sellout, you have a pretty garment that is made vastly different than was made “back in the day.”
It all started in 1957 because Earline Bigbie was unhappy with the fashions of the day. Her husband was the manager of JC Penney, and she worked for a small evening gown manufacturer in Sulphur Springs.
“She designed and made patterns for them for about a year and decided she could do it on her own,” Jan Crowell told The Gazette.
Armed with a small business loan from First State Bank, they set out to create an inventory of 10 dresses.
“They hired one lady, Ella Mae Heath, to help them. Mother designed the gowns, and mother and Nan sewed. When they finished the gowns, mother and my sister, Anne, went out on the road. Mother’s first call was Neiman Marcus in Dallas, and they bought all 10 dresses,” Crowell said.
An upscale store in Fort Worth placed the next order, and they were on their way. A year or two later, they hired their first salesperson, Duke Weaver, and set up in a hotel room on the market floor that would become Dallas Apparel Mart.
“They just hung a dress on the door so people would see it as they came by. Then in 1964, they were one of the first 40 to sign up for a room at the Dallas Apparel Mart, and we were there until we closed 43 years later. It’s quite a story,” Crowell said.
As the company’s workforce grew, the owners moved the operation to an 11,000 square-foot building on Mattison Street near the old Northeast Texas Fairgrounds in 1961, while maintaining a retail outlet downtown. The manufacturing facility on Mattison was expanded twice to 30,000 square feet in the 1970s.
According to the Gazette archives, in February of 1981, a fire destroyed the Mattison Street plant, forcing the company to lease nine downtown buildings to keep production going. The company moved into its new facility on Broach Street (the current PISD Administration office) in October of 1981.
At its peak, the dress manufacturer employed 250-300, shipping 50,000 formal gowns a year to about 2,000 U.S. and international retailers.
The company filled orders for the Order of the Easter Star’s state and world groups.
“Every three years we would do the world group meeting, which was 2,000 dresses,” Crowell said. “That was a big part of our business as well.”
The Lawrence Welk Show also came calling, ordering Mike Benet Formals gowns for the show through the 1970s. The show’s lead singer, Natalie Nevins, wrote Earline Bigbie a note saying, “May God love you always. You design the most beautiful gowns in the world!”
Pageant contestants clamored for the elegant, meticulously-crafted gowns. In the early-to-mid-1970s, the company designed a lot of dresses for the Miss America Pageant, Miss Texas Pageant and state pageants across the country.
“In 1974, mother called me the night of the Miss America Pageant, and she was so excited because seven out of the top 10 were wearing her gowns. It was amazing. She just had a very special talent,” Crowell said. “We were always very proud of what she accomplished.”
Crowell said her mother demanded perfection and the company earned a reputation for having the best fit in the industry.
“We did all our beading a sequining in the factory right there in town, and those girls worked miracles with those machines,” Crowell said. “They would walk out the patterns to make sure the notches hit exactly, and the girls would inspect the dresses, and if those notches didn’t match, they went back to fix it. I think my mother determined that she was going to put out a quality gown, and that drew a lot of people to it.”
When her father died in 1998, Crowell said the family – and the business - grieved his loss.
“We just went out of business after that. We couldn’t keep up. It was actually pretty sad, but we just closed the doors, and another company bought us,” she said.
But, the vintage dress shops keep their legacy alive. Crowell’s most precious gift came through them. Her two daughters, her son, and her daughter-in-law got together to surprise her four years ago. The women bought vintage Mike Benet gowns and modeled them at venues in Houston and Dallas with a photographer friend capturing the various poses. They also pinned the dresses on her six granddaughters and photographed them having a tea party.
“They put this book together for me, and it told a little bit of the history of the company, and they gave it to me for Mother’s Day,” she said. “It’s the most precious thing I’ve ever gotten.”