By Leslie Criss
Listen well to Brittney LeighAnne Dowell for only a short time and learn three important facts: She has a heart for children and the environment, an eye for fashion and the vision to combine these things into something good.
The 27-year-old Mississippi State University graduate is the architectbehind Frances & Theo, a creative business Dowell says is “an ongoing and unfinished experiment.”
What Frances & Theo is, in a nutshell, is a children’s shop and design studio.
Dowell laughs at the mention of a design studio. Right now, her studio is a small, but colorful and organized closet upstairs in the apartment she shares with her husband Tim and their 18-month-old Ida Frances.
Yes, Dowell’s adorable, dimpled daughter, Ida Frances – also lovingly and alternately called Fran or Frannie – is the inspiration for half the name of her mama’s experiment.
When the Dowells, who married in 2014, began talking about children, they came up with two names: Ida Frances for a girl and Irving James Theophiles “Theo” for a boy.
There’s no flesh-and-blood baby Theo yet, but there’s still time – and high hopes. But for now, the Theo of Frances & Theo is well represented by a stuffed cat, made from a free-hand pattern once sketched by Dowell to console her upset baby girl.
Dowell says she’s always been drawn to children’s products. So, armed with that and her degree in fashion design and merchandising, the creative mind of Dowell went to work on her business concept.
When she talks about Frances & Theo, there’s clearly an abundance of unabated joy in her conversation.
“Frances & Theo maybe broken into three distinct parts: Make. Learn. Play,” Dowell explains.
In this phase, Dowel designs and creates products for Frances & Theo, and collaborates with other designers/makers whose vision is similar to hers.
At this time she’s collaborating with designer and friend, Alejandra Torres, on a mini fabric collection called “Botanical Utopia.”
Torres, a native of Peru, met Dowell when both were attending Delta State University and studying graphic design before Dowell moved on to MSU. The fabric collection on which they are working is for Spoonflower, an ethically responsible and sustainable custom on-demand fabric printing service.
“I’ve used Spoonflower for years now to produce small runs of fabric to create little products such as bags, scarves, clothes and plush animals, like Theo the cat,” Dowell said.
This phase of Frances & Theo remains in its early stages, but to Dowell, it may be the most important. It’s “Fashion Education for the Mini Generation,” an early childhood education project designed to guide parents in teaching their children about fashion.
Here’s the philosophy behind the project: “By educating the young generation about where their clothes come from and how they are made, they are empowered as future fashion consumers,” Dowell says. “And by looking no further than their own wardrobes, parents can be equipped with fun and simple activities to teach their children about such topics as fiber, fabric, construction, style, care, maintenance, recycling as it relates to their clothes.”
This phase of Frances & Theo involves a “quirky and playful little children’s shop with a consciously curated selection” of baby/kids’ goods.
“In planning the inventory assortment, I am striving to ensure the products were ethically produced and directly and fairly compensate the artist/maker who created them,” Dowell said.
Her mama’s fault?
Dowell was born in Florence, Alabama, the second of seven siblings. Her father was in retail with McRae’s.
“It was like being in a military family,” Dowell said, laughing. “Each of the seven kids was born in a different state.”
The family landed in Vicksburg when Dowell was in high school, and she and her siblings were homeschooled. That’s where she met the man who would later become her husband.
Dowell credits her mother – and other family members – with her artistic gifts.
“She would always give me white paper and markers, and I would doodle,” Dowell said. “She kept a lot of them. It was always these primitive, childlike illustrations that I was drawn to. And my aunt and grandmother quilted.”
These days, however, Ida Frances provides the lion share of inspiration for her mama’s work.
Coming up with ideas for fabric designs may be Dowell’s favorite task.
“I can dream up concepts all day,” she said. “And I then share my concepts with a few seamstresses with whom I work. I sew, but I am not a seamstress.”
Most of the designs found on Frances & Theo products are things Ida Frances likes. For example, Ida likes pasta, so there’s now a Dowell-designed fabric called “Macaroni.” Ida also likes plants and moons and cats, hence, Theo the cat.
Dowell’s work starts in a sketchbook, where she plays and experiments with cut paper, paint, markers, Crayons – whatever Ida uses. Later, Dowell refines her ideas on a computer.
“My ideas are inspired by everyday life,” Dowell said. “This crazy, messy, everyday life.”
The future of Frances & Theo seems bright, with plenty more of Dowell’s creative “doodles” making their way onto fabric projects.
But Dowell’s vision is not limited to Frances & Theo.
She’s working on a side project called “Dear One Collective” with a good friend.
“The Collective would be a Christ-centered, multi-purpose collaborative makers space for creative women,” she said. “Ideally, it would be a non-profit that would provide business incubator opportunities for women with creative businesses, makers who need studio space/equipment, monthly educational resources and simply a space to explore ideas and have a community to connect, collaborate and encourage one another.”
For now, it’s only a concept in Dowell’s creative mind, but when it becomes reality, as did Frances & Theo, it will be something good – combining Dowell’s passion for children, the environment and education.