Beulah Cooley Talks Designing in Detroit and Milan

Beulah Cooley has quietly dressed some of Detroit’s most stylish women. Now, at 76, the couturier is showing the international fashion world what she’s got.
Beulah Cooleybhas designed for Patti LaBelle, U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, and many others. These runway photos are from the designer’s From Detroit to Milan show in April at SoHo in Warren. // Photograph courtesy of Beulah Cooley

“They have dinner parties to go to, social functions, opening nights, ballet, opera — they have a lot to do. They have to be dressed. They need new clothes,” quipped the late André Leon Talley in a 1998 Videofashion segment when asked about New York women.

He could just as easily have been talking about Detroit women. Or even Detroit’s Kim Logan-Nowlin.

For therapist and talk show host Logan-Nowlin, there’s the Barristers’ Ball, the Detroit Auto Show, evenings on the Detroit Princess, engagements at the Manoogian Mansion, and roller-skating. “You see that Detroit style when you go roller-skating,” she says.

“Detroiters love to dress.” Whatever her social calendar requires, Logan-Nowlin has over 300 pieces by local couturier Beulah Cooley to choose from — and room for more. She’ll get to see some of those future wardrobe additions in late September when she is among a group of stylish Detroit women flying into Milan to see Cooley’s most ambitious collection to date.

“I think it’s going to be another door opening that she didn’t see when she was a little girl,” says former model Janet Mosley of the 76-year-old Mississippi-born designer.
Mosely, who owns Leisure Lady Travel Agency based in Westland, was picking up pieces from Cooley to wear on a Paris vacation when the designer shared that she’d always wanted to visit the City of Light. “Then let’s go to Paris,” Mosely replied. Mosely then invited a mutual friend and assembled a 2019 Paris and Milan trip complete with private tours of design museums and ateliers.

In Milan, the three friends were set to take a two-hour tour of an atelier belonging to an Italian craftswoman known for her couture-level fine detail work and her luxuriously woven fabrics coveted by fashion houses like Gucci and Versace. Once Cooley and the craftswoman began talking, the two hours melted into two days of swapping stories and talking shop.

Photograph courtesy of Beulah Cooley

As the group prepared to leave, the craftswoman invited Cooley to collaborate on
a collection and present a joint show upon her return. When Hour Detroit spoke with Cooley, she was silent about the identity of the woman and her atelier due to clauses they both signed ahead of the collaboration, but she promised to reveal all on the runway in late September.

Growing up in Mississippi, a young Cooley saw her mother sew quilts with friends and dress her family (five girls and six boys) in handmade attire. Cooley was allowed to gather fabric scraps that dropped to the floor to make doll dresses.

Later, as an adult, Cooley worked in New York’s garment industry before moving to Detroit in 1975 when her husband landed a job there. New to the city and still desiring a career in fashion, she sewed creative outfits for herself and attended events as her own walking calling card. Her early designs centered on denim crafted into peplum jackets and burlap suits lined with silk. People took notice and would ask where she shopped.

“I would say, ‘I made it myself. You can have one, too.’ Then I would hand them a card,” she says.

Soft-spoken and incredibly humble, Cooley has few words when it comes to describing her nearly 40-year-long career. Instead, she focuses on the technical side of her craft — which sees her maintaining 12 professional sewing machines in her home studio — and the personal relationships she builds with each client. In thinking back on her past work, she asks, “Did I really do that?”

— “that” being designing bold yet feminine looks for the likes of Patti LaBelle, U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, and countless Detroit women whom she declines to name, instead allowing herself to be their fashionable secret.

Photograph courtesy of Beulah Cooley

Logan-Nowlin was running for a seat on the Detroit City Council in 2009 when she spotted the designer in the parking lot of Detroit’s Friendship Baptist Church.

“I noticed how beautifully she was dressed,” recalls Logan-Nowlin, who moved quickly to catch up with her. “I said, ‘I would love for you to design and sew for me during this election.’ And that’s how it began.”

Logan-Nowlin rarely shops retail anymore, preferring now to book fittings for gowns, kimonos, sportswear, and more. “I’ve had clothes from Oscar de la Renta, Valentino, and Louis Vuitton. I’ve got Chanel up to the roof, but it still doesn’t give you that personal touch,” says Logan-Nowlin, who so looks forward to fittings that she jokes that Cooley is her psychologist.

“I’m sure when Chanel designed for her friends, it was personal. This is my Chanel.”

This story is from the October 2023 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition.