STILLWATER — The creations of Stella Thomas will be featured at An Evening of Art and Fashion on March 16 at Oklahoma State University.
The designer, who now calls Stillwater home, has been steadily making a name for herself in the international world of fashion design.
Thomas, 48, always seems to be in the right place at the right time, whether it's in Philadelphia working as a bridal consultant, in Bangkok designing for the queen of Thailand, or in Dallas, winning design competitions.
But it was her early years in her hometown, the small resort town of Kuwantan, Malaysia, where Thomas' spark for fashion design ignited. Inspired by her mother, who sewed her family's clothes by hand, Thomas delighted in piecing together remnants of her mother's fabrics to make her own fashions. Throughout high school, Thomas designed clothes to wear to school. She even created gowns for school dances.
“I always like to have something different, you know,” Thomas said.
Thomas studied fashion at the Paris American Academy in Kuala Lumpur. As a top student in her class, she said, she was offered a scholarship to the school's Paris campus for the academy's master track. There she learned some of couture fashion's most important lessons: draping and pattern making.
“I have box after box of patterns that I've kept all my life,” Thomas said. “My husband wonders why I'm moving the boxes everywhere. But it means so much to me.”
Thomas was working as a costume designer at Club Med in Malaysia when she met her husband, John Kelsey, who was there celebrating his 30th birthday.
“He said I was the best birthday present he ever got,” Thomas said.
A world of inspiration
With her husband, Thomas traveled the world. When his oil exploration and engineering career would lead their family to a new part of the world, Thomas said she always seemed to find herself immersed in local fashion.
For example, when her children were just starting elementary school, the family relocated to Philadelphia. Since her kids were busy in school, Thomas got a job at a high-end bridal and evening gown boutique. There, she began working directly with the design teams at houses such as Vera Wang and Carolina Hererra.
“I just wanted to get out and work with clothing,” Thomas said. As she created stronger connections with the designers she worked with, Thomas got busier and busier, traveling between Philadelphia and New York City to work with the design houses.
“By the end of it, I was getting really busy,” she recalls. “Then my husband tells me that we're moving to Bangkok.”
Thomas readied herself for an adventure in Bangkok. Once she had her family settled in, Thomas began volunteering with a women's charity. Soon, fashion found her.
In Bangkok, Thomas' fashion design sensibilities were turned upside down by a love affair with Thai silk — an affection she shared with Sirikit Kitiyakara, the queen of Thailand, whose foundation supports the producers of Thai silk.
With the local weavers, Thomas helped reinvent Thai silk from its traditional drab shades to new, vibrant hues of shocking red, turquoise and other unexpected colors.
Always interested in philanthropic contributions, Thomas designed 300 hand-painted silk scarves for a breast cancer awareness project sponsored by Thailand's queen. She coordinated fashion shows featuring the beautiful silks, for which she became well-known.
This notoriety would open other royal doors to Thomas. While in Bangkok, Thomas became known for coordinating high-profile events such a party in 2006 for the 60th anniversary to the throne of Bhumibol Adulyadej, king of Thailand. Thomas said Adulyadej invited every king and queen in the world to the celebration.
Settled in Stillwater
In 2009, Thomas' husband's career presented the couple with a new adventure — life in Stillwater. And in 2010, Thomas was already busy boosting her fashion notoriety by winning the Dallas Designers Display Competition.
For the future, Thomas said she plans to continue her fashion career, designing commissioned gowns and jewelry and teaching others the fine art of fashion design.
“My mom always said you should think about others and what you have that you can give them,” Thomas said.
She hopes that through her philanthropic work with groups such as the American Association of University Women in Stillwater, she can inspire others to learn the art of fashion design.
“As Mother Teresa says, charity begins at home. It doesn't matter where you are. Start small, do a good show, eventually people know what you do and that's how word-of-mouth makes you who you are.”