In an unassuming building on Dedeaux Road, Nadine Hancock transforms material into the stuff of which dreams are made.
Lace, satin, velvet, jersey, chiffon — bolts of fabric used to spin creations for special occasions sit near bolts of brightly colored African print fabrics, all awaiting the inspiration of Hancock and her clients.
She is best known in South Mississippi for her prom dresses, but Hancock is taking her talents to New Orleans this week as a contestant in the annual Top Design Competition, presented by New Orleans Fashion Week. As one of the top 10 finalists, she will compete on March 22 for retail placement at Hemline boutique, a Brother Project Runway sewing machine, a photo session, a fashion feature in New Orleans Living Magazine, a cash award and the opportunity to return to New Orleans Fashion Week, Season 9, as a featured designer.
She’s booked up for prom season this year, with clients — mothers and daughters — coming from all around South Mississippi for two and three fittings before the final couture piece is completed.
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Eighteen years ago, she came to South Mississippi from Kingston, Jamaica, because of a job.
“I had wanted to come to America,” she said. “Everyone wants to come to America. I was a teacher in Jamaica, back in the high school. I worked at the Beau Rivage for three years, wonderful years with wonderful people. So for three years, I was doing dishes and then became a prep cook, then I was able to open my own business.”
Finding her passion
That was a hair salon. For seven years, Hancock was styling hair and, in the process, making connections. She also began teaching cosmetology. Then, a skill she had acquired years earlier returned to her life.
Years before, back in Jamaica, her mother had sent her to pattern-making classes so she could have a practical skill. Her son, Javaughn Elliott, expressed an interest in sewing, and once a pawn shop sewing machine entered the house, “somehow that sealed the deal for me,” she said. Sewing became her passion, and she decided to make it a career. It wasn’t a fleeting interest for Javaughn; now a college student; he continues to pursue his in fashion but for men’s designs.
As for Hancock, she named her fledgling business Dorcas Couture, after her mother, Dorcas Elaine Gentles, who died in 2010 after a longtime battle with lupus. Opening in January 2015, Dorcas Couture specializes in prom and special occasion dresses. She still teaches, as program chairman at Blue Cliff College.
“My day, Monday through Friday, is, I’m a teacher by day and by night I’m a seamstress,” she said.
Beautiful dresses are her hallmark.
“I love formal wear,” she said, smiling. “My favorite season is prom season. I get to see the change, being part of someone’s major event.”
She believes every young woman should be able to experience prom in a design made with her in mind. While her designs typically cost in the $300 to $500 range, she first asks a client what her budget is and works around that.
“I also had the I’m That Girl Competition,” she said, referring to an essay competition she posted in January, seeking young women to bless who were going to prom. Three winners were chosen from essays revealing who they are, what has happened in their lives and where they are now.
“I felt like I knew every one of the students individually,” she states in the video on her Facebook page explaining the competition. “Ninety-eight percent of the essays came through, they were saying they are not victims of their situation, they are are overcomers, they are winners,” she said. She chose a winner and two runners-up.
As a designer, she works with a variety of body types. First, the client tells Hancock what she wants so far as style and color, and Hancock works with that, helping the client to understand what will enhance her body and skin tone.
“Give me the color and silhouette you want, and I can work with that,” she said.
What’s most important, she said, is that the client feels beautiful.
“If you’re going to embrace who you are, you need to embrace the skin you’re in,” she said. “I love doing plus size. You should embrace your curves if you have them and appreciate your body if you don’t. People have different curves and shapes.
“I want to see your personality shine through.”